Hollywood and aviation took off at about the same points in history, helping to put each other on the map. Early American aviators inaugurated the fledgling field in the early 1900s, just as early filmmakers were introducing short motion pictures to the American public. These film directors and producers sought out the magical sport of flying, capturing it with their cameras and screening it for astonished audiences. The Wright brothers’ first flight, the Dominguez 1909 Air Rally, as well as several others, were shot as moving pictures and shown to the public. Soon, stars themselves took to the air, with actress Mabel Normand possibly the first celebrity aloft in the 1914 Keystone short, “A Dash Through the Clouds.” Aviation really took off when it helped win the Great War in 1918.
Air thrills excited audiences, particularly those tricks performed by former war pilots barnstorming the country, so the movie industry quickly turned their cameras to the skies. Early films captured flying stunts by building large stands atop high hills and shooting angles that made it appear stars were aloft in the area. By the early 1920s, studios hired veteran aerialists to devise spectacular air stunts to energize moviegoers, stunts which also goosed the adrenaline of the thrill-seeking pilots. Mostly forgotten today, except by dedicated aviation fans, Richard “Dick” Grace stands out as perhaps Hollywood’s top daredevil sky pilot, intentionally diving and crashing planes for movies, living to tell the tale. Grace’s life and flying career rival any daring adventure concocted by film studios.
Dick Grace, photo courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Born January 10, 1898 in Minnesota, young Richard Virgil “Dick” Grace spent his time gazing at the amazing diving, gliding, and flying skills exhibited by birds around the family farm. He envied their flights soaring through the air, and vowed to follow them into the sky one day. To aid his effort, Grace worked his body staying in shape as a kid, running back and forth from school, swimming, and the like, trying to build some bulk on his small frame. Working odd jobs to raise money, Grace bought a rickety glider, which he flew out of the second story loft of his family’s barn. He crashed, blacking out and ending up in bed, just the beginning of his many injuries.
Lying about his age, Grace enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps during World War I, and eventually ended up overseas, flying missions over France, Italy, and Belgium. Grace survived all types of mechanical problems, emergencies, and accidents to earn the Purple Heart, returning to America in 1919.
Picking up his study of law, the young man soon realized how much he missed the thrills and excitement of speeding through the air. Abandoning the field of law practiced by his father, a judge, Grace left the University of Minnesota one year before completing his Bachelors and joined up with other pilots barnstorming the country performing exhibitions at fairs and other events. Speed and high altitude dives and spins gave him a huge adrenaline rush, making him feel truly alive.
Outstanding stunt pilots like Ormer Locklear showed him the ropes of flying loop to loops and spins, wing walking, making changes between planes, or between airplanes and speeding cars. Grace trained his body as well, building up his chest muscles and biceps to aid in case of emergency. While piloting between shows, he survived some terrible storms, including one that featured howling winds and pounding hail, forcing him down towards the ground and puncturing the linen of his wings and damaging the fuselage. Forced to land in total blackness, Grace hit hard, bounced a few times, and landed unharmed, from what he later learned was a tornado. In his book, “I Am Still Alive!,” Grace reported that all fear in him vanished after surviving this accidental crash, but, “Then and there was born a desire to crash a ship intentionally.”
Dick Grace and Colleen Moore after landing upside down for a scene in “Lilac Time.”
Grace hit the road for California, arriving in Los Angeles with just cents in his pockets. He recognized that studios weren’t interested in his great aerial stunt work at the time, noticing that they sat planes on stands for close-ups or employed “skybacking,” an early form of visual effect, a wall built like a giant screen, with the plane hung in front of it to suggest aerial footage.
Walking onto the Fox Studio lot at Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue, he spotted an old friend, Jasper Blystone, who helped him gain a position as an assistant prop boy. During filming one day, Grace noticed a company in need of a stuntman to fall into a giant net, after their stuntman took a hard fall. Quickly realizing that it was somewhat similar to dives in planes, Grace volunteered, and made what looked like a perfect dive, though he lost his spot and was turning in the air. His devil may care attitude, confidence, and careful risk taking attracted attention from the studios.
Grace began stunting for both male and female stars, jumping off buildings into nets, diving from cliffs into water, skidding automobiles, rolling or driving cars off cliffs, jumping a motorcycle from Long Beach pier into the ocean, or catapulting cars into the ocean. His name grew from performing successful stunts as well as planning for their safety, particularly after jumping into a cage with three lions. Though his body was often battered and bruised, Grace continued on. During one stunt, however, Grace suffered third degree burns to a large part of his body when his clothes were soaked in alcohol and gasoline and lit, before he jumped from a building into a large vat of water, requiring skin grafts.
Grace suffered emotionally too, watching some of his pilot friends die in crashes, particularly Ormer Locklear, whose plane spiraled straight into an oil well during a giant spinning crash drive, killing he and his co-pilot in a giant ball of flames. After a short break, studios began filming flying pictures again, and Grace landed his first plane stunt – crashing a plane nose up in a ditch for $300, with a plane provided by him. As he tells it in “I Am Still Alive!,” Grace ran home to tell roommate Richard Arlen and friend Rudolph Valentino that he finally gained a job flying for films.
In these early stunts, Grace often provided the planes, most with no belts or braces to help protect him or other riders from harm. He performed flying stunts for Tom Mix’s film, “Sky High,” and other films, sometimes flying planes into buildings, diving and spinning as if in trouble, etc. The pilot didn’t focus on hitting marks, but judged his distance and spots from landmarks like buildings and trees. As Grace performed more stunts, he realized the necessity of completing understanding planes and aerodynamics, studying angles, mathematics, engineering, and mechanics in order to strengthen safety concerns for himself and others. He would weaken areas of the plane to be involved in crashes, to ensure easier crackups and hopefully less injuries to himself and others. To provide added protection, he padded and protected cockpits with iron or steel, created rescue crews to immediately pull pilots from wreckage, and ensured that a doctor and nurse were always on standby.
Sunset Productions signed him to star in a series of flying adventure films, with the March 22, 1925 Los Angeles Times reporting that the company signed Grace, “famous stunt aviator to a long-term contract and started production on a series of sensational serial feature thrillers to be released on the independent market.” The first film in the series, “Wide Open,” featured Grace performing a change from one plane to another without a ladder, jumping upside down so that he could grasp the plane with both his hands, which he felt was less risky. Grace would hang under the wings with his legs wrapped around the landing gear before jumping into the lower plane. Grace performed the stunt twice, once in close-up and once for long distance. The cameraman required a second take for this shot, because of high wind, which held up the third take. Hanging upside down for so long caused blood to rush to Grace’s head, and the cutting wind shredded his clothes. He missed dropping into the plane and risked falling one and a half feet in front of the propeller, but luckily caught the carbine wire on top of the wing, which caused him to complete a full forward somersault onto the strut, before the pilot helped drag him into the cockpit.
Around the same time, Grace took up writing, penning an article for Photoplay in August 1925 extolling air stunts, and quickly found another passion. In 1926, he wrote an article for Liberty magazine about flying daredevils and risktakers. He began trading off writing and crashing planes for a living.
Director William Wellman, a former pilot in the Lafayette Escadrille during World War I, hired Grace to coordinate flying and perform crashes for “Wings,” his exciting look at air power during the war. Grace had tried to convince Fox to film aviation war pictures in the early 1920s without success, but the success of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “The Big Parade” pushed Paramount into creating their own war picture. Grace inspected and reworked the 200 Spads and Fokkers, former British and German warplanes, to ensure his pilots’ safety. To enhance the authentic feel of the film, Wellman hired actors Richard Arlen and Buddy Rogers, actual pilots or with flying experience, to actually fly in the air performing some of their own stunts or to film shots of dogfights.
The Los Angeles Times noted on October 10, 1926, that Grace, “one of the best known fliers in Hollywood,” would crash an airplane during an air battle during filming for “Wings” in San Antonio, Texas. The pilot successfully performed his difficult stunts swooping, diving, and crashing for the film, but severely injured himself in what should have been a more simple crash after turning over a plane. Grace exited the plane and posed for photos with director Wellman, before later collapsing. Doctors discovered he had broken his fifth vertebrae and fractured the sixth, encasing his neck in a cast and putting him into the hospital. Doctors informed him that if he ever stunted again, crashed planes, or took a blow to the head, he would die. After six weeks, Grace cut off the cast so that he could go dancing with a sweet young thing.
Grace invested in a Pasadena travel shop, and took it easy, until deciding to enter the 1927 Dole Flight from Hawaii to California, which would earn the pilot of the fastest flight from the islands to the mainland thousands of dollars. Taking his money, he convinced a local manufacturer of an experimental plane to allow him to enter it in the flight. After transporting it to Kauai and conducting tests, Grace made three attempts for the main land, forced to turn back to the island after ferocious winds and conditions killed the engine and almost crashed the gas heavy plane. Losing most of his money, Grace returned to stunt flying. For a short time, however, he gained the attractive young actress Alice White as his fiancée, but the short-lived romance ended in May 1928.
During this time, Grace and seven of his flying friends formed what they called the “Squadron of Death,” with Grace as leader and the other members called “Buzzards.” Each followed after him and completed whatever stunt he attempted. These men would form the skeleton crew for “Lilac Time,” several playing aviators in the film as well.
Crash master Grace joined the production of “Lilac Time” as technical flight commander and actor, playing the role of an aviator in the film. For a New York Times July 1, 1928 article entitled, “Metier of Plane Crashing,” “Lilac Time” director George Fitzmaurice described three air crashes, “All of them were made by a young man who specializes in that sort of thing – a member, one gathers, of a particularly unusual club of queer trades.” The article reported that Grace would fly any time and anywhere, guaranteeing to “crash-up’ anywhere at all, and does so without injury to himself.”
The article described how Grace and crew built extra padding around the cockpit, reinforcing the edges with iron and steel before tying old mattresses and canvas over that. After Grace crashed, if the recovery team saw smoke and Fitzmaurice blew the whistle, the team would run and pull the pilot from the plane, otherwise, they would wait 15 seconds before pulling Grace from the wreckage. After one crash, a wheel hit a rut and forced the plane on its nose, and the speed before crashing shoved the motor back to about three inches from Grace’s chest. Newspapers reported that this spectacular nose-dive for “Lilac Time” was filmed near El Toro, spinning the motor into the ground and back into the plane, destroying the engine and breaking one wing.
The Times called “Lilac Time” “One of the most spectacular air pictures ever filmed”…thanks to breath-taking thrills and crashes by ace Dick Grace” in its November 24, 1928 review.
During the next year, Grace mostly spent his time writing, with a little easy flying on the side. He flew in local air shows such as at Glendale, demonstrating cargo planes and small passenger airplanes. That summer, the Los Angeles Times reported on August 18, 1929, that he and Phillip Red Mohun were planning to crash two planes together in the air, striking ten feet in wing to wing in a mid-air, head-on collision at 250 miles per hour, which they hoped to film. Each would earn $5,000 if they survived. They applied to the United States Department of Commerce for a permit, as the government now banned stunting except in very few instances, but were refused.
At the end of the year, his book, “Squadron of Death” hit bookstores, describing his many close calls, mid-air problems, and spectacular crashes. The book seemed one, long continuous adventure, from his early feeble attempts at flying, through his courageous war service, and then his often foolhardy film escapades. Grace explained that he performed air stunts to demonstrate how they could be pulled off successfully and safely by trained and prepared pilots. Crashes were merely problems to solve; decision, judgment, and physical conditioning were important to his work, but the most important ingredient was the mind. Inside, the tome listed the code of the Squadron: 1) live right, 2) go where the leader commands, 3) die in the cockpit, and 4), no vacancy in the ranks ever to be filled. The book contained a diagram of the “Squadron of Death,” showing the Buzzards and their mortality rates; by 1929, four of the seven members were dead.
Saturday Evening Post serialized the book, which the New York Times saying that the book’s true merit “…lies in its gripping terror of adventure.”
Many reviewers praised the book, but described the prose as possessing the slickness of the ghostwriter. Grace and his publisher both issued statements that the pilot wrote every word of the book.
NBC signed king of crashes Grace to a radio contract, and he spoke several times on the radio regarding his experiences and preparing for accidents or disaster. In December, he spoke on WJZ under the by-line, “Crashing For Your Pleasure,” claiming he had broken more than 200 bones in his body over the past nine years.
Later that year, Grace once again joined director William Wellman for the filming of “Young Eagles,” starring Buddy Rogers and Paul Lukas, private pilots. Grace once again planned aerial stunts and performed crashes himself, including flying a biplane into the edge of Lake Sherwood on one wing, bouncing end over end, and landed upside down in the lake. Afterwards, he told the Times for a January 1, 1930 story, “Crashing and writing are my lines and I like both too much to cut either. And it isn’t so dangerous after all – that is, if you know what to do and the time to do it.”
Grace demonstrated the physical strength of his body in a June 1930 automobile stunt for General Tire and Rubber Company, driving an eight-cylinder car with its “blow-out proof tires,” into a “ten ton brick and concrete wall, at a speed of 37 miles an hour,” per stories in the newspaper. Film captured the crazy stunt with the metal protected driver’s compartment, showing the tires flattening but otherwise undamaged, with Grace thrown clear of the car and suffering only minor injuries.
Dick Grace after yet another crackup.
In 1931, Grace penned, “I Am Still Alive!” for Rand McNally, giving further detail of his crashes and pondering how he survived, while so many of his contemporaries died in tragic accidents. He moaned the fact of their untimely deaths, wishing to join them in the great beyond. Every death ate at his soul; he learned to keep a slight distance from himself and others in case of disaster. His body revealed his emotional torture; etched lines in his face, a somewhat stooped walk for his thin but muscled frame.
Grace kept writing flying stories, with a serial semi-autobiographical tale of pilots risking their lives creating stunts for films landing him a script deal to adapt it into the film “The Lost Squadron” for RKO. He earned $20,000 for his spectacular flying and crashing in the film, featuring a story of a megalomaniac film director (played by Erich von Stroheim) sending stunt pilots to their deaths while filming a movie. Grace performed many of the dazzling stunts, including six amazing crashes. The Los Angeles Times called it “a savory dish,” and Variety stated it was a “Thrilling air film” featuring an adrenaline rush of air stunts, screaming dives and plunges, an action packed suspense thriller.
Stunt king Grace survived over forty film crashes by the early 1930s, but gradually saw most of his wonderful work replaced by trick photography with models, the Dunning process, and other special effects.
Over the next several years, Grace wrote several more articles which studios acquired for films, such as “Arctic Wings,” “Devil’s Squadron,” “Atlantic Flight,” and “Mirage,” produced by Columbia, Monogram, and RKO.
Grace enlisted in World War II, even though he was over 40 years old. He served as a crash landing instructor at Mather Field in 1942, before being named a captain in the Army Air Corps in 1943 and sent to Europe, joining the 486th Bomb Group (H) Third Division and eventually becoming Assistant Group Operations Officer. Flying 44 bombing missions over Germany and Europe in B-17s and B-24s, Grace earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal, with the July 19, 1945 Los Angeles Times calling him the oldest combat flyer. Grace put his deep experience to work showing younger pilots the ropes in how to evade the enemy, survive mechanical problems, and outrun and outwit the weather. He remained invincible, while younger, more risk taking pilots suffered death.
After the war, Grace returned to his wife, Chrystine Frances Malstrom, his former secretary, and his 21 acres at 13449 Ventura Blvd., surrounded by orange and walnut groves, appearing at Armistice events and aviation meetings. He penned the book, “Visibility Unlimited,” with the New York Times noting in its March 5, 1950 review, “In a sense, Mr. Grace’s story is that of aviation and a readable reminder of the great courage and imagination that converted a daredevil hobby into a major industry.”
After flying more than 45 combat missions and over 40 death-defying stunts, Grace lived to the ripe old age of 67, dying of emphysema on June 25, 1965. Growing up with the fledgling field of aviation, Grace and his fellow daredevil brothers gave it grace and spectacular thrills, serving as early role models for such brave test pilots as Chuck Yeager and John Glenn. Grace truly possessed the right stuff in developing and staging aerial stunts for filming, the likes of which will never be seen again.