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Hollywood stunt pilots
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Hollywood Stunt Pilots

Hollywood stunt pilot Frank Tallman striking a heroic pose.

During the 1910s and 1920s, as barnstormers were performing across the United States, Hollywood filmmakers decided to capitalize on the public's burgeoning interest in aviation and started to incorporate flight scenes into movies. While barnstormers certainly helped draw attention to aviation, it was movies that arguably helped fuel even greater interest in pilots and flight. The main people responsible for the success of these aviation-oriented films were the stunt pilots who began to emerge in Hollywood during this time. Although many stunt fliers viewed their jobs as "precision work," which implied some degree of safety, stunt work was extremely dangerous, and Hollywood aerial daredevils, who performed seemingly impossible tasks, took great risks performing a wide range of feats. Nevertheless, their bravery and determination undoubtedly contributed to the growing popularity of aviation in the 1920s and 1930s.

Ormer Locklear, one of the main barnstormers of the 1910s and the "King of the Wing Walkers," was Hollywood's first major stunt pilot. One of the key tricks that Locklear created was "the transfer," a stunt where a pilot switched from one plane to another in mid-air or from a speeding vehicle such as a car onto an aircraft. In 1919, Locklear performed the first car-to-plane transfer on film in the movie The Great Air Robbery. One year later, he filmed The Skywayman. The movie's main stunt called for a night time crash. Locklear attached magnesium flares to his plane to simulate an aircraft going down in flames. While performing the manoeuvre, Locklear's plane went into a spin and he crashed. Many historians believe that the movie studio's searchlights temporarily blinded him during the stunt and caused the mishap that killed him.

Frank Clarke was the next major Hollywood stunt pilot to gain prominence. In 1921, Clarke performed a particularly risky stunt for the film Stranger Than Fiction. The feat involved flying a Curtiss Canuck biplane off a 10-story building with only a 100-foot (30-meter) runway. During the trick, the airplane almost dropped onto the street below before Clarke gained enough power to level off. Clarke would go on to be the chief pilot for Howard Hughes' 1929 film Hell's Angels, which included more than 50 World War I airplanes and over 100 pilots. Several stunt men died during the making of the film, but Clarke survived and continued to work until June 1948 when he died in a non-job-related plane crash.

During the early years of Hollywood, stunt pilots were essentially self-employed fliers. In 1924, three stuntmen, Ronald MacDougall, Ken Nichols, and William Matlock joined forces and formed a stunt pilot's union that they called "The Black Cats" because of the black cat emblem on the side of MacDougall's plane. Ten more pilots would eventually join the group, making the organization the "Thirteen Black Cats." The Black Cats were the first group to develop a set wage scale for aerial stunt work. Prices ranged from as little as $100 for a mid-air transfer to as much as $1200 for crashing an airplane or $1500 for blowing up an aircraft in mid-air and parachuting out. Although the Black Cats worked on several movies, by the end of the 1920s, most of them had either died or moved on to other pursuits. Their organization, however, provided a model for the more formal union that would soon follow.

By the beginning of the 1930s, many stunt pilots wanted to establish some safety guidelines for the industry, as well as a guaranteed wage scale and an insurance plan to pay their medical bills. In September 1931, several pilots met at Pancho Barnes' house. Barnes, Hollywood's first female stunt flier, was particularly interested in organizing a formal union, and she got her wish when they formed the Associated Motion Picture Pilots (AMPP). Working with a wage scale based on the Black Cats' fees, the AMPP took control of the industry's stunt work. As Hollywood aviation historians Jim and Maxine Greenwood have noted, the AMPP established "a virtual monopoly on motion picture flying."

Dick Grace

Dick Grace was an original member of the AMPP and one of Hollywood's most famous stunt pilots. He specialized in controlled airplane crashes. During his career, which lasted from the 1920s to the 1960s, Grace performed between 45-50 crashes. Grace first gained widespread notice by performing four major crashes for the movie Wings. On his fourth and final crack-up for the film, he broke his neck but survived after spending several months in the hospital. Returning to work, Grace went on to do several stunts for Hell's Angels. Another career highlights included his innovative design of a special lap and shoulder harness to secure him during crashes. By the end of his stunting days, Grace had broken more than 80 bones in his body. Nevertheless, as dangerous as Grace's particular specialty was, he still lived to the age of 67 and was one of the few stunt men who did not die in an airplane. In June 1965, Grace died of emphysema in bed.

Paul Mantz

Paul Mantz is undoubtedly the most famous stunt flier in Hollywood history. Mantz earned more than $10 million during his career. Shortly after washing out of Army Flight School in 1927 for buzzing a railroad car, Mantz moved to California and started his own charter air service. He originally found it difficult to break into movies because he was not a member of AMPP. To get union officials to notice him, he set a new world record of 46 consecutive outside loops in July 1930. Soon after, he became a union member. Although Mantz performed many stunts, he specialized in flying through buildings. In 1932, he guided a Stearman plane through a 45-foot-wide aircraft hangar for the film Air Mail. Notably, in a different facet of his aviation career, Mantz won the Bendix Trophy Race three times between 1946 and 1948.

By the late 1950s, although Mantz was still Hollywood's leading individual stunt pilot, he decided to join forces with another outstanding stunt flier named Frank Tallman. Together, the two men formed Tallmantz Aviation in 1961, a new stunt flying operation. Tallman did some of his most outstanding individual stunt work for the 1963 movie It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World. Some of his stunts included taxing through a plate glass window and flying a plane though an aircraft hanger. The most elaborate trick he performed for the film was flying an airplane through a billboard.

Mantz and Tallman's collaboration did not last long. In 1965, the two men were working on the movie Flight of the Phoenix when Tallman, who was supposed to fly a landing sequence in the Arizona desert, shattered his kneecap during a fall at home, and Mantz took his place. On July 8, Mantz was performing the landing when one of his aircraft's wheels hit a small, sun-baked, mound of sand and caused him to lose control. The aircraft "nosed in" killing Mantz instantly. Tallman, heartbroken by the accident, blamed himself for Mantz's death.

the Phoenix crash site

A few days after Mantz's crash, Tallman faced his own individual tragedy when doctors amputated his leg because of a massive infection that had resulted from his broken kneecap. Despite the loss of his leg and his close friend, Tallman re-taught himself how to fly using only one leg and returned to stunting. In subsequent years he worked on such films as The Blue Max, Catch 22, The Great Waldo Pepper, and Capricorn One. On April 15, 1978, Tallman, age 58, lost his life during a routine flight when he failed to clear a ridge near Palm Springs, California, due to poor visibility.

Many other Hollywood aviators have established their own unique stunts over the years. Some have specialized in parachute stunts. Others, like Jim Gavin, have become experts at performing helicopter tricks. And still others have worked with such unique devices as "rocketbelts." Undoubtedly, there will be many more stunt pilots who will go even farther than these performers, and each will owe a debt to their predecessors. Thanks to the pioneering aviators of the movie industry, future stunt fliers will have a strong union, strict safety guidelines, and guaranteed wage scales that will help them succeed in the movie business and movie goers will continue to be treated to many more aerial thrills.