Renowned stunt pilot had roots in Midwest
One of the greatest stunt pilots in movie history grew up in North Dakota. Dick Grace performed many of the aviation stunts for the 1927 Academy Award-winning movie "Wings." When the silent movie era was over, Time magazine reported, "Grace now m...
One of the greatest stunt pilots in movie history grew up in North Dakota.
Dick Grace performed many of the aviation stunts for the 1927 Academy Award-winning movie "Wings." When the silent movie era was over, Time magazine reported, "Grace now makes more money than any other stunter. Before he attempts his stunts, spectators frequently bet that he will be killed." It also stated, "He shrewdly covers all bets himself."
Grace was born Jan. 10, 1898, in Morris, Minn. His father was an attorney and in 1904 moved his family to the new town of Mohall, N.D., which later became the county seat of Renville County.
Grace became fascinated with airplanes at an early age and spent hours building model planes. He saw his first real airplane at a Ward County, N.D., fair. After being allowed to push the craft into a makeshift shelter, he was hooked on becoming a pilot. At age 16, he soloed on his first trip in an airplane.
Grace graduated from high school in Mohall and went to college to become a lawyer like his father, but World War I intervened. He enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 14, 1917, and after receiving basic training in Minneapolis and Boston, was promoted to ensign on July 17, 1918. He received flight training in Pensacola, Fla.
Grace was sent to Europe, where he was involved in dogfights over France, Italy and Germany. On one occasion, his Spad aircraft was shot down and Grace was awarded a Purple Heart. When the war ended, Grace was released on Feb. 12, 1919.
His father had been elected associate justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court, and the family moved to Bismarck. Grace temporarily rejoined the family, but in the summer of 1919 he attended the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul to see movie stunt pilot Ormer Locklear.
Locklear invited Grace to Hollywood to try his luck at being a stunt pilot. There was little demand for pilot work in the movies, so Grace agreed with Fox studios to do other stunts, including automobile crashes, falls and being set on fire.
His first aviation movie was "Sky High," made in 1920 and starring Tom Mix. Grace again worked with Mix in the 1923 movie "Eyes of the Forest," in which he crashed his plane into a barn.
Sunset Productions was looking for a fearless flier for a couple of aviation pictures and hired Grace away from Fox to star in "The Flying Fool" and "Wide Open," which also included a number of aerial stunts.
Grace received his biggest challenge when he was offered airplane stunt work for the movie "Wings," which included dogfights and airplane crashes, and was the first movie to receive an Academy Award for best picture at the initial Oscars in 1927.
On May 20-21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Not to be outdone, Grace proposed a solo flight from Hawaii to the West Coast of the U.S. He had his airplane shipped to Honolulu and made plans to fly to California in late June.
After several delays, he was ready to begin his flight on July 4. Grace got into the cockpit with his 4-week-old puppy to begin his flight, but once in the air things began going wrong and his plane crashed. Grace and his dog were uninjured.
Grace returned to Hollywood to resume stunt work in airplanes. In 1928, he formed a nine-man stunt pilot group called the "Squadron of Death." The name was more than fitting, because by 1940 Grace was the sole survivor.
In the late 1920s, he began writing, turning out stories for Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post and Liberty Magazine. He also wrote several books, including "Squadron of Death," "I Am Still Alive," "The Lost Squadron," "Visibility Unlimited" and "Give Us This Day." "The Squadron of Death" and "The Lost Squadron" were both made into major motion pictures.
When the U.S. entered World War II, Grace tried to enlist for combat missions with the Air Force, which agreed under the stipulation that he serve as an instructor. Grace maneuvered himself into a position of flying B-24s over to England. He then convinced his old friend Jimmy Doolittle to get him a position with 8th Air Force as an instructor. Grace was soon flying combat missions, and at 46 became the oldest commissioned pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps on active duty in Europe.
After the war, Grace decided he had done enough stunt flying. He had performed nearly 50 crashes and had broken more than 80 bones. In 1946, he began a freight and passenger airline service to South America. He died June 25, 1965, in Los Angeles.
"Did You Know That" is a Sunday column that focuses on interesting people, places and events that had an impact on North Dakota, or even the country. It is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org .