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That Daring Young Gal on a Flying Machine : On a Wing and a Prayer, Lillian Thrilled Fans

February 19, 1989|SYD LOVE

SAN DIEGO — The headlines called her all kinds of things, and she loved it: The Girl of Nerve. The Aerial Sensationalist. The Fair Devil of the Air. And more.

She was the Wonder Woman of her day, the prestigious palestrian of an earlier time. Mostly, however, she was Empress of the Air. Her name was Lillian Boyer, and she was to the barnstorming of the 1920s what the sauce is to the taco, the afterburner to the jet airplane--that delicious and powerful boost that helped to make the decade roar.

Lillian, who would have turned 89 in June, died early this month at a San Diego convalescent hospital and took some of her most cherished memories with her. She had an amazing inventory of experiences from her youthful exploits in the dizzying world of aerial stunts and talked at length about them shortly before she broke her hip and her health declined.

A widow who went by the name of Mrs. Ernest Werner in her later years, Lillian was an audacious acrobat, a wing-walker, and more in the early era of aviation, performing madcap feats across a nation eager for new thrills--a pretty brunette hanging by her toes in perilous acts to show that aviation was safe and a big part of the future.

But she did it for herself, too, not to mention the money. (Also, Billy Brock loved her.)

From late 1921 to late 1928, Lillian dazzled huge crowds at fairs in 22 states as she took to the air in a Curtiss Jenny biplane piloted by the well-known flier William S. Brock, and risked her neck in ways marveling spectators had never seen.

In Trenton and Chicago, in Toronto and Chattanooga, from New York to Canada, from Texas to the Dakotas, she hung by one hand or two, by her knees or her ankles or toes, walked wings and even stood on the top wing while Brock looped the loop.

Her scrapbook says she was the only woman to perform these feats regularly, and that not even any male stunters entertained with them as consistently and for as many years as she did.

Yes, in those days, Lillian Boyer could bell the cat or run the gantlet, take the bull by the horns or march up to the cannon's mouth.

She was Lillian Lion Heart.

"I loved stunting from the first minute," the petite white-haired octogenarian commented during a recent birthday interview. And would she have done anything differently?

"I don't believe I would."

Among the things she did (at 65 m.p.h.) were:

Change from a speeding automobile to an airplane (the first woman to do so) . . . change from plane to plane . . . hang by her teeth (and by toes, knees, or ankles) . . . hang by one hand from the skid under a wing tip . . . balance on her head . . . stand there--her feet under a strap--while Brock looped that old flying machine once, twice . . . do stunts on a ladder, and parachute drops, though there are some of those she would have preferred to forget.

"Most of our tricks were original, and mostly Mr. Brock's ideas," she said. "Hanging by one hand from the skid under the wing--I thought that would be original. It's become a very popular photograph by itself. And some of my suggestions were worked up into stunts."

Hanging by Teeth

The deed that pleased the crowds the most, she said, was hanging by her teeth. She called it the breakaway.

"It was the surprise. When I'd leave the cockpit I would take a strong thin cable with me and attach it to a strut." Her mouthpiece was on it, and Brock could reel in the cable from his cockpit. But the spectators, watching from 3,000 feet below, did not know that.

"After I'd do a few things on the tip of the lower wing, I'd put the mouthpiece in and climb over the wing to the skid, do one thing and another and then hang there a minute and let go. The 'Ahs' and 'Ohs' would start. They thought I was falling. Then, the cable would go taut and I'd hang here under the plane, do a spread eagle and other tricks.

"As long as my weight was on the cable, there was no way I could open my mouth. Then, Mr. Brock would lower the ladder and I'd grab it, let go of the mouthpiece, and do a few more tricks on the way up."

She also felt it was the most dangerous stunt, in case the cable broke.

'Was Never Afraid'

"But I was never afraid. I don't know if I lacked good sense or what. But I never had any fear at all. I never left the ground without a prayer to God, though, and, when I returned, I thanked Him."

She also placed supreme confidence in Brock.

"He was such a wonderful flier. I don't know why he didn't have more recognition than he did. I trusted him. He always checked things carefully, turnbuckles, wires, telling me where to step. I always felt safe."

Brock received most of the money they earned, but that was her idea.

"We'd get $1,000 to $1,200 a day and always tried to insist on three days at a fair, and sometimes get a week. I had a contract with Mr. Brock. All I wanted was $100 a day. He got the remainder and paid all my expenses, the mechanic and took care of the plane. A hundred dollars a day clear was big money."

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