New film details Athens brothers' aerial circus
SPECIAL In one of their stunts, a plane would fly over the moving car - dubbed the World's Smallest Airport - and pick up one of the Thrasher brothers.
Published Saturday, January 14, 2012
Athens, Ga-The photographs, 8mm film, yellowed newspaper clippings and other dusty memorabilia from the high-flying daredevil days of 1945-50 lay stored away for decades in dark closets.
But in coming days, those images will have new life when “The World’s Smallest Airport,” a documentary film about The Thrasher Brothers Aerial Circus, will be shown at the Ciné Bar Cafe and Cinema in Athens. The shows are a benefit for the Athens Film Arts Institute.
Showings are set for 5:15 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and a showing at 7:30 p.m. Monday with a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers. A special by-invitation showing is set for Jan. 21 in Elberton, where the Thrasher brothers based their business.
Retired lawyer Grady Thrasher III, who calls Athens and Watkinsville home, hired writer Matt DeGennaro to produce the film.
The Aerial Circus was owned by Thrasher’s father, Grady Thrasher Jr., and his brothers, Richard, known as “Bud,” and Tunis Thrasher, all deceased. The men performed aerial stunts, including one in which Bud Thrasher stood on top of the plane as it coursed the skies. But their most popular stunt was landing a plane atop a moving car.
The idea for a movie came while Thrasher was compiling the memorabilia for a DVD to give relatives at a family reunion.
SPECIAL The Thrasher brothers, Bud, from left, Tunis and Grady, purchased some World War II surplus planes and created an aerial circus performing from New York to Texas for a five-year period.
“My father had accumulated all this stuff we used,” Thrasher said. “What I intended to do was preserve these old films — the 8mm was deteriorating — and somebody said it could be a documentary.”
“The coolest thing about this is we have Grady’s father telling the story,” said DeGennaro, a native of Connecticut, who has lived in Watkinsville the past eight years. Finding an old video of Thrasher’s father giving a presentation about the business in 1989 bolstered the film’s impact, according to DeGennaro.
The Aerial Circus was born after World War II when Thrasher purchased some surplus planes — Piper Cubs, a Stearman biplane and two Ercoupes — from the U.S. Army for $200 to $500 each and a new 1946 Ford car.
“They planned to teach people how to fly and give rides, but couldn’t generate much business,” said Grady Thrasher, who was only 4 years old at the time. “My dad really thought that personal aviation was going to be the transportation preference of the future with small airplanes, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.”
The Thrashers would fly over Athens dropping advertising leaflets for the business and the local airport authority thought they shouldn’t be doing that, Thrasher said. Nor were they keen on stunt fliers at the airport.
So the brothers moved their business to Elberton’s airport, which at the time consisted of a pasture and one hangar. From there, the circus went on the road from New York to Texas to Miami.
They performed 384 times over a five-year period closing the show in 1950 in Charleston, S.C.
“He couldn’t buy insurance or get a bank loan,” Thrasher said as lenders were wary of men participating in such a risky death-defying business. So the brothers “sold everything and pursued other careers,” Thrasher said.
Among the most celebrated stunt was the landings and takeoffs on a wooden platform on top of a moving car.
The driver of the car would slow down when he felt the wheels touch the platform and the pilot would cut the engine of the plane, Thrasher said.
“They had to do this without having access to communication between each other and they had to do it fast because they only had about 2,000 feet (of runway) to do it,” he said.
The elder Thrasher also took two Ercoupe planes and bolted them together to make one plane — piloted from one cockpit. No one else had done this, but the plane flew. And Thrasher said he knows of no one else, other than his father, who has tried this feat.
When the business ended, the elder Thrasher remained in the aircraft field working on an army base at Dothan, Ala., where he maintained and flew helicopters.
“He was a daredevil,” DeGennaro said about the man. “But he was very matter-of-fact about all of this.”