The original dare devil, stunt pilot, aerobatic instructor, and mentor to many was Paul Mantz. His life was full of adventure and his contribution to the world of aviation should never be forgotten.
Stunt pilot and air racer Paul Mantz flew in more than 250 movies and once owned the world’s seventh largest air force.
Paul Mantz did it all: air shows, movie flying, air racing, competition flying, skywriting, air charters, and flight instruction. He was the commander of the first motion picture unit during World War II, and technical advisor to Amelia Earhart. In a career that spanned four decades from the 1920s to the 1960s, Mantz was the only person to win the Bendix trophy three times. He placed in international aerobatic competitions, received several military honors, and set inter-city speed records. In 1992, he was inducted into the Motor Sports Hall of Fame.
As a young boy, he fabricated wings out of canvas and tried to fly out of a tree in his yard, until his mother stopped him. In 1915, when he was 12, he attended the Panama Pacific exposition in San Francisco. It was on that day that he witnessed the world famous Lincoln Beachey make his first ever flight in his new monoplane, the Lincoln Beachey Special. It was also his last flight in the plane. Paul witnessed as Lincoln’s plane disintegrated as he performed his finale, the Dive of Death. He took his first flying lesson at age 16 using money that he made from driving a hearse during the influenza epidemic of 1919. Paul had largely forgotten about flying since he had to work full time once his father passed away. On Sept 24, 1924 he was driving with a friend to Crissy Field in San Francisco to join thousands in giving a hero’s welcome to the army’s round-the-world flyers who were nearing the end of their flight in their 3 Douglas World Cruisers.
One of the planes appeared overhead with the engine dead. It made a dead-stick landing in a field and Paul jumped into action to provide a good battery so that the pilot could join the other two for the welcome. Paul was invited to join them at Crissy Field. There he was introduced to the top aviators of the day and he was asked if he had ever thought of becoming a military pilot. Upon learning that he needed at least 2 years of college, Paul produced a forged transcript from Stanford so that he could join the service as a pilot. He neglected to tell his instructors that he had taken a few lessons. He was the top student in his class by far. The day before graduation he was flying solo and decided to buzz a passenger train head-on as it pulled into a train station. He barely missed the train and did a victory roll past the station.
Unfortunately some high ranking brass were on the train and had him thrown out of the service. Mantz desperately wanted to become a pilot in Hollywood and knew that the only way that he could do it would be to do something to make a name for himself. He decided that he would set a new record for consecutive outside loops. But first he had to design and build a special carburetor. Once perfected he climbed to 3000 on July 6, 1930 in his fleet biplane over San Mateo. He had NAA observers on hand and he was flying under NAA license #5011, signed by Orville Wright. He lost count and was on what he thought was his 23rd outside loop and was just about to stop when he noticed that an airplane was flying close to him with a sign that said 36 on it. He assumed that meant that someone had just done that many loops elsewhere and he had to beat it. He kept going. By the time he finished, he was dizzy and sick, but he had a new record – 46 consecutive outside loops. He had his headlines and now he hoped to get his foot in the door in Hollywood.
The Motion Picture Pilots Association was a very closed shop and they had a monopoly on movie flying. Paul wanted to go there and change all that; he wanted to give the studios what they wanted at a fair price. He wanted to form his own Hollywood Air Force. But first he needed money. He was hopping rides at an air show in Fresno to make some extra money. His fourth passenger was a 275 pound man who barely fit in the plane. During the ride a snap roll went terribly wrong due to the altered center of gravity. The plane entered a deadly flat spin. Up until then, no person had ever recovered from a flat spin and lived to tell about it.
Paul tried everything and finally got it out of the spin. Shortly after that, he was back at March Field teaching his spin recovery to his old instructors in the army air corps. It was a sweet return for him. Paul befriended Pancho Barnes and Roscoe Turner in his quest to become a movie pilot. Nobody would hire him without his MPPA card. Finally he heard of a stunt that nobody else would attempt. It involved flying through a canyon with a man on his top wing. He nearly crashed through a tree, and barely made it. Once back on the ground, he was officially a movie pilot. His next big assignment involved flying his Stearman through the hangar at Bishop Airport during very turbulent conditions with only a few feet to spare on either wingtip.
Once he completed that flight, he was known to be a pilot who could pull off the jobs that no other pilot would try. He was on his way. Paul was incredibly successful as a movie pilot, taking most of the top work away from the top dog of the time, Frank Clarke. Eventually Clarke went to work for Paul. In all, Paul was involved in the making of hundreds of films and acquired a massive fleet of aircraft. When not doing film work, Paul flew some of the most famous celebrities in Hollywood in his Lockheed Vega called the Honeymoon Express. He did a lot of late night runs to Reno and Vegas for eloping celebrities as well as more mundane charter flights.
In 1933 Paul attended the National Air Races when they were brought to Los Angeles by Cliff Henderson. 48,000 spectators were on hand to witness the races, sky divers and aerobatics. Paul was aware that many considered the Hollywood pilots to be not up to par with the men flying in the event that day. Paul had a secret that nobody knew about. At 4 pm, Paul showed them differently. That’s when the Hollywood Trio took to the sky. Howard Batt, Franke Clarke and Paul put on a show of formation aerobatics like had never been seen before. They were trailing red, white and blue smoke from their three different brands of aircraft; a Stearman, a Travel Air and Paul’s Boeing P-12.
After the graceful aerobatics, they performed a series of interlocking smoke rings and then the finale involved Clarke and Mantz making a head-to-head pass and narrowly missing each other. At the last second, they then pulled into half loops and did the same thing at the top! The crowd went crazy. The Hollywood Trio was immediately signed to perform at the rest of the races that year by Cliff Henderson. For a brief while Paul was also the west coast representative for the Skywriting Corporation of America. Not only did he sell the patented chemical used to make smoke, but he also did some sky writing. Paul did large amount of benevolent flying that most people were never aware of. He took particular pleasure in flying doctors to critically ill patients or vice versa.
One mission involved him flying a deep sea diver who was stricken with the bends a distance of over 220 miles. He flew the entire flight at wave top height so as to not make the diver’s condition worse. When he landed, his plane was soaked. In 1935 Paul and Amelia Earhart raced her red Lockheed Vega in the National Air Races from Burbank to Cleveland. Before departure he correctly predicted the finishing order of all of the contestants in the race. They finished in 5th place. In November 1936, he started the world’s first advanced acrobatic flying course and hired Tex Rankin to run it. Rankin is the man who shattered Paul’s record of consecutive outside loops, he did 131 of them in 131 minutes.
When not teaching, Rankin was practicing almost daily for the international aerobatic competition being held in St. Louis the following spring. Paul was amazed at his skill. Paul was trying to win a contract with 20th century-fox studios to make a picture about the contest. In order to get the contact, Paul had to enter the competition. He really didn’t care if he even placed. He asked Rankin to teach him his hardest maneuver. Paul had it figured out on the second attempt. When it was time for the contest, Rankin finished 1st, beating the former champion by 13 points. When it was Paul’s turn, he did a loop, slow roll, a bunt, an outside loop, and a Cuban 8. Then he pulled out the maneuver that Rankin had shown him.
Halfway through the maneuver, the crowd cried out that his plane was on fire. He calmly finished the maneuver, unaware of the danger. Once finished, he dove at the ground to put out the flames and landed as a hero. Because of the crowds roaring, Paul ended up with third place. Little did the judges know that the smoke was created by a smokepot used in movie-making. Paul later told Tex Rankin, and I only practiced half an hour!
Paul is largely known as Amelia Earhart’s technical advisor. He trained her in all aspects of her flight and over saw the design and construction of her Lockheed Electra. He was with her on the first leg of her first failed attempt. After crashing the plane on take-off, Paul had it returned to California for reconstruction. He was never totally at ease with her skill or the motives of her promoter-husband. She departed on her ill-fated flight against his wishes. He felt quite certain that he knew what happened to her, even though many theories to the contrary evolved. In WWII Paul was commissioned as a major and eventually commanded the first motion picture unit for the army.
Under his direction were some of the top stars in Hollywood, including Clarke Gable and Ronald Reagan. During his time there Paul was involved in the production of hundreds of films used for morale and training that were credited by many as helping save the lives of thousands of soldiers and airmen. He even flew several missions over Europe in B-17’s, winning a bronze battle star for his European theatre of operation ribbon. After the war Paul made the deal of a lifetime. In 1946 he paid the Reconstruction Finance Corporation $55,000.00 for what amounted to a whole airport full of airplanes.
The airport at Stillwater, OK was home to a swarm of airplanes that the government had paid over $117 million for. Paul estimated that the fuel contained in the planes alone was worth more than he paid for the lot. He was instantly the owner of: 75 B-17’S, 228 B-24’S, 10 B-25’S, 22 B-26’S, 8 P-51’S, 6 P-39’S, 90 P-40’S, 31 P-47’S, and 30 other planes. Paul was now the owner of the 7th largest air force in the world. The only problem was that he had to get them off the field by a certain deadline. This turned out to be impossible. He settled on a dozen of the best planes and sold the rest for scrap. Paul turned to cross country air racing. He developed a method of carrying fuel internally in the wings of his mustangs, they were called wet wings.
This allowed him to carry enough fuel for the long flights from LA to Cleveland without having to worry about losing time for a fuel stop or the drag created by external drop tanks. He ended up winning the famous Bendix race 3 consecutive times, a feat never duplicated. On the night before his fourth attempt, he stepped aside and decided to let one of his other pilots fly his plane. He had accomplished what he had set out to. In addition to the Bendix trophy, Paul set many inter-city speed records as well. One of Paul’s favorite aircraft was his modified B-25 (obtained in the government sale) that was used for movie work. He called this aircraft The Smasher.
Towards the end of his career he did a tremendous amount of flying and directing from this aircraft. Television began to put a huge dent into his movie work. Once the cimerama style of camera was developed, Paul was back in business full time. He spent many months with Lowell Thomas flying the Smasher across almost every part of the globe filming some of the most fascinating, picturesque scenery ever seen. The most famous of these productions were called America the Beautiful and The Seven Wonders of the World. Many may recall seeing them played in the huge domed theatres at Disneyland and at many fairs.
In 1961 Paul joined forces with another of the big names in Hollywood aviation, Frank Tallman. They combined their fleets of planes, their hangars and created TallMantz Aviation, Inc. They created something that Paul had always dreamed of, the movieland of the air flying museum at the Orange County airport. What made it so impressive is that all of the aircraft in the museum were airworthy and were flown regularly. Paul was unquestionably one of the most successful people in Hollywood. He had pretty much done it all. Now in his 60’s, he had signed up to work on yet another film. This one starred Jimmy Stewart. It was about a large cargo plane that crashes in the Sahara desert.
The survivors then build another airplane out of the remaining parts and use it to fly back to civilization. They were filming in the Buttercup Valley in southern Arizona. The temperatures were in the 140’s. Frank Tallman was supposed to fly that day, but had suffered a leg injury while playing with his son. Paul took off from the airport in Blythe at about 7pm on July 8th, 1965. There was no way to actually take the Phoenix off from the desert, so the shot involved doing a touch and go to simulate a lift off. They had gotten the shot the night before, but the director wanted just one more for insurance. As Paul brought the plane in low, one of the skis caught a small dune and caused the plane to flip. The stuntman who was onboard was able to jump to safety, but Paul was crushed instantly.
Enjoy the weekend, keep friends and family close, and be safe.
January 15, 2021