Tuesday, February 5, 2013

In Memory of Leo Nomis

Live hard, fly fast, die young. That was the fate a many of the early pilots of the Golden Age of aviation, when the industry attracted individuals that were drawn to the glamor that accompanied danger like moths to a flame. Ernest Simon was one of those. He was limber, had no fear and enjoyed taking risks...the one thing he didn't like was for newspapers, while reporting on his stunts, to nickname him "Simple" Simon. He reversed the spelling of the last name, and added Leo as his first, becoming Leo Ernest Nomis.

After making a name for himself as a daredevil on the county fair circuit parachuting from tethered balloons and the like, he served for a short time as an instructor teaching Army pilots to fly at the beginning of WWI, and then moved to Hollywood in 1914 in order to get into film stunts.Of course, the most glamorous stunts - and some of the best paying - were those performed with aircraft. He was a natural pilot, and flew in numerous films, including Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916), Manslaughter (1922), Hell's Angels (1930), The Dawn Patrol (1930), and The Lost Squadron (1932).

I initially bought these three photos for the Jenny Project, before realizing who they depicted or where they were taken. Having recently read Barbara Schultz's Flying Carpet, Flying Wings (a bio of Northrop test pilot Moye Stephens, which I'll be writing about in a couple of weeks), I recognized Nomis from photos included in the book. The other thing that caught my eye were the faint oil derricks that can be seen in the background of the three photos, indicating that this is probably De Mille Airfield (later known as Rogers Airfield; compare with the photos on this Hollywood history website and this architecture blog) in Los Angeles. With the various WWI planes line up in the background of the second image, I'm suspecting that these three 8x10 photos are movie stills.

Always looking for a thrill, Nomis also tried air racing, tying for second place with Paul Richter at the 1927 Santa Ana Air Jubilee Carnival. He also taught others to fly. Among his students were Pancho Barnes and Moye Stephens. When  Pancho Barnes sought to form a stunt pilots' union, Associated Motion Picture Pilots, in order to promote better pay and safety, Nomis (along with Barnes, Dick Grace, Frank Clarke and Al Wilson) became a charter member, and was elected to its presidency.

However, only a month after assuming the position, Nomis was killed in a crash 81 years ago today while filming Sky Bride. The United Press article, published on February 5, 1932 (and revived by the Hollywood Heyday blog), stated, "Hollywood, Cal – Feb 5 (UP) Leo Nomis, one of Hollywood’s most prominent stunt fliers, was killed today during the filming of scenes in a picture called Sky Brides [sic]. The fatal crash took place while the movie company was working at the Metropolitan airport.Nomis and two other movie pilots were engaging in a 'dog fight' on a battle sequence at about 1500 feet. Nomis’ plane was supposed to 'shudder' [other sources indicate he was performing a spin] as part of the picture. It never came out of the shudder but plunged straight to the earth.The other members of the 'dog fight' told studio officials that they believed Nomis fainted at the stick."

Leo Nomis is interred at Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

The Davis-Monthan Register web site includes a page on Nomis.

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