Three Men on a Flying Trapeze

By Tanya M. Shlosman

In the fall of 1934, Claire Lee Chennault was commissioned by Major General John F. Curry to form and lead an aviation acrobatic team for the Air Corps. The team was built from airmen who were capable of sticking with Chennault during a thirty minute acrobatics trial and was used to refine fighter tactics developed by Chennault and other air combat theorists.

chennault, monroe louisiana
Painting of General Chennault

The three men who made the team were Haywood (Possum) Hansell, John H. (Luke) Williamson and Billy MacDonald. These men had an ongoing camaraderie built on a strong relationship of mutual respect for their flying skills and the importance they all place on fighter pilots. During the acrobatic shows, they were so close together during maneuvers that many spectators thoughts they had collided, but they never got closer than three feet to each other.

In January of 1936, the acrobatic team was doing a farewell performance at the Miami Show attended by General Mow Pang Tsu of the Chinese Air Force (CAF). After the show had concluded, the team was invited to Ambassador William Pawley’s yacht to meet General Mow. During the team’s meeting with General Mow, he invited them to come and serve as flight instructors in China.

Chennault encouraged McDonald and Williamson to pursue this offer. Taking up Chennault’s advice, McDonald and Williamson formed an advanced team, headed to China and informed Chennault about the state of Chinese military aviation capabilities. Eventually, they helped to arrange the deal sent by Roy Holbrook in early 1937 that brought Chennault to China to survey the CAF.

“Nobody seemed to realize that, far from being just a stunt, the Three Men on the Flying Trapeze were convincing proof…that fighters could battle together through the most violent maneuvers of combat.” – Clarie Chennault, Way of a Fighter, 1949

More information on General Chennault will be available for viewing this fall 2014 with the re-opening of the Chennault Aviation & Military Museum’s General Chennault Exhibit. For more information, please visit us at or 318-362-5540.

Tanya M. Shlosman is the Director of Education and Public Programming and Business Manager at the Chennault Aviation & Military Museum.

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