Ormer Locklear: Living (and Dying) on a Wing and a Dare

On October 28, 1891 in a small town in Hopkins County Mrs. Odessa Locklear gave birth to a bouncing baby daredevil. For example, her young son Ormer once attached the hub of the rear wheel of a motorcycle to a rope threaded through a pulley that was attached to the top of a four-story building. Then he rode the motorcycle up the wall to the roof.

locklear 1900 censusOrmer was eight years old in the 1900 census, the Locklears by then living in Greenville in Hunt County.

locklear 1910 censusBy 1910 the growing family was living on Ireland Street (today’s Cannon Street) on the near South Side of Fort Worth. Soon, after attending an air show in Fort Worth (possibly this one at the driving park in 1911), Ormer had his head in the clouds: He wanted to fly.

In 1911, Ormer, then about twenty, his brother, and Ernest Graham built what the Star-Telegram called “the first Texas made flying machine” (a glider of bamboo and canvas). They climbed with the glider to the roof of the Fort Worth High School building on Jennings Avenue, then under construction, and jumped. They also glided from the bluff at Forest Park and the Trinity River levee. The glider was “badly damaged.” (The construction company of Ernest Graham’s father William built the high school building.)

Try, try again. Ormer’s second flying machine actually flew. Ormer Locklear was on his way up.

locklear wedding 1915In 1915 Locklear came down from the clouds long enough to get married to Ruby Graves.

“Armer” Locklear stayed on the ground long enough to be injured when thrown from his motorcycle in 1916.

Four months later, “A. S. Locklear” surely was Ormer, fined for hotrodding along Commerce Street at twenty-two miles an hour.

Also in 1916 Ormer met another daredevil: Harry Houdini was in Fort Worth performing at the Majestic Theater. According to The Secret Life of Houdini by Kalush and Sloman, one day James Locklear, younger brother of Ormer, recognized Houdini in a store. James told the famous escapologist that Ormer performed stunts on a motorcycle. Houdini and Ormer met, and Houdini suggested that the two daredevils combine their talents: As a crowd watched on Main Street, Houdini, wearing a hood and thick overalls, had his hands tied behind his back. A rope was connected between Houdini’s ankles and Ormer’s motorcycle. Then Locklear began to drag Houdini along the street. But before Ormer could attain much speed, it was all over: Houdini had freed himself.

lockler draft 1917Locklear’s draft card from 1917 shortly after the United States declared war on Germany. Como is just east of Greenville.

locklear indianTo young Ormer motorcycles were the next-best thing to airplanes. When war came in 1917 Locklear was a mechanic for an Indian motorcycle dealership on East 10th Street.

In 1917 Locklear enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Everman at Barron Field (part of Camp Taliaferro) as a flight instructor. (Photo from the Barron Field Review of 1919.)

At Barron Field Locklear was not content merely to instruct, merely to fly. He became a pioneer wingwalker: He learned how to leave the cockpit of a plane in flight to make repairs, such as replacing a loose spark plug wire or tightening a radiator cap. When Locklear’s superiors at Barron Field heard about what he was doing, they did not believe such a maneuver possible and had to witness Locklear’s wingwalking. These photos from the National Air and Space Museum show Locklear wingwalking on a Curtiss Jenny.

These photos from the Barron Field Review of 1919 show students of “Locklear’s class in aerial calisthenics.”

locklear barron BPLcamp taliaferro Locklear wikiOrmer Locklear wingwalking. (Photos from Benbrook Public Library and Wikipedia.)

locklear review

Seeking still more thrills, Locklear was the first person to transfer from one plane to another as the two planes, one flying below the other, flew at seventy miles an hour three thousand feet above the ground. He used a rope ladder to climb to a plane flying above or below his own plane. He also would hang upside down under a plane’s fuselage, his bent knees locked over the plane’s undercarriage. (Photo from the Barron Field Review of 1919.)

camp taliaferro locklear at utd camp taliaferro locklear utdLocklear is on the right. (Photos from University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson.)

locklear 6-1-19On June 1, 1919 Locklear’s wife told the Star-Telegram that she was not worried about her husband. “He has always been successful and I believe he always will be.” But by other accounts Ruby was distressed by her husband’s risk-taking, and the marriage was not a happy one.

(Locklear is reported to have said, “‘Safety second’ is my motto.”)

locklear clip 1919By 1919 the war was over, and Locklear’s reputation as a daring “birdman”—as aviators were called—was established. Locklear resigned his commission in the Army to become a barnstormer with friend and fellow daredevil Milton “Skeets” Elliott (third man from the left in the Barron Field Review photo above).

The two birdmen soon went to Hollywood to perform in the movies as stunt fliers. That year Locklear starred in his first movie, The Great Air Robbery. He not only performed his airplane-to-airplane transfer but also transferred from an airplane to a speeding car and then back to the airplane just before the car crashed.

This promotional photo for The Great Air Robbery shows Locklear balancing on the wing of a biplane. (Photo from the University of Texas at Dallas.)

This photo from January 1920 shows Locklear with boxer Jack Dempsey and actress Viola Dana. Dempsey was world heavyweight champion at the time. Locklear was having an affair with Dana. On the night of August 1, 1920 Locklear had a premonition and gave Dana some of his personal effects. (Photo from the University of Texas at Dallas.)

Locklear’s second film was The Skywayman (1920) about an American flying ace battling Germans in World War I. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

This promotional photo for The Skywayman shows Locklear (in a smoking jacket) with William Elmer and Louise Lovely. (Photo from the University of Texas at Dallas.)

Fight scene The Skywayman. (Photo from the University of Texas at Dallas.)

locklear UTD RichIn this scene from the movie Locklear is straddling the landing gear of a Jenny (plane on the left) and exchanging gunfire with a gang in the car. The plane on the right was filming the scene. (Photo from University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson.)

The final scene of The Skywayman was to be filmed at an airfield in Los Angeles on the night of August 2, 1920. The plan was for arc lights to be trained on the plane carrying Locklear and Elliott as they flew over in the dark sky. Elliott would light flares to simulate flames as Locklear spun the plane down, seemingly out of control, from an altitude of ten thousand feet, waited as long as he safely could at two thousand feet, and then regained control of the plane and landed.

The cameras rolled, the flares burned, the plane spun into a dive. But something went wrong. When Locklear should have begun pulling out of the dive, he did not. Not until two hundred feet off the ground did he try to pull out of the dive. By then it was too late. The plane crashed, and the two men were killed instantly. One theory is that the arc lights, which were supposed to have been doused as the plane approached the ground, remained trained on the plane, blinding Locklear.

Viola Dana was on the movie set and witnessed the crash. She would refuse to fly in an airplane for the next twenty-five years.

The released movie retained footage of the very real crash. But no copy of the movie is known to survive.

locklear marker

locklear cert

Ormer Locklear was twenty-eight years old. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, not far from other aviation pioneers: Lillian Moore Roberts and British flying cadets who were killed while training at Fort Worth’s Army airfields during World War I.

Locklear is said to have been the prototype for the title character (played by Robert Redford) in The Great Waldo Pepper (1975). Viola Dana was a guest at the premiere of Waldo Pepper.

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6 Responses to Ormer Locklear: Living (and Dying) on a Wing and a Dare

  1. Jim Hodgson says:

    Another fine piece of writing. Thanks for all you do to help preserve our history.

    Jim Hodgson
    Executive Director
    Fort Worth Aviation Museum

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