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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: