aviation film


Almost every day since the book’s release in January, somebody somewhere has commented on the extensive research in Fireball, and I’ve been gratified to learn that my dumpster dive into federal records accomplished its goal, as did long hours spent sifting through existing histories and biographies, newspapers, unpublished manuscripts and interviews, birth and death records, military archives, and conversations with participants and relatives of participants in the story. Oh, and a day spent eating dirt, getting stuck on cactus, and bouncing off boulders on Potosi Mountain. And other days spent walking in the footsteps of people in the narrative. When it was over I understood Carole Lombard and Clark Gable at the molecular level and also had learned about others critical to the story, from the stewardess on Flight 3 to the miner and ex-football star who led the charge up the mountain.

But that was then. It’s a good thing when you are the author of a book that gets positive reviews and that people really like. There’s gratification; there’s also pressure every time somebody says, read Fireball, loved it, big fan, what’s next? Well, thanks! And, uhhh, I dunno.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Oh, great, another mountain to climb. In case you are wondering, the Flight 3 crash site is along the ridge line, dead center from left to right, a few hundred feet below the crest.

It’s all organic, man. It comes from luck, or inspiration, or usually from a particular friend saying, “You know what would make a great idea for a book?” And that friend did it again two months ago, planting this seed in my brain. At first I think, no, that’s no good. It’s been done, or I can’t get at that story, or something similar, but then the damn seed starts to sprout and before long I’m believing that, yes, he’s right again. This is a story. I’m going to tell this story.

Friends, readers, I’m starting my next book. It’s a new day and a new ballgame. It’s not even the top of the first inning and the umpire isn’t about to shout, “Play ball!” [Reference to American baseball, global readers.] It’s not even time for spring training, really, because first comes determination of the theme of the book, what I’m writing to, what tone to set, how the narrative will sound, and even more basic to that, who are my characters? I’m in that nebulous period where I’m learning about the world I’m going to be inhabiting for a year or two. I’m reading existing works and visiting web sites. Just now I was reading a biography on the couch and Francois, my ten-week-old black kitten, jumped up on me and asked, “Whatcha readin’, Dad?” and before you know it, we were both asleep on the couch. So I can report that this phase is rather pleasant so far.

I’m not ready to announce what the book is going to be about, except to say it’s another World War II story with an aviation theme and part of it is set in Hollywood. (Tom, you’re a bright fellow. If you guess what the story is, please don’t blurt it out.) It’s nonfiction because to me the best stories are true stories where I say to myself as I unearth the facts, “You couldn’t make this stuff up.” Research is going to put me back in D.C. and back in Hollywood, but it’ll also require a trip to England and possibly to France and Germany and this time I’m going to have to be sifting through German records and lots of them. Sprechen sie Deutsch? My high school German teacher, Miss Diamond (who I had a crush on, but, don’t tell), would be the first to report, no, Robert does not speak German. That’s going to be a handicap to my enterprise because one thing I’m certain of is, this story is going to include a civilian’s-eye view of life on the ground in Germany during the latter phases of World War II. It’s one story line in what will no doubt be many story lines.

It’s daunting to be at this point in a book. Way down the road, I know I’m going to be holding three pounds of bouncing baby … hardcover, but in the meantime everything is squishy and Unknown. I have no idea where I’m heading. I don’t know how I’ll get there. I don’t know what I’ll discover along the way. Worst of all, I don’t know what makes my main character tick. I hate not knowing, and there’s so much mythology grown around this character that I already have a healthy dislike. Just like I had with Gable. I tell myself that it’s OK, the Gable thing worked out, and now he and I are friends and I pay my respects at his grave and everything.

Today’s confession is that I hate new people. My lifelong friend and former co-worker, Helene, would tell you that. Oh, Robert hates new people. Anytime somebody new came on staff at the company where we both worked, there was a period where I didn’t like them until I got a handle on them and then it was usually OK, except of course when it wasn’t. So now I’m at the stage where, based on everything I know so far, I don’t like this new person I’m going to write a book about. But when you’re in close quarters with someone for a long period, the ice gets broken somehow, and I’m counting on the fact that it’ll happen here. We even have some things in common, so what the hell am I worried about?

There, I’ve said it: I’m starting a new book. Monkey off my back. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, this autumn I’m back in the saddle pitching Fireball and so coming and going, it will be an interesting time. Keep your eye peeled for dispatches from the front, which will all be delivered here at this address a couple times a week.

Fireball’s Companion Piece


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.


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.


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.


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.