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The Great Waldo PepperThe Great Waldo Pepper

Film depicts a daring aviator who wasn’t, and some who were

Under the opening titles of the 1975 movie The Great Waldo Pepper—an exceptional barnstorming adventure film starring Robert Redford—are images of an old scrapbook album with photos and names of long-dead pilots. The last time I watched the movie, I wondered if these were real people or fictional fliers created by the film’s art department. It seems that Hollywood got it right. They’re all actual barnstormers from the early days of aviation—except one.

Pilot Briefing December 2019The pilots depicted are Ormer Locklear (1891-1920), Earl Daugherty (1887-1928), Speed Holman (1898-1931), and Ernst Udet (1896-1941). Locklear was a nationally known barnstormer, Hollywood movie stunt pilot, and actor, even though his career spanned just two years. His “Locklear Flying Circus” thrilled audiences across the country, with Locklear jumping between airplanes in flight. Locklear starred in the 1919 film The Great Air Robbery, which was produced as a showcase for his aerial stunts. In 1920, Locklear received the first aviation law violation for “reckless aerial driving” over Los Angeles. He was killed in August while performing a nighttime spin for the film The Skywayman, which was rushed into theaters complete with the fatal crash scene.

Earl Daugherty and Speed Holman were also barnstorming pilots of the era. Daugherty, like Locklear, worked as a movie stunt pilot. In 1928, Holman set the record of 1,433 consecutive loops in an airplane. Like Locklear, they both died in flying accidents.

The German pilot depicted in the film was based on Ernst Udet, the second-highest scoring German ace of World War I. Between the wars, Udet flew as a stunt pilot for movies and in airshows. He died by suicide during World War II.

The fictional Waldo Pepper, portrayed by Robert Redford, was a compilation of many barnstormers, and Pepper, too, died young. The last scene of the film returns to the photo album, with a picture of Waldo and the caption, “Waldo Pepper, 1895–1931.”

The Great Waldo Pepper received mixed reviews from the critics, although many were impressed by the aerial scenes, which were photographed using real aircraft. There are no model airplanes or computer-generated scenes in this film. It did well in theaters, earning $20 million on a $5 million budget. The Great Waldo Pepper is rated PG, so it’s a great film to share with young pilots-to-be.

Dennis K. Johnson is an aviation writer living in New York.

Dennis K. Johnson

Dennis K. Johnson is an aviation writer and pilot living in New York City.

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