Another 90th Anniversary – Knute Rockne and the Crash of NC999E, March 31st 1931

In 2015, and again in 2020, I wrote about an air crash which influenced the investigation of civilian air crashes in the United Kingdom. July 21, 2020 was the 90th anniversary of the Meopham Air Crash / Meopham Air Disaster.

March 31st 2021 sees the 90th anniversary of another famous air crash. The death of a notable personality in this crash, along with seven other souls, may have caused a shift in the culture of air crash investigation and reporting in the United States in much the same way that the Meopham Air Disaster did in the UK. The crash had a subtle but distinct influence on aircraft design and development, and represented a watershed in civil aviation. The story was so fascinating that I started to write a blog article, and then shelved it. As today is the 90th Anniversary of this crash, I can’t let the event pass without a mention.

The individual who died on March 31, 1931 was Knute Rockne, the Norwegian-American Coach of the University of Notre Dame football team. The aircraft involved was a Fokker F.10A belonging to Transcontinental and Western Air, and the crash location was close to the township of Bazaar, in Chase County, Kansas, not a huge distance from where I live.

Knute Rockne (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Knute Rockne was born in Voss, Norway in March 1888. He emigrated to Chicago with his parents when he was five years old. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1914 with a degree in Pharmacy, but soon passed on a career in science when he was asked to help coach the football team. After a short career in professional football, he returned to coach Notre Dame in 1918, and the rest is history. Rockne is held up as one of the greatest coaches in college football history and brought the “Fighting Irish” to preeminence.

Rockne was a hero of the early depression, embodying the All American spirit, despite (or because of) his Norwegian roots. Always an astute publicist and an early advocate of commercial air travel, he was on his way to Los Angeles to take part on the production of a movie The Spirit of Notre Dame.

He was flying on a Fokker F.10A, registration NC999E belonging to Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA), which was making the line’s Flight 5 from Kansas City, Missouri to Los Angeles with intermediate stops at Wichita, Amarillo, Albuquerque, and Winslow.

Fokker F.10A NC999E which crashed on March 31st 1931, seen here at Glendale, California in the earlier livery of Western Air Express, March 1930. (Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library)

NC999E departed Kansas City at approximately 0915 on the first leg to Wichita. Weather conditions were poor with snow falls, clouds, mist, drizzle and icing. At 1022, the copilot reported they were south of Emporia, Kansas and were turning back to Kansas City. However on hearing that Wichita’s weather was clearer they may have attempted to turn round again in order to complete their first leg. Their position near Bazaar, slightly west their usual course, indicates the crew were following the aviator’s friend the “iron compass” – in this case the tracks of Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.

It’s entirely possible that the crew needed to open the throttles and gain altitude to execute another 180 degree turn. A couple of witnesses saw NC999E emerge from cloud diving almost vertically, its engines backfiring – perhaps as the pilots throttled back and fought to lessen the impact they knew was inevitable.

Crash site of NC999E in Chase County, Kansas. The tail is the only identifiable part of the wreckage – the port wing was found half a mile away (

Five of the eight occupants were thrown clear of the wreckage. The aircraft’s port wing was found half a mile away. Small pieces of ice were to be found around the wreck, indicating that key instruments may have iced. Subsequent investigations found clear signs of wood adhesive failure in the main spars and plywood covering following prolonged exposure to moisture. An article in the British journal Aeroplane theorized that if the pilots became disoriented in cloud, and with key instruments inoperable through icing, it is highly possible the aircraft entered a spiral dive, during which the weakened wing separated.

Embed from Getty Images
Original Caption – This is a view of the wreckage of the Transcontinental Western Air Transport Liner in which Knute Rockne and seven others died, when it crashed near Bazaar, Kansas. Sections of the plane and some of the victims were scattered over an area of over a hundred yards. The plane plowed deeply into the soft soil by the force of the crash. (Getty Images)

President Herbert Hoover called the crash a ‘national disaster’. The King of Norway sent a delegation to the funeral and knighted Rockne posthumously. United States Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur sent condolences, as did several state legislatures.

Embed from Getty Images
Another view of the wreckage of NC999E (Getty Images)

The public outcry and the demand for answers which followed the crash had a profound effect. The Aeronautics Branch of the US Department of Commerce followed its accustomed policy and made no public announcement about the crash. This would not satisfy the press, and so a number of implausible theories about pilot error, stress and propeller fracture were advanced, none of which stood up to investigation. Wood-framed aircraft were suspect. Every Fokker Trimotor in U.S. airline service was temporarily grounded. The expense of new more rigorous safety checks, and the bad publicity associated with Rockne’s death caused the reputations of TWA and Fokker to sink considerably. Fokker’s would never recover.

For TWA, the only way out of the morass, occurring at the outset of the worst depression in American history, was to look for new aircraft. The Ford Trimotor was an early beneficiary but it looked too much like the “Plane that killed Knute Rockne” even if its metal construction was entirely different. Boeing produced the semi-legendary Model 247 which was widely regarded as the forerunner of modern commercial aircraft, featuring de-icing, a metal construction, and supercharged engines. TWA wanted Model 247s, but Boeing were fully committed to manufacturing 60 for its United Aircraft and Transport Corporation (UAT) subsidiary company United Airlines – TWA’s arch rival. Boeing couldn’t supply TWA for some time, if at all.

In the summer of 1932, a TWA Vice-President contacted Donald Douglas and four other manufacturers to bid for construction of an all-metal three-engined, 12-seat aircraft capable of landing and taking off with one engine out from any of its operating airports. TWA asked who would be interested in a manufacturing job and how long would it be before a prototype could be evaluated.

Donald Douglas was at first hesitant, but after hammering out a few details with TWA such as persuading them to drop their trimotor specification, Douglas’ corporate response was the Douglas Commercial 1 (aka DC-1), which flew a year after the initial letter of interest from TWA.

Douglas DC-1 on its handover to TWA in December 1933 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

TWA accepted the aircraft and subsequently ordered 20 examples of the production model, the DC-2.

You can see where this is going. From the DC-2, Douglas produced the improved DC-3, and a legend was born. The Boeing 247 was outperformed by the DC-2 and relegated to a sideline in commercial aviation history, albeit a sideline that arguably gave birth (via the four-engined, pressurized Model 307) to the B-17.

Air crash investigation was brought into the public arena. The aviation industry in the United States took a leap forward with the development of the DC-2/3 series and made the USA the predominant force in airliner construction for four decades. Even Boeing would re-enter the lists with considerable effect.

Would things have been different had Knute Rockne landed safely in Los Angeles in 1931? I think it’s true to say, as the Aeroplane article suggests, that without the market created by the Rockne crash, airline development might have progressed at a slightly different pace. The Junkers 52 and the venerable Ford Trimotor demonstrated the safe developmental route. Without the timely impetus to develop the DC series, the DC-2 and later DC-3 / C-47, the speculation starts to go off the scale. Had the DC-3 emerged a couple of years later, what would the legions of paratroopers have jumped from in the Second World War?

And we haven’t even begun to think about college football. 🙂

Among other sources, see the following:

C919 Flies

So, further to my December 2016 post Stars in the East I saw in the news that the COMAC C919 finally made its maiden flight from Shanghai today. See this report from China’s Xinhua News Agency.

Also worth a look, if you want to riffle selectively through two hours of previously live-streamed footage, is this long YouTube segment from New China TV. There are several interesting views of the C919 taxying and the maiden flight itself.

Stars In The East

I was perusing a couple of news articles earlier in the week relating to the Word Trade Organization’s latest intervention in the Boeing / Airbus spat.

A sentence or two hiding at the very bottom of an article by Simon Jack in the BBC News website caught my eye.  The United States and Europe, he says, are not the only countries who are giving questionable subsidies to aircraft manufacturers.  Bombardier, he says,  receives governmental subsidies from the Canadian government. An even bigger threat to the A+B (Airbus and Boeing) duopoly is making itself known, not necessarily for the right reasons, in the east.  It’s a company I’d never heard of previously, but I’m not terribly familiar with the highly competitive world of commercial civil aviation.

Jack thinks the least regarded threat to A+B comes from COMAC, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, Ltd.  Established in 2008, COMAC is currently engaged in the production of a couple of aircraft, which are intended for China’s rapidly expanding internal airline market.

COMAC ARJ21 Xiangfeng “Flying Phoenix”
By Peng Chen (Flickr: China ARJ-21)
CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The first jet to be marketed is the ARJ21, originally developed by Aviation Industry Corporation of China, and which looks very much like a scaled down (some sites less charitably say “warmed over”) DC-9 / MD-90. This may be partly due to the fact that the factories producing the ARJ21 are the same factories that participated in the abortive attempt to build the MD-90 in China, which ceased after two examples (of the 40 proposed) were completed in 2000.  COMAC’s claims for the ARJ21 as a wholly indigenous product are further undermined by its wing, which is a product of the Antonov Design Bureau in the Ukraine, and the engines and avionics, which are are predominantly American.

The ARJ21 was a key project in the 10th Five-Year Plan of China which began March 2002. The fact that by December 2016 only six aircraft have been produced, and only two of these are in airline service in China, is perhaps indicative of the struggle that the project has encountered. COMAC has been trying for several years to gain American FAA type approval for the ARJ21, a necessary step for its products to operate globally, and that this has not been forthcoming.

COMAC’s other product, The 168-seat C919, is intended to be a direct competitor with A320 and venerable Boeing 737 families.  Although looking good at its roll-out  (see the YouTube video below) with a projected first flight in 2017, the development path may conceivably be as rocky as the ARJ21.

It’s certainly very tempting to think COMAC is waiting in the wings for some kind of coup, but one also needs to consider that the competition is in some cases very well established already. Embraer and Bombardier, while admittedly competing for third place behind A+B. demonstrate that COMAC has a longer march to market than our amorphous fear of Chinese business may suggest, however justified we may feel considering their near stranglehold on multiple sinews of world manufacturing.

A quick look through Wikipedia will produce the following figures of aircraft which its editors (reasonably) feel to be comparable with the ARJ-21 and C919.

Boeing 737 family (9,247 units produced) – 737 MAX forthcoming
Airbus A320 family (7,297 units produced) – A320neo forthcoming
Embraer E-Jets (1158 units produced)
Bombardier CRJ700 series (788 units produced)
Bombardier CSeries (10 units produced)
Sukhoi Superjet 100 (114 units produced)
Antonov An-148 (39 units produced)
Mitsubishi Regional Jet (4 units produced)
Irkut MC-21 (1 units produced)

Of particular interest are the recognizably Russian types produced under the umbrella of UAC, the United Aircraft Corporation.

Sukhoi Superjet 100
Sukhoi Superjet 100-95B EI-FWA of Irish regional airline CityJet crew training at Prestwick Airport, UK, June 2016. The Sukhois are intended to replace the airline’s Avro RJ85s
By Mark Harkin (EI-FWA Sukhoi Superjet 100-95B) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Vladimir Putin created UAC in 2006 by merging governmental holdings of Ilyushin, Irkut, Sukhoi, Tupolev, and Yakovlev into a new company in which the Russian government holds a majority stake. UAC effectively consolidates Russian private and state-owned companies engaged in the production of commercial and military aircraft. While some western journalists may perceive a commercial threat from COMAC, it would seem to be that a star rising slightly nearer in the east might also bear scrutiny.

Articles mentioned in the text are listed below.

Simon Jack at Exclusive: WTO rules Boeing’s state subsidies illegal (28 November 2016). The article discussed the subsidies paid by the State of Washington to encourage Boeing to build the wings of the 777x aircraft there.

A later article (in the same day) Boeing tax break ruled unlawful by WTO said that the United States government has been given 90 days to drop the special tax exemption or subsidy.

The New York Times mentioned that this was the latest volley in a spat between Airbus and Boeing dating back 12 years in which each side has accused the other of raking in millions of dollars in special governmental aid.

Forbes’ article was interesting in that it pointed out that
the WTO has no enforcement powers, the United States was likely to appeal the ruling and that this particular case will be echoing round the courts for at least two more years.

Farewell to Bobby

Just occasionally,  my casual browsing dredges up something unexpected, interesting, and aviation-related.

A couple of days ago, on Saturday (October 29th) it seems that Lufthansa flew their last commercial flights using the Boeing 737.  The 737 is known as ‘Bobby’ or ‘Bobby Boeing’ by Lufthansa, who were the launch customers of the type in the late 1960s. ‘Bobby’ is being replaced by what Lufthansa describes as “quieter and more fuel efficient” equipment produced by Bombardier and Embraer. Lufthansa press releases also mention the present and future line of Airbus products as replacements for ‘Bobby’ on some routes.

This Ken Fielding photo from 1972 shows a Lufthansa 737 in an early livery and, as Ken says,  it’s notable for the logo of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games  on the aft fuselage.

Lufthansa Boeing 737

Lufthansa Boeing 737-130 D-ABEA Seen at Manchester airport (UK) on July 31st 1972. 
It first flew on May 13th 1967 and was delivered to Lufthansa on April 24th 1968.
After later service in the USA and New Zealand it was scrapped in the USA in 1995.
(Photo by Ken Fielding CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Should you desire to brush up on your German,  here’s a YouTube video from a group of German plane-spotters commemorating the event.  Its is, as they say a slightly sad event as an original customer retires a machine that was once the backbone of its short-haul fleet This is not simply auf wiedersehen, it’s farewell, Bobby.


Those were the days.  I was looking at a picture the other day of N70700,  the prototype Boeing 707 (or more properly the Boeing 367-80 Stratoliner) which flew around this date in 1954. I started wondering about VC10s.  I remember seeing them around and about during my travels and indeed they served BOAC / British Airways until 1981. I always remember thinking how graceful they were.  I also have a vague memory of a Dr. Who story which involved VC10s or an airport, or both, in some way. I must confess I was watching it from the hallway so I don’t remember all the details.

There is one association that many Brits will have with the VC-10 and that’s mostly because of this bloke. If there was anyone you wanted to see jetting around the world in the First-Class compartment of a VC10 it was the late,  great Alan Whicker   (1921 – 2013).  He may have had an amazing title image for the series in the 1980s standing beside a runway as a British Airways Concorde took off (and all without ear defenders) but for me the VC10 is a symbol of British sophistication and grace in the air during my impressionable youth.

Alan Whicker, circa 1960 (BBC)
Alan Whicker, circa 1960 (BBC)
Opening Titles from Whicker’s World in the 1960s.
That undercarriage and the rear-mounted engines are saying VC10 to me. (BBC)

The VC10 was designed to operate on long-distance routes from the shorter runways of the era and especially was designed to maximise hot and high performance for operations from African airports. Allegedly a VC10 still holds the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic by a subsonic jet airliner at a shade over 5 hours.   I’m also fascinated to read in Wikipedia that the original plan for the Super VC10 involved lengthening the fuselage by 28 feet, although after some worries over production schedules this was cut to around 13 feet.

BOAC  “Standard” VC10 G-ARVF at London Heathrow (LHR), March 6th, 1964.
Photo by Ken Fielding/
CC BY-SA 3.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons

And while I’m here, some rather charming YouTube footage from 1968. The second commercial, as  the comments suggest, seems to be fascinated by the main undercarriage of the VC10.  Who am I to complain?

The politics of the VC-10, the Boeing 707 and the intervention of the British government in aircraft production are fairly well summarized in the Wikipedia article on the VC10 so I won’t go into any of that here.

On  the lighter side, a couple of pictures of the lowest known pass by a VC10 at a UK airshow – G-ARVM appearing at the 1977 Silver Jubilee air show on 14-15 May at White Waltham airfield in Berkshire. – go to the Memories page.

Another footnote which I feel requires inclusion is this BBC News website article from May 2016 reporting that a collection of Alan Whicker’s personal papers had been  donated to the British Film Institute’s National Archive.

Meopham Air Disaster, July 21st 1930.

It is not my intention to dwell too much on air disasters in this blog, but while I was thinking about the explosion aboard Viking G-AIVL in 1950 (see an earlier post), I thought that I could probably write a little bit about an air crash which had a tangential effect on me personally.

When I was a small child,  my parents told me the story of a Junkers that crashed in the Kent village of Meopham, a few miles from where we lived in Rochester.   My great-grandfather was one of two village policemen in Meopham at the time. The way my father told the story, a German airliner, probably a Ju 52, crashed before the outbreak of the Second World War. There was a significant loss of life in the crash, which became known as the Meopham Air Disaster. The passengers were rich and their personal effects, including ladies’ jewellery, were scattered around the countryside. Not all the jewellery was recovered, and my great-grandfather and several other policemen who had been drafted in were ordered to secure the wreckage and personal belongings.

I later found out that it was a much older accident, that the machine in question was British, and that while the death toll was smaller, all aboard the aircraft had been killed.

Whilst I haven’t untangled all the threads of the story, especially relating to the passengers, there are a some very interesting facts which link the story of the Meopham crash to some notable events in British aviation and social history.

The Wikipedia Article summarizes what happened. “The Meopham Air Disaster occurred on 21 July 1930 when a Junkers F.13ge from Le Touquet to Croydon with two crew and four passengers crashed near Meopham, Kent, with the loss of all on board. The report of the inquiry into the accident were made public, the first time in the United Kingdom that an accident report had been published. The aircraft involved was Junkers F.13ge G-AAZK, c/n 2052.”

By another one of the strange coincidences of which I’m fond, the accident report, published in 1931, is still available in the collection of a library where I used to work in Kansas City. I suspect it’s probably the only copy in the United States. I looked it up on WorldCat and didn’t find many copies.

After a small amount of searching on the Web I found a few interesting,  and in some cases downright weird snippets of information relating to the crash, which I hope to collate in further blog posts. I also wasn’t expecting to find new images – in fact I’d only ever seen one very grainy photograph, but ran across a YouTube video which was originally made by Pathe News.  I will close this entry with that Pathe News newsreel.

Concorde Captain Talks About Barrel Roll

There was a piece on the BBC Future website today titled “What Concorde was like to fly” ( – Note: you might not be able to view this page in the United Kingdom, talk to the BBC about it)  The article gave a link to a video on YouTube, in which Captain Brian Walpole talked about flying the Concorde and the occasion that he and a French test pilot rolled an empty Concorde.  There are some images of the beast but fortunately  (?!) none of the roll manoeuvre.

In the words of ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris – Nice.

I did see some footage years ago of the prototype Boeing 707 being rolled in 1955, and YouTube suggests in its related videos.  I also recall seeing Chuck Yeager rolling he Bell X-1 but that’s a different kettle of fish.

Shrinking World

My local airport is Joplin Regional Airport (IATA code JLN), which is about 30 miles from here.  When I first flew into Joplin, it was a cold January night and I’d flown from London Gatwick to St. Louis in a TWA Boeing 747. Making the switch from the 747 to the TW Express BAe Jetstream 31 (below) was quite a leap. It was fun, however, except on one occasion when I disembarked in a rainstorm and picked up my checked you-can’t-carry-this-on backpack from a rain-soaked tarmac. That’s another story, and nothing was seriously damaged.

British Aerospace (BAe) Jetstream 31 of Trans World Express via Wikimedia Commons
(CC-BY-SA-3.0) –

Fast forward a few years. When Susan and I went back to England in 2013 we flew from the new terminal at Joplin. We took an American Eagle ERJ-145 to Dallas-Fort Worth.

American Eagle (Envoy Air) Embraer ERJ-145 at Joplin – Gate 1 (2014)
by Sla2931 – Own work via Wikimedia Commons

This is the only service out of Joplin, but it’s a jet, and DFW is a big hub. In 2013 We connected with a flight from DFW to London-Heathrow, and then from Heathrow to Newcastle.

I have to say that the flight from Dallas to Heathrow on an American Airlines Boeing 777 was one of the less pleasant experiences of my life. I assume the seating in cattle class has been moved even closer together. Fortunately we came back on a venerable BA 747 which was a little less painful.

But – as I found out recently, a new destination has been added to those available from DFW.  Sydney, Australia. For a few months a 747-400ER made the trip, with an intermediate stop in Brisbane, and apparently on one occasion a highly intermediate stop in Noumea, New Caledonia when the pilots on the flight from Dallas felt they couldn’t make Brisbane for fuel.

However, from September 2014 QANTAS changed the equipment and now the flight is non-stop in an A380.  Woohoo!

Airbus A380 at DFW
by Carguychris – Own work via Wikimedia Commons
(CC BY-SA 4.0)

If you look closely at the QANTAS Kangaroo it’s wearing a Stetson and has a blue neckerchief with little white stars, suggestive of the American flag. A nice touch. I saw a logo on something (I don’t remember what) with the strapline “G’Day, Texas.”

The DFW – SYD route is currently the longest commercial air service in the world in terms of distance covered. Singapore Airlines used to fly from Newark, NJ to Singapore which was a longer, but that route has been cancelled. I note from Wikipedia “Since Flight 8 is both an overnight flight and crosses the International Date Line, it arrives in Sydney two days after departing Dallas.”

It’s nice to know that if we have the time, money and inclination we can get on a small plane in Joplin, get on an enormous plane in Dallas and fly non-stop to Sydney. Even if we have to cross the International Date Line and have some very interesting jet lag experiences as a result.  🙂