Born in Alameda, California, on August 8th, 1903, Paul Mantz first learned to fly when he was 17. After spending several years barnstorming, and washing out of Army Flight School in 1927 for buzzing a railroad car filled with officers, Mantz returned to California and started his own charter air service. He eventually moved into movie stunt flying. He really became noticed by Hollywood were he flew as a stunt pilot for the Howard Hughes war epic, "Hell's Angels". Although Mantz performed many aerial stunts, he specialized in flying through buildings. In the 1932 movie "Air Mail", he guided a Stearman plane through a 45-foot-wide aircraft.
He developed a number of camera and aeronautical innovations to improve aerial photography, and continued as a stunt flyer (he once flew under the Golden Gate Bridge for the movie "This is Cinerama"), a director of aerial photography, and a supplier of aircraft and pilots for the movies for two decades after the war.
He formed a company, with legendary pilot Frank Tallman, named Tallmantz Aviation in 1961 based at Orange County Airport (now John Wayne Airport) in Southern California. Together, they provided pilots, camera planes, and a small fleet of antique and historic aircraft for movie and television productions. Mantz loved restoring and rebuilding rare aircraft, such as a copy of Lindbergh's "Spirit of Saint Louis".
However, Mantz and Tallman's collaboration did not last long. In 1965, the two men were working on the movie "Flight of the Phoenix" when Tallman, who was supposed to fly a sequence for the film, shattered his kneecap during a fall at home pushing his son's go-kart, and Mantz, covering for his injured partner, readily took his place.
The plane, originally a C-82, was designed by Otto Timm (Charles Lindbergh's first flight instructor, and whom regularly worked with Mantz and Tallman), and was built by Tallmantz Aviation. With a wingspan of 45 feet, and a length of 42 feet, the "Phoenix" was powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1340 nine-cylinder radial engine, taken from a North American T-6 as were the wheels and several other parts.
The wings were from a Beech C-45, and the wing, tail, and undercarriage wire bracing was made out of clothesline, and was intentionally made to look flimsy, although it was actually quite sturdy. The fuselage and empennage were all hand-built from scratch, using plywood over a wooden frame. The cockpit was shallow and makeshift. The pilot would sit down, while another person stood behind him, strapped to a stringer. It was registered with the Federal Aviation Administration as tail number N93082.
The site of the filming was Buttercup Valley, a remote desert spot nearly twenty miles from Yuma in Arizona. Early on the morning of July 8th, 1965, the production team placed cameras at each end of the valley. Mantz, a pilot with over 25,000 hours of flight experience, and his co-pilot, 64 year-old Bobby Rose, were to fly the "Phoenix" and try to get it down on the ground near the first camera position, and then pull up by the time they reached the second position. Mantz' first pass was a little long in landing, and he overshot the first camera. The high temperatures were taking their toll on the improvised plane, and it was not easily controlled.
While not perfect, this first pass was good enough for the movie. But the director asked for another pass, probably as "insurance".
On the second pass of one of the final shots of the film, one of the landings skids of the improvised aircraft caught a hard patch of ground, and started to lose control. Mantz kicked the engine's throttle to full, and broke free of the dirt, but the plane was already stressed to breaking point. At over 90 MPH, the plane snapped apart and, momentarily, the two crewmembers flipped forward and hung out of the cockpit. As the break apart continued, the wings turned under the plane's main body, and toppled on top of the two men, throwing Rose clear of the crash, but pinning Mantz.
The cameras were still rolling, capturing the entire sordid event on celluloid.
People rushed towards the crash site, in an effort to see what could be done. Both crew members were expedited to the hospital in Yuma.
Mantz was killed instantly, and the crash broke the pelvis and left shoulder of Bobby Rose. Unfortunately, Mantz might have survived the mishap, as the cockpit portion of the aircraft was unharmed, but instead of a crash helmet like he would normally wear in an open cockpit, he was requested to wear a soft-brim hat that actor James Stewart also wore in the film.
The Federal Aviation Administration determined that Mantz misjudged his altitude, and in the inadvertent touchdown, the airframe failed due to overload stresses. The investigators also stated the Mantz' alcohol consumption prior to the flight contributed to the accident by impairing his "efficiency and judgment".