Mantz’s 1965 letter to Van Dusen raises questions

Paul Mantz was a noted air racer, movie stunt pilot and aviation consultant from the late 1930s until his death in the mid-1960s.  He gained fame in Hollywood, and to many familiar with the Earhart disappearance, Mantz is known as Amelia’s technical advisor for her final flight — or at least that’s the popular narrative.  

Bolstering the idea that Mantz was solely in charge of everything about the Earhart Electra, we have a letter from Mantz to Eastern Airlines executive William Van Dusen of May 6, 1965, one month before Mantz died.  The letter appeared in the November 1998 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, and is reproduced fully here:

This letter tells us things about Paul Mantz that I’d always suspected — primarily, that humility was a virtue with which Mantz seldom, if ever, had even a nodding acquaintance.  Who, in such a prestigious position, writes a letter dealing with aviation technicalities to another professional in all upper case?  Whether it’s 1965 or 2022, it’s simply bad form, rude and unacceptable.  

Paul Mantz and Amelia Earhart, circa 1936.

William Van Dusen (1901-1976) was public relations director for Pan American Airways and later worked for Eastern Airlines, retiring as a vice president in 1969.  In the late 1920’s Mr. Van Dusen organized, and for 20 years, directed public relations for Pan American World Airways,the New York Times wrote in his obituary:

In this capacity, he accompanied crews on ninny [sic] trailblazing survey flights by Pan Am around the world and was a specialist on early commercial flight planning and promotion.  In 1920 he accompanied Col. Charles A. Lindbergh on the aerial exploration of Mexico and Central America, in which several “lost” cities of Mayan civilization were found.  Mr. Van Dusen wrote many articles on aviation in leading national magazines.

Van Dusen wasn’t an insignificant figure, but neither was he ever accused of anything important relative to the Earhart flight, so why did Mantz use such an unconventional style in addressing Van Dusen — a tiny sample of other Mantz letters I’ve seen are written in a normal style.  Note also the repetitive use of the personal pronoun “I.”  You don’t have to be a licensed psychoanalyst to recognize egomania on steroids.

As for the message in Mantz’s missive to the Eastern Airlines executive, he couldn’t have been more emphatic that he was in complete charge of the building of this airplane and equipping it for Amelia — working with Lockheed, that there was no special equipment installed and thatif there had been any camera guide lines or cameras installed, I would have been in complete charge of it.” And what did Mantz mean when he wrote, “She didn’t listen to Papa” when referring to Earhart’s Hawaii crackup?

William Van Dusen, circa 1930. (University of Miami Special Collections.)

Mantz’s letter, for all its bluster, seems rather authoritative, if not definitive.  According to Mantz, when it came to Amelia Earhart’s Electra, he was the The Man.”  But a paragraph from a May 13, 1979 letter from Fred Goerner to radio expert Joseph Gurr that appeared in the March 2000 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters directly contradicts Mantz’s claims about being “in complete charge” of any changes to the Earhart bird:

Joe, did you know that Paul Mantz was removed as the so-called technical advisorfor the AE flight after the crackup in Honolulu, and that the real man behind the scenes was ClarenceKelly Johnson, of Lockheed? Johnson in recent years has been head of the U-2 and SR-71 programs.  Johnson tells me he still is not permitted to tell the degree of U.S. Government involvement in the AE flight.  I’m still in communication with him, and I am hopeful he will experience a change of attitude.

I don’t know when Goerner learned that Mantz had been taken off the Earhart team following her March 1937 Luke Field crash in Hawaii, but in a 1971 letter to Fred Hooven, Goerner called Johnson “the real technical advisor for the AE flight.  So it appears that in addition to Mantz’s egomania, we can add dishonesty to the list of his notable traits, as he lied by omission in not including the fact that he had been removed as Earhart’s technical guru prior to her second attempt in June 1937.

When considering Paul Mantz and Clarence Kelly Johnson, who an unnamed Lockheed publicist called the “Architect of the Air,one could not imagine two more disparate personalities.  “To this day, Kelly Johnson’s resume of accomplishments reads like a list of the most iconic airplanes in aviation history,” Lockheed’s “Architect of the Air” proclaims:

During World War II, he designed the speedy P-38 Lightning, which pummeled destroyers and intercepted enemy fighters and bombers from Berlin to Tokyo; late in the war his team developed America’s first operational jet fighter, the P-80, in less than six months.  Then he delivered the immortal Constellation, which revolutionized commercial aviation.  By 1955, Johnson and his secret division of engineers — dubbed Skunk Works — launched the world’s first dedicated spy plane, the U-2, just nine months after receiving an official contract.

Imperious, passionate, and demanding, Johnson was just as likely to deliver a kick to someone’s pants as a compliment to his face.  In the pursuit of breakthrough designs, he tolerated errors — with the caveat that they were made just once.  He asked only for hard work, good communication, and unwavering honesty.  Despite his volatile approach, Johnson earned unparalleled loyalty from his highly skilled team.  (Italics mine.)

I’ve seen nothing to indicate that Johnson ever experienced thechange of attitude that Goerner told Gurr he hoped would happen, and we’re left to speculate about what Johnson’s role in Earhart’s last flight might have beenThere’s nothing in Johnson’s amazing Wikipedia page that even hints that he had anything to do with the Earhart plane or her last flight, at a time when he was only about 27 years old and earning the 1937 Lawrence Sperry Award, Presented by the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences for “Important improvements of aeronautical design of high-speed commercial aircraft.” 

A young Clarence “Kelly” Johnson and Amelia Earhart, in an undated photo, consult before her Electra, probably sometime in summer 1937.  Johnson was characteristically tight-lipped about his role with Amelia and her Electra 10E, but Fred Goerner called Johnson “the real man behind the scenes.”

But we know Wikipedia is an establishment reference site designed to protect our sacred cows, among other functions, and my knowledge of Kelly Johnson borders on superficial at best.  Perhaps an astute reader might know more about Johnson’s possible involvement with Amelia Earhart, her plane or her disappearance, but I suspect nothing new will surface.   

We’ll probably never know precisely what Johnson’s involvement with Earhart might have been, but some will always wonder about it, and whether Kelly Johnson was the face behind the U.S. government’s covert plan for Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan that went awry and resulted in their tragic, unnecessary deaths on Saipan.  How much of this wretched story was Johnson responsible for creating, if any at all?

Paul Mantz died on July 8, 1965 while working on the movie The Flight of the Phoenix.  Flying an unusual plane, the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1, built especially for the film, Mantz struck a small hillock while skimming over a desert site in Arizona.  As he attempted to recover by opening the throttle to its maximum, the over-stressed aircraft broke in two and nosed over into the ground, killing Mantz instantly.  He was 62.

The FAA investigation noted Mantz’s alcohol consumption before the flight and said the resulting impairment to his “efficiency and judgment” contributed to the accident.  Some might agree that, in the end, Mantz’s oversized ego was also a factor, one that proved to be his fatal undoing. 

UPDATE OCT. 15: Longtime reader William Trail found an informative story on Paul Mantz in the May 2020 issue of Aviation History magazine.  Titled “King of Hollywood Pilots,” it’s subtitled, “Stunt Pilot and Air Racer Paul Mantz Flew In More Than 250 Movies And Once Owned The World’s Seventh Largest Air Force.” 

Little is mentioned about Mantz’s relationship with Earhart in this story.  Here’s the closing two paragraphs:

An autopsy finding his blood-alcohol level to be .13 has been disputed by witnesses.  I know he had nothing to drink, Mantz’s secretary stated.  I knew him for many years, and he never seemed sharper than he did that morning.”  It’s conceivable desert heat might have hastened decomposition, raising microbial ethanol levels.  As a friend shrugged, “Drunk or sober, he was one hell of a pilot.”

More than 400 people attended Mantz’s funeral at Hollywood’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park.  His pallbearers included Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Doolittle, John Ford and Chuck Yeager.  He left a photo of Amelia Earhart at his desk.  In 2006 The International Council of Air Shows inducted Paul Mantz into its Hall of Fame, naming him the “King of Hollywood Pilots.”  He died the way he lived: flying for the cameras.

 

12 responses

  1. fascinating.. I find the most significant statement that is: Johnson tells me he still is not permitted to tell the degree of U.S. Government involvement in the AE flight. More indications that this was much more than a “stunt” flight

    Like

  2. I’m still plodding my way through “Japan’s War” by Hoyt and I got past 1937 and into the Pearl Harbor attack. Nothing about Amelia in that book, not that I expected there would be. The book is a rather dry compendium of sometimes tedious facts as Hoyt knows them with NO editorial comment. It’s mostly Japan = Bad, America = Good. But we already knew that, of course. No hint of whatever Amelia and Fred might have been looking for if they were on an espionage mission.

    I was intrigued by Mantz’s comment about the wreck that was found, referring to Gervais’ letter. What’s that all about? It seems like that issue is what prompted Mantz’s letter in the first place. No 1965 plane wreck discovery comes to my mind. Did Fred Goerner ever have any comment about said wreckage?

    Could the Japanese have bought a L10E with 600 hp engines “off the shelf?” in 1937? Why would they desire to salvage and maybe even fly her downed plane? Could the Japs have misled Amelia and Fred into getting lost and crashing where they could capture her plane as Henri Keyser-Andre maintains? It doesn’t sound plausible, but I would certainly like to know more about the wreck Mantz refers to. I don’t care much about Mantz’s role, it seems irrelevant.

    Sincerely,
    David

    Like

    1. From my Jan. 26, 2016 post, “Irene Bolam and the Decline of the Amelia Earhart Society, Part III of IV,” where you can also see a photo of the aircraft in question, a Lockheed Electra Model 12A Electra Junior:

      In Chapter 5 of Amelia Earhart Lives, Gervais implied that an Electra 12A, registration number N 16020, which crashed into Mount Tiefort in California in 1961 could have been Earhart’s lost Electra 10E. Gervais based his belief largely on the fact that the plane’s exhaust manifold had been delivered on May 13, 1937, a few weeks before Earhart began her second world-flight attempt. Gervais’ suspicions were aroused despite the fact that he knew the plane belonged to Charles Kitchens, who had bought it from Paul Mantz, a director who had planned to use the 12A in a movie about Earhart (thus the N 16020, as close to Earhart’s as possible). Later in the book, Klaas flatly states, “It was Joe Gervais who climbed a mountain in California to find the wreckage of a plane supposed to be at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.”

      “Gervais, the trained aircraft crash investigator, finds it incredible that exhaust manifolds built in 1937 could last until 1961,” Billings wrote in a December 2006 e-mail. “There is nothing unusual in this at all. The aircraft could have had any number of manifolds fitted in its life and ALL of them could have been made in 1937 and stored.”

      Like

  3. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    Last night I did a quick review of the pertinent pages of “Hollywood Pilot The Biography of Paul Mantz” (1967), by Don Dwiggins, Doubleday and Company. Chapter VI, pages 85 through 128 is focused on Mantz, AE, and the world flight.

    Dwiggins writes that, “…Paul [Mantz], as her [AE’s] $100-a-day technical adviser fussed over the new Electra like a mama robin to make it what Amelia wanted — the safest flying laboratory modern engineering could build.” From what I’ve read, that much is true enough; however, despite the fact that he maintained a hangar at Burbank, and contributed much to preparations for AE and FN’s world flight, there is no mention whatsoever of any interaction between Mantz and Clarence “Kelly” Johnson at Lockheed with regard to the Electra.

    As to the, “she didn’t listen to Papa.” comment in Mantz’s 6 May 1965 letter, it paraphrases what Mantz said to AE after the 17 March 1937 takeoff accident at Luke Field, Ford Island, Pear Harbor at the beginning of the first R-T-W flight attempt. According to authors Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon’s “Amelia The Centennial Biography Of An Aviation Pioneer” (1997) Brassy’s, Inc., page 174, “‘I don’t know what happened, Paul,’ Amelia, her face white, said to Mantz, one of the first on the scene. He flung a comforting arm around her shoulders. ‘That’s all right, Amelia. As long as nobody was hurt. You just didn’t listen to Papa, did you?'”

    All best,

    William

    Like

  4. Hello Fellow Earhart Fans,

    I just loved this latest newsletter that arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Before I share my commentary, please know that I am not an Earhart expert in any way, shape or form. I have a nodding acquaintance compared to the rest of you. So, please understand that what I’m sharing is not from any professional knowledge historically or from any documents. There are merely some fragments of what I’ve encountered along the way and my background in theatrical plays and being the director of a small acting group in a senior residential living community.

    In 2006 we formed a theatrical group where each month we would take a person from history and following information we could find at the time, to fashion it into a script where each of the ladies played the character in an open-read performance. That particular month we chose Amelia Earhart. Months earlier we did Eleanor Roosevelt. We had only one gentleman who liked to act and he was always any of the male roles.

    When I was doing the research-and remember that the research was only what was readily available at the time (wish I had known about this group back then). At that time, I came across an interview with someone who had worked on Amelia’s Lockheed Electra-the one she was going to use for her around the world flight. I cannot remember the man’s name at this point and hope to heaven I can find my old notes that I used for the play. However, in it he is asked about equipment on Amelia’s plane and he said that he was responsible for placing (some kind of) a radio device on the plane that Amelia didn’t know was there. And that if she did, she could have used it to call for help. The device was in addition to whatever other EQ was known to be on the plane. I will try like the Dickens to find the old script and any research notes to try to find the man’s name. Although some of you here may know who that was already.

    Now, with regard to the all-caps typewritten letter from Mantz. When I was typing out the scripts for my ladies, I typed them in all caps simply because it was easier for them to see because it made the letters somewhat darker. In the 90’s when I was the official mystery writer for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts in Cape May, NJ for which I wrote 5 mystery dinner plays, which were all performed by professional actors, my scripts were also always in all caps. Today that wouldn’t fly, but back then, again, it made it easier for some of the cast who could then dispense with reading glasses and having to take them on and off. Since Mantz died in a plane crash that could have been avoided had his functionality not been hampered by alcohol overuse, it is possible that since the letter is dated only a month before he died, it could indicate that he was also having vision problems and that the all-caps was easier for him to read. This is not an argument, just a speculation. Mantz may have been far more flawed visually and in worse decline than people realized. This may also be why his speech became unguarded in referring to himself as “Papa.”

    I’m looking at an 8×10 photograph of Amelia on my desk as I type this out. It also has a tiny chip from her Vega 4b red plane, now at the Smithsonian. She is watching over me as I write this-looking smart as a whip. I’m winking at her and promising that with all of your great minds-we will get to that truth. Again, nothing I’ve said is in argument as I respect all of your knowledge as far greater than my own. Best Wishes.

    Like

  5. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings:

    In my earlier comment I should have mentioned that, Mantz’s $100-a-day as “technical advisor” in 1937 is the equivalent of $2,056.74-a-day in 2022. That’s a lot of money. Did G.P. Putnam really have that kind of money to put out to pay for Paul Mantz’s technical expertise? Now, Putnam wasn’t taking his meals down at the local soup kitchen, or walking around in a threadbare suit and worn out shoes, but he sure wasn’t one of the super-rich either. So, who was paying Mantz? As it is said, “Follow the money.”

    All best,

    William

    Like

  6. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0544206/?ref_=rvi_nm
    William,
    You make a very good point. There is more. The above biography states Amelia was named co-respondent in Mantz’s 1936 divorce. Surprise!

    It also claims Mantz was an aerial photography expert. You don’t suppose he was responsible for the installation of her state of the art aerial cameras, do you? There is no reason to coordinate with Kelly Johnson because Kelly had “no need to know” what Mantz was up to. Of course Mantz denied the installation of her cameras, that was what he was being paid $2,056.74 a day to do.

    I would surmise that Mantz knew exactly what Amelia was up to. If he was, in fact. a tosspot, do you suppose that he sometimes talked a little too much? Could it happen that his unfortunate fatal accident was no accident at all? Shame on me for thinking that.

    It’s also possible that the destruction of her plane on Saipan occurred because it was the handiest way to get rid of the evidence (the cameras) that she was on a spy mission. Did Devine notice when he looked in that there were cameras installed? For some reason, there is strong resistance to the notion that Amelia was being paid well to undertake a spy mission, but each new tidbit like the Mantz connection (in my version) is consistent with this view. There is virtually never any new evidence that she wasn’t up to something.

    Sincerely,
    David

    Like

    1. Devine saw the plane up close, stood on the wing and inspected it. He never mentioned anything about cameras in his book, nor in all the time that I was in touch with him over 14 years.

      No evidence exists to support “installation of state of the art cameras” in the Earhart plane, as you state. If I’m incorrect in this, please enlighten us. Many await your wise words.

      Mike

      Like

  7. Of course I can’t back up my imaginative speculation with facts. I just noticed that the biography of Mantz makes mention of his aerial photography expertise. If Devine stood on the wing, he would have looked into one of the windows just behind the cockpit on both sides. Probably didn’t linger long, as apparently the plane was off limits. To think that he, as a postal clerk, would be able to readily identify aerial cameras which were probaly not located in his view area anyway, is unlikely, IMO. If we are allowed to consider the possibility that she may have been spying, then certainly she would have used the most up to date aerial cameras, or why would she bother spying?
    I doubt the governement would hire an expensive “advisor” to help promote a stunt flight. Especially in those days when money wasn’t handed out like Momopoly Bucks as it is now. What I would make of their “close” friendship, I don’t know. This is ground that has been covered before with results that can only be educated guesswork.
    Sincerely,
    David

    Like

    1. Just as I thought. SOS.

      Like

  8. I haven’t responded to this blog in some time, but this story, (Mantz’s 1965 letter to Van Dusen) also cries out for “help.”

    My first objection is a little nitpicky. Van Dusen and Lindbergh didn’t tour Mexico and Central America in 1920. In fact, Charles was 18 in 1920 and a student at Wisconsin. He didn’t learn to fly until 1922.

    With that out of the way, let’s talk about Paul Mantz, unquestionably one of the most talented flyers of the 20th Century. Gifted, smart, brash, and yes, a bit egotistical, he had it all, and along the way amassed a small fortune from flying before meeting a tragic end filming Flight of the Phoenix in 1965.

    Mantz met Amelia in 1932 and they became business partners in 1935. Amelia sold him her Vega and he used her name for leasing and renting aircraft. Amelia used his hangar for an office, and it was Mantz who arranged the deal to purchase the Electra. Other than fly, Amelia knew little of airplanes and her husband even less. All George wanted was a plane to get her around the world. At first, he thought a seaplane would be ideal and considered Sikorsky’s big S-42 flying boat. Amelia could barely handle her Vega and the autogiro gave her fits. Mantz knew that wasn’t a wise idea and steered Putnam toward the Lockheed Model 10.

    Existing letters show Mantz was personally responsible for selecting and equipping the Electra. No exaggeration there. Nor is he mistaken about no cameras aboard. He knew every inch of that plane and would not only have ordered the cameras but would have fitted them since he was the foremost specialist in Hollywood shooting scenes from the air. But beyond, Mantz’s denial, there were a multitude of locations along the world flight route where mechanics would have noticed cameras installed. It’s a nonsense rumor stirred up by Joe Gervais for his own selfish motives.

    By the way, the plane that crashed with Amelia’s old “N” number was owned by Mantz. He had applied for and gotten FAA approval to use NR 16020.

    As to Joe Gurr, he was a radio ham, and built ham sets on the side. He never claimed to be a specialized radio and antenna technician. His claim to fame was re-plugging the cable back into Amelia’s receiver. He had no business reconfiguring the Electra’s antenna system after the Luke Field Crash. But he was cheap and as many of your readers know, the antennas were reconfigured again in Miami.

    As to Goerner’s letter to Gurr claiming Mantz was given the boot and the real man behind the scenes was Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. That’s simply wrong. Mantz was involved in Amelia’s second around the world attempt right to the day she left Burbank heading to Miami. He wasn’t out of town as previous stories including “Hollywood Pilot” have suggested.

    For whatever reason, Goerner is mistaken about Kelly’s involvement with the Earhart flight. I have not seen this May 13, 1979, letter from Goerner to Gurr that Mike speaks of, but it directly contradicts a letter from Kelly Johnson to Goerner dated August 15, 1978.

    Johnson apparently received an earlier letter from Goerner and responded: “I am very surprised that there are so many pages of formerly classified documents dealing with Amelia’s flight. As at the time, I knew of no connection she had with any government agency.” Johnson went on to say there was no “so called special equipment or special missions for the government.”

    Johnson did meet with Amelia before her first world flight attempt, and again in April and May 1937 before she took off for Miami. But his role was limited to teaching her how to adjust the Electra’s Pratt and Whitney fuel settings to maximize fuel efficiency at varying speeds and altitude over long distances. Although he was a whiz at aircraft design, including an in-depth understanding of flight, Johnson never held a pilot’s license, and he never acted as Amelia’s technical advisor.

    By the way, I doubt Paul Mantz’s death was attributable to alcohol as per a later autopsy report. This in-depth report is worth the read: https://www.aerovintage.com/tallmantz-aviation/1965-crash-of-paul-mantz-blood-alcohol-content/

    Les Kinney

    Like

    1. William H. Trail | Reply

      Les,

      Many thanks for the link. Very interesting.

      If I may, I’ll amplify on one small part of your commentary.

      Sydney Cotton’s exploits over pre-war Nazi Germany notwithstanding, cameras suitable photo reconnaissance in 1937 were large and did not readily lend themselves to concealment. From Miami to Lae, AE and FN traversed 17 foreign countries, and made 26 stops (counting Bandoeng, Java twice) along the way. During the trip, the Electra was accessed and serviced by numerous foreign persons. To use modern day terms, NR16020 was not exclusively in the hands of “cleared, U.S. personnel, or kept under constant surveillance by same.” Had there been cameras installed in the Electra, they most assuredly would have been seen and recognized for what they were. Any clandestine photo reconnaissance mission planned for Truk, or any other part of the Japanese Mandates, would have been totally compromised.

      All best,

      William

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: