There have been several plane crashes recently. Several of the planes belonged to the Goering–Gage Aviation Corporation. The company is run by Henry Goering (Henry Hall) and his son Carl (Leon Ames). Goering’s partner Gage died but he never changed the company name. His partner’s daughter Helen Gage (Lona Andre) became his ward. Helen is now an adult.
The U.S. Department of Commerce sends Inspector Gallagher (Willard Kent) to investigate the situation. Along with Gallagher is his test pilot Jerry Blackwood (John Carroll). Gallagher says that most crashes are attributable to either weather or the construction of the planes. None of the crashes were due to the weather. Gallagher now needs to look at the planes. The planes are inspected and test flown by Blackwood. The plans seem to be fine.
In the last crash, a survivor says that he saw another plane in the air with an X on it. Just after that there was an explosion and the plane he was on crashed. The police don’t believe him. Goering calls in Dr. Norris (John Elliott) to question the survivor. Norris believes him. Dr. Norris puts forth the hypothesis that a WWI flying ace may have developed a psychosis and, in a fugue state, may be responsible for the attacks. Dr. Norris calls him “Pilot X”. Then a note is found at the last wreck from the killer. Now Gallagher is on board with the crashes being intentional. He assigns Blackwood to work with Norris on his theory.
Goering, Norris and Blackwood assemble a group of five ace pilots from the area to help search for the mysterious Pilot X. They are German Lieutenant Baron von Guttard (Hans Joby AKA John S. Peters), French Lieutenant Rene Le Rue (Gaston Glass), Canadian Lieutenant Douglas Thompson (Wheeler Oakman), British Captain Roland Saunders (Pat Somerset) and American Lieutenant John Ives (Reed Howes). All the men agree to participate in the search.
The men are brought together for dinner so that Norris can surreptitiously watch them and determine their personalities and quirks. Norris’ theory is further adjusted to the idea that one of these men could possibly be Pilot X. Of course they immediately hone in on the German. The idea goes up in smoke when Guttard is the first one killed by Pilot X.
“Pilot X” AKA “Death in the Air” was released in 1936 and was directed by Elmer Clifton. The film was rereleased in 1943 as “Mysterious Bombardier”. The film is in bad shape but don’t look for a restoration any time soon, or even ever for that matter.
The production values are cheap and there’s a lot of stock footage. In addition the acting is so-so. The film has also been criticized as being bad. I’m not sure what they meant. If it’s the things I’ve already mentioned then, sure. If it’s the plot, well, the plot is a little farfetched but when haven’t we seen that. If it’s the mystery, yeah, even I figured out who the killer was ahead of time. I was still interested enough to want to watch the movie to the end to make sure. And the film actually was interesting. The dog fights aren’t fancy and they aren’t prolonged, which I had no problem with since sometimes those types of scenes are padded more than they should be.
It’s also been called an Old Dark House film. No, no it isn’t. Old Dark House movies don’t have airplanes flying around. There was a house, a hidden room and everyone lived in the house, but they could leave if they wanted to and most of the deaths happened in the air from Pilot X shooting people down. To me it kinda felt like a one chapter serial. In all I enjoyed the film.
As far as the planes that were used in the film, authorities say, they include: Waco INF, Pitcairn PA 7S "Mailwing Sport", Fleet 2 and Stinson SR 8B. Stock footage was used from “Hell's Angels” 1930. There are also scenes of a Fokker D.VII and the Sikorsky S-29-A. Also, there was film of Boeing F2B fighter aircraft filmed at air shows incorporated in the film.