On Memorial Day, Wednesday, May 30, 1934, Ernest Miller was awakened at 12:45 AM by the roar of airplane motors in the sky above his house. A plane seemed to be flying dangerously low. He threw on his clothes and ran out to the front lawn of his home to investigate. Through the foggy night sky, Miller strained to make out the faint silhouette of a large lighted airplane whose path was so low that it barely skimmed the surrounding housetops. He watched as the airliner circled downtown Bethel twice. On its third time around, as it passed over the junction of Greenwood and Milwaukee Avenues, Miller thought he heard the engines struggle and sputter. In the seconds that followed, his vantage point from 64 Chestnut Street allowed him to see the plane narrowly miss the high rock ledge of Overlook Park as it glided south in an ever-lower trajectory and then disappear from view. Seconds later, he instinctively flinched at the sound of a thunderous bang that shattered the silence of the night and echoed through the surrounding hills. The terrifying noise seemed to come from the area near Center Cemetery on South Street. Despite his initial shock, as an occasional local correspondent for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram, the twenty-seven-year-old knew that aviation disasters were always big news. If he arrived first at the crash scene, he could scoop every other newspaper in the country. There was no time to lose.
The reporter leaped in his car and drove furiously to the perceived location of the crash. On seeing nothing unusual at the cemetery, he turned left onto Taylor Avenue to reach the area just behind it. Driving slowly along the winding incline while carefully scanning both sides of its entire length, aided only by the headlights of his car to pierce the darkness, not a thing seemed out of place. It was not until he slowed his vehicle to a stop at the junction of Taylor Avenue and Nashville Road that Miller finally glimpsed off to his right the dim lights of the downed airplane in a low wooded area approximately 1000 feet away.
A Night to Remember
The ill-fated flight that carried three crew members and nine passengers left Chicago at 5:00 PM on the previous evening of Tuesday, May 29, bound for Cleveland. Once there, the plane was to be refueled and continue to Newark, New Jersey. The co-pilot, Lorenz Letson (nicknamed “Lorrie”), filled the craft’s three gas tanks with a total of 268 gallons. He let them overflow to ensure that the plane had as much gasoline as it could hold. En route to Newark, that airport’s radio tower informed the pilot, thirty-seven-year-old John Wolf, that their runways were socked in due to rain and fog. He decided to steer a course for Albany where his passengers might have a chance of arranging train connections to their desired destinations. While heading to the new flight path, at a point 50 miles west of Newark, the flight crew heard a weather broadcast indicating that conditions at their original destination had now slightly improved. The pilot quickly abandoned the idea of landing in Albany and made a course correction for Newark. Unfortunately, upon arriving in the vicinity of Newark airport, it was immediately apparent that the weather had once again deteriorated and that strong gusts now accompanied the dense fog. Wolf made four separate attempts to land without success. On each approach, powerful winds caused the plane to drift uncontrollably toward hangars that sat perilously close to the left of the runway. Even after getting the craft down to ground level, circumstances forced the pilot to pull out, narrowly missing a hangar’s red hazard light with the plane’s right wing-tip.
Relinquishing all hope of landing at Newark, Wolf now opted to get above the weather by flying to an altitude of 1200 feet. Upon reaching that height, the night sky was clear, and the moon and stars glimmered. The Empire State Building could be seen majestically poking its spire through the dark gray clouds below it. Everything at this level seemed peaceful and serene. But a new crisis quickly arose. The plane was down to the last of its three fuel tanks with only 36 gallons remaining. The airship consumed roughly a gallon a minute. That left just 36 minutes to find a place to land. The pilots feverishly began searching for a flat area such as a cornfield, or an apple orchard, anything that could accommodate the large plane without causing its destruction. Their quest proved futile as the lingering fog immediately reappeared once the aircraft descended to a lower altitude. Letson would later say, “We were flying blind.”
With 15 gallons and 15 minutes remaining, the pilot dropped to a height of 900 feet. The co-pilot, who had his head stuck out of his side window to improve his view, saw what he first thought were whitecaps behind the right propeller. Inwardly, he began to panic, thinking that they were now somewhere out over the Atlantic Ocean, and he didn’t know how to swim! Before long, the aviator realized that what he first mistook for breaking ocean waves was the underside of tree leaves kicked up by the plane’s propellers. He quickly pulled back on the plane’s controls and brought its altitude back up to 1200 feet. Following this narrow escape, the two desperate airmen next formulated a plan to head toward the coast, hoping that ocean breezes might have blown away the fog and make it possible to find a place to land. But as they anxiously traveled on through the blackness, the sky below them continued to be thickly overcast. Letson, an Alabama native who was 30 at the time, would subsequently remember what came to be the final phase of the trouble-plagued flight.
“Now we were down to 4-5 gallons. Johnny started letting down slowly again. We didn't know what the hell was under us. Finally, I saw lights below under the clouds. We were over a town. Johnny took a quick look and told me to kick out a flare. In just seconds, the flare landed among a lot of houses. We went ahead for a minute, and Johnny asked for the other flare. It wouldn't release. We had hit something that had partially closed the tube the flare slides out through. (We found out later we darned near knocked over a church steeple in this little town - which was Bethel, Conn., 70 miles northeast of Newark). By then, we were down to 1 or 2 gallons of gas - nothing to do but level off - go straight ahead and get away from this town. Finally, after just a few seconds, the fuel pressure lights came on. I pulled my head back in - ‘might as well hang on to it as long as possible,’ I thought. We said so long to each other - Johnny slowed her down as much as possible and the last thing I remember was seeing tree branches going by the right landing light which was turned on. When I ‘came to,’ it seemed as quiet as a vacuum. My first thought was, ‘This trip is over’.”
Reaching the Scene of the Crash
As Ernest Miller bolted from his parked car, he met William Sturtevant, who was also in search of the plane. Despite the darkness, the two began to battle their way through the thick underbrush and trees that bordered the west side of Taylor Avenue, both fiercely intent on reaching the site of the crash. As they broke through the last portion of growth that barred their progress, the object of their shared quest now revealed itself for the first time. They gasped in disbelief at the enormity of the wreckage displayed before them.
The modern silver airliner seen just minutes before in the sky above the town had been reduced to a mass of twisted and broken metal intertwined with battered trees, severed branches, and leafy debris. Its interior remained eerily illuminated by generators that continued to function. The craft had its nose pointing south, its left wing pointing east, its right wing pointing west, and its tail snapped off. Not only had the tail separated from the ship’s center, but it had twisted backward and flipped upside down and now leaned at an angle against the craft’s center. The nose and cockpit had been pushed directly into the muddy earth. The inner portion of the left wing that contained its engine remained attached to the fuselage, but the rest of it had been shorn off. The left engine’s propeller lay partially buried in the ground. Most remarkable of all, the center passenger cabin, although tilted at a 50-degree angle atop the partially severed cockpit, appeared nearly unscathed. Its elevated back end represented the highest portion of the wreckage, jutting 20 feet into the air.
The two new arrivals appeared just in time to witness the astonishing sight of the stewardess, Agnes Pugh, climbing out of the crumpled craft’s starboard cabin door assisted by passengers George Cochrane and James Burns, who had exited moments earlier. Incredibly, they all looked only a little worse for wear despite the catastrophic crash. Stewardess Pugh immediately recruited the flabbergasted Miller and Sturtevant, as well as the others who were now quickly arriving on the scene, to assist in the effort to evacuate all of the plane’s remaining occupants.
The method of exit utilized by the majority of passengers was highly unique. As the co-pilot, Letson, explained:
“The tail section broke off behind the cabin door. It had whipped around and turned upside down. The end of the stabilizer leaned right up to the cabin door, so the passengers could slide right down to the ground.”
Ernest Miller later wrote an eyewitness account that also described passengers using this technique. “They appeared only slightly injured and were able to slide down the tail of the ship which was broken loose from the cabin and hung on one side making a treacherous gangplank to within about five feet of the ground.” A few passengers took a different approach to reach terra firma, choosing to walk along a wing and then climb down the tree in which it rested.
Within minutes, the stewardess and all nine passengers had safely exited, with only one person requiring serious assistance. The News-Times added the details of the ensuing exodus made by the two injured aviators who were initially trapped in the cockpit. (Note: In the effort to free the co-pilot, Miller and Sturtevant were assisted by Bethel citizen Frederick Kirk, passenger William Sirota, and Bethel police officer Morris Britto.)
“The pilot, Wolf, clambered out of the plane where it was smashed open at the junction of the cockpit and the cabin. The co-pilot, Letson, was the last removed from the wreckage. Because his legs were fractured, great difficulty was encountered in getting him out. Kirk, Miller, and Sturtevant climbed down into the ship through the cabin door and carried him up through the plane to the wing. Officer Britto had gone back to the highway and obtained a rope from Julian Lamson’s automobile. When he returned with it, however, it was decided that because of Letson’s condition it would be better to use a blanket. He was wrapped in an automobile robe and lowered to the ground in that.”
In the tremendous impact of the crash, Letson’s legs had smashed against the plane’s control panel, fracturing the femurs in both his left and right leg. Jagged metal had peeled the skin off his left heel, and he had multiple cuts and bruises over much of his body. Although still alert and in good spirits, he would have a long road to recovery. As he waited for his transportation to Danbury Hospital to be arranged, Letson calmly smoked a cigarette.
Providing proof that the age of miracles had not yet passed, all twelve travelers on the mangled United Airlines plane had somehow survived, with only the co-pilot sustaining injuries that would require extended care. Demonstrating no signs of ill will, the grateful survivors instead expressed solidarity in insisting that the injured aviators whose skill had saved them receive priority attention. A newspaper account stated:
“None of the passengers would allow the rescuers to take them away until Letson had been safely taken out of the plane and when they arrived at the hospital declined to receive aid until care had been taken of the pilot and co-pilot.”
Co-pilot Letson described the extent of his fellow crew member’s injuries.
“John Wolf got a long scalp cut from his forehead to the back of his head. The Stewardess, a nurse, discovered that somehow his scalp had fallen down over his ear. She pushed that back in place, pulled his cap down over his head, to slow the bleeding, and had him sit by a tree until someone took him to the hospital.”
Forty-five minutes after the crash, every one of the twelve still somewhat stunned crash survivors had been transported to Danbury Hospital by private cars. The Danbury ambulance had been unable to make its way through the multitude of vehicles parked along Taylor Avenue.
The stewardess, Agnes Pugh, who was just five days short of her twenty-fifth birthday, remained unflappable throughout the entire incident, despite suffering a bruised shoulder and leg. Described as “petite, brunette, and pretty,” she had tried to inspire calm in the moments leading up to the accident, made sure that everyone onboard was buckled in their safety belts, and explained how best to prepare for a sudden impact. Afterward, she assisted the injured, made several trips back into the wreckage to retrieve personal property and luggage left behind by the passengers, and once at the hospital, took on the responsibility of calling United Airlines to provide the status of all who had been on board. Pugh, who the press characterized as “plucky,” continued to take charge throughout the day, even helping relatives find the hospital rooms of the injured. She would go for twenty-four hours without sleep before being convinced to get some rest at Danbury’s Hotel Green.
In the Wake of the Crash
One item recovered from the wreckage by Bethel police officer Morris Britto later proved to be of great interest to both the public and crash investigators. It was the expensive wristwatch of passenger George Cochrane. Just like a clue found by Hercule Poirot in an Agatha Christie novel, the smashed watch was stopped at 12:55, thereby establishing the exact moment of impact.
As Ernest Miller left the passenger cabin for the last time after retrieving Agnes Pugh’s handbag, he found a new book one of the passengers had been reading. He thought the title ironic: Tender is the Night.
When United Airlines officials arrived on the scene later that morning, they wanted to not only survey the damage but also engage in damage control. Photos taken after their arrival show that all lettering and markings on the plane indicating ownership by United Airlines were hastily covered over with black paint. Company directors were undoubtedly very concerned about negative publicity resulting from the accident that might cause the public to question the firm’s level of safety and reliability.
Later that day and in those that followed, thousands of people came from all parts of the surrounding area to trek the muddy path leading to the crashed plane and gawk at its smashed hulk. Many hoped to take home a scrap of aluminum or a dislodged bolt as a souvenir of their visit. When newsreel camera operators joined the gaping crowds to record the event for eager movie audiences, the site of the near-tragedy took on a carnival-like atmosphere.
(You can view a brief video of the crash here.)
The day following the crash, The News-Times published the names of each passenger with a summary of their injuries.
“George H. Gleason, New York; lacerations on right eyelid and abrasions of the legs.
Mrs. Margaret Anderson, New York; fractured second finger on the left hand and contusions of the left hand.
William Sirota, New York; extensive lacerations of the left leg.
W.J. Katz, New York; sprained ankles.
H.S. Howland, Rye, N.Y.; minor abrasions.
H.H. Herwitz, New York; contusions on chest.
Mitchell Greene, New York; lacerations of the left lip and abrasions of the legs.
George Cochrane, of 49 Wall Street, New York, and James Burns, of Louisville, Ky., were not admitted to the hospital as patients though they did receive treatment. Burns for abrasions of the legs and Cochrane for slight injury to his left eye.”
(Cochrane’s head had hit the seat in front of him with such force that the seatback split nearly in half. The News-Times noted: “He sustained nothing but his first ‘shiner’ from it.”) The newspaper continued:
“Nearly all of the passengers suffered from shock, though some were less affected than others and all complained early Wednesday forenoon of pains across the abdomen, where the safety belts caught them as they were descending toward the ground and the plane struck.”
The Danbury paper also noted that several passengers were no stranger to the prevailing hazards of aviation. “Burns and Katz are former Army air pilots. Cochrane is an experienced air traveler, making weekly trips across the country by plane. It was Katz’s third plane crash; Cochrane’s second. Previously he had been wrecked in Nicaragua.”
By the afternoon of the next day, all but two passengers had left Danbury Hospital. Margaret Anderson left after a two-day stay, and William Sirota went home after eleven days. The pilot, John Wolf, was released after six days. The co-pilot, Lorentz Letson, spent the next eight and a half months there.
Once doctors at Danbury Hospital had determined that Letson had no internal injuries, they cut open his left leg nine days after the crash to insert a silver plate alongside his fractured femur bone. They next placed him in a body cast that began at his waist and continued to the tips of his toes. Letson lay encased in plaster for three and a half months. Then, doctors cut him out, extracted the silver plate, and placed him in a new cast for another three and a half months. After being freed from the second cast, the resilient aviator spent his final six weeks at the hospital learning to walk again. Despite the extended length of his ordeal, Letson later looked back on his care and convalescence in a positive light:
“When it was all over, it didn’t seem too bad. That was a good hospital, good doctors and nurses, the people were nice. I learned a few lessons. One can get accustomed to most anything if necessary, like ‘concrete pants.’”
State of the Art
The plane in which the twelve charmed passengers had crashed was a Boeing model 247. It represented the cutting edge in passenger transport planes then in use and is referred to today as “the first modern airliner.” Boeing exhibited it at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair as an example of its technological achievements. It first flew in February of that same year and began commercial use almost precisely a year before the Bethel crash on May 22, 1933. The groundbreaking craft had an outer skin of anodized aluminum that improved paint adhesion and prevented corrosion. The 247 also incorporated semi-monocoque construction, giving the fuselage an inner skeleton designed to keep its shape stable and secure. Another innovative feature was its fully cantilevered wings that were attached directly to the fuselage and did not require any exterior supporting wires or struts.
One unfortunate aspect of this new model was the awkward placement of the spars (the main longitudinal structural support beams of an airplane wing). The 247’s spars ran from side to side across the plane’s floor between the two wings. As a result, passengers were required to use miniature sets of stairs to step over each of the two spars when utilizing the solitary aisle of the passenger cabin. (See the photo and virtual tour.)
The plane could carry ten passengers, three crew members (pilot, co-pilot, and stewardess), and all accompanying luggage. It could also transport up to 400 pounds of cargo with compartments for that purpose located in both the nose and tail.
Power was provided by two Pratt & Whitney R-1430 Wasp engines, each capable of producing 550 hp. (The Boeing 247 was the first twin-engine passenger airplane able to fly on one engine.) The Wasp engines allowed the craft to reach a cruising speed of 165 mph and a high speed of 182. This capability made the plane fifty percent faster than any of its competitors. In its advertising, United dubbed it “The 3-Mile-A-Minute” plane. It was designed to fly at an average height of 18,400 feet but could fly as high as 20,500 feet. When fully fueled, it had a range of 745 miles. It was 51 feet, 4 inches long, had a wingspan of 74 feet, and was 12 feet, 6 inches in height. The craft weighed 8,370 pounds when empty and 12,650 pounds when fully loaded.
Seventy-five Boeing 247s were built. Sixty of these were bought by United Airlines. Four planes in either the 247 model or its later upgrade, the 247D, still survive. One is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
The Boeing 247 that crashed in Bethel in May of 1934 bore the aircraft registration number NC13334 and first flew for National Air Transport from June 23, 1933, to April 30, 1934. National Air Transport was then integrated into United Airlines, and the aircraft was owned by United from May 1, 1934, to February 22, 1937. After the Bethel crash occurred, the largest portions of the plane were recovered, crated, and shipped by rail to the United Airlines service facility in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Eleven months after its catastrophic crash, on April 23, 1935, the plane began a new life as an improved 247D, still bearing the number NC13334. It was sold to Inter-American Aero Travel & Supply on February 22, 1937. In April of 1937, the plane was acquired by the Colombian airlines SCADTA (Sociedad Colombo Alemana de Transportes Aéreos) and was rechristened C-143. It later continued service under SCADTA’s successor, Avianca (Aerovías Nacionales de Colombia S.A. Airlines). As of September 30, 1945, the plane had logged 15,740 hours of flight time. Its final date of decommissioning is not known.
(Fun Fact: United Airlines plane NC13334 had a small role in the Warner Brothers film Broadway Hostess released in 1935.)
Salvaging the Wrecked Airliner
On Friday, June 1, 1934, the dismantling of the wrecked airliner began. The area closest to the plane was first cleared of trees to give mechanics additional workspace. Two mechanics from United Airlines were assisted by two more from Bethel. Trees and undergrowth were removed between the plane and Taylor Avenue to create a path that would allow the most significant parts of the wrecked airliner to be conveyed to a waiting truck parked on the road. The Reeves Transportation Company of Danbury was awarded the task of trucking the various plane sections to Danbury’s Clark Box Company located on North Main Street. The parts were packed in wooden crates and then delivered to the Danbury freight yard, where they would begin their long journey by rail to the new United Airlines service and repair facility in Cheyenne, Wyoming. P.J. Katz, Inc., Danbury junk dealers, purchased all of the metal which could not be salvaged from the wrecked plane. The passenger cabin that had miraculously survived the crash in good condition was the portion of the downed airliner that most interested the public. The News-Times reported:
“A large crane of the Ford Coal Co., Danbury, will be used to lift the cabin of the plane out of the wooded glen where it now rests onto Taylor Avenue where it will be loaded onto a truck.”
The plane’s right wing was the first significant piece hauled out of the woods. Workers next removed all fixtures from within the passenger cabin before it too was transported to Danbury.
As the plane’s disassembly took place, many interested onlookers arrived to watch the progression of the work. Two of these visitors held particular interests. Mrs. Ella Schofield of White Plains, New York, who owned the land on which the plane had crashed, arrived in town ostensibly to meet with representatives of United Airlines. She hoped to make arrangements to settle her claim against them for the damage done to her property.
The second notable visitor was the imperturbable pilot who had performed the forced landing, John Wolf. Immediately after being discharged from Danbury Hospital, Wolf asked to be driven to the crash site and surprised the engrossed mechanics with his sudden appearance. His head still swathed in bandages, the pilot conversed with the mechanics, the state police, and officer Morris Britto, whom he had met at the crash. The pilot then promptly inspected the plane’s cockpit, which looked very much the same as when he last struggled to escape it. The News-Times described his encounter.
“He looked over a piece of the plane which had pierced the side of the cockpit and just missed beheading him in the crash. It was this cleaver-like piece of metal which inflicted the severe wounds to his scalp which when he was first taken to the hospital gave rise to the belief that he had a fractured skull.”
Within hours after re-visiting this sobering scene where his life had nearly ended, Wolf was back home in Summit, New Jersey, reunited with his wife and three children.
On June 8th, exactly one week after they had begun their work, the four diligent mechanics completed the task of dismantling United’s NC13334. Harold Pearson, the United Airlines chief mechanic in charge of the salvage operation, stated that 55% of the airliner would be used again. Pearson also expected that the craft would receive two new engines and a new nose.
Records indicate that NC13334 once again saw active service for United beginning on April 23, 1935, as an updated 247D model. A photo taken after the plane’s restoration shows color variations in the plane’s outer skin that clearly indicate the areas where new portions were joined to old ones. (See the Photo Gallery at the end of this article.)
Other air disasters followed closely on the heels of the one in Bethel. George C. McGinley, an aeronautical inspector for the United States Department of Commerce, was one of the first officials at the scene of the Bethel crash, doing a thorough investigation that included interviewing witnesses, rescuers, passengers, and the pilot. Just four days later, on June 3, 1934, Inspector McGinley himself was the victim of a plane accident. Shortly after he had begun a solo flight from Brainard Field, Hartford, to Buffalo, N.Y., his private plane went down in Goshen, CT. His body was burned beyond recognition in the fiery crash, and all that remained of his aircraft was one wing that had been torn off in the plane’s swift downward plunge.
On Thursday, June 7, another United Airlines Boeing 247 crashed in the Cascade Mountains during a flight from Spokane to Seattle, Washington. Similar to the Bethel crash, the plane ran into poor visibility and landed on its belly in a forest. This forest was much more isolated, however. The co-pilot went for help while the eight other survivors spent a restless night camped out in the damaged plane. The next morning the co-pilot returned with help, and the crew and passengers were transferred to a Seattle hospital. All nine aboard made it out alive, but several were injured. The determined co-pilot who had braved the remote woodland and called for help from a telephone box located on a railway line was later found to have suffered a skull fracture, a broken nose, shock, numerous cuts and bruises, and the loss of several teeth.
On June 9, two days following the crash in Washington, yet another took place in the Catskill Mountains of New York. This time the plane was an American Airways Curtiss T-32 Condor II flying from Newark to Chicago. None of the three crew and four passengers survived the explosive crash that occurred when the plane ran into a mountain while traveling through fog and thunderstorms eleven miles northeast of Livingston Manor, N.Y.
Commercial aviation was in its infancy in 1934, and each day’s newspaper seemed to carry grim stories demonstrating that there was still a critical need for substantial improvement.
The Reporter - Ernest Edward Miller
The special correspondent who was one of the first at the crash scene was born in Bethel on January 14, 1907. He graduated from Colby College and Stonier Graduate School of Banking and later married and had two sons. Miller served in the navy during both World War II and the Korean War. At the start of his career, he was employed by the Bethel National Bank. Moving to New Milford in 1950, he rose to become the senior vice-president and western regional manager of the Colonial Bank & Trust. He died on January 31, 2001, at the age of 94.
The Stewardess - Agnes Pugh
The stewardess, Agnes Pugh, who many called the heroine of the Bethel crash, had been born in Beaver township, Indiana, on June 4, 1909. She studied nursing at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, and made that city her home after beginning work for United Airlines in 1933. (In the early days of commercial air travel, all stewardesses were required to be registered nurses.) Pugh gave up her position with United following her marriage in 1938. She and her husband had one son. Initially, the family lived in Ventura, California, and then settled in Albany, New York, where Pugh worked as a health teacher at a junior high school. She outlived both her first and second husband and eventually returned to her home state of Indiana, where she died on February 17, 1999, at 89. Even though it had been sixty-one years since she had left the profession, her death certificate listed her occupation as “airline stewardess,” revealing the great pride she had taken in her career.
The Co-pilot - Lorentz Letson
Lorentz Hearst Letson was born on a farm in Baccus, Alabama, on February 26, 1904. In the 1930 U.S. Census, he is shown working as an amateur chemist for a fire protection engineering firm. It appears he gave up his plans of becoming a professional chemist in favor of aviation. After learning to fly in the National Guard, he joined United Airlines in 1932. Only days after the fateful crash in Bethel, Letson was quoted as saying, “The thing I want most now is to be able to fly again.” Despite his long and arduous recovery, Letson did return to life as an aviator. In the 1940 Census, he is shown pursuing that vocation while living in Chicago. Shortly afterward, he moved to California, where he married in 1942. During this same period, he once again served in the National Guard during World War II. Letson spent many years as a commercial pilot and lived long enough to write a brief account of his Bethel crash experience in 1975, later included in the book The Boeing 247, The First Modern Airliner. He lived most of his life in Los Angeles and died on December 16, 1985, at 81 in Van Nuys, California.
The Pilot - John Wolf
John Fredrick Wolf, the widely acclaimed pilot of the Bethel crash, was born into a family of local prominence in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on August 24, 1896. Upon graduation from high school, Wolf joined the American Field Service, an ambulance corps that assisted the French in World War I. After a brief time, he volunteered to join the French army, becoming a lieutenant, and served until the war’s end, returning to the U.S. in 1919. Once home, the war veteran briefly worked as a mining engineer for his father’s coal mining business in Wilkes-Barre but apparently grew bored and decided to take up flying. Afterward, he operated a flying school in Williamsport, PA. In 1921, Wolf married Elizabeth Wheeler Harding, and the couple would have a daughter and two sons. The family moved to Summit, New Jersey so that John could fly for United out of Newark. After joining the airlines, Wolf seems to have flown without incident until the Bethel crash. Grateful to be alive after his close call, Wolf stayed with United but did not return to flying. Instead, he transferred to a position as an installation engineer and salesman in the company’s used plane department.
In 1935, Wolf and his wife, Elizabeth, separated. They were divorced the following year. On December 1, 1936, Wolf married Hazel Stryker in San Diego, California. The couple spent part of their honeymoon in Mexico. On December 15, exactly two weeks after their wedding, they boarded a Western Air Express plane in Las Vegas, Nevada, at 1:27 AM. Their flight was bound for Salt Lake City, Utah. This trip was the first leg of a journey that would take them to their new home in Chicago. At 3:14 AM, approximately 23 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, their plane slammed into the side of Lone Peak mountain, killing all seven people on board. The aircraft had missed clearing the Hardy Ridge portion of the mountain by fifteen feet. On impact, most of the plane’s passenger cabin toppled over the opposite side of the snowy ridge and fell 1,000 feet below to Hogum Basin, located near the foot of the mountain’s north face.
A resulting avalanche and accumulating precipitation buried the wreckage. Search planes were sent out in the days and weeks that followed, and even Amelia Earhart joined in the effort to find the missing plane. A $1,000 reward was offered to anyone who reported the discovery of the lost aircraft. Still, searchers could find no trace of it. Despite intensive efforts, locating the remains of the passengers and crew took seven months. The first body recovered from the remote, snow-covered site on July 3, 1937, was that of Hazel Wolf. The second body found three days later in a nearby location was that of her husband, John.
The ensuing plane crash investigation determined that the accident was caused by driving snow creating radio static. This interference made it impossible for the pilots to receive the vital information they needed to pinpoint their exact location.
The Western Air Express plane NC13370 involved in the fatal crash was a Boeing 247D, a slightly updated version of the same plane that John Wolf had so skillfully maneuvered just over two and a half years before in his forced landing in Bethel.
VIDEO & WEBSITE LINKS
View a brief video of the 1934 Bethel plane crash by clicking the link below.
View a United Air Lines Boeing 247 identical to the one that crashed in Bethel, take off from Vancouver, Canada, on July 1, 1934, by clicking the link below.
Take a remarkable virtual tour inside a Boeing 247D to see what it would have been like to be a passenger or crew member on board the plane that crashed in Bethel. After accessing the webpage, click the image labeled “Start VR Field Trip.” This plane is on exhibit at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington.
See one of the four remaining Boeing 247Ds left in the world now on display at The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, by clicking the link below.
See a July 1935 Popular Mechanics article, Keeping Them in the Air on the United Air Lines service facility responsible for repairing the badly damaged Boeing 247 that crashed in Bethel. The article begins on page 9 after Section A is completed.
The Boeing 247, The First Modern Airliner, F. Robert van der Linden, 1991, University of Washington Press
Thanks are extended to The Bethel Historical Society for the use of photos and newspaper clippings from its collection.
Thanks are extended to The Danbury Museum and Historical Society for providing access to microfilm copies of The News-Times.