A few months ago, I was looking through MUN’s Digital Archives Initiative for more information for my article Sacrifice in Second World War Gander in Canadians and War, vol. 3. While looking, I came across Ray Guy’s article in The Newfoundland Quarterly, Ten Miles Apart in Space: Five Years Apart in Time. One a Vultee; the Other a Hudson, which sent me down a research hole looking in to the Lady Peace. When I first got to look through the Official Register for the Harbour Grace Airport Trust (on display in the Conception Bay Museum), I wanted to look further into the Lady Peace event because there was just so much aviation activity around it. The heyday for the Harbour Grace Airfield seemed to have passed. In 1934, only the Warsaw passed through, and in 1935, the Northrop. The airfield had started to fall into disrepair, and two flyers were turned away in 1936 due to safety concerns while raking and clearing were done. There were attempts to secure funding for the upkeep, even supported by T.M. McGrath with the Newfoundland Airport, because until the Newfoundland Airport construction was completed, McGrath figured the Harbour Grace Airfield would be used as an alternative landing place.
In fact, in September of 1936, it was.
Nightclub owner and singer of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” fame, Harry Richman, found that aviation was a wonderful hobby, and had ambitions to be the first person to do a round-trip across the Atlantic. He had bought a Sikorsky and had set several records with it. Richman was contacted by Henry T. “Dick” Merrill, chief pilot for Eastern Airways, who had similar ambitions for lacked funds, and similar achievement in his flying career.
Merrill found himself at Richman’s club in New York during a layover, and the way the story goes, the two got to talking and of course the conversation turned to aviation.
Richman, at Merrill’s suggestion, purchased a Vultee V1-A and modified it for the trans-Atlantic round-trip, including putting 40,000 ping pong balls in every available space in the wings of the aircraft in an Royal Air Force War trick from the 1920s that was supposed to help the aircraft float should it happen to land in the ocean on the crossings. This gave the flight the nickname the “Ping-Pong Flight”. The actual name for the aircraft was the Lady Peace, so named to promote peace in the years leading up to the Second World War. The flight plan was to fly from New York to London, refuel and return the following day.
The flight left from Floyd Bennet Field, New York, at 4pm on 02 September 1936 after a day’s delay due to weather. A crowd of well-wishers saw them off, and though sluggish to start, the plane took off, and climbed steadily to fly a course over Long Island. Soon after takeoff, they were joined by a couple of DC2s, one blown by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, owner of Eastern Airways. It is reported that he was wearing his famous straw hat as he and his staff waved to the aviators.
Like Lindbergh before them, they set their course for Newfoundland, the last landmark to use before crossing the Atlantic. Cape Race reported them flying overhead at 11:50 local time, travelling at a high speed and heading northeast.
They took the Great Circle route, but due to a thunderstorm in their flight path they became lost, were low on fuel, and had to look for an emergency landing spot. They saw a field through a break in the clouds, and landed in a farmer’s field, much to the surprise of the farmer and his cows. They had landed in Carmarthenshire, Wales.
The locals were very helpful, but aviation fuel was not available locally and had to be brought from Bristol. The aviators had just broken a speed record for crossing the Atlantic, and decided that they now wanted to celebrate in London. As their plan to cross in 48 hours was now out of the question, they traveled to London, then Paris, then back to Merseyside, England, for their return flight. The prevailing wind was poor for flying out of Liverpool, so the aviators decided to try a dangerous takeoff from Southport beach, then in Lancashire. The takeoff was made after dark from the sandy beach, and the locals set up a flare path to help the attempt. The aircraft took off and started the return trip.
Here’s where the stories start to differ. One account says that the wings started to ice up, so Merrill decided to descend to try to clear them. As Merrill stated they were going down, Richman interpreted to mean they were ditching, and dumped the fuel. Another account says Richman was at the controls, and panicked due to the headwinds and dumped much of the fuel to lighten the plane. Yet another is that neither aviator could understand why there seemed to be less fuel on board than expected, and when Rickenbacker arrived later, he found the emergency fuel dump valve was stuck partially open. A further account says it was later found that the storm cap had blown off the tank and the speed of the plane syphoned the fuel out.
In any case, enough fuel was lost on the return flight that they could not make it to New York and had to make another forced landing. According to Ray Guy, the aircraft passed over Musgrave Harbour, then Carmanville, but could see nowhere to land in Carmanville and returned to Musgrave Harbour where they saw a field. What they believed was an open field was actually a soft bog and the aircraft suffered some minor damage.
There were not many radios in Musgrave Harbour at the time, but T.W. Abbot had one across the street from his home. This powerful radio allowed for Abbot to follow the trans-Atlantic circumnavigation, so he assumed rightly that it was the Lady Peace. It was not powerful enough, and throughout the rescue of the aircraft, the wireless station was much improved so that newspapermen could get their stories out.
The plane landed in Man Point Marsh where a number of berry pickers saw it land. It frightened at least one woman, who threw her berries and jug at the plane in surprise. The plane came to rest near a man named Israel (Guy doesn’t give a last name) to the following exchange between him and Merrill:
“What place is this?”
“Man Point Marsh.”
“And where is Man Point Marsh?”
“Sure everyone knows where Man Point is. ‘Tis between Salt Water Pond and Big Brook.”
The aircraft had to be removed from the bog, and with the help of local residents, who pulled the plane about a half mile to get it to more stable ground. Newspaper men from New York City sensationalised some of this. For instance, an editorial in the Daily News complained about how papers were reporting that the aircraft was “still floundering in a Newfoundland bog” and that Eddie Rickenbacker had flown to Newfoundland and could not find the airmen in Musgrave Harbour. The same man, Lowell Thomas, also reported that Merrill and Richman were sleeping with the moose. The story goes that Merrill and Richman heard this on the radio, while sitting in Abbot’s living room, perfectly comfortable. In fact, the only incident, besides the bent propeller, was that a float plane found the local waters too rough to land, and had to land in a calmer harbour nearby.
(Due to the length of this event, I have split it into two posts. The next one will follow in a week or two.)
1976 We Treated Them As If They Were Residents of Our Community. Decks Awash, 5(6): 59.
2018 Stories From Our Shores: Musgrave Harbour and the Ping Pong Flight. The Western Star, 04 December 2018.
1987 Ten Miles Apart in Space: Five Years Apart in Time. One a Vultee; the Other a Hudson. The Newfoundland Quarterly, 83(1): 5.
n.d. The Ping Pong Flight Project. The Ping Pong Flight, https://pingpongflight.webs.com// accessed 20 December 2018
Mann, Robert S.
1936 Letter to Paramount News, 18 September 1936. On File: Conception Bay Museum.
1936 Letter to O.J. Whitney Inc., 02 October 1936. On File: Conception Bay Museum.
2015 From Glendale to London with Peace, Pingong Balls, and the Ritz. Vintage Air, website, accessed 04 May 2018
1971 The Story of Musgrave Harbour. The Newfoundland Quarterly, 68(2): 6-11.