Sunday, November 21, 2010

This was another Venice

In the early 1920s, long before it became famous for roller-skating, Venice was the capital of another sport: stunt flying.

It was a time, as author Don Dwiggins put it, when barnstormers and carnival fliers gathered at DeLay Airfield "to try out new ways to cheat death for money."

When a daredevil thought of a new maneuver that the movies or newsreels might buy, he'd drop out of the continuous poker game in the DeLay hangar to give it a try (hoping he'd live to be dealt another hand).

So many wing-walkers inhabited the skies that Venice, which was then an independent city, passed an ordinance prohibiting low flying over churches on Sundays.

The airfield was run by, and named for, pilot B.H. DeLay, a two-fisted chap as colorful as any movie character.

DeLay performed in more than 50 films and claimed several innovations, including the first jump from an airplane onto a moving train.

With "a passionately driven nature derived from his French American heritage," as his great-granddaughter Shawna Kelly described him, the handsome pilot also engaged in several extramarital affairs.

On one occasion, he faced down a gun drawn by his angry wife, said Kelly, author of "Images of America; Aviators in Early Hollywood."

"It was the roaring '20s," she noted. "People were wild."

That included wild about seeing aerial stunts. DeLay charged $40 an hour for staging wing walks, $100 an hour for making leaps onto or off of aircraft and $350 a week for movie work.

But his brief career came to an end July 4, 1923, when he attempted to "loop the loop" at 2,000 feet over Ocean Park.

His wings "bent back as though on hinges," the Los Angeles Examiner reported, and the plane plummeted to the ground, killing DeLay, 31, and his passenger, a businessman friend.

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