Simanaitis Says

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BY THE 1920S, FILMMAKERS recognized Southern California as an excellent place for filming outdoors year around. Movie goers had fallen in love with aviation flicks. And the First World War had left a surplus of inexpensive aeroplanes (e.g., a crated Curtiss Jenny biplane for $50).

Image from The Curtiss Standard JN4-D Military Tractor Hand Book, Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co., 1918.

Is it any wonder that Hollywood had stunt flyers galore eager to prove their mettle? 

Here are tidbits gleaned from two sources, Los Angeles Aeronautics, American Hall of Aviation History Northrop University, 1973; and Aeroplane (or Flying Machine) Scrap Book 1911-1929, Northrop Institute of Technology, 1971. Plus, of course, my usual Internet sleuthing.

The Daugherty Stunt Men. Earl S. Daugherty, 1887–1928, had caught the flying bug by attending the 1910 Dominguez Hills Air Meet, first such event in the country. He became the first Long Beach resident and only 87th in the nation to be issued a license to fly. In time, Earl established Daugherty Field, now known as Long Beach Municipal Airport. He also became known as America’s Greatest Stunt Pilot.

Typical antics of the Daugherty Stunt Men. This and the following images from Los Angeles Aeronautics

On September 5, 1920, for the first time in aviation history, he and his Stunt Men set two wing walkers at the same time on the same plane. 

Night Entertainment. The Willsons Los Angeles Fireworks Company was established in 1887, and by 1922 it was promoting “a specialty of FIREWORKS for AEROPLANE exhibitions.” 

This and the following image from the Aeroplane Scrap Book.

Note the company cited “Earl Daugherty and other well known fliers” using its products. 

The Gates Flying Circus. Ivan Rhule “Van” Gates, 1890–1932, is credited with being the first police officer transporting a prisoner by air; this, when Gates was a member of the San Francisco Police Department. In 1911, known as “the Daddy of them all,” he co-founded the Gates Flying Circus.

After a five-year national tour, the Circus set up a New York City branch as contractors to the U.S. Army Air Service. The Aeroplane Scrap Book noted “The Gates Flying Circus was the largest and best known of all the exhibition groups. Many pilots of later fame flew with the Gates Circus.” 

Thirteen Black Cats. Challenging triskaidekaphobia as well as black felines, a group of pilots formed Thirteen Black Cats in 1925 specifically for exhibitions and stunt work in motion pictures. Los Angeles Aeronautics noted, “One requirement for membership was that the member’s name must contain 13 letters.” If a given name didn’t work, a newly invented nickname would suffice: for example, “Fronty” Nichols, “Spider” Matlock, and the organization’s president “Bon” MacDougall.

From left to right, rear row: Albert Johnson, Bon MacDougall, Art Goebel, Fronty Nichols, and Paul Richter. Front row from left, Herd McClellan, Sam Greenwall, and Spider Matlock. This and the following image from Los Angeles Aeronautics.

Note that nicknames for Goebel, Richter, and possibly a Greenwald are not given. Indeed, Sedona Legend Helen Frye suggests that many active members did not appear to follow trikaidekaphilia. (My word, not hers.)

Unlike their competitors, the Thirteen Black Cats provided filmmakers with a list of stunts and prices, including “all equipment necessary for the stunt with the exception of the trains.” 

Los Angeles Aeronautics noted that despite this business model, “By 1929 there were so many other stunt men plying their trade the ‘Black Cats’ were disbanded because of competition.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 


  1. Bob Storck
    July 9, 2022

    Many of those cheap surplus Curtiss Jenny trainers or Spad and SE5 scouts were purchased by auto racers, just for their engines. The Curtiss OX-5 and Hispano Suiza V8s were high tech, powerful and light for 20s race cars.

    These stunt pilots were noted for taking ridiculous chances. The night time fireworks displays were guaranteed crowd pleasers, but with often added fiery displays. Aircraft fabric at the time was often sealed with nitrate lacquer, which used the same chemistry as nitro cellulose … nitroglycerin! Errant sparks could ignite the fabric covering, and the conflagration was so rapid that the pilot would find himself surrounded by bare sticks and tubing.

  2. Piper
    November 4, 2022

    Paul Richter Jr – 13 letters. I know he followed the rule because in photos he has it on his sweater, on the back where they all had them. The other two, I have no idea. Great read, thanks!

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