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
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
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 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
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.