Flight of the Phoenix
Paul Mantz (1903 – 1965) was a famous and highly respected air racing pilot, aerial stuntman, movie stunt pilot, and film consultant. He caught the flying bug in early childhood, and growing up, his mother had to prevent him from launching himself off a tall tree with canvas wings. He saved money from working part time jobs to pay for his first flying lesson at age 16. In 1926, despite lacking the requisite college education, he finagled his way into the US Army’s flight school with forged documents purporting to be from Stanford University. However, he was kicked out a few days before graduation when he pulled a dangerous stunt that was witnessed by high ranking officers.
He worked in commercial aviation for a while, but left that to head for Hollywood upon hearing that stunt pilots were making money hand over fist there. A natural showman, he managed to attract attention in a crowded field and soon made a name for himself after successfully pulling off a dangerous flying stunt for the 1932 movie Air Mail.
On July 8th, 1965, Mantz and fellow veteran stuntman Bobby Rose, were on the film set of The Flight of the Phoenix, doubling for the movie’s stars, Jimmy Stewart and James Attenborough. The stuntmen were flying the Tallmantz Phoeniz P-1, a one-off makeshift aircraft made of aluminum and plywood, specially manufactured for the movie by Mantz’s company, Tallmantz Aviation.
Mantz was piloting the airplane, as cameras rolled to capture film for the movie’s early aerial sequences. The script called for takeoffs, which Mantz attempted to simulate with “touch and go” passes before the cameras. However, on the third low camera pass, Mantz’s rate of descent of 90 miles per hour exceeded the aircraft’s structural capacity. Upon touching down, the modest impact combined with an unexpected drag to produce disaster.
When the plane’s landing gear touched the desert floor, the boom section behind the wings failed and snapped off. That caused the nose section to pitch forward and slam into the desert floor, and the airplane broke apart as it cartwheeled into destruction. Paul Mantz was instantly killed by the crash, while the more fortunate Bobby Rose was thrown out of the cockpit and clear of the wreckage. He suffered a broken shoulder and pelvis, but survived.
The subsequent investigation uncovered a variety of factors, which combined to produce the tragedy, but pilot error was the main culprit. Particularly Mantz’s overestimation of his plane’s structural capacity, and his miscalculation of the consequences of his speed during this final touchdown pass. Investigators also assumed that Mantz might have been under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident. However, there were delays in getting a blood sample to the lab and in testing it for alcohol, which might have skewed the results. Thus, whether Paul Mantz had been flying drunk at the time of the crash was never proven conclusively, and has remained a matter of speculation ever since.