Leg Amputation Failed to Ground Famed Movie Stunt Pilot

Hollywood stunt pilot Frank Tallman once flew an airplane through a billboard. Another time, he crashed into a house on purpose.

Both times he survived unscathed and kept flying.

Not even a leg amputation could ground the son of a World War I aviator who took his first airplane ride at age 5 years, sitting on his father’s lap.

In 1965, Tallman seriously injured his left leg in a go-kart accident. Doctors gave him a choice, wrote Scott A. Thompson of Aero Vintage books online: “have his leg amputated above the knee or have it heal stiff and unusable.”

Either option seemed almost certain to prevent Tallman from ever piloting a plane again. The aviator pondered his predicament and opted for amputation. He figured limb removal “offered him the best possibility of returning to the cockpit and his livelihood,” Thompson said. “Months of rehabilitation followed, and he learned to walk again with his new artificial leg. Once that was mastered, Tallman set out to requalify for all his FAA pilot certificates.”

Made it look easy

It seemed like mission impossible. But it was mission accomplished for Tallman. Duly relicensed, he climbed back into airplane cockpits and continued to perform neck-snapping stunts and dizzying aerobatics for the benefit of movie camera crews and film fans. “In a mark of his determination, he was ultimately successful and resumed his aviator status, an amazing achievement often overlooked because he made it look easy,” Thompson also wrote.

Born in New Jersey in 1919, Tallman earned a pilot’s license when he was a teenager. In World War II, he served as a Navy flight instructor and stayed in the Navy reserve after the global conflict.


Public domain Wikipedia. Original source:http://afhra.maxwell.af.mil/photo_galleries/aaf_wwii_vol_vi/Photos/00910460_026.jpg

In the 1950s, Tallman, who loved historic aircraft, settled in Illinois and started building a collection of familiar World War I and World War II planes. The lean, lanky, handsome Tallman sported “a neatly trimmed mustache [that] fit well with his helmet and goggles and period flying clothes, and he looked every bit what everyone thought a dashing World War I aviator should look like,” Thompson wrote.

By 1959, Tallman had moved to the Los Angeles area. In 1961, he and famous movie stunt pilot Paul Mantz started Tallmantz Aviation, a company that furnished pilots, camera planes and historic aircraft to moviemakers.

Tallman’s reputation as a daredevil pilot soared when he flew a twin-engine Beechcraft D-18 through a billboard during the filming of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which came out in 1963. “The sign had a Styrofoam backing, a piece of which lodged in the plane’s engine when it crashed through with only inches to spare off each wing tip,” according to the IMDb.com. He safely returned to the Chino, Calif., airport.

Two years later, Tallman’s amputation may have saved his life. While he recuperated, Mantz was in the Arizona desert flying a special single-engine, makeshift plane Tallmantz Aviation custom built for the movie The Flight of the Phoenix. Mantz was 61 and easing out of flying chores, so the job might have been Tallman’s.

At any rate, as cameras rolled, Mantz crashed and he died instantly.

Risky business

Tallman faced another tough challenge besides losing a leg. After the death of his partner, he nearly lost Tallmantz Aviation.

But Tallman saved the company and returned to the sky in 1966 dressed as Suzanne Pleshette in Cloudbusters. He piloted a P-51 Mustang and an F8F Bearcat fighter in the movie. It was his first flying job after his leg was amputated the year before, Thompson wrote.

Tallman went on to log more famous stunts. During the filming of Catch-22, which premiered in 1970, Tallman flew a single-engine propeller plane into a balsa wood dummy that was supposed to be a man standing on a raft. The spinning prop sliced the effigy in two.


“After he struck the dummy, his flight controls went haywire and he found he could not properly steer the craft,” the Internet Movie Database explains. “He used his trim controls to get the plane back to the airport.

“When he checked the control surfaces, he found that the dummy’s hand had flown up into the rudder, jamming it. He kept that hand in a display case at his Tallmantz Museum.”

Tallman headed south of the border to Venezuela in 1970 to join the filming of Murphy’s War. He had to fly his Grumman Duck seaplane over dense jungle, which Tallman called “terrible,” according to Thompson. “If you start to go down in it, you’re dead. Don’t even bother to reach for your beads.”

In 1971, he rammed a World War I biplane into a ranch house near Hollywood for the movie Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies. Heavily padded, Tallman was not hurt.

Three years later, he was performing low-level stunts in another World War I aircraft for The Great Waldo Pepper. He struck power lines and crashed into a river bed. Cuts on his head required a dozen stitches, according to Thompson.

Tallman also dabbled in television. In the 1970s, he flew in Baa Baa Black Sheep, later Black Sheep Squadron.

But his film career, and his life, ended in 1978 when he crashed flying a company plane. He went down in mountains near John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., where Tallmantz Aviation was headquartered.

“Tallman’s life was, as was his partner’s thirteen years earlier, celebrated in a memorial service held a few days later and well attended by both entertainment and aviation worlds,” Thompson wrote. “A missing-man formation concluded the service. Tallman was laid to rest in the same memorial park on the coastal hills above Newport Beach as [was] Paul Mantz.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.