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War Pilot's Climb Paralleled Lockheed's

VALLEY 200: To commemorate the bicentennial of the San Fernando Mission and the San Fernando Valley, for 200 days we will feature people --some famous, some notorious-- who left their mark on the area.

September 06, 1997|ROB O'NEIL

The year was 1940, a time when the guys in leather flight jackets promoting cigarettes weren't cartoon caricatures but real pilots.

And the dashing fellow--vowing to "walk a mile for a Camel"--on a billboard facing San Fernando Road in Burbank was Marshall Headle, chief test pilot for Lockheed Aircraft.

He was pictured beside one of those feisty, twin-engine P-38 fighters.

Although possibly the most powerful craft Headle ever flew, it was certainly not the first. Born in Winfield, Mass., he began his flying career as a soldier of fortune for the French in World War I.

After the United States entered the war, he became a U.S. Army pilot, and, after the war, a Marine aviator.

Brothers Allan and Malcolm Lockheed began building airplanes about the same time Headle got into flying, but their business had struggled.

However, in 1937, with another war looming, the firm won an Army Air Corps competition to build the nation's first 400-mph interceptor.

The military would eventually order 10,000 P-38s. Lockheed was out of the doldrums and Headle was in the cockpit, having succeeded aviator Wiley Post as the company's top test pilot.

Former Burbank neighbor Warren Bowen recalls Headle's frequent traveling, but "the whole neighborhood knew when he got back" and heard him buzz his Grinnell Avenue home.

Although he survived the flying hazards inherent in his profession, Headle had to retire in 1941 after being injured during an oxygen-chamber experiment with a "breathing vest," forerunner of today's pressurized flight suit.

Friends attribute his heart-attack death at home four years later to that accident.

Headle was buried at Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood on May 7, 1945, the day Germany surrendered. As the service concluded, a missing-pilot formation of P-38 Lightnings, dreaded by the Germans as "fork-tailed devils," roared over the cemetery.

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