Hell’s Angels, 1930

First, I apologize for my absence from writing anything new and for not posting on this website lately. I planned to create a new post for many days, but I needed more time. As the years progress, time speeds up, or I’m getting slower. Either way, I hope you understand. I’m working on changing my daily schedule and will do my best to post new content more consistently.

Have you heard of the film “Hell’s Angels”? I know what you’re about to say. How is a motorcycle club involved with aviation, or am I pursuing a new chapter in my life? Well, neither, at least of myself joining a club and exploring the open road on two wheels. I welcome all to participate if any club members are interested in flying!

(courtesy IMDb)

Howard Hughes directed and produced “Hell’s Angels,” a film he was most proud of and considered a great accomplishment in his life. The movie debuted in the US on November 15, 1930. It had taken three years to produce since its conception in 1927, first shot as a silent film, then portions re-shot for sound.

Why for change, you ask? Mr. Hughes previewed “The Jazz Singer” with its release on October 6, 1927, when he was still finalizing the scenes of his movie. He is astonished by the quality of the music scores and how enjoyable it is to hear the actor’s dialog, realizing that he must finish his “Hell’s Angels” film as a “talkie.”

Did you know that “The Jazz Singer” marked the end of the silent film era, being the first full-length motion picture with synchronized music and speech? Neither did I.

Ben Lyon, Jean Harlow, James Hall (courtesy TMC)

The film’s storyline establishes the adventures of two offbeat brothers serving in the British Royal Flying Corps during World War I. Actor Ben Lyon stars as Monte Rutledge, and James Hall plays his brother Roy Rutledge. In addition, actress Jean Harlow makes her first big screen appearance as Helen, the love interest between both brothers Roy and Monte. Miss Harlow was only 18 years old then, and the short dance scene was the only known full-color footage of Jean before her death in 1937. Was she the first “Marilyn Monroe”?

Hell’s Angels dogfight scene (courtesy blog.elmc.co)

Howard Hughes and pilot Harry Parry choreograph most of the stunts for the dogfighting scenes, but the stunt pilots approve not all. Paul Mantz is the principal stunt pilot and coordinator for leading actual World War I pilots hired directly by Hughes, while Elmer Dyer is the pioneering aerial cinematographer. Finally, during the last major flying scene, one hundred thirty-seven pilots take to the skies for a most epic dogfight! I would have loved to see that in person!

(courtesy greatwarfilms.net)

Four people die during the production of this film, and Mr. Hughes servilely injures himself during a stunt that Mr. Mantz refuses to fly because it is too dangerous. Unfortunately, he is correct, and Howard cannot coordinate a deep pullout after a strafing mission. The crash left Mr. Hughes with a fractured skull which required facial reconstruction.

Now that’s a commitment to get the perfect shot or just stupidity. But then again, it’s Howard Hughes, and it doesn’t surprise me. If you’re looking to “go down the rabbit hole,” search more on the life of Howard Hughes. You won’t be disappointed!

We need to pause for a moment and honor the four people who lost their lives. Pilot Al Johnson crashed after hitting power lines while landing at Caddo Field near Van Nuys, CA, where most of the filming took place. Pilot C.K. Phillips crashed while delivering a SE 5 fighter plane to the Oakland, CA filming location. Australian pilot Rupert Syme Macalister died, but I don’t have any additional information on his passing. And flight mechanic Phil Jones was killed when he failed to bail out before the crash of a Sikorsky S-29-A piloted by Al Wilson, who survived.

S-29-A (courtesy sikorskyarchives.com)

The S-29-A is Igor Sikorsky’s first biplane, which he built after arriving in the US and used as a Gotha GV heavy bomber in the film. Unfortunately, Mr. Sikorsky only created one S-29-A, which first flew in 1924 and was later destroyed in 1929 when it crashed during the filming of this movie.

The other aircraft in the film are the Royal Aircraft Factory SE 5 and the Fokker D.VII. I could write entire articles on either plane, but I’ll save that for a later date. So instead, I’ll touch on a few points of interest to keep things moving and not take up any more of your time.

SE 5 (courtesy thoughtco.com)

The SE 5 is a British fighter biplane used by The Royal Flying Corps during World War I and manufactured by the Royal Aircraft Factory in Farnborough, Hampshire, England. Henry Folland, John Kenworthy, and Major Frank Goodden were the designers, and the first one of three prototypes flew on November 22, 1916. Unfortunately, the first two crash due to a weak wing design, killing one of the designers and chief test pilot, Major Frank Goodden. The third prototype features redesigned wings with a squarer surface area which improves lateral control at low airspeeds and increases the diving speeds. As a result, the SE 5 is one of the fastest aircraft during the war, with a maximum speed of 138 MPH!

Would you enjoy seeing an original SE 5 in person? Yeah, me too! Check out the Shuttleworth Collection, an Aeronautical & Automotive Museum located at the Old Warden Aerodrome, Old Warden, in Bedfordshire, England.

Fokker D.VII (courtesy nationalmuseum.af.mil)

Now on to the German side. The Luftstreitkrafte, Imperial German Air Service, uses the Fokker D.VII for their fighter. The airplane dominated the airways when it first entered combat in May 1918 with its excellent handling, high rate of climb, and extended ceiling operation—designed by Reinhold Platz of the Fokker-Flugzeugwerke company. However, the first experimental V.II was tricky to fly, as reported by pilot Manfred von Richthofen, aka the “Red Barron.” So Mr. Platz lengthens the rear of the fuselage and redesigns the rudder to add stability. The results are a success, and Mr. Richthofen praises the new aircraft as the best he has ever flown. Fokker immediately receives an order for 400 aircraft. After the war, Germany must surrender all remaining D.II’s as per the Armistice agreement and place them into service among other countries.

Manfred von Richthofen, aka the “Red Barron”
Fokker D.VII (courtesy oldrhinebeck.org)

Again, I would love to see an original Fokker V.II, but it’s too late, and I need help locating any that still exist. But there are many reproductions! For example, there is one on a static exhibit under restoration at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Red Hook, NY.

Howard Hughes (courtesy historylink.org)

Hell’s Angels take three years to complete from 1927 through most of 1930 and is the highest-grossing film of the early sound era. However, despite the film’s great success, the total revenue didn’t cover the cost of 2.8 million US dollars.

I recommend watching this film or watching it again if you have already done so. I found options to purchase this movie, and I even found a copy on YouTube to watch for free at the time of this writing. Check the link below. If not, search for “Hell’s Angels 1930” to see your options. Be sure to add 1930, or you will see a lot of biker films.

Enjoy the film, and please leave a comment!