Aviation

All posts tagged Aviation

See Part One here

While Harry Richman and Dick Merrill waited comfortably at the home of T.W. Abbot for the necessary supplied and equipment to fix their aircraft, The Lady Peace, a modified Vultee V1-A, that had nosed down in a Musgrave Harbour bog on their return flight from Europe, a flurry of activity was happening at the Harbour Grace Airfield.

Once a popular airfield for those attempting to fly the Atlantic, the Harbour Grace Airfield had not been used as much since 1933. With construction starting on the airfield at Mile Post 314, what would become known as Gander, and a lack of funds, the future of the airfield was uncertain.

A picture of the Harbour Grace Airfield. Daly 2017.

When The Lady Peace, with its two famous aviators, crashed in Musgrave Harbour, the Harbour Grace Airfield was suddenly very active. According to the airport log, four aircraft landed in Harbour Grace on 15 September 1936. The first was NC 16515, a Beechcraft scatterwing piloted by Duke Kranto, and owned by the Daily News in New York City. He landed in Harbour Grace at 12:35 local time, then left for Musgrave Harbour at 3:30, stayed in Musgrave Habour for three hours before flying back to Harbour Grace. Kranto stayed the night, and left for New York City at 8am on 16 September. Two other Beechcraft are listed as landing on 15 September: NC 15812 piloted by Carl O. Chader, and owned by O.J. Whitney Inc. Flying Service, and NC 15849, piloted by John H. Shobe and owned by Shobe Airlines Inc. These aircraft landed at 2pm and 2:30 respectively, and left at 8am the following morning. All three are listed as leaving at the same time, so it is assumed they left one after the other. The later two aircraft brought newspapermen to Harbour Grace, who then went to Musgrave Harbour.

The largest plane to ever land in Harbour Grace also arrived on 15 September 1936. The Great Silver Fleet, NC 17731, owned by Eastern Air Lines, landed amongst the smaller Beechcraft. This aircraft was piloted by George W. Branson, co-piloted by Joe Kelly, and brought the famous Captain Eddie Rickenbacker to Newfoundland. 

Harbour Grace Airport, The Great Silver Fleet, Lady Peace, and an unidentified aircraft. Maritime History Archives Rorke Family Fond PF-314 01 232

There was actually a fourth scatterwing that landed in Harbour Grace but wasn’t recorded in the log. The other newspaper aircraft left on 16 September, but a picture of The Lady Peace and The Great Silver Fleet available on the Digital Archives Initiative at MUN shows another Beechcraft. Further readings have not allowed me to identify the aircraft. The log indicates all of the newspaper aircraft had left on 16 September, and The Lady Peace did not arrive until the 18th. The only other possibility is that it was flown by one of the mechanics brought by Rickenbaker as suggested by Pushie (1959), even though the three mechanics, the pilot, co-pilot, and Rickenbacker could all comfortably fit on The Great Eastern Fleet, a DC-2. Perhaps Rickenbacker brought a small aircraft to possibly fly to Musgrave Harbour if needed? I am open to suggestions or further reading suggestions.

From Pushie 1959

On the evening of 16 September, Rickenbaker chartered a boat, Lincoln II, to take him, his crew, and supplies, to Musgrave Harbour. Meanwhile, the residents of Musgrave Harbour were preparing a runway for The Lady Peace. It was determined that the hard-packed sand revealed by low tide would make a suitable runway, and a series of wooden ramps were constructed to move the aircraft to the makeshift runway.

Four days after their surprise landing in Musgrave Harbour, Merrill and Richman took off from the beach with just enough fuel for the shot hop to Harbour Grace. Given the condition of the runway, they wanted the aircraft to weigh as little as possible, looking to fuel-up in Harbour Grace. The Lady Peace, landed in Harbour Grace at 7pm on 18 September 1936.

Entry in the Harbour Grace Airport Log for The Lady Peace

Rickenbacker looked on as, at 8am on 19 September, The Lady Peace took off from Harbour Grace. The aircraft landed at Floyd Bennett Field in New York, where the wheels edged off the runway and sank into the mud. The aircraft had to be towed off the runway.

Ironically, The Lady Peace later went to war as a light bomber operating out of Spain. The aircraft was renamed Capitan Haya and survived the war. It was scrapped in 1953.

In the aftermath of The Lady Peace event, Harbour Grace attempted to renew the airfield. The Harbour Grace Airport Trust Company did not charge for the use of the airfield, but rather relied on donations. With all of the media attention, letters were sent to the Universal New Reel, Paramount News, Fox News, Hearst Metrotone News, and The Daily News, asking for donations toward the upkeep of the runway, suggesting a $25 donation. This suggests that aircraft from each of these news sources landed in Harbour Grace, and perhaps the mystery Beechcraft was among them, although the aircraft was still present when the letter was sent. At least one $25 donation was received from the O.J. Whitney Flying Service, whose aircraft was flown by Carl Chader.

With work starting on the Newfoundland Airport in what would become Gander, Thomas M. McGrath wrote to the Airport Committee suggesting that the airfield continues to be useful even with the completion of the larger airfield. In the interim, McGrath suggests it could be of use to visiting aircraft, and after completion could be an alternative landing place. Keep in mind, this was before the construction of the Second World War airbases, making these the two major airfield on the island. McGrath suggested that Mr. E. L. Oke of the Airport Committee write to Mr. Manning, the Secretary for the Department of Public Unitilies and discuss repairs and maintenance to the airport. A visit to the Provincial Archives may uncover more related correspondences.

Letter from T.M. McGrath to E.L. Oke, 1936. On File at the Conception Bay Museum.

Merrill returned to Newfoundland about 40 years later and at a reception in his honour in Harbour Grace, and actually inquired after the man, Israel, who we first me at Man Point Marsh as the plane landed.

Musgrave Harbour (top circle) and Harbour Grace (lower circle). Map from the MUN Digital Archives and annotated by author.

Sources

Anonymous
1976      We Treated Them As If They Were Residents of Our Community. Decks Awash, 5(6): 59.

Clarke, D.J.
2018      Stories From Our Shores: Musgrave Harbour and the Ping Pong Flight. The Western Star, 04 December 2018.

Guy, R.W.
1987 Ten Miles Apart in Space: Five Years Apart in Time. One a Vultee; the Other a Hudson. The Newfoundland Quarterly, 83(1): 5.

Jessamine, B.
n.d.       The Ping Pong Flight Project. The Ping Pong Flight, website, accessed 20 December 2018

Mann, R.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.

McGrath, T.M.
1936 Letter to E.L. Oke, 02 November 1936. On File: Conception Bay Museum.

Pushie, G.F.
1959 Atlantic Flights From Newfoundland. The Atlantic Advocate, 49(12): 77-86.

Radecki, A.
2015      From Glendale to London with Peace, Pingong Balls, and the Ritz. Vintage Air, website, accessed 04 May 2018.

Whiteway, L.
1971      The Story of Musgrave Harbour. The Newfoundland Quarterly, 68(2): 6-11.

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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.

Unknown biplane flying over the airport at Harbour Grace Maritime History Archives Rorke Family fonds PF-314 01 229

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.

From https://pingpongflight.webs.com/

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.

The Lady Peace leaving New York. va-v1a-04-cr-2k

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.

From Guy 1987

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.”

From Guy 1987

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 can be found here.)

The Lady Peace in Musgrave Harbour. From Vintage Air

Sources

Anonymous
1976      We Treated Them As If They Were Residents of Our Community. Decks Awash, 5(6): 59.

Clarke, D.J.
2018      Stories From Our Shores: Musgrave Harbour and the Ping Pong Flight. The Western Star, 04 December 2018.

Guy, R.W.
1987 Ten Miles Apart in Space: Five Years Apart in Time. One a Vultee; the Other a Hudson. The Newfoundland Quarterly, 83(1): 5.

Jessamine, Bob
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.

Radecki, A.
2015      From Glendale to London with Peace, Pingong Balls, and the Ritz. Vintage Air, website, accessed 04 May 2018

Whiteway, L.
1971      The Story of Musgrave Harbour. The Newfoundland Quarterly, 68(2): 6-11.

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