Thursday, April 16, 2015

Grace's Mystery Ryan

Here’s one that has stumped me. This is a 1920s press photo (the back has a file date of July 14, 1927), and the caption pasted to the back (a common practice for press photos) consists of two words: “Grace’s plane.”

So who was “Grace?” During that era, it would not have been proper to use a woman’s first name in this manner, so presumably it is a last name. There is no one by that name in the Who’s Who in Aviation History, there is no one by that name listed in the Early Birds of Aviation. However, in the list of early movie stunt pilots, one name stands out at the top: Dick Grace.

Grace had been a combat pilot during WWI, and following the war, hit the barnstorming circuit. From there he found his way into the movies, and carved out a niche for himself as the go-to person for airplane crashes. Grace approach crashes with more science than bravado, learning to understand how a plane comes apart in a crash, and thus how to add safety features so that a crash can look devastating on-camera and yet be survivable for the stunt pilot. He invented his own safety equipment, including a chest harness that was designed to break away at a certain point in order to absorb some of the energy.

Through his career, he managed to crash upwards of 50 planes, although he didn’t always walk away. During the filming of the 1927 Gary Cooper film Wings, Graces safety equipment failed him, and his head smashed into the instrument panel. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, he had broken his neck and crushed four vertebrae. The doctors told him to expect to stay in a neck brace in the hospital for a year, but he checked himself out six weeks later, and returned to crashing planes. In all, Grace claimed to have broken over 80 bones during his career.

Grace was an active member of the Associated Motion Picture Pilots guild, and was involved in the 1932 film Sky Bride in which stunt pilot and AMPP president Leo Nomis was killed. During WWII, he re-enlisted and flew combat missions as a B-17 co-pilot (one has to wonder what the rest of the crew thought about flying with a guy who’d deliberately crashed so many planes!).

Not satisfied with merely being a stunt pilot, Grace also tried his hand at acting, with his first lead role in The Flying Fool (1925; not to be confused with 1929 flick of the same name). In the July 1930 issue of Modern Mechanix, Grace wrote an extensive article, which can be read online, on how he accomplished the movie crashes (it’s well-worth the read!). He also wrote a number of books on his exploits, including Squadron of Death and Crash Pilot. Unlike most movie stunt pilots of his era, Grace didn’t die in a plane crash, but rather of emphysema at the age of 67 (possibly suggesting that smoking is more dangerous than being on board a crashing airplane!).

So what’s the plane? It’s hard to identify it because there’s no registration number: such numbers weren’t required until after 1927. But by configuration, it appears to be a Ryan M-1 mailplane with some unusual modifications. In comparing this photo to the M-1, there are many striking similarities, including the engine cowling (and lack of top cowling), engine bracing, landing gear, wing struts, horizontal stab braces, and tail shape. But there are two unusual aspects to this plane. The first is that the wings and the horizontal stab fabric skin appear to be translucent.

The second is the cockpit: the standard M-1 had an open, two-person cockpit, with the wing being a parasol configuration, so that the pilot had visibility underneath it. It appears that the fuselage has been built up to the bottom of the wing, and the cockpit has been enclosed. This same configuration was used on Lindbergh’s NYP, which was based on the M-1 and M-2, and on the NYP, the space was used to house the extra-large fuel tank required for the trans-Atlantic trip. It’s entirely possible, then that this plane was similarly modified, possibly for an endurance flight attempt, although I have found no record of such an event.

I can find no indication that Dick Grace owned an M-1 (his name doesn’t show up in the old registration lists, but then again it wouldn’t if this plane crashed and didn’t make it into the age of aircraft N numbers). One possibility for the mods, of course, was movie work. As mentioned above, Grace was famous for carefully modifying aircraft so that the drama of the crash would be enhanced on-camera, while he would be protected during the shoot. Could this have been a plane modified to look like a different one for a movie shoot?

But maybe this plane has nothing to do with Dick Grace at all. If so, whose was it? And why was it so modified?

1 comment:

  1. Dick Grace's Waterhouse Cruizair, to be used on an aborted attempt to fly from Hawaii to the US Mainland in the summer of 1927