The Crash of United Air Lines Trip #6
The End of the Golden Age of Aviation…
Nowadays, traveling the skies aboard an airplane is a common thing, practiced throughout the world by thousands of people on a daily basis. But in 1938, it was the exception rather than the rule, for only thirty years earlier, in 1908, did Wilbur Wright take one of his employees, Charles Furnas, on a flight as the first passenger. Air travel provided a fast and effective method to expedite persons and cargo all over. However, it had still not become the routine, safe, and preferred method of travel for long distance like today.
United Air Lines Trip #6 departed from Seattle, Washington, at 8:28 PM on November 28th, 1938, bound for San Diego, California. The flight included numerous stops, including Portland and Medford, Oregon, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, Fresno, Bakersfield, and Los Angeles, California, as intermediate points to refuel and exchanges mail and passengers.
The aircraft assigned to Trip #6 that night was a Douglas DC-3, registered as NC16066, which had been flying with United for just over 22 months. The aircraft was powered by two Pratt & Whitney B-3G engines, equipped with Hamilton Standard constant-speed propellers, and all the flight instruments and radio equipment required by the government at that time.
The flight crew of three consisted of:
The plane reached Portland at 9:30 PM, after a sixty-minute flight from Seattle. After refueling with 93 gallons of gasoline, the plane departed at 9:46 PM, bound for Medford, Oregon.
The Friendly Skies…
Air travel in 1938 was the privilege of upper-management, executives, professionals, and others to who considered that “time equals money”. On an aircraft that could comfortably carry twenty to thirty passengers, On Trip #6 that night, there were only four paying passengers on this leg of the journey:
Arriving without incident, the aircraft departed Medford at shortly after midnight on the 29th, after a delay of over twenty minutes without taking on any additional fuel. This was to be a tragic mistake, especially considering a factor unknown to the crew at the time.
Prior to the flight’s arrival in Medford, the United dispatcher in Oakland, responsible for the flight as it flew south from Medford, changed. This second dispatcher, after consulting with the Weather Bureau, concluded that Trip #6 should not be allowed to depart, due to a heavy frontal system and rainstorm along the length of the aircraft’s intended route. The dispatcher in Medford was notified of the recommendation.
However, in a conversation between the two dispatchers, and Captain Stead, the threesome decided that, since the weather at the intended destination, Sacramento, was favorable, the flight would be allowed to continue south.
"Snakes in the Cockpit…"
After takeoff, Stead and Jones proceeded to the south, and climbed to 12,000 feet in altitude. Cruising along for over an hour, everything was going as it should have been in the cabin. However, in the cockpit, the gremlins began their grim work.
“The radio reception was too good. We were getting stations from all over the Coast at once, such as Sacramento, Portland, Fresno and they all came in at the same time…. A freak phenomenon of radio reception. Usually, we get one station at a time, but, getting all at once, we couldn’t tell where we were going, “ according to Stead, when he was interviewed post-accident by the San Francisco Chronicle.
After passing the Fort Jones radio range station, the radio was receiving stations that, normally, would be too distant to pick up. This, in concert with automated flight navigation equipment aboard, made determining the aircraft’s position impossible.
For nearly two hours, Stead and Jones struggled with the radio navigation systems, all the while flying southerly.
At 3:03 AM, Stead reported the aircraft’s estimated position to be between Williams and Potrero, flying a heading to the southeast, and getting a strong signal from the Oakland radio range. The aircraft was then cleared to fly to Oakland at 3:20 A.M. after Captain Stead reported the aircraft as definitely on the northeast leg of the Oakland radio range, flying at 6000 feet in a westerly direction.
In an attempt to get a precise fix to the airplane’s location, Captain Stead began looking outside of the aircraft for a visual reference. A light, believed by Stead to have be an airway beacon light, was sighted shortly after intersecting a leg of the Oakland radio range before 4 AM. Although flying a 199 degrees radio range course, it was found necessary to fly a compass heading of approximately 225 degrees to stay on the beam, due to the high headwinds the airplane had encountered.
At 4:09 AM, Stead radioed Oakland dispatch: “Should be over Oakland. Am dropping down to see what is below. Have 60 gallons of gas, reduced throttle. There is something wrong with this course.” Desperate to get a fix on his location, and realizing his fuel was low, Stead reversed his course to the east, and descended down to 300 feet above the surface at 4:14. When he flipped on the landing lights to see what was below the aircraft, he saw nothing… except the reflective surface of water.Stead and Jones immediately climbed the aircraft upward to 1,800 feet, and continued eastward. The confusion over the radio signals sent the aircraft too far to the west. Way too far. With little gas remaining, the flight crew leaned the fuel mixture to maximized their range and conserve fuel, until the Point Reyes lighthouse was sighted, nearly 45 minutes later. Approaching the shore, the aircraft passed over "The Lumberton", a lumber schooner, and circled the lighthouse in two wide circles, dropping a flare upon each occasion, near the shore off Point Reyes. Running on fumes, the gas was completely gone after the aircraft passed over the lighthouse flying in a southeasterly direction on the second pass, and the aircraft was landed in the water, wheels up, not quite a mile off shore, at about 5:25 AM.
Waiting for the Sun...
Captain Stead directed the passengers, and his two crew members, to immediately climb out to the top of the aircraft, through the emergency hatch in the cockpit. From there, the passengers climbed out onto the wings.
"We got the passengers out on the wings first, then grabbed blankets and climbed after them. The co-pilot and two passengers were on the fuselage, back toward the tail. The stewardess and another passenger were on one wing and Mr. Edelstein and I were on another.” said Captain Stead, to a reporter from the Oakland Tribune.
For twenty-five minutes, in the pre-dawn darkness, the DC-3 drifted afloat through the choppy waters of the Pacific. It was carried towards the shores of Point Reyes, where the plane's fuselage became battered against the rocky surf.
According to Stead, "Then the surf got us and hurled up on the rocks. It's hard to remember just what happened because it all came too fast. The people out by the tail went first. I could see them swimming and thought they would be O.K. The stewardess got off the plane and climbed on a rock, but a wing broke off and was swept toward her. I guess she was afraid it might hit her and knock her off. She got off the rock and started swimming. One of the fellows was with her. They were both doing all right when I last saw them.”
"When the ship started breaking up. Mister Edelstein and I slid off the and started working back toward the tail. We were afraid the wing would break off and hit us. Finally, we started swimming for shore. When we reached shore we were exhausted. We couldn't move for three-quarters of an hour. When I finally came to I couldn't see the others. Just Mister Edelstein. I got some gum out of my pocket and started chewing it. I had swallowed enough water to float a battleship.” he continued.
John N. Buckley, in charge of the coast guard station at Point Reyes, braved a raging surf in a small boat in an attempt to reach the wreckage from the ocean side, but was forced back. So the rescuers had to descend by ropes from the shore side. Isadore Edelstein recalled: “The Coast Guard lowered a boatswain chair over the steep cliff above the beach and pulled us up.”
“I was never so glad to see anything in my life as those kids from the Coast Guard coming down over that cliff," said Stead.
But when Coast Guard personnel arrived that the fuselage, they inspected the interior, and found the plane's cabin to be dry! The five missing could have been safe.
Stead was taken by ambulance to Mills Memorial Hospital in San Mateo County to recover from shock and exposure. Edelstein, whose kneecap was broken, was taken aboard the USCGC Ariadne (WPC-101) to San Francisco for hospitalization at Stanford University.
Sorting Through the Details...
The Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) found that probable cause of the crash of United Airlines Trip #6 was the, “Failure of the pilot to definitely establish the position of the aircraft through standard orientation procedures within a reasonable time after intersecting a leg of the Oakland radio range at 3:17 A.M., and of company flight dispatchers, charged with the responsibilities of directing the operation of the trip, to properly safeguard the flight, resulting in forced landing of the aircraft at sea due to exhausted fuel supply.”
Furthermore, the CAA recommended that the airline competency ratings of Captain Stead, and two United Airlines dispatchers, Thomas P. Van Sceiver and Philip S. Showalter, be revoked.
The national press coverage associated with the crash put Isadore Edelstein in the spotlight, and a police chief in Paducah, Kentucky, took notice. On January 15, 1935, Edelstein was arrested and charged with burglary and assault with intent to kill in Paducah, after a gun battle between policemen and Edelstein, who was surprised while attempting to loot a safe in a ten-cent store. Since he had been paroled in 1934 from Washington state, he was returned to their custody, but authorities there neglected to inform Kentucky officials that Edelstein was being released - despite still having to serve a jail sentence in Kentucky.