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Podcast Episode 50- The Flagship Erie

Lawrence Station is a small hamlet located within Southwold Township. It sits about 14 miles southwest of the once bustling railway city, St. Thomas. The hamlet was founded in 1843 by William Lawrence, a carpenter by trade, and developer by heart. Once the Great Western Railway came through, William decided to donate 10 acres of his land for a depot. Since then, the town grew in population, along with it coming general stores, hotels, hardware stores, blacksmiths and much more. Over time, and disuse of train traffic, Lawrence Station dwindled in numbers and businesses.  

In 1941, Lawrence Station had around 100 residents. The townspeople were no strangers to the sight and sound of airplanes flying ahead. Students training at the RCAF Bombing and Gunnery School located in Fingal took frequent trips all over southwestern Ontario. Not only were bombers routinely flying overhead, but commercial airlines also used the route. This route overtop Lawrence Station was known as Green Airway Number Two. It was used so often; American Airlines would make 16 trips on the route in a span of 24 hours. 

The Flagship Erie was a DC-3, all metal, low wing monoplane manufactured by Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California. American Airlines acquired the plane in 1940. After purchasing the aircraft, it was equipped with the newest technology and instruments of the time. This plane was one of the largest all metal, twin engine transports of the War era. The plane was sported with two Pratt & Whitney 1,100 horsepower, 9-cylinder Wasp engines. With a cruising speed of 185 mph at 10,000 feet, the Flagship Erie was at the top of its game.  

On October 30, 1941, just after 9pm American Airlines Flight 1 departed Buffalo Municipal Airport en route to Detroit, Michigan in its second stopover of its New York to Chicago run. About an hour later, that same flight would be burning in an oat field. Before departure, the plane had been topped up with 117 gallons of 90 octane fuel and 18 quarts of oil. Making a total of 507 gallons of fuel and 160 quarts of oil. This was an ample amount to reach Detroit. Captain David Cooper proceeded with the usual pre-flight checklist, checking the controls, ailerons, elevators and rudder, and yanked the wheel chocks away. After the checklist had been gone through, Cooper received the all clear to taxi to the runup area beside the runway. At 9:03pm, the Buffalo Control cleared the crew for takeoff. At a rate of 500 ft per minute the aircraft met its cruising altitude in 8 minutes. Onboard 17 passengers and 3 crew members sat. The plane had a maximum capacity of 21 passengers, meaning 4 seats remained open on Flight 1.  

To Captain Cooper, this route was routine. He had flown the AM-7 route multiple times for a year and a half. The lights of urban areas illuminating the path had become a regular sight. Cooper, a journalism graduate from the University of Syracuse, got his pilot’s license in 1930, at Amboy Airport. Cooper later became a partner of the Cooper Anderson Air Service, which he started with an aerial photographer. After taking the airline pilot’s course in 1934, Cooper became a copilot on the Newark to Buffalo route, mainly flying DC-2 and DC-3 aircraft. After accumulating around 6,000 hours, he was promoted to Captain and became chief pilot of the Syracuse to Boston route. On American Airlines flight 1, Officer Richard Owens sat next to Captain Cooper, copiloting his very first transport trip. Before being employed by American Airlines in August of 1941, Owens worked as an instructor at various civilian flying schools. At American Airlines, Owens learned the controls of the engine, propellers, radio, fuel systems, and autopilot. He finished with a total of 22 hours, flying as third member of the pilot crew on DC-3’s. Officer Owens completed his course exams October 29, 1941. The next day he was designated as a first officer and received his gold wings.  

The Flagship Erie continued steadily at their altitude. The estimated time of arrival in Detroit was 10:47pm. The pilots relaxed, passengers talked amongst themselves or read magazines after stewardess Mary Elizabeth Blackley made her rounds supplying a light supper. 30 minutes in, the flight experienced some light rain, which was expected as it was forecast for Southwestern Ontario that night. Though the rain was light, water regularly leaked through the windshield frames, and side windows of DC-3 airplanes. In London, Ontario, meteorologists reported a visibility of 2 miles with light fog, drizzle and low cloud ceilings. Due to this, Canadian air forces suspended night-flights and airports delayed trips. At 9:42pm, the flight reported that it had passed over the Jarvis radio range at 9:39. Captain Cooper advised them that the plane was steady at 4,000 feet and the weather was fine. This report was picked up by Jarvis, Strathburn, Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago. Ross Conner, an operations staff in Detroit, acknowledged the message and gave Captain Cooper clearance to continue to Detroit. A consensus was made that once flight 1 had landed in Detroit it would then be decided if the plane would continue to Chicago or be delayed from weather conditions. Conner logged the last time he communicated with the flight at 9:44pm.  

Next you will hear an excerpt from Final Descent: The Loss of the Flagship Erie 

”7-year-old Beth Turner and her 5-year-old brother David were awakened by their father shouting downstairs. He had rushed in from the barn to tell their mother there was a big fire over Lawrence Station. Jumping out of bed, the youngsters ran to their parents’ bedroom window and peered out. Clearly visible to the north were flames leaping high into the night. The blaze presented quite a spectacle, especially when combined with the light ground mist presented that night. Despite reduced visibility, the fire could be seen as far away as St. Thomas, Canada’s busiest railway junction, 14 miles to the east.” 

Just after 10pm, the Flagship Erie crashed in an oat field. In the process nearly clipping the roof of Viola and Thompson Howe’s house 200 meters away. Fuel tanks ruptured upon impact causing flames of 200 feet, scorching oat stubble surrounding the aircraft and sending rubble around the field. The plane reportedly fell from a height of around 500 feet. Diving nose first into the earth. Viola immediately called the Shedden Central switchboard operator to get ahold of the RCAF and the police. In minutes authorities were rushing to the wreckage. Lawrence Station was a close-knit community. Families hurried to the accident to try and help. Unfortunately, the heat was so strong it drove the brave civilians back. Not a soul appeared to be alive. 

20 minutes later, 3 officers from the Fingal Bombing and Gunnery School sectioned off the area. Soon after, 20 police officers including 2 Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrived. The Mounted Police and customs officers would temporarily take the wreckage. Meanwhile, back in the States, Ross Conner became concerned. He had not received a signal from the flight that it had passed over Florence. Conners radioed flight 1 at 10:38pm and cleared it to make an approach to the Detroit flight tower, but no response came. To no avail, Conners tried over and over to get a response. 

Lifeless charred bodies scattered around the wreckage. The smell of smoke and burning flesh filled the air. That fateful day of October 30th, 1941 claimed 20 lives.17 passengers and 3 crew members. Many leaving behind significant others, family and children. 5 separate funeral homes were notified that they would be receiving and processing 4 victims each. The crash quickly made the headlines. Soon the story would be plastered on the front page of nearly every major newspaper in both Canada and the US.  

That night, family members of those on Flight 1 awaited their arrival at the Detroit and Chicago airports. They would soon receive news of the tragedy; some being notified that the plane had simply been “grounded” and had not yet arrived. Later families would receive phone calls informing them of the crash while some found out on the radio. In Final Descent: The Loss of the Flagship Erie, the brother of John Kay, a passenger of Flight 1, recalls how he learned of the incident. “I went to the airport and waited but my brother never came. Then we heard on the radio that the big airliner from Buffalo to Detroit had crashed and that all 20 persons on board had been killed. It was a shock a person doesn’t care to experience more than once in his life.”  

By 12:30 am, the Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington D.C. was notified of the accident. They immediately launched an investigation as per protocol. Since the crash took place in Canada, the board had to get approval before they could arrive to investigate. Once it was granted by the Canadian Government, 20 CAB inspectors and American Airlines engineers headed for Lawrence Station. The Howe family house quickly turned into a meeting place for the police, airline officials and investigators. Viola graciously providing the men with meals. One day following the crash, the Howe’s house received a grim phone call. This call was from the sister of Captain David Cooper, asking if there were any survivors. Viola Howe had to regretfully inform her that all 20 people onboard had been killed. Captain Coopers body had been discovered buried in the ground amongst the wreckage alongside Officer Owens. Both died at their post, buckled with hands on the controls. The following days family members, dentists, friends, and employers travelled to St. Thomas to identify the bodies. They met at the St. Thomas Court House where they were then one-by-one escorted by police to the funeral homes. By Saturday evening all 20 victims had been identified, the last 2 ruled out by a process of elimination. The next morning, Sunday November 2nd, 1941, the bodies were loaded on freight cars and transported to their final resting places.  

This was the worst crash in American Airlines history at that point in time and was the first fatal accident of the seemingly invincible DC-3 aircraft. Investigators in both Canada and the US quickly began their inquiries. One possible cause included a flock of geese striking the plane. This was researched extensively. Around 200 military personnel from Elgin County were tasked with searching the area for the remains of a goose. They worked tirelessly searching a vast area for something no one knew for sure existed. Unfortunately, nothing turned up. Despite lack of evidence, the birds have been popular prime suspects. For a few weeks prior to the crash, pilots all over the area were reporting bothersome migrating geese. One pilot at the Fingal Bombing & Gunnery School returned to the base with a hole in his bomber after being struck by the Canadian bird. No plane parts were found along the flight path indicating that no equipment failed and fell off. Due to the fire damage, control settings could not be identified, causing technology failure to remain a possible cause yet an undeterminable one. Following inspection, nothing suggested that the autopilot malfunctioned in flight. Though autopilot had developed years before the crash, in 1941 it was still in its early stages compared to modern autopilot technologies. 

Though no cause was determined, all witnesses agreed; first, that attention was drawn to the plane because of the unusually loud engines, second, the plane seemed to be in trouble based on the abrupt banking and circling at low altitude, and lastly, the circling was banking steeply 45 degrees and it appeared the pilot was trying to bring the nose up. Some testified that no landing lights or flares were employed during the descent while others claimed upon seeing such lights. All eyewitnesses did not offer any opinions as to why the crash occurred, however their testimonies were crucial for the investigation towards determining the cause. With Canada enveloped in the Second World War, the plane crash quickly faded from memory. The event preceded the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War 2 by less than 6 weeks. A commemorated plaque would mark the site nearly 78 years later on September 9th, 2018. The tragedy remains a mystery to this day. Everything from a bird strike, failed autopilot and mechanical issues, and lightning have been considered but no definitive conclusion has been made. Though the investigation failed to determine the cause of the accident, it led to the installation of flight data recorders.  

If you liked this episode, we suggest you read Final Descent: The Loss of the Flagship Erie, written by aviation historian Robert D. Schweyer. Robert interviews residents of the area, examines evidence from the scene, and sheds light on the impact the fateful crash had on the residents of Lawrence Station and family members of victims. If you are interested in learning more in depth about the Flagship Erie crash, you can purchase the book for $20 in the Backus-Page House Museum gift shop!