Fireball’s Companion Piece

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Please tell me I’m not the only one who loves The High and the Mighty, John Wayne’s 1954 aviation picture made by his independent production company, Wayne-Fellows, and released and distributed by Warner Bros. I find The High and the Mighty to be an irresistible experience specifically because of writing Fireball and becoming immersed in mid-century aviation. Not much had changed between 1942 when TWA Flight 3 went down and the world of commercial aviation of 1954 as seen in the picture, when a flight departs Hawaii heading for San Francisco and all hell breaks loose.

By 1954 the quad-engined Douglas DC-4 had replaced the twin-engined DC-3, but both NC 1946, the DC-3 in Fireball, and the DC-4 seen in The High and the Mighty rolled off the Douglas Corp. assembly line in Santa Monica and first flew from Clover Field, also in Santa Monica. However, the DC-3 cockpit crew had been augmented by 1954; in addition to a pilot and co-pilot, the crew now included a navigator.

We get some nice exteriors of the Glendale Grand Central Terminal filling in for Hawaii and lots of shots inside an airport terminal of 1954, with its desk and station man and the stewardess on hand to get to know the passengers as they check in. It is a glamorous world of flight depicted here, with men in suits and ties and women in dresses and heels for their ocean-hopping commute. The pilots chain-smoke in the cockpit, and when a passenger pulls out a cigarette, the stewardess is there instantly with a light.

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The High and the Mighty has some interesting parallels to Flight 3, which carried 22 people to their deaths. The DC-4 seated 44 passengers but the flight depicted in the picture carried 5 crew members (including an alternate pilot for the long flight) and 16 passengers for a total of 21. There was one stewardess on board, and she reminds me very much of Alice Getz of Flight 3. Co-pilot “Whistling Dan” Roman, portrayed by John Wayne, is described as an old barnstormer and airmail pilot who turned to commercial aviation. It’s a description that fits Flight 3 Captain Wayne Williams to a T.  A backstory in The High and the Mighty (one of many) has Roman surviving the catastrophic loss of a DC-3 he had piloted, a crash not dissimilar to that of Flight 3. As a result, Roman is busted back to co-pilot, and nobody quite trusts him. But at the critical point in the picture, it’s Roman who doesn’t crack because he’s been there before, and his experience pays off.

The flight crew mesmerizes me: Doe Avedon as stewardess Miss Spalding; William Campbell as the brash young 20-something alternate pilot; Wally Brown as the nervous burnout navigator; Wayne as the too-old co-pilot; and my old pal Robert Stack as the captain who’s highly skilled but just a little too willing to fold when dealt a bad hand.

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In a nutshell, TOPAC Flight 420 is flying east toward San Francisco from Hawaii and past the point of no return when an engine flames out, spilling fuel into the Pacific. It’s clear that the crew will have to ditch their plane hundreds of miles short of land and hope for rescue, and yet there’s a chance to reach the coast on remaining fuel if they can lighten the load and if tailwinds become favorable.

William Wellman directed an ensemble cast that included many heavy- and middle-weight motion picture actors of the golden age, headlined by Claire Trevor as a blonde show business star in furs not unlike you-know-who. Much of the goings-on don’t fit two-fisted Wellman, like the long, syrupy exchanges of dialogue revealing character backstories, with overdone reaction shots straight out of the days of silent cinema. Sure this becomes tedious in places and, yes, inspired some scenes in the 1980 masterpiece spoof, Airplane. But the screenplay’s got a lot of heart and before long we care about these souls who may soon be tossed into the sea. Up ahead at TOPAC headquarters in San Francisco, operations manager Regis Toomey waits. In real life both my parents knew Regis Toomey, who hailed from their Pittsburgh stomping grounds and went to Pitt some years prior to my dad’s arrival there. Talk had it that one of my mom’s friends dated Regis Toomey and so I always see him as a part of the family, and never was he better than here portraying the cranky, cigar-chomping airline official waiting to see if crisis-control will be necessary because his plane has gone into the drink.

CinemaScope adds a lot to the proceedings, as when the giant beast of a plane growls right at and then over camera on takeoff, filling the screen wingtip to wingtip. When you see magnificent shots of this big airliner lost in wide angles of blue skies and cloud tops, you understand where James Cameron may have gotten his shot of tiny Titanic from high in the sky and far off, lights blazing, against a big, ebony canvas of ocean.

I can’t get Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical score out of my head. It’s full of big, bold, blockbuster themes, one of which spawned several runaway hit records upon the film’s release.

I spent a lot of time in Fireball putting Flight 3’s last transcontinental trip in context: 15 years after Lindy crossed the Atlantic; 12 years after the first instrument landing; 11 years after the crash that killed Knute Rockne; 4 years after the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Think about what you were doing 15 years ago, and 12, and 11, and 4. It’s a compressed timeframe for the evolution of something as important as aviation, with our corporeal selves suddenly high up in the air and vulnerable to going splat at any moment.

Flight 3 went splat at a time when the government and airlines were still figuring out how planes flew in the first place and what rules and regulations would assure that they stayed up and didn’t come down all-of-a-sudden-like. As a result, and as demonstrated in The High and the Mighty, flight crews received training on every contingency, including the loss of an engine and fuel dump on a long-distance flight, and how to ditch to save as many passengers as possible. By now, they had also figured out that a pilot and co-pilot had plenty to do without also navigating, and so airlines added a third man to the DC-4 crew whose job was to calculate head and tail winds, load, fuel consumption, course, and position, and feed this information constantly to the men in command of the ship. Everything just listed became a factor in the crash of Flight 3 when pilot and co-pilot had their hands full trying to get their over-packed ship with the movie star and Army fliers efficiently west toward a final destination. There they were, powering up to cruising altitude on a moonless night when disaster struck—disaster that would have been averted with a navigator on board to tend to little details like terrain and compass heading.

Ernest K. Gann, author of the novel The High and the Mighty, had been flying DC-2s and DC-3s for American Airlines at the time Flight 3 was lost, and the aero details in the picture are fantastic. The crew flying into San Francisco knows the altitude of the hills and radio towers on final approach because it’s their job to know, so this deepens the mystery of Flight 3 because those pilots knew the altitude of the terrain around Vegas. It was their job to know. When we see Stack, Wayne, and Campbell at the controls, it feels absolutely authentic because a pilot wrote the words and described the actions.

The crash of Flight 3 was a game changer in commercial aviation and well-known background for Gann since he was flying DC-3s and would have been briefed on the findings of the investigation. At one point in The High and the Mighty, Campbell and Avedon are talking about a DC-4 trying to ditch in the Pacific and fatalist Campbell says of a water landing, “You might as well crash into a mountain.” When John Wayne proposes that they not ditch and instead try to make it to SFO, Campbell reminds him, “This isn’t seat-of-your-pants flying days,” and that Wayne should “go back to your helmet and goggles.” It’s classic conflict: youth not respecting the experience of one who had flown way back in the era of the biplane and is therefore of no value flying modern ships in modern times. But it had been Wayne who first noticed vibrations signaling engine trouble; vibrations that meant nothing to Campbell.

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I intended Fireball as an ode to the 22 companions on that TWA DC-3. As with the characters in The High and the Mighty, every passenger and crew member on Flight 3 gets (at the very least) one moment to shine in the book because I wanted to honor them all. I feel that John Wayne’s movie can also be viewed as a salute to Flight 3 in glorious CinemaScope and WarnerColor as the determined pilots of a doomed airliner overcome grim odds and bring their ship home safely. It doesn’t take much imagination to see Capt. Williams and First Officer Gillette walking down the steps to look up at the belly of their DC-3 after a safe landing in Burbank like Stack and crew do at the end of The High and the Mighty. In my alternate universe, TWA Flight 3’s “ancient pelican” of a skipper gets to whistle safely off into the darkness as the music swells, his mission accomplished and his passengers all delivered safe. It’s a nice alternate ending for a real-life heartbreaker of a story, and so I guess my imagination helps to make the last scene of The High and the Mighty such a spectacular, smile-worthy, spine-tingling payoff.

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10 comments

  1. Thanks very much, Robert, for your intriguing and aeronautically knowledgeable comparison of an historical air disaster and a potential fantasy repetition of one in the movies. The producers of The High and the Mighty would have had their own 1954 fianancial disaster, of course, if they had chosen to have their ending echo that of Lombard’s plane.

    Thanks to Dimitri Tiomkin, John Wayne was able to whistle a memorable tune into box office glory.

    It’s a shame that there was no Hollywood screenwriter who could have stepped in to save Carole Lombard and those army personnel from the real life fate awaiting them as their TWA Flight 3 took off from Vegas on a moonless night more than 70 years ago.

    1. No, there’s no screenwriter who can change the outcome for Flight 3, but thanks to the friends and family members who contributed to the project, all the interesting people on board get to live again for readers to meet and get to know.

    1. Tim,

      Thanks very much for posting that Victor Young rendition of The High and the Mighty theme. Boy, I wish I could whistle like that.

      And thanks also for crediting whistling double Muzzy Marcellino, of whom I had never heard. I always knew, of course, that it’s wasn’t the Duke doing the whistling whenever he puckered his lips in that film but, until now, I didn’t know who deserved proper credit for it.

      1. Muzzy sure was one serious whistler, wasn’t he, Tom?! … Duke may not have whistled as well, but when he ‘puckered his lips’ to kiss the leading ladies it looked like he knew what he was doing. No stunt men for those scenes!

    1. Thank YOU, Robert – for this fascinating article, and for the others. Great stuff!!! I hadn’t thought of The High and the Mighty for many years. It was made the year of my birth, but I’m not sure I’ve seen it decades. Thanks for reminding us of it.

      … The theme song played all the time when I was a kid. Last people I remember whistling on popular records were John Lennon (Two of Us, Bungalow Bill, Jealous Guy), Otis Redding (Dock of the Bay) and Paul Simon (Me and Julio). But Muzzy and these other High & Mighty whistlers were in the stratosphere.

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