Above & Beyond: Mantz Versus the Volcano

Filming for Cinerama with a fearless flyer

Paul Mantz, circa 1928, fresh out of the Army Air Corps and headed for Hollywood. (Airport Journals)
Air & Space Magazine

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By the light of our taxi’s headlights, I joined the crew doing the preflight inspection. I was good at this, having been a Consolidated B-24 mechanic in World War II. We pulled the props through by hand while copilot Frank Schwella checked the fuel tanks with a dipstick. Mantz grumbled about hunger as he plugged wads of cotton in each ear. I dodged his wrath and climbed aboard, hiding behind the bomb bay. I took up station beside the rear gun port and pulled on headphones.

“Contact!” Mantz yelled out the cockpit window. The right-engine starter whined; the engine coughed, again, and caught. The old bomber shuddered. Here we were, six hungover men, with four hours of sleep and no breakfast. We eased forward as Mantz released the brakes and rumbled toward the end of the runway as the first rays of sun splayed over the rooftops of the capital of Burundi, a Belgian protectorate.

Mantz set a course to the north. If he found the fiery mountain and came back with stunning pictures, he would add to his fame. If the mountain could not be found, he could still charge for five hours of flying (see “Hollywood’s Favorite Pilot,” Oct./Nov. 2007). I watched the bomber’s shadow ripple over clustered huts of African villages, over rivers and sandy waste.

“Rescher, you got that camera ready?” Mantz asked. “I don’t want to waste time up there.”

“You fly the goddamn plane, Paul, and I’ll shoot the pictures,” shouted Cinerama cameraman Gayne Rescher.

The droning engines set me to pondering the evolution of the stunt pilot and the airplane. They were both born in 1903, the airplane in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and Mantz in Redwood City, California. The airplane was designed to defy gravity; Mantz would flout the same law. I recalled an earlier time in Greece, Mantz up before dawn with Athens fast asleep, his bomber skimming just above rooftops to capture the golden glow of the Parthenon at sunrise. Or skirting New York’s East River, diving under four bridges before heading out to sea and out of sight of the New York City police.

And the other Mantz, the one that padded quietly into the screening room the first time I saw him? Watching his work on the giant screen, he purred with satisfaction. Or the dinner party on the night before we took off on an around-the-world jaunt to film Seven Wonders. Somehow the names “Amelia Earhart” and “Mantz” came up. “Did you know her?” I asked. “I did,” he said, somewhat condescendingly. “I’ll explain some other time.” As a waiter slipped a menu into his hands, Mantz reached into his breast pocket and brought forth pince-nez attached to a black silk ribbon around his neck. He pinched the tiny levers on the glasses and leaned into the pincers, then straightened his big, square head. After scanning the menu, and without flourish, he removed the glasses and tucked them away. My father, born in the 19th century, had set aside his pince-nez when he saw Franklin Delano Roosevelt wearing same. And now the hotshot Hollywood stunt pilot was affecting the style of Woodrow Wilson at Versailles.

Years later, when I read his biography, I learned that Earhart and her husband, George Palmer Putnam, had spent a month as houseguests of Mantz and his first wife while Mantz served as technical advisor on Earhart’s upcoming around-the-world flight.

A bit later, Rescher cut in: “I think I see it.”

“Yeah, off to the right,” Mantz replied. “That might be it. Another five minutes. Get ready to roll.”

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