What happened to Robert E Kennedy after the plane incident?

Robert Kennedy After Collision

Credit: Cecil B. DeMille Trust

Above is the scene immediately after planes hit the earth.  Note crowd rushing forward to greet pilots.  Robert E. Kennedy (Houdini’s Stunt Double) is in the center with back to camera being congratulated on his narrow escape by fellow pilots (or according to another account, he was he being blamed by fellow pilots for the accident).

Houdini never saw or spoke to him again.  According to Tommy [David E. Thompson], who flew the pickup plane, he got up and ran away and was never seen again. Shortly after the spectacular crash, Kennedy and Bill Hahnel, a fellow flying officer in the service, made exhibition flights throughout the country, billing themselves as The Flying Tramps. Later, Kennedy became a noted test pilot, pioneer airplane pilot and inventor of navigation instruments. After several barnstorming tours of Texas, Robert E. Kennedy joined with members of Los Angeles based bus company, Pickwick transportation, in the formation of Pickwick Airways. Flying tri-motors, the new airline pioneered air routes into Mexico until Pickwick was absorbed by a larger airline. Kennedy continued flying until he went to work for Douglas Aircraft in 1934.  After retirement, he lived in Anaheim until his death in 1973. But perhaps he can best be remembered for adding one more legend to the folklore of Harry Houdini.

Next related post will look into what happened to David E. Thompson, whose plane flipped over?


  • Taped interview with Robert E. Kennedy conducted by Arch C. Wallen, and Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1966
  • Locklear The Man Who Walked on Wings by Art Ronnie 1973

15 thoughts on “What happened to Robert E Kennedy after the plane incident?

    • One word answer: Houdini
      Show business hokum entered the situation and all publicity connected with the film’s release led everyone to believe that Houdini, instead of the daring Kennedy was at the end of the rope.

      • I have a feeling he disappeared because his reputation was mud after this. He said he could do the stunt, and nearly killed everyone trying. In that piece I posted, DeMille said the pilots took out after him when they landed. He was done for a stuntman after this.

      • WRT Houdini taking credit for doing the failed stunt, Kennedy contacted the district attorney of Los Angeles County, but was informed that he would have to file a civil suit since it was not a criminal manner. Lacking the necessary wealth for a prolonged legal battle with Houdini, Kennedy declined this course of action.

        • Oh, wow, I didn’t know that. Interesting. Thanks.

          You know, isn’t it part of the job of a stuntman to accept that the star is going to get credit for your stunts? Our friend Kennedy seemed pretty naive about the movie biz. Another reason he might have never worked again.

  1. What did Kennedy do to cause the crash? He was not flying the airplanes. Also the guy had to be either nuts or had nerves of steel to lower himself from an airplane from a rope 4000 feet in the air. Finally if you look at the film he was nearly hit by the planes propeller several times as they were maneuvering.

    • Very true.
      According to one account:
      The planes began to close the gap, so that that the Kennedy could descend. But Kennedy didn’t. Somewhere over Beverly Hills, he had apparently discovered he didn’t like being in the air any better than Houdini. If he hadn’t gone up in the first place, there might have been sympathy. Now, it was a take. The rope touched one of the wings, surely the man would jump. Instead, the wings of the two planes locked.

      Other accounts report that just before Kennedy released the rope to drop on Thompson’s top wing, a gust or air pocket caused the two planes to collide.
      Here is another possibility; the camera plane may have led to the collisions.
      You see the three rented DeMille airplanes and pilots were scheduled to take off for the calm air of the early morning on May 31, 1919; however maintenance problems and a delay in mounting the camera held things up until after lunch. In compliance with the flight plan, Pickup, with Kennedy aboard, flew straight and level while Thompson with less weight and wind resistance, and better visibility in the lower machine, moved into position directly below. Al Wilson maintained a steady camera platform position to the left, and in line with the performing machines, so that neither his tail section nor wing tip appeared in the camera’s field of vision. By this time of day the air was rough and it was difficult for the pilots to maintain their positions.

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