Offering Aviation History & Adventure First-Hand!


From Aerial Applications to Aerobatics

August 28,1976

Fresno, California

A Second Career...

Aviation was Cliff Anderson's passion.  The native of White Earth, North Dakota, had, in a interview with a reporter, said that, he had "thought about flying ever since I can remember."  At the age of 16, the pilot made his first solo flight, and entered the world of "aerial application" - better known as "crop dusting."  Flying as low to the ground as you can to apply various chemicals to crops, the work is dangerous.  But for those who choose it, it can also be quite lucrative

In the mid-1950s, Cliff Anderson moved from his home in Southern California to the town of Hanford, near Fresno, California, in pursuit of greater profits.  And with the establishment of Anderson Flying Service, his future earnings were secure.  And so, in 1970, he learned to share his love of flying with others, and started to perform at air shows in the California Central Valley. 

When Anderson sold his business in 1974, he devoted more time to his aerobatic routines, well aware of the dangers associated with the sport.  But, as he told a reporter once, "there's a certain amount of danger in getting out of bed in the morning —you could stub your toe or something.' 

At the age of 62, semi-retired, and over 20,000 hours of flight time, Anderson had little he needed to prove to anyone, inside or outside of the cockpit.  It was just about the flying!.

Air Show Extravaganza!

It was the weekend of the fifth annual Gathering of Warbirds, taking place at the Chandler Airport, just west of downtown Fresno.  Traditionally, it had been simply an air show, displaying vintage military aircraft, now in the hands of private collectors.  But in 1976, for the first time in the show's brief history, aerobatics had been included.

Ty Sundstrom, then 19 years old, and from Visalia, helped push Anderson's plane out for the flight.  Having sat on the lower wing-walk just prior to the flight, he had been chatting with Anderson "about various airplane stuff".

Anderson started his acrobatic routine by rolling his plane while only 50 to 100 feet off the ground.

Anderson's plane was his homebuilt "Starduster I" SA100, registered as tail number N8581.  A single place biplane, it was designed by Lou A. Stolp, of Compton, California, in 1964, and powered by a Lycoming 125 horsepower engine.  Constructed with a metal fuselage, and fabric-covered wooden wings, the plane was designed to be easy to built, and even easier to fly.  Built by Anderson himself, he had flown over 270 hours in the plane, and was in the process of building another plane.

On Saturday afternoon, at 2:48 in the afternoon, Anderson was about three quarters through his routine when he completed a vertical turn and fell back into an inverted spin parallel to the ground.  A part of his performance, Anderson was unable to recover from the spin. 

"I didn't realize what was happening until the plane was about 50 feet off the ground," said Robert Moore, one of the thousands of spectators who attended the first day of the show. "The crowd just went silent."

One spectator said he could hear Anderson revving the engine in an attempt to right the plane.

The burned wreckage of Anderson's plane

But his "Starduster I" continued to plummet downwards.  Bypassing the five-hundred foot "hard deck" for acrobatic maneuvers at the show, the plane pan-caked upside down in an open field on the airport grounds north of the runway.

Upon impact, the fuel aboard the 16-feet-long, 900-pound biplane ignited, and the wreck burst into a ball of flames - with Anderson still pinned inside.

By the time fire crews could response and douse the flames, only the plane's metal superstructure was visible.  Anderson was dead.

The air show, for that day, ended - about an hour before anticipated.

Learning, and Remembering...

Officials from the FAA's General Aviation District Office in Fresno began to investigate the crash.  The investigation of the crash concluded that the probable cause was Anderson's inability to maintain a proper airspeed, in concert with the improper use of flight controls in the inverted spin.

According to Sundstrom, Anderson's Starduster "had been slightly modified by him which may have affected the overall flight characteristics.  I do not believe the FAA was aware of this during their investigation at the time.  Cliff was well over six feet tall and had a large build.  He had moved the seat back from the plans location about two inches to help accommodate his size and long legs.   This may have placed the center of gravity toward the rear end of the envelope."  A rearward center of gravity can make spin recovery difficult at best, if not impossible.

The night of the crash, a meeting was held between FAA officials, Fresno City Manager Ralph Hanley, his assistant James Aldridge, a representative of the city attorney's office and members of the Fresno Police Officers Association, which was sponsoring the show.  During the meeting, it was decided to carry on with the following day's program (8 AM to 1 PM.) as a memorial be held as a memorial to Anderson.  City officials, however, canceled the aerobatics and skydiving routines for the Sunday' schedule,

And at the continuation of the air show, on Sunday, August 29th, Chris "Ace" De Guitaut, one of the founders of the Warbirds show, and two other pilots, performed a "missing man formation"  in memory of Anderson.  Symbolically, Anderson's plane would have been in the "hole" to the formation.

The Sand Passes...

The Gathering of Warbirds air show continued, but moved to Madera Airport, where the number of speculators more than doubled in 1977.

Chandler Airport, once the city’s airline facility and only publicly owned airport, became "Fresno Chandler Executive Airport,"  and continues to be an important general aviation airport serving the central San Joaquin Valley.  In 2005, the first air show in years took place at Chandler, as part of the "Fathers Day Air Show & Fly-In". Sponsored by local Fresno radio station KJWL 99.3 FM, the air show grows and expands annually, and will hopefully continue for years to come.


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