Sunday, November 7, 2010

Early Air Show in Santa Monica

Ahh, weekends in LA...If it were 1926, we could go to the air show today and touch Admiral Byrd's North Pole Fokker plane. Man, is that a loaded suggestion. The plane had actually flown over the North Pole a few months before.

At Clover Field in Santa Monica, ten or twenty thousand people watched from their cars as stunt pilots performed death-defying acts. Truly...stunt pilots died in alarming numbers back then.

Clover Field became Douglas Air Field, and you can read about its history here, at Aerofiles.com.  That's also where I found this great picture.

At that airshow on November 7, 1926, Bobby Chase, a female parachutist, got caught in the plane's gear when she jumped. Chase dangled in the air for 20 minutes before Fred Osborne and Al Johnson, in another plane, flew to her rescue. According to the Los Angeles Times, Osborne actually wing-walked to Chase's plane,  several hundred feet up in the air, so he could cut the safety line that kept her dangling. She deployed her parachute, landed on a street near Venice beach and sprained her ankle on a curb.

The parachutists were vying for a prize that went to the jumper who landed closest to a mark on the ground. A 17-year-old girl named Jackie Dare won...wonder if that was her real name?

Pilot Paul Richter set an altitude record at the air show, climbing to 18,000 feet. He went on to found TWA.

Richter, Fred Osborne and Al Johnson, btw, were members of the "Thirteen Black Cats," the first group of Hollywood stunt pilots. They were also called the Suicide Club.

Al Johnson wing-walked and changed planes that day--as a scheduled performance, quite separate from the rescue of Ms. Chase. This was a daring, popular stunt, hopping from one plane's wing to another. The two planes actually crashed slightly in midair, tearing fabric from one wing.

In another parachuting stunt, Johnson jumped from a plane later, and his parachute failed to open until it was too late to avoid being hurt. The newspaper account said he suffered no serious injury, but I recall reading elsewhere that he was injured (either his back or his neck was broken) but he didn't want to lose work because of it and kept it quiet.

According to this site on early stunt pilots, Johnson is in the center of this photo, kneeling next to the numeral one in "13." Hope they don't mind that I borrowed their photo of the 13 Black Cats, but it does seem to be "borrowed" by every other site from somewhere....

Johnson's one screen credit is Hells Angels, and apparently he crashed in Glendale while filming--got tangled up in power lines. That and other early valley aviation is described in the The Valley Observer blog. The book It Happened in Hollywood: Remarkable Events That Shaped History (It Happened In Series) says that Johnson died in that crash when the plane exploded. I'm not sure of that...would love to know if it's true or what happened to Al Johnson.

Anyone care to enlighten me?

1 comment:

Matthew Voorhees said...

Jackie Dare actually married Joel Fred Osborne in 1928 - her real name was Emma Rice. They later divorced.