hen the professional aerobatic team “13 Flying Black Cats” was founded in the mid-1920s in LA, California was a tough place, where the post-WW1 economy wiped out most optimists, leaving only the young daredevils who braved the down times with their adrenaline-fuelled, extreme form of entertainment, earning enough to survive the adverse economic climate and inspire people along the way.
Burdett Fuller was a former Naval Reserve aviator who founded a flight school and passenger flying service in 1919. His 400 students included Jack Frye and Ronald “Bon” MacDougall, who joined Fuller in founding the Burdett Air Port and School of Aviation. When William E. Matlock and Paul E. Richter graduated from there in 1925, they decided to form an aerobatic troupe to thrill audiences with their daredevil flying displays at Burdett Airport on Western Avenue and 104th Street in Los Angeles (now Inglewood), where the core members of the 13 Flying Cats worked as pilots and mechanics.
Thousands turned out for their first “Burdett Field Air Meet” to see the flying competitions and aerobatic displays. These included wing walking, changing planes, playing cards and tennis in the air, intentional crashes, blowing up planes, and parachute demonstrations.
The group consisted of pilots, film stuntmen, and car racers. They advertised that they defied all superstition and adversity and that their services were also available for air shows or meetings and any other audience that would pay their fee.
The group first performed at air shows in Los Angeles and the Southwest but soon sold their services to Hollywood, where they were used for newsreels and movie stunts. They didn’t use parachutes before 1927 when it became the law.
If a black cat can’t do it – it can’t be done
If you saw a woman and a man playing tennis on a flying biplane, you would think anything is possible. The motto of the 13 Black Cats appealed to this image by saying, “If a black cat can’t do it, it can’t be done”.
In one of their famous performances, Gladys Roy and Ivan Unger were booted and strapped a top of a Curtis JN-4 Jenny biplane flying at speeds between 40 and 60 miles per hour, strong enough to be fast but not enough to knock them over. They took their tennis rackets and pretended to play tennis with an imaginary ball.
To the people on the ground, it looked like they were really playing tennis up there. Gladys also danced the Charleston on the wing, walked blindfolded over the wings, and performed the deadliest parachute jumps. She holds the world record for a jump from 17,000 feet. All three of her brothers were well-known pilots with Northwest Airlines and were inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame.
Gladys earned between $200 and $500 per performance around 1924 but already in 1926, she was down to $100 per performance due to fierce competition. In May 1926, she told the Los Angeles Times, “Lately the public is getting tired of even my most difficult stunts, so I have to invent new ones to keep up my reputation as a daredevil. Eventually, an accident will happen…”.
And so it was. Roy was tragically killed a year later in Ohio when she accidentally walked into a spinning propeller of her own plane in which she had just posed for photos with Miss Ohio. Some people believe it was actually suicide.
The Price List
13 Black Cats charged $100 for a normal plane change. It cost $500 to change from a plane that was upside down to one that was flying on the right side. As a bonus for the audience, there was a fake accident in which the supposed victim fell out of the plane and, hanging from a thin cable, invisible to the audience, plunged about four hundred meters into the depths until a hidden parachute suddenly opened.
Flying through or crashing into a building, the sea, trees, or objects was $1200. A loop with a man in the middle cost $150, while you’d have to pay $450 for men standing on each wing. If you wanted to see the change from a plane to a car or motorbike, it cost you $150, while a speedboat was an additional $100.
The price list included blowing up planes in mid-air and ejecting passengers and pilots ($1500), spinning planes that were on fire ($1200), low flying and picking up hats with wingtips, handing hats from the ground to men on the wingtips of low flying planes, playing tennis on the wingtips, hanging from rope ladders and dangling upside down from ropes, changing tires in the air, complicated spins and loops like under the famous Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena, various parachute displays, flying upside down for long periods of time, riding a bicycle while dangling from a rope and then dropping to the ground with a parachute, landing upside down, saloon brawls on the wings, staging a fight on the wing where a man is taken out with one punch.
The group had a uniform consisting of a black jumper with a 13 Black Cats patch on the front and names on the back. Each name had 13 letters; if it didn’t have that, a nickname was added. They also wore white claw badges, one for each time they fell. After the eighth claw, they could no longer fly with the troop, because cats only have nine lives. The Black Cat logo was designed by Bon MacDougall and celebrated the ancient Egyptian sacred cat of Bubastes, for Bon flew with his cat before the group was formed. The number 13 was chosen for obvious reasons.
But although the Cats were widely popular, flying circuses were soon outlawed, and in 1929 new regulations and cheap competition forced the Cats to disband. The price of a simple parachute jump had dropped from $80 to just $10 because some freelance daredevils were willing to risk their lives for a quick buck.
In 1931, aviator Florence Lowe “Pancho” Barnes (1901-1975) founded the first association of movie stunt pilots using a stunt fare developed by 13 Flying Black Cats.
Writer and director who thinks different and does everything differently. Art enthusiast. Wandering and wondering. Until the end of meaning.