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The Jack And Helen Frye Story!
Sedona's Celebrity Love Story!
This is the official, not to mention only, web portal in the world
dedicated exclusively to the legacy of Jack and Helen Frye!
The Frye Legacy-
a Lifetime of Accomplishment!
By Randall Reynolds
The Sedona Legend Web Site is a copyrighted historical photo enhanced narrative presented for
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Sedona Legend was envisioned and created to provide Red Rock State Park visitors a
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representing Jack and Helen Frye.
Sedona Legend is encouraged by the many friends of Jack and Helen Frye. A gracious thank
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volunteers for their enthusiasm.
Sedona Legend Helen Frye a.k.a. the Jack and Helen Frye Story
A Decade of Research and Presentation- Created By Randall D. Reynolds
Copyright © 2003 All Rights Reserved
Western Avenue and 104th Street Los Angeles
The "Glory Days" of West Coast Aviation
This image is courtesy of June Smith (Joseph S. Smith Jr.) June is a nickname for junior.
June was a friend of many of the Black Cats and this image was found in his memorabilia
album from the 1920's. Thanks to his nephew Denis Smith for sharing it with Sedona Legend.
The 13 Flying Black Cats
Based at Burdett Air Field
Seen above are members of the "Black Cat" aerial stunt team in front of the Burdett flight
operations @ Western Avenue and 104th Street, Los Angeles California. From left to right,
William W. E. "Spider" Matlock, Paul E. Richter, Jr., Ronald G. "Bon" MacDougall, and
Kenneth "Fronty" Nichols. The odd nicknames were due to a stipulation that all members had
to adopt a name with 13 letters. However, there were many active members which did not
appear to have a nickname. The above image, like so many publicity photos of various members
together, was circulated with many variations during the day to the press, members, and friends
of the Black Cats. There were several professional photographers in the group and because of
this and the poses I feel these were likely not press photos but Black Cat publicity images
circulated by the group.
As testament to the confusion over the "13 Black Cats of Hollywood" membership, is the 'oft
heard statement, that Reginald Denny was made the 13th member. This may be misleading;
however, considering the group was well established by the time Reginald supposedly joined and
as well, it is thought he was an "honorary" member. These members were added after the
group was established for publicity and other reasons. Denny was a famous Hollywood actor of
the day and supposedly, because he was under studio contract, he was never allowed by studio
moguls to become an "official" member of the daredevil group. Black Cats wore many hats like
for instance, William Stapp and Sam Greenwald who were professional aerial photographers,
and Jerry Tabnac, one of the best camera men in the country, along with Sam Greenwald.
Bon MacDougall prepares for his 1st parachute
jump with the Black Cats. Notice- Richter's
plane and 'MacDougall' on the Cat sweater.
The most published original members
of the Black Cat group are as follows-
William (Spider) Matlock
Followed by and in the order of-
4) Jerry Tabnac
5) Heard "Herd" McClellan
6) Paul Richter Jr.
7) Lieut. Jack Frye
8) Al Johnson
9) Ivan "Bugs" Unger
10) Sanford Sam Greenwald
11) Colonel Art Goebel
12) William Bill Stapp
13) Gladys Ingle
(One source states Ingle was only an honorary
member because they didn't accept girls.)
The Original 13?
We will not speculate as to "who" the original 13 members of the Black Cat Hollywood Stunt
Team were as it seems several original members have their own recollections.
High Jinks and Mayhem- 1924 to 1929
There were many members of the Flying 13 Black Cats who were never officially photographed
with the group, or if they were, the photos tragically are lost. I have never, nor would I expect
to see, a photo of the entire group together at one time. The reasons are evident when we
realize that the Black Cats were an evolving group of participants, coming and going, even some
dying in accidents. Because of this there were many members involved with the group that have
never received well-earned credit. There were also many individuals who worked with the Black
Cats who were never official members.
One of the most active Black Cat members,
Paul Richter, shown above, with his friend,
Black Cat member Burdett Fuller, seen in
front of the Burdett offices in Los Angeles.
Much has been written about the famous 13 Black Cats throughout the years and their story
alone could fill a book. What I thought would be a simple page exploded into a novel when the
information started rolling in, so at risk of being buried with yet another research project, I
have tried to limit this page to the 13 Black Cats (as they relate to Jack Frye) and Burdett
Airport, in keeping within the guidelines of this website. I have also included some of the most
circulated tales of this phenomenal aerial stunt team. Because great adventures are such
fabulous fodder for the telling of early aviation, many Black Cat incidents have been
embellished and facts are sometimes blurred. This is compounded by 86-some years of reprints.
The following is NOT by any means a comprehensive history of the 13 Flying Black Cats. More
indepth Black Cat info and images can be found through various media sources.
The most published accounts seem to be interviews with Black Cat(s) Bon MacDougall and
Kenneth Nichols. Ken mentioned the formation of the group being on the day of the very first
Burdett Airport Air Show. The year is often cited as 1924, contradicted though by June Smith
materials which state the ‘First’ Burdett Air Show was in 1925. Smith’s materials with notations
coincide with an event of July 5, 1925. This is the earliest publicized Burdett Air Show I have
uncovered in newspapers. Likely, of course, there was another “first” event in Ken’s mind.
Either way, we have a Black Cat event (1924-25) and an association at Burdett Air Port with the
founding members being prominent skilled Burdett pilots.
The well-circulated tale about the Black Cats being formed as a union of sorts representing
Hollywood stuntmen it appears was more of a secondary result of the original intent. The initial
Cats were a group of daring aviators who felt that they could make a little extra pocket money
performing various stunts for the many air shows of the mid-twenties in lieu of hiring outside
stuntmen who would perform the same services. The movie work was a natural progression of
this endeavor. The men in the group were not by and large “contracted” Hollywood actor
stuntmen working for the movies. Keep in mind too that we are talking the
“Great Depression” and times were hard. In California, especially, aviators were trying to
cultivate any possible avenue of revenue to pay the rent and put dinner on their tables.
As I stated, the first event of the aviators who formed the Black Cats was an early Burdett
Airport Air Show. The famous Hollywood stunt man Dick Grace was hired to provide the
entertainment that day but didn’t show, according to Nichols. As a result of this gap in the
entertainment schedule, quick thinking Burdett pilots, decided that they could provide the
aerial entertainment themselves sans professional(s). This all in regard to pre-publicity for the
event and a crowd that would soon start demanding what was promised, and according to
Nichols, would be destructive if what was promised was not delivered! On this day the Black Cat
stunt team was born and invented.
The three men Ken Nichols credits with the formation of the group that day are Bon
MacDougall, Ken Nichols, and Spider Matlock, with MacDougall serving as leader and president.
But were these aviators not just the most visible and daring of the bunch? Likely this is really
more the truth of it especially when one realizes all Black Cat members seem to have different
versions as to how the group was originally formed, the importance of various members, and
milestones. Bon MacDougall had another view as to the origins. He stated in an interview that
he became interested in flying in 1921 after which he founded Burdett Air Port with Burdett
Fuller and Jack Frye (the date seems a little ambitious, perhaps more so, 1922-1923?)
I am aware that Bon was involved early on with Frye but I have never been able to document
the details. He certainly deserves credit as he was in the mix for many years of the early
Burdett Airport. As for the group, Bon states the original Black Cats were as follows, in random
order: Bon MacDougall, Al Johnson, Gladys Roy, Fronty Nichols, Heard McClelland, Chief
White Eagle, Jack Frye, Paul Richter, Art Goebel, Spider Matlock, Gladys Ingle, Frank
Lockhart, Reginald Denny, Babe Stapp, Bill Lind, and Sam Greenwald. Bon seems to indicate a
date closer to Smith and Nichols of 1924/25 for the formation of the Black Cats.
Another version is documented by a man who was an intricate part of the fabric of Burdett
management and a close friend of most the early members. This man was Burdett D. Fuller.
Burdett notated in his scrap book album, now on file at the San Diego Air and Space Museum
(S.D.A.S.M.), that it was Jack Frye who founded the group. Why would Burdett, who was a part
of Burdett Air management state such a thing? This of course, is not known, but in my mind
there may very well be some truth to it. Interestingly, S.D.A.S.M. also maintains that it was
Frye (and Fuller) who founded the 13 Black Cats group. On the day of the air show at the
Burdett Airport, which was a Frye-Fuller operation, it would have certainly been Frye and Fuller
who were in charge that day with perhaps Bon MacDougall in the mix. Jack was responsible for
every decision made at that airport in those early days so naturally when the entertainment
failed to show up Frye and Fuller would have jumped at a solution which could have been
something like, “we can perform some stunts ourselves and keep the crowd appeased”. At
which the most daring flyers of the group stepped forward with a "can-do attitude" a trait Jack
Frye instilled in his pilots. I don’t like to surmise on this web site but I feel forced to try to
make sense of Burdett Fuller’s sentiments.
It is my overall opinion that several men, all together, shared in the initial formation of the
group and from there the confusion started. Nichols states that directly after the Burdett air
show the men who were interested met to discuss the formation of what became the official
Black Cat group. At that time additional pilots were included one these being Paul Richter.
History documents many other men, to include Jack Frye, as founding members, as well.
The Black Cat logo? Surprisingly, it was not created for the Black Cats but had been used
previously by Bon MacDougall on his own plane for several years prior. This has led to confusion
as to what year the Black Cats were really born. If one saw the plane in a photo, one might not
realize it was possibly may be a pre-Black Cat marking at a pre-Black Cat event. Bon stated he
came up with the logo in regard to the ancient Egyptian religion and it honored the sacred cat of
Bubastes (a temple). The 13 was added as an ominous touch for the Black Cat team and
corresponded to 13 men at the last supper.
What was Jack’s role with the Black Cats? First let me say that not all pilots of the group were
careless death-defying daredevils. Some members were “straight pilots” as Frye and Richter.
These men were skilled aviators who performed with a plane, not their lives. Jack Frye was very
busy in those early years with many irons in the fire and he was also married. His responsibility
was great, a trait he cultivated from childhood growing up on his grandfather’s vast Texas
ranch. The Black Cats counted on this respected pilot for his navigation skills to provide a
stable platform from which they could perform their parachute jumps, wing walking, and loops,
Another very sound reason Jack was never a stunt man outside of the cockpit is that he had
acrophobia. This is fear of heights and was readily admitted by Frye yet is a little known fact
about this great man. However, before we feel this could not possibly be, keep in mind he was
not afraid of “flying” which was very obvious! This is likely one of the main reasons he excelled
as a pilot and not a risk taker on the wings of planes or hanging from them in flight.
My opinion is that Jack Frye, unlike many of his Black Cat brothers, was more cautious in
nature about flying and he took it very seriously. In his business he was always the leader and
the vision behind the operations he headed and this kept him walking the fine line of
responsibility. He was a aerial stunt man but he was not careless with spectators or passengers.
The more I research Frye, the more I understand his character, why he is revered historically,
and why he was so respected by his peers. Frye’s modus operandi became an intricate part of
the fabric of Standard Air Lines and TWA.
Many Black Cat members flew with a lack of caution, planning, and preparation, this evident by
their mishaps. Something which would be unheard of today with professional stunt pilots. Black
Cat feats were mostly pure luck, as not much else went into their maneuvers but jumping in a
plane and showing off for the crowds and many times, by default, endangering human lives of
ground and air. We take flight more seriously today and some like Frye did so too even back in
1924. This is why Standard Air Lines and TWA succeeded, because Frye pioneered and
implemented responsibility and safety precautions in flight. The Black Cats eventually
disbanded after increased air safety regulations, lack of work from studios, and some fatal and
unnecessary accidents. My point of view comes from an admiration of TWA's Legacy of Safety.
Above and below (right) we see the Black Cats performing (likely at Burdett Airport) from the
photographic collection of June Smith. These images submitted by his nephew Denis Smith.
The Black Cats performed many stunts, some relatively tame, but others extremely dangerous.
However, in reading the adventures of four of the most visible Black Cats (Spider Matlock, Al
Johnson, Ken Nichols, and Bon MacDougall) one can quite admire their bravado and lack of
fear. They truly personified the general make-up of this daredevil aerial group which heartily
endorsed the creed, “We’ll Do Anything” for a price.
Just a partial list of some of the most commonly performed Black Cat stunts,
although keep in mind they did a little bit of everything.
*Flying through a building- or crashing into a building, ocean, trees, or objects, etc.
*Transfer from various moving objects to and from planes, to include trains
*Blowing up planes in the air, passengers and pilot eject
*Spinning airplanes (engulfed by fire) toward the ground but not crashing
*Loops, while men or women stand on the tips of each wing
*Flying low and picking up hats with wing tips
*Handing hats from ground to men on the wing tips of low flying planes
*Playing (faux) tennis on wing tops
*Hanging from rope ladders and dangling upside down by ropes (nooses)
*Changing tires in the air
*Intricate spins and loops (as under the famous Pasadena Colorado Street Bridge)
*Wide variety of parachute performances
*Flying inverted for extended periods
*Riding a bicycle dangling from a rope and then parachuting down to the ground
*Landing upside down
*Saloon brawls on wing tops (not regular feats)
*Staging a fight on wing with one man getting knocked off with a punch
*Another progression for some devil-may-care Black Cats was racing
the fastest speedsters of the day- Fronty Fords
From what I have researched 1926 seems to be a banner year for the Black Cats with lots of
publicity. Just a few of the memorable performances and mishaps of the Black Cats over a
period of 5 years are as follows:
The very first stunt was performed before several thousand people at Burdett Airport. Bon
piloted a Jenny, with passengers Nichols and Spider, performing a wing walking dance for the
crowd, with a finale of the two parachuting from the plane. On November 20, 1925 News Reels
cranked away, as Spider, Fronty, and Al Nichols, expanded the feat with all three men cavorting
on the upper wing of Bon’s plane; a stunt unheard of up until then.
For quite some time, I have been curious about why Ken Nichols was christened with the
nickname "Fronty". Such an unusual name, seemingly, found no where else. Was it an
anagram or a childhood nickname? At last, I finally figured it out! Actually, Fronty was a name
quite well-known in 1924. The name was derived from the car which was known as a "Ford
Fronty". These cars were Ford race cars on Model T chassis, produced with Chevrolet parts. The
name was a shortened version of Frontenac (the name of the Chevy Division which supplied the
parts) thus these little speedy race cars were "Fronty-Fords"! The Black Cats and other
daredevils regularly raced these exciting pocket rockets. (See image at top of page).
One Black Cat trip seemed to have been haunted by bad luck. Spider and Nichols took off with
MacDougall for a Bakersfield racetrack to do a show. Because of the weight of an additional
passenger in a 2 passenger plane, the Jenny could not gain enough altitude to clear Tehachapi
Pass. Only by jettisoning everything not bolted down, to include their shoes, did they clear the
mountains. They had no compass on the trip but instead followed the highway which was typical
of this (pre-navigation chart) era. A “gravity string” thumbtacked to the dash told the pilot if
they were flying upside down or right side up in clouds. After the performance in Bakersfield,
they landed the plane in an limited clearance area with no brakes. The only way they were able
to stop was by Spider and Fronty hanging from the wings and dragging their feet on the turf.
They were unable to lift off again with a short runway so 15 men held on to the wings while Bon
revved the engine to full throttle. After he signaled the men to let go, he roared off, just barely
clearing a fence and trees. Bon had to set the Jenny down again, though, in a big field in order
to pick up Nichols and Matlock, after which, they finally took off for Los Angeles.
But it gets better! Unfortunately, on the way to L.A., the three got caught in the ever present
evening coastal fog. They decided to descend below the soup to get their bearings, in regard to
L.A., but what they found instead was an endless ocean. Luckily they had enough fuel to turn
and head back to the coast where they soon exhausted this fuel and were forced down in a beet
field. A farmer was able to help them locate some gasoline but had no funnel. The funnel was
necessary to fuel the plane through the under wing fill pipe. The only solution was filling a
whiskey bottle with gasoline and dumping it into the plane over and over. After several hours of
this procedure the ship finally had enough gas to take off for Los Angeles. By now, though, it
was dark, but in spite of this, they still managed find Burdett Airport. On approach, descending
in the darkness, Bon MacDougall tried to use the (closed) office nightlight for a bearing. Not
surprisingly, they ended up in a ditch and tore off the landing gear of the Jenny. Seems the
only good omen of the cursed trip was they made it home without any deaths.
On another performance, Al Johnson, Spider Matlock, and Ken Nichols, took off to do the
“first” multiple parachute jump in the country. The plane again was overloaded and Al
desperately fought the machine to gain altitude. Spider fell off the plane and plummeted to the
ground while desperately trying to pull his parachute rip cord which ripped off the pack. Finally,
within 200 feet over a tomato field, the chute deployed and his life was spared. Al and Fronty
landed, repaired and repacked the parachute, took off again, and performed for the waiting
Pathe and International newsreel cameras. This, perhaps, the same tale ‘oft told about when
Ivan Unger was a part of the group when they did the first quadruple parachute jump, all under
the same chute. Johnson knocked Spider off the wing, dazing him, at which he fell to the
ground in a tangle, but miraculously survived the fall. The crowning element was that it was
Matlock’s first jump, something he was not forthcoming about at the time.
Another time, Al Johnson’s shoot deployed while he was on the wing, which in turn, yanked
him against the tail from whence he fell from the plane in a half-conscious tangle. An aircraft
hangar miraculously appeared below him and helped break his fall, but he ended up hanging
from the side of the building, where his head harshly contacted the wall. Ouch!
In one publicized event, Art Goebel flew a loop under the Colorado Street Bridge with Babe
Kalisihek and Gladys Ingle standing on the top end of each wing for Newsreel cameras. Goebel
performed with, and independent of, the Black Cats at times, with his own act. I understand
that this particular landmark Pasadena bridge was a regular haunt for Black Cats who would
perform the stunt after each suicide, which it appears was a regular occurrence! A hair-raising
feat, as there were trees at the bottom of the loop, which would often brush the undercarriage
of the planes. Gladys Ingle was really skilled at changing planes (over 300 times without
incident) all performed like her Black Cat brothers, usually without parachute. Seems the Cats
at large, didn’t like chutes, as the packs weighed them down and were cumbersome, after all,
Black Cats are typically lithe creatures, right?
Ingle was also adept at shooting an arrow at a target from the top of one wing to the other side
(same plane) while at cruise elevation. Let alone her knack for shooting back over her shoulder
at a target while looking in a mirror. Yes, of course, again, all on the wing of a sputtering
Jenny. If a plane experienced a flat (or staged flat) in the air nobody wasted time calling
Triple-A but instead called Gladys Ingle, who would appear, jack the plane up, (well, that wasn’t
necessary at 1000 feet), and wrestle that ‘ole flat tire loose and mount a new one for the pilot
and audiences. And yet, I know women, today, who wouldn’t dream of changing a tire on the
ground, let alone the air! Or, are unaware tires need changing at all! Point in case, one lady in
particular from Sedona has had a brand new Cadillac about every 6 months, for 20 years. Her
husband being a vice-president with Cadillac. Either way, I remember the day she told me she
had no idea cars had spare tires in the trunks, seems, she had as many as 30-something new
Cadillacs, owning each for such a short time that she never in her life experienced a flat and
didn’t even know that tires went flat. Imagine that!
Air Show Gone Awry
Clover Field, Santa Monica
September 19, 1926
....Art Goebel, in his famous Jenny #27, soared 2000 feet above Clover Field merrily performing
aerial escapades above an excited crowd, when suddenly one of his wheels falls off and
plummets to the ground! “Oh my, what to do!”
Rather than land and damage the ship, or himself, Art continued to slowly circle the air show
waving frantically toward the ground, “Help, Help!” Gladys Ingel and Jack Frye were watching
closely and jumped up from the sidelines to save the day! Frye quickly darted to his Jenny and
started it whilst Gladys ran to a hangar and grabbed a spare tire for Goebel’s stricken ship. In
no time, Gladys scrambled into the passenger seat while Frye gunned the engine and in a flash
they are off the ground and in pursuit of number 27.
Jack Frye expertly navigated his ship close enough for Gladys to lower herself down onto the
wing with the spare tire strapped to her back. As the Frye plane maintained a close vigil nearby,
Gladys climbed down below the fuselage of 27 and proceeded to replace the wheel. Not so quick
and easy as one might surmise as the axle had slipped. So Gladys had to secure the wheel to the
ship and climb down to wrestle with the axle. She encountered quite a struggle sliding it back in
but finally success! She quickly slipped the wheel on and anchored it with a axle nut and cotter
pin. This feat all carried out with nothing under her but 2000 feet of empty air!
Nicked up, bleeding, and covered with axle grease, the shaken Ingle clambered for the cockpit
after which the two planes quickly descended and landed. Once safely on the ground, Goebel
heartily thanked Gladys and Frye, what with a lot of back slapping, while the two planes and
heroes were inundated by a pressing crowd of over 500 impressed spectators!
All three were members of the 13 Black Cat aerial stunt team. Was the event staged? Likely,
as Goebel’s plane seemed to lose its wheel quite often. Either these “in air tire changing
episodes” were an act, or a ground crew member need be fired for faulty repairs! The axle
problem; however, was unplanned and added a little anxiety to an otherwise well orchestrated
feat. Just another notch though in a thrilling Black Cat performance for unsuspecting air show
participants. Gladys Ingel? She was well known as Goebel’s partner in many aerial
misadventures and a skilled licensed pilot to boot!
Changing planes at high elevations? Maybe too hazardous for you and I, but, an every day
occurrence for a Black Cat. On May 22 1927, 25,000 people turned out for the Clover Field Air
Carnival where Black Cat Ivan Unger climbed from one plane to another. On an aside, this is
the kind of work Jack Frye usually did with the group (piloting one of the 2 planes).
Interestingly, as stated elsewhere on this website, Jack was afraid of heights but not afraid of
flying. Never would I have been able to dream that one up!
13 Black Cat members, Spider Matlock, and passenger, Howard Batt suffered a disaster unlike
anything the 13 Black Cat aerial team had ever dreamed up on May 1, 1926. A flight of no
return which if not for a wee bit of luck would surely have killed them both. They departed
Bakersfield at 4:10 P.M. and started west to Burdett Airport at Los Angeles. However, as they
neared L.A., fog surrounded them and dusk descended over their small sputtering plane. In the
foggy soup, unbeknown to the two, they overshot Los Angeles and ended up 25 miles west of
the coast, far above the Pacific Ocean, and far from land. Running out of gas they had to ditch
in the sea. Now for the rest of the story. Did I say the Black Cats were the luckiest cusses of
all? Well they were! As luck would have it, before the plane sank to the bottom of a very deep
ocean, a cargo steamer, the S.S. Hamlin F. McCormick, happened by and spotted the two cold
and wet fliers and hauled them on board. The rescue ship? It was the largest lumber freighter
on the west coast and was steaming from Portland Oregon to L.A. with a full load of Northwest
lumber. Talk about a 13 Black Cat tale to top all others! "Live to fly another day, I say!"
Chief White Eagle, of Ponca City, Oklahoma, was quite confidant of his “stronger-than-steel”
strands of hair. He would perform with the Black Cats hanging from anything where he could
be suspended, like jumping out of planes with the parachute tied to his hair- My Lord! One such
time, while suspended from the landing gear of an in-flight Jenny, well, you guessed it, the
result was a bad hair day and a lot of split ends. He plummeted to his death.
Tennis anyone? Well Gladys Roy and Ivan Unger did so regularly- just at 3000 feet, where it
was assumed the air was crisper. Of course, sans the tennis balls, as retrieving an “out of
bounds” tennis ball meant landing first. Frank Tomac was the pilot on many of these matches,
one recorded on October 25, 1925, for the Movie house Newsreels.
Al Johnson held the unusual record of a man riding a bicycle at 3000 feet over Los Angeles,
while suspended below a plane. All with a climax of parachuting to the ground with bike (one
would assume, so he could pedal his way back to the airport). Photographers gasped at this feat
on November 12, 1925.
A staged Poker game performance on top of the upper wing of a Jenny went terribly awry after
Al Johnson passed out. Bon MacDougall was the pilot of a plane with 2 chairs strapped to the
upper wing surfaces. Once in the air, Al and Fronty were supposed to play cards and pretend to
start arguing. Fronty was to then pull out a gun and shoot Al who would proceed to fall off the
plane and parachute to the ground. This all for the Pathe News cameras set up in Art Goebel’s
ship which shadowed Bon’s plane. The San Diego Air and Space Museum (S.D.A.S.M.) has an
archive photo of the men on the ground pre-flight. Al and Fronty are sitting on the wings
laughingly, playing poker. Bon is in the cockpit, and Jack Frye is standing next to Bon, talking
to Al and Fronty. Because Pathe News didn’t want the parachutes to show on camera, Fronty
didn’t wear one but Al did. However, because of the camera angle Al’s chute did not show on
camera. Once in the air, Art gave the signal to start playing cards, when suddenly Al fainted
and started to slip off the wing. Fronty, in a flash, quickly grabbed him by the ankle. This
positioned Fronty against the hot engine where he desperately tried to hold on to Al’s lifeless
body in the wind. At this point, Bon stood up in the cockpit and tried to save Al by grabbing his
parachute rip cord. As the parachute deployed, Fronty released Al and let him slide off the wing
into the air. Bon immediately followed Al down to the ground with the plane, watching as Al
floated down into a daisy field, limp as a rag doll. After they landed, Bon and Fronty rushed to
Johnson and revived the passed out Kitty Cat. Poignantly, the reason Al passed out, was that he
hadn’t eaten in 2 days and was very weak. This alone reveals that times were hard (the Great
Depression) and the Black Cat saga was not all glamour and glory.
Jack Frye and many other Black Cats performed aerial scenes for the now famous movie Hell’s
Angels. However, at the time, Howard demanded many stunts which were at the limit of safety
and many of the most daring stunt men of the day refused to do many of the scenes, even at
generous fees. The movie segment described below is the crowning example of this end and was
thought to be much too dangerous by the aviators who performed for the movie, many of whom
thought it would only end in death to the actors. Only two men were found in the end to
perform the dramatic feat for the overzealous Hughes.
On March 22, 1929 in a shoot for the famous Howard Hughes movie “Hell’s Angels”, noted
movie stunt man, Al Wilson was piloting a 16-passenger Sikorsky S-29A. The plane was
disguised for the filming to give it the appearance of a forbidding looking German
“Gotha-Giant” bomber which (in real life) were powered by powerful twin Mercedes motors. At
the planes maximum ceiling of 7500 feet, the script directed Wilson deliberately force the
massive plane into a steep dive over San Fernando, after it was (staged) to be shot down. Al was
supposed to pull out of the dive at the last minute and land the behemoth safely. The final cut
would show only the dive and supposed crash. Black Cat in training Philip Jones hid in the plane
and released sacks of “lamp black” over fans which spewed the soot out to simulate smoke.
As the primitive machine careened toward the fast-approaching ground a wing started to
separate and Al realized he was not able to pull the ship out of its death-dive so he bailed with
parachute. In the screaming dive and enveloping soot the 29-year-old Jones didn’t realize the
pilot had ejected. This was for naught; however, as the young man found himself trapped in the
forward cabin upside down where he was forced to ride the ship to its destruction and his own
death. Phil’s mangled body was later extracted from the wreck after the ship exploded on
impact in an orange grove. This scene was scheduled to be performed by Black Cat Fronty
Nichols but Jones had offered to do it for less money. Nichols was replaced. Poignantly it was to
be the last stunt Jones did for the film on a ship he had worked on for the last 18 months (in
many shoots). The death shot was left in the movie as filmed by 3 different camera ships.
After the tragedy a coroner’s jury investigation found pilot Wilson negligent and determined he
had “violated the rules of the air”. An indignant public shared the jury’s consensus that Wilson
had safely floated “merrily” to the earth while his passenger was trapped in a fatal dive.
According to official findings, Wilson failed to warn his aircraft mechanic stunt man Phil Jones,
before, he deserted his ship too hastily at an elevation of 6500 feet, which would have only been
allowed if he had made sure Jones was safely out of the ship first. (Johnson maintains he bailed
at about 5500 feet and yelled for Jones to bail). The guidelines for abandoning a ship in peril at
the time was 1000 feet. In the panic, Johnson was thought to have not been aware the pilot had
ejected at all. The investigation resulted in Wilson’s membership being revoked by the
Professional Pilots’ Association while the United States Department of Commerce suspended
his license for 3 months and fined him 500 dollars. The accident haunted Wilson from then on.
Interesting is another event in the saga of the Black Cats as connected with the time frame
discussed above. During the 'oft terrifying filming of Hell’s Angels, Howard Hughes decided he
wanted to fly a particular scene himself. He was never satisfied with the stunts of the pilots
working for him. Members of the 13 Black Cats (possibly to include Jack Frye) had recently
taught Hughes to fly at $50.00 a lesson (per Fronty Nichols interview). Once Hughes was
sufficiently trained, but certainly not skilled for movie stunts, he took off and tried to do a
stunt in the film. Unfortunately for him, this required more experience than he could muster
and the flight ended in a death dive and ugly crash near Inglewood. Hughes was hospitalized
with severe injuries. The first of several bad crashes in the life of the brash Hughes which were
all the result of his carelessness (or at least that of him not following safety guidelines of the
day). In the company of the Black Cats though perhaps safety is just a moot point.
Now for the most “unorthodox” feat in the history of aviation, as Nichols described it. Black Cat
Paul Richter was competing in one of many Dead Stick contests of the day, this time, trying to
beat competitor Swede Olsen. (It is my understanding that Richter was representing the “Cats”
at the event). At 5000 feet Paul cut the engine and proceeded to head for the chalked finish line
in front of the bleachers. After some slick maneuvers, loops, and spins, etc., he misjudged his
position and realized he was headed straight for a stadium full of people. With little elevation
he looped and sideswiped on to the finish line- albeit upside down! He missed the crowd by
inches. The shrieks of the frightened spectators, turned to cheers, as Richter crawled out of his
upside down ship with chalk dust all over his Black Cat sweater. Paul confidently nodded toward
the plane and said to a judge, “want it any closer than that?” The judge responded without
amusement “the point of the contest is to land on the wheels,” he stated. Richter was obviously
disappointed at the reaction. Nichols and Richter were great pals.
The last of many memorable events was said to be heralded by this media headline: “Three
Young Idiots Endanger Lives of Thousands”. In a stunt for the annual Stanford versus U.S.C.
game at the Los Angeles Coliseum, pilot Bon, with Spider and Fronty, were hired to fly over the
stadium and drop parachutes with footballs of both school colors, as painted and sewn by Mrs.
Nichols. While Spider and Fronty climbed on to the wings and waved to the crowd releasing
footballs at half-time, Bon struggled with a weak engine, on the verge of a stall. The radiator
was leaking and spraying water on the spark plugs which was making the plane misfire, enough
so that Bon could not maintain the altitude needed to clear the bleachers. (One report states
the engine had completely failed.) Bon, frantically signaled for Spider and Ken to get in the
plane and off the wings where their weight was hastening the planes descent. After they dove
for the fuselage Bon was able to gain enough lift to clear the top stadium seats and 75 thousand
spectators by mere inches. After which Bon miraculously found an empty lot where he was able
to side swipe in and land. Nichols stated it was a "lot" Bon maintained it was an emergency air
field near the stadium. The end result was unmatched by the near disaster, and the public was
not impressed. After the 3 deplaned, they left the ship marooned, and on shaky legs took a taxi
back to the stadium and stayed for the rest of the game. Per Nichols, this last harrowing
experience was the death knell for the group. Bon, Fronty, and Spider, decided their luck had
run out many times over and it was time to disband with what was left of their fleeting 9 lives!
In closing, nobody can give you an unbiased factual account of the 13 Black Cat operation, I
don’t care who it is. This because the basis of the group was all hype and newspaper copy of the
day magnified this end. The men involved were some of the bravest, and more than a few
perhaps a bit too much of “throwing caution to the wind” thus many died way too young. With
the time frame, some 80-years ago, and the longevity of the group a mere 5 short years, sorting
out the muddled facts as can be expected is quite difficult. Deaths were many, after all cats only
have 9 lives, not 10, 11, or 12. The following fatalities are just a few:
Black Cat Al Johnson who was working for Howard Hughes in the filming of the movie “Hell’s
Angels” died on December 31, 1927. His death was unrelated to his work but instead was the
result of contacting high voltage power lines after taking off from the Glendale Airport (to go to
work). He was flying to Mines Field for a filming segment. Johnson died later in the hospital
from severe high voltage burns.
It gives me great pause to relate the following freak accident of aviatrix Gladys Roy, world
famous aerial stunt performer, record parachute jumper (200 to 16,000 feet) and participant of
many a game of faux tennis on the wing tops of numerous Black Cat planes. The last day of her
life (August 15, 1927) she did what she loved the most; performing aerial stunts. This time on a
rainy day at the Kinsman Fairgrounds before a crowd of thousands. She expertly stood on the
wing of a Jenny while the plane did loops and hung upside down from the landing gear with only
her knees holding her to the plane. As if this was not enough to satisfy the insatiable crowds,
she did a head stand on the fuselage with the wind ripping at her clothes. After a wet and tiring
day of aerial stunts and fighting the mud on the ground, no doubt, Gladys was looking forward
to a hot shower and a good night’s rest.
However, fate had more in store for this “legend of the air”. She was at Watson Field (late
afternoon) for the filming of “The Queen of Ohio- Meets The Queen Of The Air”. This (promo-
short?) starred Gladys and local beauty queen, Evelyn Wilgus (Miss Ohio). The gig was almost
over when in a moment of unconscious preoccupation (as no other explanation can possibly be
put forth) Gladys climbed out of the cockpit and walked around the front of the plane's nose,
directly into the plane’s spinning prop. The blow was deadly and severe, Gladys immediately
collapsed to the ground amid the screams of a horrified film crew and shocked bystanders.
Mrs. Roy was rushed to the Youngstown Hospital, her injuries so severe, the surgeons could do
little for her. She died late that night, or early Tuesday morning, (according to two different
accounts). This, sadly, a needless death. Struck down, not by an aerial stunt high in the air, but
by falling prey to a plane’s most dangerous attribute; the spinning propeller. She left behind a
legion of fans, and her husband, Arthur Roy, who lived with her at Los Angeles and
Minneapolis. Gladys Roy at only 25-years old had experienced a lifetime of aviation.
Frank Lockhart and Spider Matlock left aerial stunts for auto racing exhibitions which soon
proved fatal to them both. On April 25, 1928, 26-year old Lockhart died after one of many
horrific accidents, this one at Daytona Beach Florida after rocketing down a sandy strip at over
200 m.p.h. (some sources state 240) in his daunting Stutz Blackhawk Special. His attempt at a
new land speed record failed after his (said to be) 70,000 dollar 16-cylinder speedster blew a rear
tire. His hysterical wife cradled her fatally injured husband from wreck to hospital after which
the press described Frank as having “magnificent courage”. A heartbreaking end to a man who
was very much a part of the Burdett Airport hierarchy- a terrible blow to his Black Cat peers.
Spider Matlock “the man of a thousand crack-ups” followed Frank in death, on Monday
January 27, 1936. The accident occurred at the Black Cat frequented Ascot Speedway in Los
Angeles on Sunday the 26th. His wife and 10-year-old son sat beside him at the hospital as he
slipped away. Another tragic death of a man who personified the character and bravado of the
famous 13 Black Cats. Along with Bon, and Fronty Nichols, Spider was truly the face and
essence of the Black Cats. Matlock was racing that day in a car with 34-year-old Al Gordon (aka
the Coast Comet) who also died at the hospital (January 26) after the accident. Gordon’s wife
and one of their boys was in the bleachers that day watching but didn't see the actual crash.
On April 21, 1933, Herd McClelland, who was not only a noted Black Cat, but inventor, as well,
designed what he thought was a fool-proof bullet proof vest. In a performance for newsreel
cameras, a noted sharp shooter, Marion Semellyen, shot him in the chest 30-some times. The
vest held but showman-Herd decided to go one step further by swinging from a rope as “the
human pendulum”. Nine more bullets found their mark with the fortieth penetrating his heart,
killing him. The accident (or should we say staged suicide) occurred after the last bullet
penetrated through a previous hole, which offered no protection. Many versions of the story
exist as to the number of shots. McClelland’s fee was $3.00 (the cost of the ammunition). He
saw this as a comeback and wasn’t looking for money. Another needless freak accident.
Fronty Nichols died in 1974, of cancer, in California. Jack Frye died in Tucson, in 1959, after a
drunk driver hit him when he was driving back to his hotel. Paul Richter, in 1949, at a Denver
hospital, of a cerebral hemorrhage. Bon MacDougall appears to have been the last living Black
Cat when he died December 11, 1970, at Sun City, California.
The Flying 13 Black Cats live on forever though in the hearts of their fans and as woven into
the colorful fabric of the dawning of American aviation. Bless you Cats! You are not forgotten!
Hair Raising Feats- Wild Crowds
Black Cat Spider Matlock with unidentified companion in Paul Richter's plane. Notice the P.E.R.
on the side. Richter's plane was often seen in images as a Black Cat support ship, along with the
most often seen Black Cat plane number "13". The second man appears to be a Burdett Airport
ground crew member wearing maintenance overalls. Photo taken in 1925 in front of the Burdett
Airport flight shack (notice the Burdett windsock and office behind plane).
The Black Cats "Seven". I have never seen a photo of all the 13 Black Cats together. The
image above is a well-circulated photo of the Black Cats adding Reginald Denny to the group. It
has been difficult to notate individuals in Black Cat images as so many images have no
identification. I notice most historians either don't try or have not the knowledge to do so. That
said, I think I can pretty much identify from left to right the following members, Burdett
Fuller, Spider Matlock, Bon MacDougall, Fronty Nichols, Reginald Denny, Paul Richter, and Art
Goebel. (Fuller is the questionable one). This image is from the June Smith archive (1925).
In the shot above, and right, we may have the
same Jenny. Unidentified man (above & front)
with a second man (rear) which may be Spider
or Bon MacDougall. The image (right) is Paul
Richter with Spider Matlock, front, (1925).
Notice the Richter emblem on side of plane.
The 13 Flying Black Cats shown with 9 members (above). From left to right, back row-
Spider Matlock, Bon MacDougall, (unknown), Fronty Nichols, Paul Richter, Reginald Denny,
Art Goebel. Front row, Al Johnson, Herd McClellan. Research is still pending on identification.
If A Black Cat Can't Do It- It Can't Be Done!
A few individuals who are thought to have been official Black Cat members at various times
(a couple honorary) were as follows: Burdett Fuller, Frank Helfing, Reginald Denny, Elbert
"Babe" Stapp, "Wild Billy" Lind, Wayne Allies, Theodore (Ted) A. Woolsey, Gerald Phillips,
Howard Batt, Frank Lockhart, Native American member Chief White Eagle, Gladys Roy. As I
said above, there were associates of the Black Cats who assisted in stunts but did not seek
membership. A few of these were Joe Campi, Frank Tomac, Bobby Chase, Frank Clarke, Dick
Grace, and Philip Johnson. I regret any names that have escaped my research and do not appear
on this generalized list, and I will expand the names as dots are connected.
Just a couple Black Cat business cards from the June Smith Collection as seen on Page 1924.
Paul E. Richter, Jr. and William "Spider" (W. E.) Matlock. Click for larger files.
Two prominent Black Cat business cards, as seen above, from the June Smith Collection as
found on Page 1924. Albert Johnson, longtime Hollywood stuntman, and Kenneth "Fronty"
Nichols, the Black Cat with the most infectious personality and the biggest smile.
I have to state now that I have completed this substantial documentation on the 13 Black Cats
that this page has been one of the most heartfelt and moving historical presentations I have
completed to date. I feel like I have come to know these men personally and have been cheered
on to complete the work. It goes without saying I am honored to be in a position to recognize
and pay tribute to a group of the bravest and most personable pilots there ever was. A
fellowship of aviators, unsurpassed, who will live on in the collective consciousness of aviation
forever. I am humbled. "We were.... we were the 13 Black Cats!" Nothing else need be said.
Friend of the Burdett Flyers, Frank E. Samuels catches up with famous Hollywood stunt man Al
Johnson for a few words-
Just after Al Johnson, the stunt flyer for the movies, landed after performing an extra
hazardous stunt for one of the motion picture companies, and while waiting to find out if he
would have to do it all over again for the aerial photographer, I took advantage of his resting
time to ask him a few questions as to whether he was nervous when performing new stunts. Al,
in his own inimitable way, replied: “Well, you see, I have been doubling for movie actors ever
since I was big enough to ride a motorcycle, and have done almost every known ground stunt
for them. I can’t say that I was ever nervous. I generally have it all figured out as to how I am
going to do the trick, and I am usually very careful to see that everything is prepared in
advance to assure me the minimum danger. Carelessness of detail is the cause of most
“While preparing to make a parachute jump recently I was in such haste that I did not properly
fasten my rip-cord. We took-off, Bon MacDougall was flying the ship, when we reached an
altitude of 15,000 feet, Bon signaled me out the cockpit. I went out on the wing, and as we were
circling for position my rip-cord came loose and blew back over my shoulder. I was sitting on the
edge of the wing at the time. Bon immediately noticed it and pointed to it. I thought he was
motioning for me to look down, which I did, and noticed another ship looping close to the
ground, and thought that Bon was watching it too. When I looked at him again he motioned to
me frantically, pointing to my pack. Again, I looked down toward earth. I didn’t see anything so
I leaned a way out in order to get a good view under the wing. As I did so my rip-cord became
entangled around an incidence wire, pulled and opened my pack. Bon immediately signaled me
to come to the cockpit, but just as I gained my feet the parachute flew through the wires and
opened, dragging me through with it before I had a chance to think. The force of the ‘chute
pulled me through the wires, broke parts of my harness and strained my back. The jar on the
ship was terrific. It tore the streamline of the wires and threw the whole ship out of line. The
last thing that I remembered was the look on the pilot’s face as I shot by him.
“When I landed at last, a few minutes later, I was partially conscious but was O.K., minus about
8 square inches of hide. Then was when Bon MacDougall got his revenge for a busted ship, as he
took great pleasure in acting as my doctor using an entire pint of iodine on my raw flesh at one
painting. I have a full quart of iodine that I am saving in case I ever have the chance to return
the compliment.” Additional info please see Page 1926 "Events in and Around Burdett Airport".
As mentioned above, Al Johnson died December 31, 1927 in his own plane, at takeoff, on his
way to work at the (Howard Hughes' Hell’s Angels filming location).
From the June Smith Files- In Memorial