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.
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 that “if 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?
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 advisor” for the AE flight after the crackup in Honolulu, and that the real man behind the scenes was Clarence “Kelly” 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 the “change 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 been. There’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.”
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.