Cmdr. “Duke” Windsor: A hero on a model box

by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
In today’s world, the measure of a person’s greatness can sometimes be measured by ending up on a box of Wheaties breakfast cereal.

It’s no secret that for generations before us, the image on that box staring at us over a bowl of cereal was there to inspire us — not to mention instilling that cool factor that had us begging Mom, “Get that box with that cool person on it!”  

For many of us Baby Boomers, we had many larger-than-life figures who had us wanting to be a “part of their world” (shout-out to the Little Mermaid!) and it was a constant competition of marketing folks to stoke that fire and get those sales. One way to do that was to find that unique “hook” that would give you a one-up over the competition.

Just the other day I was going through some old boxes at my hobby shop, and I found this 98-cent model kit from the late 1950s, and it did exactly what it was supposed to do when it was marketed more than 50 years ago. Staring up at me from that box was test pilot Cmdr. Robert Wilks “Duke” Windsor, Jr., alongside a message that announced he was a Thompson Trophy winner. Along with the commander, the box promotes the Chance Vought F8U Crusader as being a Thompson Trophy Winner also! Combining the two was a genius marketing idea, as many a kid would feel they were getting a “two-for-one” for their dollar of allowance money. Back in those days, model companies were many and getting an edge up over a competitor meant survival in the model-making world.

The Lindberg Line of models was never one for super-detailed kits like other manufacturers, but the idea of a 63-piece model kit was appealing to us kids who wanted to be running through the house as soon as possible, setting our own records of annoying our parents and siblings with all kinds of noises that mimicked supersonic flight until all hours.  

The Lindberg Line model kit of the Thompson Trophy Winner Chance Vought F8U Crusader, feating Cmdr. Robert Wilks “Duke” Windsor, Jr. (Photograph by Bob Alvis)

One thing that was always a pretty cool side benefit of kits like this was the fact that we future jet jocks were getting an education and history lesson about individuals and, depending on where we lived in the country (or the world, for that matter), about projects, men and women far from our daily lives.

So just imagine yourself for a moment at the local hobby shop or Woolworths, and you are taken in by the box — its colorful artwork and those two trophy winners — and you make the purchase and head home. But before you even get there, you already have the box open in the back seat of the car and you’re poring over the contents and reading the instructions. You find out just who Commander Windsor was and what that Crusader did with him at the controls, to earn that spot in American aviation history. You didn’t even feel the pain of a classroom or a teacher lecturing you, as you wanted to know what this was all about! I believe in a way for our generations, this was the beginnings of hands-on learning at a young age, much like we see today with elementary level STEM education programs. But this was not in a classroom, it was in our bedrooms and on our kitchen tables, where we willingly made the journey to higher education — and we did it most of the time with our own allowance money!

Today, even as I pored over the box and its contents, I became that kid again and started to read up on the special occasion that led to this kit’s creation and story.

Fly Navy! (Photograph by Bob Alvis)

Growing up here in the Antelope Valley with a dad who worked in the aerospace industry, I was one of many youngsters who knew that the records in the air more often than not came off the dry lake beds of Edwards. I was a bit surprised to see that this record in the F8U Crusader happened not that far away, up the road at China Lake, when Cmdr. “Duke” Windsor became the first pilot to fly a fully armed combat aircraft over 1,000 miles per hour on a closed course. He broke the record that was held at the time by the Air Force in an F-100. The F8U Crusader and the Duke created some bragging rights for the Navy that lasted for a while, as there was no time wasted from that August 1956 flight, to the awarding of that Thompson prize in September at a formal ceremony in Oklahoma!

Reading up on Commander Windsor and his military service was another eye-opener, as he pretty much did everything the Navy could assign him from his beginnings in World War II on battleships, to later commanding aircraft carriers and more in his 30 years of service. One funny aspect of his flying career was how he moved from combat pilot to Navy test pilot in two months, and with a promotion to captain to boot! I guess long before the term “Right Stuff” was coined, the path to possible flight test glory was determined by a clerk with a stamp and a commander overlooking the current crop of prospects, fast-tracking the future test pilots he felt best qualified. No need to hold up the process, just get them in the cockpits as quickly as possible!

But I digress here from my desire to really just shed a light on a special time when it came to being a kid, and the cool planes and pilots that filled our days with dreams of becoming like one of them. For Commander Windsor, I bet it was pretty cool to see this model kit with his picture on it and to know that he was, for a bit, the envy of every young kid that built models and waited their turn for a chance to step into his boots! Gee, I wonder if the Navy knew this, as on this same box is a recruiting tool for the young modelers that simply states, “Fly Navy!”

Until next time, Bob out …

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