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In New Orleans in the 1930s, mild-mannered reporter Burke Devlin stops young Jack Shumann from fighting with an older man who has questioned Jack's parentage, cruelly suggesting that instead of famed World War I pilot and current plane racer Roger Shumann, mechanic Jiggs might be Jack's real father. Burke, hoping for a scoop, brings Jack to the airstrip to Roger and his wife LaVerne, a parachuter, and there overhears Roger harshly chastising Jiggs, who idolizes him, for buying an expensive pair of boots. Fascinated by the "gypsies of the air" who travel from place to place entertaining the crowds, Burke offers the family lodging in his apartment. Wealthy plane owner Matt Ord, who has earned Roger's enmity by propositioning LaVerne, calls Burke over to show off his new plane and to introduce his young hothead pilot, Frank Burnham. That night, Burke returns home to find LaVerne still awake, and in response to his prompting, she recounts how she fell in love with Roger when she was a sixteen-year-old in Iowa, and followed him out of town. Ignoring Jiggs's clear adoration, LaVerne lied to Roger that she wanted to be a parachuter. She then recalls her wedding: in 1923, LaVerne announces to Jiggs and Roger that she is pregnant and must quit the show. When Roger does not respond, Jiggs asks LaVerne to marry him, but Roger demands that they roll a die for her. Although LaVerne is humiliated and Jiggs disgusted, he rolls. Jiggs rolls low, and Roger declares himself the winner and marries LaVerne soon after. In the present, Roger wakes up and abruptly interrupts the conversation. The next morning, Burke's editor cancels the air-show story, prompting Burke, who has already started drinking despite the early hour, to rail heatedly about the poetry inherent in the story. Burke is fired, but nonetheless attends the air show, where LaVerne thrills the crowd with aerial stunts. The plane race begins, and Roger soon pulls ahead of Frank by flying dangerously close to the pylons that mark the courseway. When Frank's plane hits Roger's, Frank is killed, and Roger's plane is ruined. That night, Roger and Jiggs secretly check out another plane of Matt's, and upon discovering that the engine is malfunctioning, Roger orders Jiggs to have in working condition by morning. Knowing Matt will not sell the craft to him, Roger asks LaVerne to visit Matt at his hotel room and "convince" him to let Roger fly the plane. Although Jiggs and Burke are horrified, LaVerne agrees, but later, when she is getting ready to leave, Burke stops her and offers to go in her stead. She initially refuses, but after Burke kisses her, she decides to let him go. At the hotel, Burke appeals to Matt's business sense and eventually convinces him to allow Roger to use the plane. Burke returns to the apartment, where a boisterous Mardi Gras party is being held next door, and tells LaVerne about his youthful dream of becoming a war correspondent. A drunken LaVerne, struggling with her simultaneous love of and deep resentment for Roger, falls into Burke's arms, but their kiss is interrupted when a reveler wearing a death's mask enters the room. Meanwhile, in the hangar, Roger pushes Jiggs to fix the plane and worries about what is keeping LaVerne. When she and Burke show up, she allows Roger to believe that she went to Matt, and after she leaves, Roger admits to Burke that he has never known how to accept LaVerne's love, but cannot live without her. In the morning, Matt hears that Burke has been fired and comes to the hangar, where Roger immediately insults him, forcing Burke to smooth things over. One hour before the show, the plane is still not repaired and the air-show manager tries to ground it, but Roger begs him for another chance. Jiggs then admits that he has kept the plane from running on purpose, believing it is too dangerous to fly, but in response to Roger's pleas, Jiggs starts the engine. As Roger boards the plane, he confesses to LaVerne that he loves her and wants to take the prize money and start a new life. Roger is winning the race with ease when his engine suddenly catches on fire, and in order to avoid hurting anyone on the field, he steers the plane toward the ocean and crash-lands, dying instantly. Later, Jiggs apologizes to LaVerne for never putting a stop to the rumors about Jack's parentage, prompting a grieving LaVerne to throw his new boots out the window. Although LaVerne feels guilty for kissing Burke and wants nothing to do with him, she agrees to attend Roger's memorial with him. There, LaVerne, seeing no other choice, accepts Matt's offer to send Jack to school in exchange for her companionship. Burke commiserates with a miserable Jiggs, and later stumbles to his office, where he spins a drunken but mesmerizing tale about a boy with a passion for the skies who was willing to give up everything for glory, but eventually died a hero. After his editor offers him his job back, Burke goes to Matt's house and informs LaVerne that he is sending her and Jack to Iowa. Although she at first resists him, Burke asks LaVerne what her dream is, and realizing that she does not have to give up her desire to lead a decent life, she accompanies him to the airport. There, he lends her a book she has admired and asks her to return it in person.