Freak Plane Crashes (Feb, 1929)

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Freak Plane Crashes


Wartime Aviator and Famous Author of Air Fiction ISSOUDUN, FRANCE. August, 1918. Grey sky, spit of rain. Two fifteen-meter Nieuports doing combat work at eight thousand, just under the clouds. And then, wings too close, the crash!

I’ve seen a lot of sky bangs. This one took the prize. I watched it from the earth—it was my turn to take one of these ships up next. It was my turn, but I didn’t take one. They tangled wings, and one ship spun free like a top. A wing dropped loose as she spun, But not her wing—the other plane’s.

I watched the other. She was sliding toward the field in a sort of half spin. Her left wing was gone. It looked like the finish. But it wasn’t. The pilot got a leg over the side of the fuselage—he got more weight, body weight, on the one good wing. She slithered around in a crazy manner, losing altitude in a series of queer dives and level-offs. The pilot was out of the cockpit—then in it again. He worked hard.

I looked for the other Nieuport. She was nosing straight for the earth—and pretty close. Suddenly she came out of the dive. She half zoomed, went off on a wing. She got level—lost altitude very slowly. She stalled, struck almost gently. My eyes went to the plane with only one wing. She was down to three thousand —and actually gliding! The pilot got down in a fast landing—got off with a broken leg and arm, and some cuts.

The other pilot had a scratch on his chin. And they’d sky-banged at eight thousand!

St. Jean de Monts, France. September, 1918. Flying at three thousand. Along edge of Bay of Biscay. Sergeant in rear cockpit, ready to throw out folded target, to be towed. I zoom her, so that the folded silk pack will have room in the toss. I start to zoom her. We hit a down current —the nose drops. Sergeant, off balance, throws back the silk. She jams between the rudder and elevator fins. I cut the power and try to move the elevator fin. No go. We glide for the beach—a mild glide. But we’re going to crash unless I can get the nose up. The stick is frozen —the silk target pack is jammed tight. All the way down I work. But that silk won’t free. We hit sand—the under-gear buckles. Wheels in one direction, struts in the other.

Ten days later, at the same field, a ground officer neglected to have petrol placed where petrol should be placed in a flying ship. DeHaviland Nine, she was. I took off, got about eight hundred feet over the beach, when the engine died abruptly. Couldn’t make the field—dove for the sand. I could use the controls, this time—but no power. Dropped straight for a half dozen of those bathing houses the French wheel down near the water. The bathers heard the D. H.’s wires shrill. They sped forth in various stages of dress and undress. But it wasn’t funny. Stretched the glide and cleared the last bath house by inches. Blew the left rudder in the set-down—nosed over. No personal damages.

Kelly Field, Texas. March, 1918. This particular cadet let a Curtiss “Jenny” skid on the ground, while taking off. He got her off, minus the landing gear. Just a few shreds left. They rolled out the ambulance, waved pieces of the under-gear up at him—and waited to see what he’d do. I’d like to write that he did the best thing—and stalled her down. But he didn’t. He stayed up until she was almost out of gas—and gave every one on the field a terrible hour. Then he made a fast forced landing. His plane pin-wheeled all over the place. The cadet had a broken nose and a lot of bruises.

Mines Field, Calif.—at the National Air Meet, last year. Lieutenant Hasselman, Navy pilot, was banking vertically around the home pylon, located some two hundred yards from the packed stands. He was doing about a hundred and fifty miles an hour, in a V. B. 2B Squadron, Boeing Pursuit ship. His plane’s nose got down when he had a wing to the sky, and a wing to the earth, about a hundred feet below. She slipped off, but he got her fairly righted before she struck dirt. It was a nasty crash. She pin-wheeled several times. The friend with me was very certain, with his view from the dead-line, that the pilot was finished. But I remembered past air crashes and ground crack-ups. I wasn’t so sure. Five days after the crash the pilot was transferred to a big Fokker hospital plane and winged back to his base at San Francisco.

Fatal air accidents, however, are becoming rarer all the time. The parachute saves hundreds of lives every year. They have even perfected parachutes which can lower a disabled airplane safely to the ground. Huge chutes they are, and mighty effective1. Passengers aboard tomorrow’s transport planes need have no worry in the very unlikely event that their machines crash in the air, as depicted on the cover of Modern Mechanics this month. All they’ll have to do will be to pull a lever and, zip! The chutes grab hold and the planes drift easily to earth.

  1. TomB says: August 24, 20098:39 am

    I did not read the article, but it strikes me that the way to prevent freak plane crashes is to not allow freaks to fly airplains in the first place.

  2. -DOUG- says: August 30, 20099:51 pm

    I thought it was the freak PLANES that were crashing, not freaks in the plane. Though I’m not sure I see how “Freak” fit into the article.

    The Golden Age of Flight was the most dangerous, there was so much they didn’t understand about flying. Running out of lift over a box canyon, microbursts, all manner of inexplicable problems. Why indeed would a plane descend to a runway, then refuse to actually let the wheels set down? And this ‘Porpoise Effect,’ hitting the runway and bouncing into the air again and again, each time harder than the last until the plane comes apart. How can this be?

    Ah, the biplane. If 2 wings are good, are 3 even better? Or is the middle wing mostly ineffective, counterproductive, even?

    I’m not sure I believe the story of a plane missing one wing being balanced and flown. Even the B17 never succeeded at that. When the wing came off, noone in the plane could make it out, it rolled over too suddenly, even as the pilot tried to use the remaining aileron to slow it. Hard enough to keep a plane level if a wingtip came off. There were several fake videos making the rounds in the last few years of people landing radio control planes when a wing falls off. There is such a thing as ‘Flying 3D’ in RC, meaning the prop is up like a helicopter and they can settle to the ground in a way that would be a terrible crash for a real plane.

    Meanwhile, a German television show created a fake video of what was supposed to be a real stunt plane (Looks like an Extra 300 to me) that loses a wing and lands. This included an interview with the stunt pilot telling what it took to land the plane. I haven’t been able to find an English transcript of the episode where they revealed the hoax, so I only know they released it online and reported the reaction. I do know it had been roundly debunked before they went public.

    When you make a steep banked turn, you have to roll the yoke back and fight the plane from going further into the bank, basically if the plane were level it would want to bank the opposite way, if the ailerons were merely straightened out as in level flight it would steepen the bank. I was told in flight training that if one of the flaps stuck and the other went down, that could be enough to flip the plane.

    And then there’s the moment of my first solo landing, as I got onto the runway but had the right side suddenly rise as whatever wind got under the wing, and even as I gently increased my counter turn to the right, it just wouldn’t come down. (Well, after several LONG seconds it did.) So I have to question such tall tale as the pilot bouncing in out out of his seat to balance the plane with a wing gone. With whatever 60mph windforce hitting him, he’d have never been able to hold on anyway.

    If you want some REAL adventures in flying disasters and near disasters, there’s Ernest Gann’s ‘Fate is the Hunter.’ A classic from probably the greatest aviation writer ever.

    Oh, but that airliner landing on the 405 freeway using the Jeep Grand Cherokee for front landing gear just HAS to be real.…

  3. AirDOGGe says: September 3, 20098:16 pm

    It’s been done with a heavy F-15, so I can see it being done with a lighter aircraft if enough lift can be created from the fuselage, knife-edge flight style. You’d need some speed to pull it off.

    F-15 land on one wing:…


  4. -DOUG- says: September 4, 20091:15 am

    An F15 is a lifting body, the fuselage itself provides the main lift. Even without the wing the center of gravity for that axis remains with the fuselage. If the jet engine provides torque correction in the needed direction, it might stablize it a bit. In the wrong directino it would just roll it over sooner. It’s the same with the Stealth fighter that lost a wing at an airshow.

    A small plane is a whole ‘nother ball game. That Killathrill hoax brought out so many hoots from the experts. The definite small plane wing loss case is the Neil William Zlin incident, where the wing didn’t actually come off. It flew itself knife edge with the loose wing actually remaining relatively level, then he inverted the plane. It’s caught on film, as are other cases where the wing did come off. There’s a uniform behavior of the remainer of the plane after the wing comes off, including that even if the plane does agree to keep flying, it flies inverted. Not that it succeeds in landing. This story didn’t fit it.

    During World War II the Corsair F4U was content to fly level and right side up at speed, but when the engine was throttled back, as with a landing, it wanted to roll. The P Factor, engine torque, countered the natural tendency of the design to want to fly inverted; but when the P Factor was gone, the plane wanted to roll over. Also the right wing had a tendency to stall. A spoiler was built into the wing to be raised during landings to fight the roll.

  5. Randy says: September 4, 20091:48 pm

    Doug, also on the F4U the tailfin was offset 5.5 degrees to counteract engine torque, so when the engine was throttled back there was an overcompensation.

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