GLADYS INGLE AND THE 13 BLACK CATS | HOLLYWOOD’S HI-FLYING HELLRAISERS

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Hi JP,
Your latest post about the Air Fast images really hit a cord with me. Coming from a predominately Air Force military family, almost every male relative has flown a plane at some point or another, and having been schooled in aviation history and legend my entire life I find endless stoke in those images. I thought I would share a few stories with you that might tickle your flying wings.

Firstly this chick [Gladys Ingle] has more balls that all your subscribers combined, including me!

All the best,

Eric Lindeman

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Well Eric wasn’t just whistlin’ Dixie! Gladys Ingle definitely had balls to spare– Maybe she had 13 pairs! She was the only female member of Hollywood’s 13 Black Cats aerial daredevil stunt troop. They flew “Jennys”– Curtiss JN-4 biplanes with an abundance of struts and wires to grip, making it ideal for stunt-riders and wing-walkers. Gladys earned her fearless reputation by changing planes in mid-air without a parachute or safety gear. Legend has it she performed her wing-walking stunts hundreds of times. She’s a young and spry woman of 25 or 26 years old in the below pics– amazing. One popular stunt had Gladys performing archery atop a Jenny biplane in midair. She went on to live a long and healthy life, passing away in 1981, at 82 years of age. I’d love to know more about the incredible Gladys Ingle, so please reach out if you’re in the know!

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Gladys Ingle transferring from Bob McDougall's airplane to Art Goebel's

Wing-walker Gladys Ingle transferring from Bon McDougall’s airplane to Art Goebel’s airplane with no parachute or safety gear. In 1927, after several aerial stunt and wing-walking deaths, parachutes were finally required by law.  –courtesy  San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives. Keep reading and you’ll see an amazing video of her in action…

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Gladys Ingle 13 Black Cats biplane stunt

Wing-walker Gladys Ingle transferring from Bon McDougall’s airplane to Art Goebel’s airplane with no parachute or safety gear –courtesy  San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

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Gladys Ingle 13 Black Cats plane

Wing-walker Gladys Ingle transferring from Bon McDougall’s airplane to Art Goebel’s airplane with no parachute or safety gear –courtesy  San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

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Gladys Ingle 13 Black Cats plane stunt

Stuntwoman Gladys Ingle transferring from Bon McDougall’s airplane to Art Goebel’s airplane with no parachute or safety gear –courtesy  San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

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Art Goebel Gladys Ingle 13 black cats

January 27th, 1926 — The 13 Black Cats perform a stunt between 2 planes with no visible safety gear. “To our flying pal Bon McDougall– The Army hasn’t anything on us when it comes to formation, flying, and we never fail in plane changes. Aviatingly Yours, Art Goebel & Gladys Ingle –courtesy San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives

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13 black cats biplane jenny stunt

Three members of the 13 Black Cats of Hollywood standing on the wings of a biplane in midair.  –courtesy San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives. The 13 Black Cats were founded in 1924 and performed together for 5 years. The official member list is: Ronald “Bon” MacDougall, Ken “Fronty” Nichols, William “Spider” Matlock, Jerry Tabnac, Heard “Herd” McClellan, Paul Richter Jr, Lieut. Jack Frye, Al Johnson, Ivan “Bugs” Unger, Sanford “Sam” Greenwald, Colonel Art Goebel, William “Bill” Stapp, Gladys Ingle. Casualties were commonplace in this dangerous field, where your life was literally on the line with each death-defying performance, and the history books are fuzzing on if any official or unofficial members of the 13 Black Cats ever died performing.

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Gladys Ingle 13 Black Cats

The famous 13 Black Cats high-flying wing-walking biplane aerial stunt troop from Hollywood, CA. Ronald “Bon” MacDougall was part-owner of the Burdette Airport and School of Aviation in LA that resided at Western & 104th St. His first stint as a stunt pilot came when he was faced with a huge crowd that came up for an advertised airshow, but no fliers showed up. He coaxed a couple friends, Ken “Fronty” Nichols & William “Spider” Matlock, into trying wing-walking while he flew the plane. The trio stuck together, eventually adding 10 more “Cats” and an honorary member: movie actor, and former WWI fighter pilot, Reginald Denny. The 13 Black Cats were born!  

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Bob McDougall Al Johnson Ken Fronty Nichols plane stuntmen

circa 1925– While pilot and 13 Black Cats founder Bon McDougall flies the airplane, stunt men Al Johnson and Ken “Fronty” Nichols sit on the wing at a table. The man pointing is Jack Frye. –courtesy San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives.  

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Bon MacDougall Indy 500

13 Black Cats founder, Ronald “Bon” MacDougall,  qualified ninth in the 1926 Indy 500, but only ran 19 laps before being brought down by a water leak –Image via

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THE THIRTEEN BLACK CATS 

by Ed Betts for TWA Spirit, Feb 1986
 

TWA has another anniversary this week besides the 40th of international service. Although April 17th will be officially recognized as TWA’s 60th anniversary (along with Western Airlines) the predecessor Aero Corporation was founded on February 3, 1926. Part and Parcel of this milestone is the story of the 13 Black Cats, a movie acrobatic team. Included with this group of Hollywood stuntmen was one of TWA’s founders and later an executive vice president, Paul E. Richter, Jr.

The group was first organized in 1924 with 13 members, headed by Bon MacDougall. Their home base was the Burdett Airport located at Western Avenue and 102nd Street, now the site of a huge department store complex. Their uniform was a black sweater with the cat and number 13 patch on the front, and their names on the back. Originally the group was made up of pilots, motion-picture stuntmen and automobile racers who wanted to “corner the market” on all movie stunt work that involved airplanes, automobiles, and motorcycles. They advertised that they defied all superstition and the odds, and their services were also available for air shows or meets and any other audience that would pay their fee.

Except for trains, they would supply the equipment needed and their fleet consisted of war-surplus Curtiss “Jennies” and “Cannucks”. Until 1927, when it became a law, they used no parachutes.

Supposedly each member’s name would add up to a total of 13 letters; if it didn’t he was given a nickname that would (no explanation was given for Richter and Goebel not meeting this requirement). At one time actor-aviator Reginald Denny was a member of the group, and one account says that Jack Frye, later president of TWA, did some work for them.

Founders of TWA

These were the years of barnstorming, which most of the pilots did between jobs with the studios, trying to make a living or at least pay for their gas and oil. 1924 is the year that Jack Frye learned to fly, became an instructor and used his “fortune” to become a partner with Burdett Fuller (1/2 interest in a “Jenny”). One of Frye’s first students was Paul Richter who had left the family ranch in Colorado to learn to fly. Whether or not that is true, it makes a great story– on Paul’s first solo (solo, with a passenger?) flight he had Bon MacDougall aboard the “Jenny”.

Once in the air, and much to the amazement of the fledgling pilot, Bon climbed out of the cockpit and spent his time “wing walking” from tip to tip. After a safe landing, Paul was offered a job and membership in the 13 Black Cats. Such work is far from steady. Paul’s main source of income was as a flight instructor with the Burdett Flying School. Another “graduate” of the school was Walt Hamilton.

In February 1926, Frye, Richter, and hamilton were among the founders of the Aero Corporation of California and the following year, they formed Standard Airlines. Another of their students with the same seniority was Lee Flanagin.

In October of 1926 the 13 Black Cats made the headlines in the LA press when they performed one of their daring acts before the horrified eyes of 79,000 spectators. This was during the half-time of the USC-Stanford football game held at the coliseum. The plan was: with MacDougall the pilot of the “Jenny” and “Fronty” Nichols perched atop the left (upper) wing and “Spider” Matlock atop the right wing they would swoop right over the stadium and “buzz” the playing field. Nichols and Matlock each had a football, painted in in the school colors, that they were to toss towards the crowd. Unfortunately, just as they approached the stadium, the radiator broke and spewed the scalding water over the windshield and goggles of MacDougall. He rised his fist, the signal of distress, and the two wing-walkers were making a hasty retreat to the cockpit just as they fly over the crowd with the stricken plane and made an emergency landing on a vacant lot several blocks away. In early 1929 the 13 Black Cats disbanded– there was too much competition. The price for a simple parachute jump had come down from $80 to a mere $10 by some free-lance daredevils who were willing to risk their lives for a fast buck. The future seemed to be more stable or safe in the airline business carrying mail and passengers.

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