Aviation Gags

Great practical jokes in aviation history.

Philippe Lechein illustration
"He reverses the process—back to the seaplane, back to New York and is back in his apartment when the phone rings. He croaks, “Hello?” and is devastated to learn that in his absence there has been another murder."Philippe Lechein

Our United States government, in a fit of misguided zeal, defaced the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota with the likenesses of four politicians—one of them remembered today, among other things, as the inspiration of a plush toy.

And yet, those stone faces are there forever—which is a long, long time.

Another instance of violent destruction, more than 1,000 nm to the southwest but close to all our hearts, was the demolition of a fly-in “motel” known as the Happy Bottom Riding Club in the California desert.

How are these two perfidies connected? By Florence Lowe “Pancho” Barnes.

The Riding Club—its official name, the Rancho Oro Verde Fly-Inn Dude Ranch—was the local pub of Muroc Air Force Base (now known to us as Edwards), and Pancho was its Falstaff—its comic soul.

How might we make the liaison between the Happy Bottom and Mt. Rushmore? A better-adjusted ­country would have asked whom do we deem actually worthy of inspiration and put her face up on the rock. Pancho would have been a better choice. But why?

Grover Ted Tate reports in his book The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus that Chuck Yeager said to Pancho, in summing the whole thing up, "$%&! it, we had more fun in a week than most people have in a lifetime."

Most photos show any pilot with an airplane grinning to beat the band, but Pancho, the accomplished stunt pilot, is grinning in every photo of her, airplane or not—delighted not just by aviation, but by “the whole damned thing.”

Those leaders immortalized on Rushmore were a dull bunch: George Washington didn’t even cop to a minor misdeed until caught red-handed with the hatchet. Is this the lesson we want to teach our children? I don’t think so. Given the choice, I’d rather spend the evening hanging out with Pancho Barnes.

Now flying itself, of course, is quite literally death on levity, but in the spirit of Pancho and the good gag, here are a few I’d like to share with you.

First, take Alan, a regular on the local airport, who came to realize that no life would be complete without a new Waco Classic Biplane. He got himself out to Battle Creek and bought one. He proudly texted back photos of his new amour, and it was, indeed, comely.

But the lads on the field realized that its paint scheme looked familiar. Close scrutiny suggested that the Waco seemed to be painted a unique combination of yellow and zinnwaldite brown, the signature color scheme of a noted delivery company.

So when Alan landed back at Santa Monica, California, he rolled up on the ramp and came inside to fetch the group out to admire the thing. But, as chance would have it, while Alan refreshed himself inside from the flight, his buddies opened the airport gate to admit the UPS driver that ­happened to be on his rounds.

Alan took us back out onto the ramp, where the UPS guy, his truck parked next to the airplane, was filling its rear cockpit with packages.

Alan—I will not use the word “consequently,” but in the spirit of fellowship, will say “subsequently”—traded in the brown-and-yellow thing for another Waco.

Next: In 1984, I spent some time in Alaska as the guest of a film crew. The film was The Iceman, starring Tim Hutton and John Lone. Here's the script: A team of scientists discover the 10,000-year-old body of a Neanderthal buried in a glacier. He, of course, is not "dead" and is brought back to life by the ministrations of a doctor, who is part of the team. So far so good.

Now, however—“things” occur. The Iceman, considered docile, begins to “act out.” In any case (and here is the gag), one sequence from the movie was to be filmed on one of the glaciers, just a short flight from our base at Hyder, Alaska.

One of the cast portraying a tame geologist was to fly in a helicopter from the glacier. Unbeknownst to him, the Iceman (at this point thought vanquished but just lying inert) was to rise from the glacier and hitch himself onto the skids of the helicopter carrying the scientist.

The camera helicopter captures the action. The “hero” helicopter flies off unconcernedly with the Iceman attached. At some point in the flight, the Iceman climbs up to the helicopter door and, using his Neanderthal strength, tries to claw his way into the cabin and kill the offending geologist. The helicopter does violent maneuvers and shakes the Iceman loose, and he falls to his death.

The action is filmed both from the camera ship and inside the helicopter cabin. The actor is supposed to look terrified at his brush with death. This was no problem, as he was uncontrollably afraid of flying.

Added to the liquor and pills used to quiet him was the age-old negotiating phrase, “Do this or you’ll never work again.” The actor signed on to do the stunt.

There they were, at several thousand feet up. The actor is in the cabin, happy to have escaped from the bad, bad Iceman. Everything’s hunky-dory. But no—he hears a clawing and looks, and there, inches away, standing on the skid, is the crazed Neanderthal trying to get in.

The actor looks terrified. His pilot takes evasive action, the Iceman falls to his death.

The stunt (“gag” in film language) was done for real. There was no CGI—it was well before such computer graphics used in film. There was a stuntman dressed as the critter. He actually flew hooked to the skid; he actually clawed at the window, and he actually fell and opened his ­parachute once out of the shot.

The stuntman was the great Dar Robinson. But his ­version of the good gag was somewhat more elaborate than that of the director. Before filming, he had secreted a fellow stuntman near the tail of the helicopter, this guy also in an Iceman suit.

Dar does his bit, the actor goes “eek!” and Dar is shaken off and falls away. Everyone in the helicopter congratulates the actor on his performance and ­victory over fear. Happiness pervades the cabin. And then another Neanderthal appears on the skid and begins pounding on the window and screaming for the now reagitated actor’s blood.

Read more from David Mamet: Three Green, No Red

The final aviation-themed gag in this trio: For a time, I was seconded to a distinguished theatrical family that had been a part of the Algonquin Round Table—a group of ­writers, actors and other wits based in New York City. I got to hear a few good reminiscences, and here's one now. These Algonquin merrymakers called themselves the Vicious Circle. They included Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Harpo Marx, Noel Coward, Tallulah Bankhead, George S. Kaufman and so on.

They loved games, and a favorite game was Murder.

I believe we all know it. The players draw lots. One lot designates the “murderer.” The group works to figure out who the murderer is, as, one by one, the members fall to his or her fell act: The chosen murderer winks at the victim, and suddenly there’s one less mouth to feed.

Well, the Vicious Circle had been playing Murder all winter. Many had died, and even as the list of potential culprits shrunk, the murderer’s identity remained a mystery. The group was going for the weekend to someone’s country house on Long Island.

Benchley begged off at the last minute, calling the country house, hoarse and feverish, to say he was too ill for words and would have to stay in bed in Manhattan. He was particularly irked, he said, because he felt he was “on the scent” and hated to miss out on the game.

“Look,” he croaked, “I can’t stand it. I’ve been given some medicine and have to lie down. But call me back in two hours, and let me know if there have been any new victims.”

Benchley hangs up and runs down to a waiting cab. The cab takes him to a seaplane waiting in the East River.

Benchley flies to East Hampton, and the seaplane touches down just off the beach of the country house. Benchley is rowed ashore. He creeps up to the house, and he sees one of the group entering the powder room. He knocks on the window, the victim turns and Benchley winks at her.

He reverses the process—back to the seaplane, back to New York and is back in his apartment when the phone rings. He croaks, “Hello?” and is devastated to learn that in his absence there has been another murder.

As Mr. Kipling had it:

There are three degrees of bliss
And three abodes of the Blest.
And the lowest place is his
Who has saved a soul by a jest
And a brother's soul in sport…
But there do the Angels Resort.