Skip to comments.The FReeper Foxhole Remembers the Squadron of Death 1920 - 1930) - Apr. 11th, 2005
Posted on 04/10/2005 10:30:02 PM PDT by SAMWolf
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Flying and Dying for Hollywood
A daring group of former barnstormers introduced American film fans to flying thrills and chills in the 1920s.
They flew their rickety aircraft within a few feet of the ground, looped them again and again in dangerous maneuvers and roared earthward in seemingly suicidal dives, pulling out at the very last minute. Some clambered out onto the wings thousands of feet above the ground to do handstands, swung from ropes to transfer from one plane to another, or hung suspended from the struts of their aircraft and dropped onto other vehicles -- planes, speeding boats or automobiles. These were the danger-loving fliers of aviation's early days, widely known as barnstormers.
In the aftermath of World War I, a select group of these daredevils found new audiences, performing their stunts in the silent feature films and serials that proliferated throughout the 1920s. The novelty of flying was highly appealing to film producers, and audiences of the day were fascinated by this new technology and its ever-present dangers. An elite group of pilots would gain fame from their cinematic exploits. Dick Kerwood, Al Wilson, Frank Tomick, Ormer Locklear and Dick Grace all started out performing their stunts on the county fair circuit -- until the movie industry made them famous. Sadly, the breathtaking stunts that wowed movie audiences also claimed the lives of many skilled aviators during those heady years. It was no wonder that stunt pilots became known as the "Squadron of Death."
Efforts to make the stunts appear more realistic onscreen often led to some unintended consequences. Joe Bonomo, who did many parachute jumps in his career, described one scene that almost resulted in his drowning when he bailed out of a plane over water. He and another performer were supposed to leap from an aircraft with only one parachute, but when no other stunter would agree to jump with him, he decided to use a dummy -- which proved to be a wise decision.
When Bonomo hit the water after the jump, the wind was blowing violently and his parachute was pulled through the water like a sail at a rapid clip. Using the dummy as both life preserver and shield (to block the water hitting his face), Bonomo managed to stay conscious. It was almost half an hour before a speedboat finally arrived to pick him up. Bonomo later quipped, "I'm probably the only man in the world who owes his life to a dummy."
Joe Bonomo, famous movie stuntman of the 1920's and '30's, hoisting a man with one arm on the roof of his Hollywood, California Gym. Circa 1920's.
Such quick thinking under pressure was common among stunt pilots -- and many would owe their lives to it. Ormer Locklear had built a reputation as a fearless flier long before he started stunt-flying, while he was serving as an instructor for the U.S. Army Air Service. When the radiator cap blew off his aircraft during a training flight, for example, he casually climbed out and stuffed a rag in the opening to prevent boiling water from blowing back into the cockpit. In 1919, while performing at a carnival, he made what may have been the first public transfer from one plane to another in midair. It was at such carnivals and fairs that Locklear pioneered many of the eye-popping stunts other wing-walkers would copy in the years to come.
Locklear eventually made his way to Hollywood. One of his first films was The Great Air Robbery, which enabled him to perform many of his signature moves. In one scene he changed planes in midair, and in a later sequence he climbed down from a plane to a speeding car, fought with the villain, then grabbed the undercarriage of the plane above him and climbed back into it just as the car overturned and crashed.
In 1920 Locklear and his friend and pilot Milton "Skeets" Elliott were hired by producer William Fox to do aerial scenes for the film The Skywayman. Locklear performed a variety of hair-raising stunts for that movie, including a train-to-plane transfer and wing-walking. He even performed at night -- rare at the time -- illuminated by searchlights.
On August 2, 1920, he and Elliot were to execute the film's final aerial stunt, a spiraling dive at night over oil fields near Los Angeles from 5,000 feet with phosphorus flares glowing on the wings to give the impression the plane was on fire. Locklear had told the director to kill the searchlights illuminating the dive to signal when it was time for the pilot to pull out. But for some reason the lights were never turned off, and when Locklear and Elliot finally realized how low they had fallen, it was too late. The plane crashed into the pool of an oil well, killing both occupants.
Not one to sacrifice exciting film footage, producer Fox took advantage of the publicity and rushed the film into release -- including the final, fatal plunge. To his credit, however, the moviemaker did earmark 10 percent of the film's profits for the families of the men who had died.
Clearly, safety precautions were seldom uppermost in the minds of early stunt fliers. Few used parachutes, and often the only safety device involved in stunt sequences was a rope tied to the plane's strut and the ankle of the performer. In a way, stuntmen seemed eager to tempt fate.
Earl Burgess, who had also served as a flying instructor during World War I, became a barnstormer at the war's end. Hired as the stuntman in a film that was eventually dubbed Sky Eye, he executed plane-to-plane transfers, a leap from a plane to a speeding train, and a fight on the wings of an aircraft in flight.
On February 6, 1920, Burgess was doing a scene in a film for comedian Chester Conklin and accompanied by flier Walter Hawkins. Like too many stunt fliers, Burgess had refused to wear a parachute. According to some reports, he was also out of condition and overweight. He was apparently supposed to climb out on a wing, simulate a fight with a dummy, knock the dummy (the "villain") off the plane, then climb back into the cockpit.
| Realizing he should finish his therapy before he ruined any more relationships, Grace completed the prescribed 17-week hospital stay. Even though he was advised by doctors not to continue with stunt flying, he was back at work in 1928, organizing a squadron called "the Buzzards" to perform in a minor film, Lilac Time. He managed to break several ribs in one of the crashes he did for this film, but again his luck held and he survived. Several other Buzzards, however, were not so fortunate. Three of them would die shortly after Lilac Time -- though not in film-related accidents.
Another noted aerial movie produced in the latter days of the 1920s was the brainchild of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. Eager to make an aerial film, Hughes had been furious when the script for Wings (written by his friend John Monk Saunders) was bought by Paramount. The resolute Hughes decided to make his own epic -- one that would outdo Wings. It would be called Hell's Angels.
Then just 23, Hughes hired star actors and spent more than half a million dollars buying and renovating 89 airplanes. He put well-known flier Frank Tomick, who had worked on Wings, in charge of obtaining all the aircraft he could for the film -- on an open budget. Because Hell's Angels took place in England, the planes for the film had to look British and German, so many of the aircraft Hughes acquired had to be repainted and redesigned to simulate unobtainable foreign aircraft.
He also needed airfields, so he bought a cow pasture near Van Nuys -- just north of Los Angeles -- and dubbed it Caddo Field. There he built hangars and other buildings, personally supervising construction. He also bought land in Inglewood, south and west of Los Angeles (in an area that would later become the site of Los Angeles International Airport) and property in Chatsworth, in the far west part of the San Fernando Valley, which would be used to simulate a German base.
One of the final dramatic scenes in the film was the diving, spinning crash of a Sikorsky S-29A bomber -- repainted to represent a German Gotha. Both Dick Grace and Frank Clarke had refused to do the stunt for less than $10,000, but Al Wilson agreed to perform the dangerous dive. Smoke effects would be created by using lamp black, with a mechanical blower system blasting the black "smoke" from the diving plane. A young mechanic, Phil Jones, volunteered to ride along and operate the smoke machine.
On March 22, 1929, with three camera planes in the air to record the stunt, Wilson took the Sikorsky up to 7,500 feet. As he started the downward spin, the other pilots noticed the fabric tearing away from the left wing, and then pieces of cowling from the left engine began to break away. Wilson realized he was in trouble, and he climbed from the cockpit and opened his parachute.
The three cameras recorded the plunge of the plane as they waited for a second parachute to appear. But it never did. The plane crashed with Phil Jones' body inside, his parachute still strapped to him.
Hell's Angels pilots, l-r: Ralph Douglas, Leo Nomis, Frank Clarke, James Hall (star), Ben Lyon (star), Frank Tomick & Roy Wilson.
Al Wilson was shattered when he learned of the mechanic's death. He swore he had twice yelled to him to jump, but whether Jones heard him or not, Wilson had no way of knowing. He received a great deal of criticism after the accident, but an investigation found him not guilty of negligence. His pilot's license was suspended briefly as a result of the incident.
Hell's Angels was not completed until 1930, by which time sound had been introduced and audiences were shunning silent films. Hughes decided to reshoot many scenes to make what had started as a silent film into a sound film. The production ended up costing him $4 million -- one of the most expensive pictures made up to that time -- but it was to prove a success, mainly because of its spectacular aerial scenes.
Waldo helped (but didn't fly) Howard Hughes film "Hell's Angels"
Here (from WALDO: Pioneer Aviator, pp. 266) is the planning for the Gotha flight scene: (l-r) Harry Perry, chief photographer; Fred Fleck, asst. dir.; Roscoe Turner; Frank Clarke, chief pilot (arguably the era's best stunt pilot); Al Wilson; Harry Crandall, kneeling; Roy Wilson; Frank Tomick; and Jack Rand.
To highlight the film's premiere on May 27, 1930, planes flew low over Hollywood Boulevard, dropping flares and parachutes. Veteran racer Roscoe Turner also participated in the gala event, completing a flight from New York to Los Angeles in a record 24 hours and 20 minutes.
Hollywood Boulevard was blocked off in one direction before the movie's initial screening, but the crowd, eager to see the stars arrive, was immense, and traffic soon came to a standstill. The film went on to play to packed houses worldwide. Whether or not it eventually made a profit is hard to gauge. Hughes always claimed it did, but others were not so sure. The project had certainly drained a vast amount of money from his other enterprises. He had shot almost 300 times the amount of film that was eventually used and lavished time and effort on the project. In an interview some years later, Hughes admitted, "Making Hell's Angels by myself was my biggest mistake....Trying to do the work of twelve men was just dumbness on my part. I learned by bitter experience that no one man can know everything."
Demand for stunt fliers began to wane as the newly evolving airline industry grew eager to provide filmmakers with opportunities to photograph their own planes taking off and landing and even made available mock-ups of their interiors -- which they had built to train airline staff. Then, as now, product promotion was becoming a fact of life for the movie industry. The military also began cooperating with the industry by providing film companies with both planes and personnel. They saw this as an effective way to recruit young men for the Army Air Corps.
But a more important reason why there were few accidents in those later days involved the evolution of more sophisticated special effects. Miniatures, rear projection and matte shot techniques were being developed to a point where many dangerous scenes could be faked.
In one shot, Grace was to turn the plane completely over and have it crash upside down. The stunt apparently came off fine, and Grace even posed to have his picture taken along side the wrecked plane. However, as soon as the picture had been snapped, he collapsed. Grace had broken his neck. Nevertheless, he went on to his next job with his neck still in braces.
Thus the era of the Squadron of Death, which had claimed the lives of so many talented fliers, came to an end. It had provided audiences -- and the stunt pilots who survived -- with some of the greatest thrills ever captured on film.
Shifty Night Bump for the Freeper Foxhole
((HUGS))Good morning, Snippy and everyone at the Foxhole.
Good morning, it was a beautiful day yesterday here in the Memphis area. I spent the day sick on the couch though. Hopefully today will be better. At least no fever so far this morning.
A frustrated homeowner had a yard full of moles. He tried everything he knew to defeat his underground enemy, but he was losing the battle. Finally a friend informed him that he was trying to solve his problem the wrong way. The moles weren't the true culprits. The real problem was the grubs that the moles were feeding on. Get rid of them and the moles would have no reason to stay.
The third chapter of Proverbs gives us a parallel situation. Instead of moles, the problem is fear-the kind of fear that robs us of strength during the day and sleep at night (vv.24-25).
What is also evident from this chapter is that we can eliminate our fears only by attacking the "grubs" that attract it. We must go after our self-sufficiency and irreverence (vv.5-8). We have to treat our evil and foolish ways with a strong application of divine wisdom and understanding (vv.13-18). Then and only then will fear lose its grip.
What's important is to know the real problem so that we can work on it. When it comes to fear, we must make wise decisions based on God's Word and build a love-trust relationship with Christ. That's what it takes to get rid of the "grubs." -Mart De Haan
By fear and inward doubt,
Strive to do what pleases God,
And He will lead you out. -Lloyd
Keep your eyes on God and you'll soon lose sight of your fears.
When Fear Seems Overwhelming
Lots of those early movie aviators had WWI combat aviation experience. The earlier Polish Army aviator thread mentioned that the King Kong flyers were American combat aviators.
I remember taking what appear now to be suicidal risks riding motocycles. Suspect that these aviators had similar motivations.
Eventually I came to realize that risk taking for no real reason meant nothing.
Never did fit into "society" after that war. Cranky drunken vets didn't interest me, either.
JimRob himself at the March for Justice.
On This Day In History
Birthdates which occurred on April 11:
1370 Frederick I the Warlike elector of Saxony
1722 Christopher Smart English poet & journalist (Ceremony of Carols)
1770 George Canning (C) British PM (1827)
1794 Edward Everett Dorchester MA, (Governor-MA), statesman/orator
1837 Ephraim Elmer Ellsworth Colonel (Union Army), died in 1861
1862 Charles Evans Hughs 11th Chief Justice of Supreme Court (1930-41)
1862 William W Campbell US astronomer/director Lick Observatory
1889 Nick La Rocca US coronetist/composer (Tiger Rag)
1893 Dean G Acheson statesman/US Secretary of State (1949-53)
1899 Percy L Julian chemist (drugs for treatment of arthritis)
1901 Adriano Olivetti Italian engineer/manufacturer (typewriter)
1908 Leo Rosten writer/humourist
1912 John Larkin Oakland CA, actor (Saints & Sinners, 12 O'Clock High)
1913 Oleg Cassini Paris France, fashion designer (Jackie Kennedy)
1916 Howard Koch producer/director (Frankenstein, Airplane II)
1918 Cameron Mitchell actor (Hombre, How to Marry a Millionaire)
1919 Hugh Carey (Governor-Democrat-NY)
1928 Ethel [Skakel] Kennedy Chicago IL, wife of Bobby
1930 Nicholas F Brady US Secretary of Treasury (1988-93)
1931 John[ny] Sheffield Pasadena CA, actor (boy in many Tarzan movies)
1932 Joel Grey [Joe Katz] Cleveland OH, actor (Cabaret, Remo Williams, 7% Solution)
1933 Tony Brown Charleston WV, newsman (Tony Brown's Journal)
1938 Michael Deaver politician
1939 Louise Lasser New York NY, actress (Mary Hartman! Mary Hartman!)
1941 Frederick "Rick" Hauck Long Beach CA, astronaut (STS-7, STS 51-A, STS-26)
1942 Anatoli Nikolayevich Berezovoi Enem Adygeya Russia, cosmonaut (Soyuz T-5)
1944 John Milius writer (Red Dawn,The Wind and the Lion)
1948 Ellen Goodman syndicated columnist
1955 Piers J Sellers Sussex England, PhD/astronaut
1973 Monica Chala Miss Ecuador-Universe (1996)
Whoa, nice Flag-o-gram today!
Speaking of Howard Hughes and "Hell's Angels", isn't that the movie with the burning Zeppelin scene at the end? Quite a shot, that.
And what better way to start the day (off), after prayer, than to join the Foxhole!
I enjoyed Saturday's read about the 'Nam Songs . . . even got out an old CD, "Creedence Clearwater Revival Revisited", great wefting music.
Today's thread is just awesome. It's amazing how some people were just born to fly and to push the envelope. My Dad always took me to "Airshows" and there was always a guy flying a bi-plane that would get out on the wing or just dangle. Loved those stunts.
BTW are sure about your facts? Are you sure that first pic is of Dick Grace? And not somebody else?
We prayed for you all weekend and lifted your life at fellowship. Remember, that "by Christ's stripes you are healed."
Snip says you purchased some bird feeders. Enjoy! We've bought four feeders from them and our backyard is turning into a etchuary (except for those darn skwirls).
Well, we're headed out shortly go to hike Whittney Canyon . . . we'll check in later.
I have Sam hands today!
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