• U.S.

Transport: Crash of the Week

5 minute read

To Washington fortnight ago in much trepidation journeyed some 200 leaders of U. S. commercial aviation, summoned by the Department of Commerce to a three-day conference to seek the causes for the five major crashes which made December and January the grimmest two months in U. S. flying history. Genuinely baffled, heckled by the Press and scared for their own skins, the airmen timorously offered suggestions, timorously took sides on the two real issues which arose—radio and the Bureau of Air Commerce.

Led by Senator Royal S. Copeland, a vast herd of uninformed outsiders have heaped all blame for past crashes on the Bureau and the radio beams which it operates. Cowed by this abuse, Director of Air Commerce Eugene Vidal stalwartly defended his organization at the meeting but admitted it needed funds. The airline operators, equally cowed, shunted blame onto radio failure because of such weather conditions as rain static. The conferees got together on an eleven-point program of improvements for radio and the Bureau,* scuttled home. Scarcely had they settled down last week when there came another major crash about which two things were immediately apparent—that neither radio nor the Bureau of Air Commerce was to blame.

The plane was a brand-new, 21-passenger Douglas DC-3, put into service only two months ago by United Air Lines on its busiest run—the two-hour hop between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Over this run it had flown as many as 30 ships a day for seven years without accident until last December when a Boeing bashed into a hill near Saugus, killed twelve (TIME, Jan. 11). For the last three years United has used only Boeings on this mountainous jump. When it bought Douglases last autumn, it started a series of exhaustive tests to accustom its pilots to the different planes. Pilots had to test-fly under all conditions for 15 hours before they could take a Douglas up with passengers. They had to fly a month more before they were allowed to carry passengers at night.

Meanwhile they had to maintain double safety performance minimums. First United pilot to pass these requirements was Alexander Raymond (“Tommy”) Thompson, who ran a flying school and flew mail for 14 years before joining United in 1933. Last week he had flown about a million miles, had 147 hours flying experience in a Douglas, was regarded as one of the best pilots on the Coast.

At seven o’clock one night last week, Pilot Thompson took his sleek, twin-motored plane up from Burbank with Co-Pilot Joe De Cesaro (who also had flown 147 hours in a Douglas) beside him, pretty Hostess Ruth Kimmel aft taking care of the eight passengers. At 8:44, after an uneventful trip, Pilot Thompson radioed the dispatcher at Mills Field, San Francisco, that he was approaching, would land on the East-West runway. It was a clear, calm night and those at the airport soon saw the big plane droning in from the South at about 450 ft. It roared over the brightly-lighted field and out over adjacent San Francisco Bay. Two or three miles out the plane began banking to the right in the logical maneuver to approach the East-West runway. Suddenly watchers saw it slide into a 45° dive. Instant later it vanished behind a dike between field and bay. There came a tremendous “wham” as the ship plunged in.

Next morning, when a derrick hoisted the crumpled wreck out of 26 ft. of water, it was found on its back with right wing and motor torn off, fuselage ripped as if by a can-opener, tail shredded. Landing gear and flaps were still retracted. Inside were the bodies of the crew. Co-Pilot De Cesaro was badly mangled, but Pilot Thompson and Hostess Kimmel were only slightly hurt, had drowned. All seat belts were unfastened, indicating that passengers had remained conscious long enough to unhook them. Three passengers were found in the mud nearby, dead by drowning, showing signs of having tried to swim ashore. The other bodies had been swept away by the tide.

Four investigations started at once. It was obvious that the crash was due either to structural failure or to a pilot’s error. Since no crash of a scheduled transport in recent years has been due to mechanical failure and since the plane was new and functioning correctly until an instant before the impact, most experts blamed Pilot Thompson. Best guesses: 1) that he misgauged his altitude, caught one wing tip in the Bay as he banked; 2) that he stalled during the bank, sideslipped into the Bay.

*The program: 1) adoption of radio direction finders to supplement beams; 2) installation of such homing devices on all planes; 3) better navigational training for pilots; 4) installation of an “air-log” on all planes to record altitude, use of radio beam and use of radio telephone; 5) installation of anti-rain-static loop antennae on all planes (TIME, Jan. 25); 6) regulation of radio equipment by approval certificates; 7) installation of simultaneous radio ranges on Federal airways—i.e., beams carrying weather reportsand beacon signals at same time; 8) more detailed and accurate radio maps; 9) better training for blind flying; 10) improvement of airport approach lighting; 11) more safety research by the Bureau of Air Commerce.

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