I Was a Stunt Pilot

Thrills, spills and stills from the life of a stunt flier of the early '20's

R. BRIAN DAVILLE March 1 1936

I Was a Stunt Pilot

Thrills, spills and stills from the life of a stunt flier of the early '20's

R. BRIAN DAVILLE March 1 1936

I Was a Stunt Pilot

Thrills, spills and stills from the life of a stunt flier of the early '20's


IT’S A FAR CRY from the present era of luxurious travel on regular established air lines, to the haphazard flying of the early twenties, when a small, scattered band of enthusiastic war fliers were foolish enough to believe they could derive a financial return from becoming pioneers of aerial transportation.

There are few of them left now, Wiley Post being one of the most recent victims. Even his remarkable exploits were detailed in the news items much more briefly than they deserved, in order that more space might be devoted to his celebrated companion. And, with the exception of those who retired to a mundane existence while they were still physically intact, many of the others have flown to a plane of higher existence; most of them as a result of crashes, some less spectacularly.

Leo Charron, for instance, my friend and co-pilot, with several thousand hours of flying to his credit in France during the war, three years of commercial flying with me, and nearly ten years with the R.C.A.F. after we separated, died suddenly of pneumonia at Camp Borden a few years ago, although I could have sworn that he was due for death with his feet on the rudder and his hand on the throttle.

Those of us who were flying just after the war might have been likened to the “daring young man on the flying trapeze,” for many of the airplanes of that period were rebuilt crashes which had about as much buoyancy, powder and efficiency as the swinging bars at the top of a circus tent.

One of my earliest experiences with machines of this type was in Toronto at the Armour Heights Airport. I had just purchased a Curtiss J.N.4., the first unit of our fleet, and was taking it up on a test flight. After circling the aerodrome a few times, I noticed another machine taking off, but paid no more attention until I saw it sitting on our tail and the occupants frantically waving a wheel in the air— the old signal that one of the wheels of my undercarriage had dropped off. From my seat in the cockpit I could not see my undercarriage, so I signalled them to indicate which one was missing. They pointed to the right and down, so I immediately prepared to land and demonstrate my skill in making a one-wheel landing.

As we neared the earth I flattened out of my glide several feet higher than usual, in order to lose as much forward speed as possible before contacting the ground, and held the control column well over to the left so that my left wheel would take the full impact of landing. The manoeuvre was perfect, but the result far from what we expected. On striking the ground the plane slewed around to the left and turned over on its nose, smashing the propeller and the entire undercarriage. Fortunately we had lost most of our speed, which prevented the machine from turning over on its back. I climbed out of the cockpit and commenced a search for the good wheel, thinking it had broken off when I crashed and rolled into a near-by ditch. But just then my pursuers from the other machine came running up and explained that just after taking off, both my wheels had dropped. Instead of answering my enquiry by pointing to the one on the right, they intended to convey to me that I should land in Lake Ontario. Personally. I was glad I hadn’t understood them, as it was early in the spring and the water icy cold.

Inadequate Landing Fields

ONE OF THE greatest obstacles to successful aviation in those days was the lack of emergency landing fields, the inability to obtain high-grade aviation gasoline in any but the largest centres, and the high insurance premiums. The organizers of the events at which we were to appear could not be persuaded to understand the requirements of an airplane in landing and taking off, with the result that we were continually compelled to take unnecessary risks by flying from inadequate tracts of land such as half-mile race tracks, private golf courses and small fields. Many is the crash I’ve had through being unable to get up enough speed to clear the fence at the far end of the field.

I was more fortunate with the hazards occasioned by the lack of emergency landing fields, always having taken a delight in practising forced landings, with the result that when my engine developed trouble in the air I was invariably able to select a suitable field and land with no power, without ever having caused any damage to my plane. An airplane in those days was able to glide, without the power of its motor, a thousand feet for every foot of height, but there was always the danger of underor overshooting the field in which the pilot had decided to land. At that time no

machines were equipped with brakes as they are today, and after coming to earth the pilot generally had to hold his pnth until the machine had come to a stop.

On one occasion I was sitting in the front seat with another pilot on a test flight in a dual-controlled machine. Suddenly the engine sputtered and died. In making his forced landing, I knew he was going to overshoot the field and run into the fence. It took every ounce of will power I possessed to keep my hands oft" the controls, but as it is almost always fatal for two persons to attempt to land a machine, I simply closed my eyes and waited for the crash. We hit the fence all right, but fortunately it was so rotten that we went right through it without damage. Even the propeller was obliging enough to stop in a horizontal instead of a vertical position and thus remain intact.

The question of insurance was one which gave us a lot of worry. To be quite frank, 1 didn’t altogether blame the insurance companies for having made their premiums so high and hedged their policies about with so many difficulties and deductible clauses that they were prohibitive. On one occasion, however, we did take out a jx>licy of rain insurance to cover our loss in case a storm should render flying impossible after we had arrived at an outdoor gathering to put on an exhibition of stunting and make short passenger flights. It commenced to rain just after we arrived and we were jubilant. Our faces began to fall, however, when after a couple of hours it showed signs of clearing, and the meteorological official informed us that there had not yet been the amount of precipitation required by the policy. Sure enough the sun came out again in a few' moments, and in addition to having lost the cost of our flying time from Montreal to Vermont and a potential $250 in revenue, w;e knew' there was a bill waiting for us in the office for about $50, this being the amount of the premium on the insurance we could not collect.

For some time we had been endeavoring to put our work on a sound commercial basis. With what at that time was the most modem aerial photographic equipment, a fleet of six machines, a well-equipped airport complete with hangars and repair shops, an office downtown and a Dominion charter, Canadian Aerial Services, Ltd., of which I had the honor to be president, was in a position to supply excellent photographs of industrial sites for town planning commissions, photographic surveys of timber limits, to fly prospectors to the Far North and pleasure seekers to the Far South, and to carry the mails in any direction. But we were pioneers and, even with all the publicity and propaganda we could obtain, it was impossible to convince business executives or Government officials that aviation was anything more than a war-time measure.

So we were forced to resort to barnstorming and stunt flying; which gave us plenty of thrills and a fair paper profit w'hich unfortunately wras eaten up by repairs and high maintenance costs. Also there were several unscrupulous promoters who never seemed to have enough money left at the conclusion of a meet to pay us in full for our services.

At times we were able to obtain a contract for advertising certain products at the meet where we were doing our stunts, and on one occasion such a contract had been signed by a large firm of cigarette manufacturers. The trip from Montreal had been extremely trying under adverse weather conditions, and the landing field execrable. Landing with difficulty, we were surrounded by newspapermen and photographers whose presence had been arranged by the tobacco company’s publicity agent, and with a sigh of relief I pulled a package of cigarettes from my pocket. There was a shout from the publicity man, and the photographers were told to destroy their plates because unthinkingly I had lighted a cigarette that was not the one advertised.

A Narrow Escape

IT WAS IN the middle of a meet in Quebec that we almost cut the parachute jump out of our programme. Despite the fact that lines of 50,000-volt high-tension wires surrounded the field on three sides with a grandstand on the fourth, and that the field was much too small with an extremely rough surface, things had been going well—the feature act always on schedule, and an absence of those irritating delays which so often tried the patience of the audience.

The “daring young man” who was scheduled to make a parachute jump was an old hand at the game who had been

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jumping from old-fashioned smoke balloons about the time that the Wright brothers made their first successful flight. Consequently, he folded his own parachute each day about an hour before we took off. This time I noticed that he was a little unsteady on his feet, but paid no more attention until, a couple of thousand feet up, he climbed out and stood beside me on the step of the cockpit. The odor of his breath was so strong that I thought it must have been alcohol from the compass he had been drinking, but I knew that his first bulletlike drop of several hundred feet would sober him up, so I gave him the signal to jump.

I looked at the usual spot under my tail where he had always appeared when his chute began to fill out, but saw only the grandstand with a sea of upturned faces. I did a steep vertical bank and looked down my wing tips on every side as I circled two or three times, and after what seemed like hours I saw a faint puff above the ground. Sideslipping down to earth, I rushed over to where he had landed, and found him still dazed but with nothing more serious than a few cuts and bruises. It appears he had dropped about 1,800 feet like a plummet before the chute began to open, and it had only become fully inflated in time to check his speed with about half its usual efficiency. I didn’t have to tell him again to “lay off the demon rum” until he was sure his chute had been properly folded. He had flown through the air with the greatest of ease all right, but had struck the ground with considerably less ease than usual.

The next day he hesitated for a second or two after I gave the signal; then, with a deep breath, baled out again. I had always made a practice of dropping him immediately over those high-tension wires, confi-

dent that various air currents would carry him away from them. This day the chute began to open in its accustomed place, and everything looked fine. He commenced to drift in the required direction, but before long another current caught him and he drifted the other way. I began to get panicky, and when I saw that, instead of gathering in the chute upon landing so it would not drag him across the ground, it was still partially inflated and practically at rest, I thought that the worst had happened. I was all prepared for a blinding flash as his feet struck the ground and completed the circuit, but after I landed I saw that he had been smart enough to shorten his rope by making a couple of loops around f is waist. There he hung, his feet dangling a couple of feet above the earth, green with fear but otherwise all right.

Making a Movie Thriller

IT WAS a series of circumstances rather than any one individual event which finally made me decide to give up aviation for a less hazardous career, but I will admit that what influenced me most was my work as stunt pilot for one of the motionpicture companies that was producing a popular serial.

It was most assuredly hazardous work. I realized I was in for a bad time immediately on landing upon the small private golf course in the Adirondack Mountains which had been selected as the best landing field in the vicinity of the location in which the first picture—entitled “Speed” and featuring Charles Hutchison and Lucy Fox—was being produced by the George B. Seitz Co. for Pathé. The fairway was little more than a clearing in the bush, only a few hundred yards long by about a hundred yards wide. At one end there

was a row of bunkers known locally as chocolate drops, large mounds of earth about ten feet in height. That was the only direction in which we could land or take off regardless of the direction of the wind, although an airplane should always land and take off with its nose into the wind in order to obtain maximum lift when leaving the earth, quicker loss of speed w'hen landing, and to prevent being overturned by a cross wind.

Upon meeting the director, I told him that the landing field was entirely unsuitable and that I would go up to look for another field before the wind, which was rising rapidly, became dangerous. He suggested I take the star with me for his first trip into the air.

It was surely an unpleasant experience for him. We barely staggered over the bunkers by lifting one wing. We gained a few feet of height, brushed the tree tops, and for five minutes found so little lift in the air, due to bumps and air currents, that we were forced to follow a narrow ravine for several miles, considerably below the level of the banks on either side. Eventually we got up to about 500 feet, but there was no other suitable field in sight, so we landed again, with the mechanic and a property man clutching each wing tip as we rushed over the ground in an effort to stop us before we ran into the bunkers ahead.

By this time the wind had reached the proportions of a gale, so flying from such a field was impossible for the rest of the day.

A conference of the entire cast was called, and the scenes in which the airplane was to appear were explained by the director. The villain had kidnapped the heroine, and was rushing her west on an express train. The hero chartered an airplane to go in pursuit, and leaped from the wing tips through a window of the observation car, and rescued her from the clutches of the villain. This sequence comprised several scenes. First, Hutchison arriving at the airport in a racing car, shouting instructions to the pilot as he climbs into the machine, and the mechanic whirling the propeller; next the take-off; then several scenes in mid-air as the star climbs out of the cockpit to the wing tips and points to the swiftly moving train below; then the descent, with three cameras on the roof of one of the coaches, catching the plane as soon as it looms into view; then the leap; and finally the ascent of the plane until it is irised out in the distance.

The way these scenes were actually done was very different. As flying was impossible on the first day, we taxied the machine up on to a twenty-foot bank, propped the tail up into flying position, blocked the wheels and opened up the propeller. The mechanic was concealed in the grass underneath the wing tip at the far side to rock the plane in imitation of the bumps encountered in the air. The cameras were set at the foot of the bank pointing upward with the plane in the foreground, the bank out of range and only the sky for the background. As Hutchison climbed out of the cockpit the slip-stream from the propeller caught his hair and clothes to create a perfect illusion of breathtaking speed, and when the rushes were shown it was hard to believe that such a scene had actually been taken on the ground. “This is easy,” I thought.

A special train had been chartered for the leap, so that evening we rode about twenty miles up the track on the pilot board in front of the locomotive to find a suitable location. Here again we ran into difficulties, for the telegraph poles on one side of the track and the mountains on the other side made it impossible to bring the plane close enough to the train to permit the most thrilling episode of the film.

After considerable discussion, the inventive genius of a really brilliant director asserted itself, and plans were made to shoot the scene in an entirely different way. Another special train was chartered, consisting entirely of fiat cars, on one of which two good wings of a crashed plane

were fitted, projecting over the side. The two trains were run on parallel tracks, the one with the airplane wings at slightly greater speed. The cameras were set at such an angle that only the wing tips showed in the picture, with Hutchison jumping a few inches to the window of the passenger coach and pulling himself in.

Two Inches from Death

THE DAY following the filming of this scene, I had my machine all warmed up, with a dummy dressed in Hutchison’s clothes fastened to the wdng tips. I was waiting for three blasts of the whistle from the locomotive of the passenger train, my signal that it was steaming out of the station, with the cameras on the roof of one of its coaches for our appointed rendezvous where the next scenes were to be taken. There was a vicious cross wind blowing, and I don’t mind admitting that I never expected to get off the ground alive. But by now I was becoming an experienced trouper, and the “Show Must Go On.” ! It was an extremely uncomfortable ten minutes which seemed like hours. Then the signal, and we were away, bumping over the ground with those bunkers rushing at us at an alarming rate. One wing tip grazed the top but we got over, then there was a dull thud on the other side. The upper branch of a tree had caught the dummy full in the face and almost ruined his make-up. We staggered on for a second, the machine undecided as to whether it would crash or give us one more chance. Luck prevailed and we were on our way.

We soon caught sight of the train in the distance, circled a few times for position, then swooped down, so low that the cameramen had to duck for an instant. The train was going full out, about fiftyfive miles an hour, and we were doing sixty. Slowly we began to pass it, our wing tips a few feet above the coaches. Then it was time to pull away, but there was no response from the controls. I tried again; still no response. Then it occurred to me that the suction caused by the speed of the train had us in its grip. We couldn’t get away! I looked at the rocky ravine on our left, and pictured myself strewn over the landscape. We had overcome one danger only to run into another.

I thought. Then there came a terrific bump, the plane quivered for a moment, and when I pulled up the nose she responded like a thoroughbred. We gained height slowly, but that bump could only mean one thing. I had crashed my undercarriage on the cross-arm of a telegraph pole, so I had the choice of pancaking into the lake, probably be drowned, or crashing on the earth, probably to be burned.

I chose the latter course in atonement for my sins, but as we touched the earth nothing happened and the landing appeared to be perfect. Upon climbing out we inspected the undercarriage, which was quite intact. Then we walked out to the railroad tracks and inspected the telegraph poles for a mile back. Finally we came to one with two black marks on the crossarm. It was the pole we had struck. Then, back at the plane, we once more looked at the wheels. Sure enough, there were two marks which indicated that we had struck just about an inch below the axle, spinning our wheels and forcing us upward to break the attraction of the train and enable us to regain control. It was a matter of inches when we talk in terms of thousands of feet. Two inches less altitude and we would have struck that telegraph pole below the axle and toppled into our graves among the rocks. Lady Luck was with us again.

We cut the dummy off and delivered it to the property man and prepared for the final scene, which was a simple one of the airplane flying away from the train, minus the dummy, after Hutchison had presumably made his death-defying leap. We crashed the machine on landing at the golf course, due to a bad cross wind, but a crash when landing is not often injurious to the pilot, and all the flying scenes had been completed. The only annoying epi-

sode of the final crash was that when taking the plane on a truck back to Montreal for repairs, the Customs authorities were ready to seize it because we had neglected to report it out of the country on the way down. Provision for customs inspection of airplanes in those days was extremely sketchy, however, and eventually they were made to realize that we couldn’t land in front of the Custom House and line up with the automobiles while an officer searched our effects for contraband.

The various scenes in the picture were finally assembled in the cutting room to show the take-off, the flight in mid-air, the approach of the plane with the dummy, presumably the hero, on the wing tips, the flat-car episode, and the plane leaving the

train after delivering its passenger. It was a masterpiece of illusion, and Houdini and the Great Thurston had nothing on the director of “Speed” for ingenuity and imagination. The star had had a comparatively easy time, with a capable double, one of the property men by the way, to do the dangerous bits; and the leading lady did not appear, although her double was a boy of sixteen.

It was the pilot who took the risks; and as Lady Luck had been with him continuously for several years, he remembered that familiarity breeds contempt and refused to sign a contract for other pictures, until such time as he may be anxious to transfer his affection from her to one of the angels on high.