There is a scene that always gets the audience guffawing in the 1963 movie, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"--the one in which a fat, twin-engine Beechcraft with a terrified Mickey Rooney at the controls slams through a Pepsi-Cola billboard and veers past the control tower.
It's one of the funniest scenes in the movie, but it's also one that was planned with meticulous care. Stunt flier Frank Tallman practiced for weeks with a cloth sign set up in an Orange County pasture, and on the day of reckoning, reinforced the plane's nose and windscreen before plowing through the billboard with just three feet of clearance on each wing tip.
Even with all the preparations, Tallman lost an engine as he cleared the sign and found himself covered with shards of glass and debris from the plane's shattered windscreen. He nursed the plane back to Orange County Airport for a shaky landing.
The billboard stunt was the kind of intricately planned daredevilry that made Tallmantz Aviation--owned by Tallman and partner Paul Mantz--one of the most successful movie stunt companies in the business.
Tallman and Mantz brought the glamour of Hollywood to Orange County aviation for nearly three decades.
"We lay out a stunt, try to plan for every contingency, just like any human being would," Tallman said in a 1972 interview. "But there comes that moment when anybody else would look at the problem and back away from it. And the only thing we can do is forget the fear and push the throttle ahead."
Indeed, it was the willingness to go that extra step for the movie cameras that in 1965 cost Mantz his life in the desert near Yuma, Ariz., during the filming of "The Flight of the Phoenix."
Mantz, piloting what was supposed to look like a makeshift craft pieced together by the victims of an airplane crash, already had successfully executed several low passes over the hot desert sands when the directors asked for one more shot, just in case something happened to the first.
As Mantz came by for the final pass, his wheel skids scraped the desert floor and the plane went tumbling end over end, killing him and seriously injuring the stunt man who accompanied him.
The early-morning accident abruptly ended what had been a remarkable flying career that included stunt work and aerial direction for dozens of films. In "Airmail," it was Mantz who steered the biplane through the hangar doors; in "Twelve O'Clock High," he piloted a crippled B-17, landing it wheels up; in "The Bride Came C.O.D.," he performed a low-level inverted pass--in the rain--over the cast below.
Mantz, a close friend of Amelia Earhart's who accompanied her on the first leg of her ill-fated 1937 around-the-world flight, in 1961 hooked up with his erstwhile competitor Tallman and formed Tallmantz Aviation Co. at Orange County Airport.
The pair amassed one of the most important aircraft collections in the world, opening the Movieland of the Air museum at the airport in 1963. "The country should have some living record of those grand old planes," Mantz once said. The museum was sold in 1985 to Florida millionaire Kermit Weeks, who moved the collection to the Weeks Museum in Miami.
Tallman, several years younger than Mantz, also had built a heady reputation as a Hollywood stunt pilot, working on such films as "Catch-22," "Murphy's War" and "The Great Waldo Pepper."
In fact, Tallman originally had signed on to do the air work for "The Flight of the Phoenix," but Mantz came out of semi-retirement at 62 to do the film when Tallman injured his leg in a freak accident while pushing his son's Go Kart. The leg did not heal properly and was amputated three days after Mantz's funeral.
After months of physical therapy, Tallman learned to walk again and miraculously returned to the cockpit, re-obtaining every license issued by the Federal Aviation Administration.
His last flight was April 15, 1978--two days before his 60th birthday. He dropped off a business associate at Santa Monica Airport after a flight from San Francisco and told him he was going on to Phoenix.
The plane plowed into a ridge at 3,100 feet near Holy Jim Canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains. The weather was bad--overcast with heavy rain--but nothing Tallman shouldn't have been able to handle with the use of his instruments. It was an area over which he had flown time and time again, and he was a pilot who habitually planned for every eventuality. There was no sign of mechanical malfunction and no evidence of drugs or alcohol in his system.
There were no radio communications after he left Santa Monica, and the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the cause of the crash was Tallman's decision to fly visually under low-visibility conditions.
"I have one real dream--to be able to span the gap entirely, to get into space somehow," Tallman once told an interviewer. But even then he admitted that he had lived through what always would be remembered as the best era of flight.
"Anything, at its beginnings, has such vitality and strength and perseverance," he said. "No jet in the world can match the pleasure of being able to push your own plane out of a hangar onto the grass in the early morning when the dew is still there. Then you crank it up and take off, and you're free."