Coincidentally, airplanes and movies can claim to have experienced their "birth" in the same year - 1903. This was the year that the Wright Brothers made their first successful flight, and this was also the year Edison released "The Great Train Robbery," generally credited with being the first story film and thereby serving as a "birth" of the movies as we know them today.
Movies and aviation also grew together. As movies became more sophisticated, so did airplanes. Considering the public's fascination with new inventions at the turn of the century, it was only natural that the two should come together. Although no one really knows when or how airplanes were first used in the movies, we definitely know that their comedic and thrill potential were exploited very early. Mack Sennett, for one, used them many times, one of the earliest being "A Dash Through the Clouds" (1912) with Mabel Normand when they were both still working for Biograph. Later, under the Keystone banner, he continued using them for a combination of laughs and thrills in such films as "The Sky Pirate" (1914) and "Dizzy Heights and Daring Hearts" (1916). Much of the filming was faked, though, with airplanes only a few feet off the ground and wind machines creating a sense of movement.
Actually, exhibitions, or air shows, were the big attraction around the Los Angeles area in the early part of the century at the same time that movie companies were learning of the advantages of the west coast as a filmmaker's paradise. In 1910, the world's second international air meet took place at Aviation Park, fifteen miles from downtown Los Angeles, and, over a 10-day period, attracted thousands of spectators. Another airfield was located at Griffith Park, and then, according to H. Hugh Wynne his book The Motion Picture Stunt Pilots (Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1987), the first real "stunt flyers" appeared at Venice, CA. Although an airfield was located there, it quickly became popular among the pilots inclined to acrobatics because, being a resort area, there was a "readily available audience of several thousand beach patrons." (Photo at left shows stuntman Dick Grace, his cameraman Norman Devoe and mechanic Benny Southland inspect the plane Grace just crashed for a movie stunt."
At first these exhibitions were filmed to be shown in theatres much in the manner of a newsreel, but gradually, filmmakers began to call on these pilots when the story line required the use of an airplane. As Wynne notes in his book, much of the movie "aviation activity was minor, and the aviators who maneuvered their machines for these early films were not yet motion picture stunt pilots. A take-off, fly-by, and landing scene or two, mixed with close-ups of the actors in crude flying machine mock-ups, was the usual extent of motion picture flying. . ."
Also according to Wynne, the Schiller Aviation School was located at the Venice Flying Field, and one of the instructors, Thomas J. Hill, could very likely be credited with performing the first real air stunts for motion pictures. During the summer of 1914, he performed "dives and spirals" for a film whose name has been lost to history, but Wynne says "this appears to be the beginning of aviation stunts for motion picture purposes at the Venice Flying Field." A 1915 Mutual film entitled "Out of the Air" (a two-reeler starring Fred A. Turner and Seena Owen) supposedly showed the first airplane-to-train transfer performed by stuntman Charles Gaemon. However, Wynne says that the distinction of the first real professional motion picture stunt pilot should go to Al Wilson.
Born in Kentucky, Wilson's family moved to Southern California when he was a young boy. When he was only 18 years old, he and a friend built an airplane using a four-cylinder motor. It wasn't the most professional creation and would only rise about 50 feet off the ground, but it did fly. When the many hard landings finally took their toll on the contraption, Wilson sold it to a motion picture company for a prop.
His contact with the motion picture industry continued as he performed small tasks and even did some minor acting work. He is also credited with constructing the first wind machines used by the movies from airplane propellers and automobile engines.
During this time he took a job in maintenance at the Schiller Aviation School which also gave him the opportunity to begin learning how to be a pilot. He later moved to a flying school at Riverside where he completed his training. Wilson returned to Venice, which was now named the Crawford-Saunders Field, and the American Aircraft Company hired him as their chief instructor. He developed his stunt flying skills by performing acrobatic maneuvers that would "stimulate students." Wilson's brother, Herbert, built a two-seat monoplane at this time, which, with Al as the co-pilot, was rented to movie companies. "This was the beginning of Al Wilson's motion picture stunt flying career," Wynne said.
One of Wilson's students while at Venice was Cecil B. DeMille who had hopes of becoming a pilot during the war, but, although he became an accomplished pilot, the war ended before his dream was realized. However, this led to another opportunity for Wilson. When DeMille formed the Mercury Aviation Company, Wilson was named vice-president and general manager. The company offered flight instruction, sight-seeing tours, charter flights and more. Most importantly, motion picture studios came to Mercury when they needed airplanes and pilots.
Wilson didn't stay in this position long apparently missing the thrill of performing stunts and resigned to return to exhibition flying. At one point he formed a partnership with stuntman Frank Clarke and piloted one of two airplanes as Clarke performed a wing-to-wing transfer. The availability of the Wilson-Clarke team was advertised in the Oct. 10, 1919, issue of Billboard magazine. Wilson was also known to perform his wing-walking acrobatics while stunt pilot Wally Timms (whom Wilson had trained back at Mercury Aviation) piloted the airplane.
One of his more spectacular stunts, which brought him quite a bit of publicity, was a double airplane transfer in February, 1920, which called for him to grab the landing gear of the airplane above and pull himself up. Then the first plane changed to the overhead position, and Wilson once again pulled himself up by the landing gear to the original airplane. While this was being done, there was the additional risk of being dangerously close to the whirring propeller.
Wilson continued working exhibition tours and doing movie work in the off-season. Around 1922, he signed a contract with Universal, but it is difficult to determine exactly how many or which films he may have contributed to as a stunt man.
In 1923, however, we see him featured as an actor for the first time in the Fred Thomson 15-chapter serial "The Eagle's Talons." Of course, he wasn't just hired to act. He also performed his stunts, one being a plane-to-train transfer. This was followed the same year with a role in the 15-chapter serial "The Ghost City" starring Pete Morrison. One stunt in this film came close to disaster when Wilson was transferring from a car traveling at 70 miles per hour to a rope ladder dangling from an airplane overhead. However, when Wilson put his weight on the ladder, the plane settled hitting Wilson on the ground. Although the initial inclination was to turn loose since he was already at ground level, he would have been injured even worse at that speed if he had let go. Instead, he held on, and the pilot pulled up leaving Wilson only with some bumps and bruises.
After this, Wilson formed his own production company and began a series of thrillers for which he wrote the scripts, performed the stunts and was the star. In 1924, he made "The Air Hawk," followed by "The Cloud Rider" and "Flyin' Thru" in 1925 and "The Flying Mail" in 1926. Each film was similar in make-up, Wilson as a Secret Service agent, with the Air Mail Service or in some other "do-gooder" capacity saving the girl and everyone else from the bad guys. Of course, a variety of aerial stunts were performed to accomplish this including fights on the wing of a plane, changing the wheel of an airplane above him while standing on the wing of a plane below, making a plane-to-automobile transfer to capture the escaping bad guy, transferring from a speeding motorcycle to a rope ladder dangling from an airplane above and more.
Charles Lindbergh's solo crossing of the Atlantic in May, 1927, which created a national obsession with aviation, coupled with the spectacular success of William Wellman's epic"Wings," which was released in August, was enough for filmmakers to realize what would sell at the box office. For some reason, Wilson got out of the producing business and was back with Universal in 1927. Could it be the studio, also wanting to cash in on the aviation craze, enticed Wilson back to the fold? Whatever the reason, he was busy starring in a new series of films -- "Three Miles Up" (which was released less than two months after "Wings") and "Sky High Saunders" in 1927 followed by "The Air Patrol" in 1928. Variety said the air stunts were the "only feature" of "Three Miles Up." Two months later the publication criticized "Sky High Saunders" saying, "The airplane stuff is okay and held attention. Otherwise, blotto." In January, Variety called "The Air Patrol" "fourth rate stuff." Obviously, Universal wasn't lavishing time and big bucks on these films (three films were released within four months), but in all fairness to the studio, Wilson wasn't hired because of his acting abilities, either.
One can only assume that, regardless of the reviews, the films were making money for Universal because Wilson starred in three more in 1928 -- "The Cloud Dodger," "The Phantom Flyer" and "Won in the Clouds" -- and then "The Sky Skidder" in 1929. Although he doesn't mention which film, Wynne notes in his book "The Motion Picture Stunt Pilots" that Wilson almost lost his life when his plane caught fire when a fuel line broke and barely made it to the ground before the plane was consumed by the fire.
Wilson was one of several pilots who worked on Howard Hughes' "Hell's Angels" beginning in 1929. It was a tragic accident in this film that had the most profound impact on Wilson up to this point in his career.
The scene called for a plane to be flown while "lamp black" was released which resembled smoke coming from a damaged aircraft. Although several other pilots had refused to fly the plane because of its condition, Wilson volunteered but insisted that he fly alone and release the lamp black by a control in the cockpit. A mechanic named Phil Jones, who wanted to earn some extra money, convinced the director that he should accompany Wilson in the plane and release the lamp black.
Although the scene appeared to be progressing as planned, the plane began going into a spin and falling apart. Wilson told the mechanic to bail out and then bailed out himself. For some unknown reason, the mechanic stayed in the plane and was killed. Wilson said he yelled twice at Jones to bail, but no one knows if Jones heard him, was knocked out from being thrown around in the spinning plane or was pinned in by the centrifugal force. At the site of the crash, Jones was still in his place in the plane, parachute unopened.
There was an investigation for homicidal neglect, but no evidence was found to support the charge. Wilson did lose his license for a period of time, but it was restored. The criticism Wilson received for not "saving" the mechanic, especially from some of his peers, affected him deeply. Although three planes were filming the scene, and all three pilots said Wilson should not be blamed, the fearless aviator gave up motion picture stunt flying to work as an airline pilot for Maddux Air Lines.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Wilson's luck ran out in 1932. He was appearing at the National Air Races in Cleveland, and his plane was drawn into the vortex of an autogryo's blades. Both machines fell to the ground. The two occupants of the autogyro escaped without serious injury. Wilson was taken to the hospital with lacerations, a crushed rib cage and a fractured skull. He died a few days later on Sept. 5, 1932.
Ormer Locklear was born Oct. 28, 1891, in Fort Worth Texas, where he was working as a carpenter and mechanic when he joined he Army Air Corps in October, 1917. He was stationed at Barron Field, Texas, and one story notes that his wing walking began when military experts were trying to figure out how to mount a machine gun on the plane's wing without increasing the wind resistance which made it difficult to maneuver. Locklear decided to prove the experts wrong and had another pilot take him up while he walked back and forth along the wing without affecting the airplane's performance. Another story states that while flying with his instructor, he was unable to see some communication from the ground because the engine housing and wing were blocking his view. He needed to interpret the communication to pass his flight test, so he left he plane in the control of the flight instructor and climbed out on the wing so he could see better. His instructor was not pleased.
Locklear's stunts increased, including making repairs while in mid-air, and his stunts were soon being copied by his fellow pilots. His wing-walking actually became very popular with not only his fellow pilots, but his superiors, as well.
According to Wynne in his The Motion Picture Stunt Pilots, toward the end of the war, Locklear performed an even more spectacular stunt at the Fort Worth Army air field to help recruit for the Air Service. While wing-walking on one airplane several thousand feet in the air, he dropped from the undercarriage to the top wing of another airplane several feet below. "This was the first time in the world that anyone had transferred from one airplane to another while in flight, and it opened the way for many daring motion picture stunts of the 1920's," Wynne said.
Locklear never made it into battle and left the military in May, 1919, to tour the country with his airplane stunts. Within a year, he was the most widely known stunt pilot in the world and was making as much as $3,000 a day. He was so popular, county fairs around the country were hosting "Locklear Days." Carl Laemmle was the first to realize the potential of a stunt-filled air adventure when a fantastic airplane stunt in Harry Houdini's "The Grim Game" (1919) proved to be the most popular portion of the film. Locklear was the obvious choice for a star, and "The Great Air Robbery" was released at the end of that same year with Locklear playing the lead. He not only performed his famous airplane to airplane transfer, he also transferred from an airplane to a speeding car then back to the airplane just before the car crashes. The movie was a success, and is generally credited with being the first aviation feature film opening the door for many more that were to come in the next decade.
After completing his work on "The Great Air Robbery," Locklear returned to exhibition flying. While on this tour, he met a young flyer named Dick Grace at the Minnesota State Fair, and it is this meeting with Locklear that resulted in Grace's decision to enter the movie business. As noted in the comments on Wilson, stunt pilots were becoming more and more in demand from the newsreels as they became more of a theatre staple. Locklear, Wilson and many of the other stunt pilots from the Venice area supplemented their earnings well as a result of these newsreels.
When the 1919 barnstorming season came to an end, Locklear returned to Fox for his second feature entitled "The Skywayman" on which he started work in June, 1920. There was a plane-to-plane transfer required in the film, but it was performed by another stuntman, Milton "Skeets" Elliott. A plane-to-train transfer was performed by Locklear, however, followed by a gun fight while he sat on the landing gear and the villains raced away in their automobile.
The storyline also called for an airplane to spin toward the ground, and was originally planned to be done in miniature, but, fearing it would look unrealistic, Locklear volunteered to perform the stunt. It was scheduled for the night of Aug. 2, 1920. A semi-circle of arc lights were placed around the field to allow the airplane to be filmed in the dark sky. Both Locklear and Elliott were in the airplane which had flares attached to simulate a flaming crash. The scene showing Locklear and Elliott climbing out of the crashed plane had already been filmed. The idea was for Locklear to spin seemingly out of control from approximately 2,000 feet up to a point close the ground where he could quickly recover and come in for a landing.
As planned, at 2,000 feet, the flares were lit and the cameras began rolling. The stunt appeared to be going as planned, but, but when Locklear should have begun pulling out of the spin, nothing was happening. Although it should have happened sooner, it was obvious at 200 feet that he was trying to recover, but never did. The plane crashed, and the two men were killed instantly. Wynne said no one really knows what went wrong. Actress Viola Dana, who was in a relationship with Locklear at the time and was present at the crash, offered an explanation to silent film historian Kevin Brownlow in his 1980 documentary "Hollywood." She said the arc lights were to be cut off at a specific point to let Locklear know when he should pull up, but, for some unknown reason, they never were, so he crashed.
Dick Grace was born in Morris, MN, January 10, 1898. His father was a judge, and he intended following in his footsteps attending the University of Minnesota. When the war broke out, he joined the Naval Air Service receiving his training in Pensacola, FL. He served in France and Germany, but, upon returning to the United States, gave up seeking a law career for the more exciting vocation of barnstorming.
A chance meeting with Ormer Locklear at the Minnesota State Fair in 1919 gave him his first introduction to a Hollywood movie star (this was following Locklear's success with "The Great Air Robbery"), and by the summer of 1920, Grace was in Hollywood working for Fox. But Grace didn't initially start out as a stunt pilot, he was performing almost any stunt that came his way in the beginning.
His first motion picture aviation stunt was in Tom Mix's "Sky High" (1920), and almost proved to be Grace's last. He was to climb from the cockpit of a plane down an 18-foot rope and back up again, but he had to do it twice so filming could be done once from the ground and again from the air. When the cameraman decided he wasn't satisfied with the shot, Grace had to perform the stunt a third time. He was so fatigued by this time that he hardly made it back up the rope to the cockpit, but was hindered from actually getting into the plane when a gun belt he was wearing caught on the fuselage. While still controlling the plane, pilot Bud Creeth leaned over the side and helped pull Grace into the plane.
In his book, Wynne refers to another Tom Mix feature on which Grace worked called "Forest Ranger." (No reference can be found to this film. It is most likely the 1923 Fox feature "Eyes of the Forest" which stars Mix as a pilot). In this film, Grace performs a plane crash into a barn perfectly. However, when he and cameraman Norman Devoe go up for some stock aerial shots, the engine dies, and they are forced to make a crash landing. Fortunately, neither man was injured.
Like Wilson, Grace's stunting led him into acting, and his first leading role was in "The Flying Fool" (1925) for Sunset Productions. In this, Gaston Glass plays the bad guy who frames Grace for a burglary hoping to steal his fiancée. He only had one more chance for a starring role, and that came in 1927 in "Wide Open," again for Sunset Productions.
Throughout the twenties, stunt pilots like Grace and Wilson were much in demand, but there were few films that revolved around aviation. Most had aviation scenes that were woven into the stories. However, the greatest aviation picture of the silent era was about to be made, and Grace played a significant role in its success.
"Wings" was conceived and written by former Army training command flyer John Monk Saunders and was directed by William Wellman who was a combat pilot during World War I. Another stunt pilot, Frank Tomick, was actually hired as the chief pilot for the picture, and Grace was hired for the two main crashes in the film, one in a Spad and one in a Fokker. Both World War I planes were in poor condition, and Grace oversaw somewhat of a "renovation" before he would fly them.
The first crash, in the Spad, would take place in a trench-lined, barbed wire covered battlefield. First, the ground was dug up and the dirt replaced to make it as soft as possible. Then, the wooden posts were replaced with ones made from balsa, and the barbed wire replaced with twine. Although the nose dive crash came off with Grace unscathed, he missed the fake posts and barbed wire by 17 feet and hit the real thing. Upon surveying the crash, he realized there was the jagged edge of an airframe member jutting through the fabric just 17 inches from his head.
The second crash was to take place in a steel-framed Fokker, a more substantial plane, making it more difficult. In each crash, Grace had to saw the frame at strategic points so the plane would crumple as necessary. Although the wing crumpled as planned, the half-sawn landing gear did not causing the greatest impact on the fuselage. Because of this, Grace's straps broke, and his head went through the instrument panel. When pulled from the wreckage, it appeared he was OK except for some cuts. He was even photographed beside the plane following the crash. A short time later, it was discovered he had broken his neck and crushed four vertebrae. Although Grace was told by doctors he would be incapacitated for a year with a neck brace, he left he hospital six weeks later shedding the cast on his neck. The next year, he was coordinating the airplane stunts for Colleen Moore's "Lilac Time" (1928). Grace performed two crashes perfectly in which the plane hit the ground in a preplanned sequence that included the wheels, wing, and nose. One scene in the film has Moore fooling around in the cockpit of a plane and accidentally hitting the throttle. After scattering every military man at the airfield, the taxiing airplane eventually runs between two trees shearing off both its wings. Grace, however, did not perform this stunt. He was out of town, and it was handled by Charles Stoffer who came so close that the fuselage was within inches of one of the trees.
Although the age of the silent film was quickly coming to a close, Grace's career as a stunt man continued for many years to come. During World War II he joined the Army Air Corps and flew several missions with the 8th Air Force as a B-17 co-pilot. It is said that during his movie career, he performed 45-50 crashes and broke over 80 bones in his body. Unlike many of his contemporaries, it was not a stunt that brought an end to his life. Instead, he died in his sleep from emphysema in 1965 at age 67.
Although it may seem that these daredevils such as Wilson,
Locklear, Grace and their contemporaries had a death wish, they
most definitely didn't, but they also did not have a fear of tempting
it, either. Locklear gave some insight into their attitude toward
it all when he was once quoted as saying, "I don't do these
things because I want to run the risk of being killed. I do it
to demonstrate what can be done. Somebody has got to show the
way someday we will all be flying and the more things that are
attempted and accomplished, the quicker we will get there."
copyright 2004 by Tim Lussier; all rights
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