Harbour Grace

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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 will follow in a week or two.)

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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My posts have gotten pretty irregular, and they are going to stay that way for a little while. I’m trying to focus on getting more detailed research done and preparing for conferences and the like. I do need to learn to build a better balance between blog posts and in-depth research (such as shorter, less detailed posts) but I haven’t found that balance yet. I’ll get there.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting the Conception Bay Museum for the launch of the poetry book Flightpaths: The Lost Journals of Amelia Earhart by Heidi Greco. I snuggled in with the pirate Peter Easton and enjoyed an imagining through journal entries and poetry of Amelia Earhart’s last days.

 

Peter Easton, a well-known pirate who often used Harbour Grace as his base. Photo by author.

Greco fell in love with Earhart’s story, and has researched her life and the stories around her disappearance. She uses this information to follow what might have been Earhart’s thoughts as she and Fred Noonan find themselves crashed on a small sandbar, Noonan with severe injuries, and Earhart with a severely injured ankle. Greco allows Earhart to expresses herself with short journal entries, poems, and dreams, exploring her life from the first plane she ever spied, to her marriage to George Putnam, to her childhood and relationship with her sister, to her solo flight from Newfoundland, to her friendships with Katherine Hepburn and Eleanor Roosevelt. Through dreams the wanderings of the mind, Greco explores some of the theories as to what happened to Earhart as she attempted to fly around the equator. She looks at Earhart finding herself in a Japanese prison camp, in a witness relocation scenario, in an institution, and simply as an excuse for the United States to explore the Pacific Islands. Some of the poems and journal entries are so powerful that they will bring a tear to your eye and cause you to mourn the loss of Earhart.

 

Heidi Greco reading from Flightpaths at the Conception Bay Museum. The camera insisted on focusing on the sunflower, brought by Greco as a reminder of Earhart’s Kansas. Photo by author.

What made Greco’s launch even more powerful was that she choose to launch it in Harbour Grace on the anniversary of Amelia Earhart’s solo trans-Atlantic flight. Most fitting, she read the poem “Grace” about that flight which even mentions “With a gifted thermos of homemade soup tucked beneath my arm,/ I ducked into the cockpit, smiling and waving”, a wonderful touch that I feel shows Newfoundland hospitality at its finest.

Artifacts of aviation in Harbour Grace, including the log from the Harbour Grace Airfield. Photo by author.

After the reading, it was wonderful to explore the museum. I have been there before, and will be there again. The museum showcases so many important parts of the area’s history, not just Earhart but the Harbour Grace airfield and Harbor Grace’s role in the Trans-Atlantic Air Race, the Kyle and its search for Old Glory. With so much history beyond aviation, the museum looks at the pirates in the area, the fishery, government, and life in Harbour Grace.

Outside the Conception Bay Museum in Harbour Grace. Photo by author.

While at the book launch, I did have the oppotunity to meet many wonderful people from the area whom I only knew through facebook. First, the ladies of The Moose Curry Experience who post great recipes and have helped me with in the field identification with a tweet or two. I was also talking to Florence Button who runs the museums in Carbonear. I will admit I haven’t been into the Railway Station Museum, the Rorke Store or the Post Office Museum, but will make a point of visiting them the next time I am out in Carbonear (which is pretty regularly). Finally, I made arrangements with the wonderful folks at the Conception Bay Museum to let me check out some of their historic documents to get the research ball rolling on a history of Harbour Grace (one that might compliment Challenge of the Atlantic which is now out of print).

A picture of the Harbour Grace Airfield which was taken on a much sunnier day. Photo by author.

Overall, it was a great day, and I enjoyed spending my evening with a glass of whiskey and a wonderful book of poetry.

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