Monday, August 31, 2015

@QuotableBulldog: Clocks

#CollisionWithFame: Rocky Marciano, August 31, 1969

Rocky Marciano was 49-0 with 43 knockouts in his career, leaving him as the last undefeated heavyweight boxing champion ever.  
             On August 31, 1969, Marciano was flying at night from Chicago to Des Moines, Iowa on a Cessna 172. Weather conditions turned foul.  Pilot Glen Belz had just 231 hours of flying time and 35 hours at night.  He was not IFR-qualified. The aircraft, in stormy weather, with an inexperienced pilot, ran out of gas. Belz’s effort to effect an emergency landing at the airstrip in Newton, Iowa failed as the craft came to earth two miles short of the runway, hitting a tree.   

#CollisionWithFame: Frank Barnwell, August 31, 1938

Frank Barnwell and his brother Harold founded Grampian Motors in Stirling, Scotland.  Their aircraft was used for the first power airplane flight in Scotland, at Causewayhead in 1909.   Barnwell went on to become the chief designer at Bristol aircraft. He developed a variety of craft used by the RFC and the RAF including the F2 (a single-engine biplane fighter) and the innovative Blenheim,  a twin-engine bomber and long-range fighter which incorporated such innovations as an all-metal stressed skin, retractable landing gear, and a motorized gun turret (nearly 4,500 Blenheims were built).  
               Despite his genius as an engineer (though it should be noted that his craft often exhibited tricky flight characteristics), Barnwell was something of a menace as a pilot.  Bristol Corporation banned their 55-year-old chief engineer from flying any Bristol test aircraft.  On August 31, 1938, Barnwell crashed an experimental light aircraft near Whitechurch, England and died of his injuries.


Thursday, August 27, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: Stevie Ray Vaughn, August 27 1990

Stevie Ray Vaughn was arguably the best blue guitarist of his age with the possible exception of Eric Clapton. Vaughn and his group Double Trouble had started the climb to fame when the Rolling Stones heard them in a Dallas club. By the summer of 1990 Vaughn and Double Trouble were touring the nation as A-liners along with Clapton and also The Robert Cray Band.  Late on the evening of August 25, the groups had finished a performance at the Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin, and were due to travel back to Chicago.  The bands were supposed to take a bus back, but Vaughn had wrangled seats on the helicopters used by Clapton’s location crew for himself, his brother, and sister-in-law.  However, of the three expected seats, there was instead just one seat, which Vaughn took in order to return sooner to his girlfriend in Chicago, Janna Lapidus. The rest of Double Trouble returned to Chicago on the bus; it was not until after they arrived in  the Second City the next morning that they would learn of the disaster in the night skies over southern Wisconsin.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

#CollisionWithFave:George Edmund, Duke Of Kent, August 25, 1942

George Edmund, Duke of Kent, died when the Short Sunderland flying boat he was piloting crashed en route to Iceland. The Duke of Kent,  Prince George, was son of one King (George V) and brother to two others (Edward VIII and George VI), and he served as a staff officer of the Royal Air Force and was a former rear admiral of the Royal Navy.  He was engaged on an unknown mission to Iceland, flying through foggy weather, when his craft struck high ground in the Scottish Highlands. Rumors persist that the Duke was on a covert mission related to peace efforts with the Germans, but this story is as yet unsubstantiated.

Friday, August 21, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: Gentleman Jim Reeves, July 31 1964

Jim Reeves first love was baseball, but his passion turned to music when he suffered an arm injury in spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. The former "Grand Old Opry" star recorded a number of popular songs, including "Four Walls," "He'll Have To Go," and "Mexican Joe." At the time of the crash, Reeves was starring in a movie, "Kimberly Jim," filmed in South Africa.  Reeves’ musical break came while working as announcer on KWKH Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Singer Sleepy LaBeef could not make it on time for a performance on the Louisiana Hayride, according to former Hayride emcee Frank Page, and Reeves was asked to fill in.

#CollisionWithFame: Number 15: Thurman Munson

"This thing of being a hero, about the main thing to it is to  know when to die." --Will Rogers

Thurman Munson spent the 1970s battling with Carlton Fisk and Johnny Bench for the title of best catcher in baseball.  Munson had grown up in Ohio, went to Kent State, and was drafted with the #4 overall pick of the 1968 draft.  Called up to the Yankees in 1970, he won Rookie of the Year honors while hitting .302 with seven home runs and 57 RBI.  Within five seasons he had helped lead the Yankees back to the top of baseball, as he again hit .302 with 17 homers and 105 RBI as the Yankees won their first pennant in a dozen years and Munson was named the AL’s Most Valuable Player. Amidst the turmoil of the Billy Martin-George Steinbrenner-Reggie Jackson soap opera that was the Bronx Zoo Yankees, Munson was the stabilizing influence, acting as team captain and handling a stable of talented pitchers built through both the farm system and free agency.
            Munson loved his family, and he learned to fly so that he could go home on off-days to his wife Diane and their children in Ohio.  On August 2, 1979, Munson took his twin-engine Cessna Citation IS/P jet up to practice takeoffs and landings at the Akron-Canton airfield.  He invited along friends David Hall and Jerry Anderson; both were pilots and Hall was a flight instructor who had trained Munson for his instrument rating.

Monday, August 17, 2015

#QuotableBulldog: Details and Questions

#CollisionWithFame: The Glamorous Era -- Carole Lombard, December 1941

“I’ve lived by a man’s code designed to fit a man’s world, yet at the same time I never forget that a woman’s first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick.” --Carole Lombard

Carole Lombard was one of the Hollywood’s great actresses of the 1930s.  A natural comedienne, she had started acting as a child actor in silent films in the 1920s and signed with Fox Pictures in 1925.  Cut loose by Fox in 1930, she was picked up by Paramount and immediately embarked on a career of outstanding work that cast her opposite such Hollywood greats as John Barrymore, William Powell (her husband from 1931-33), Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Clarke Gable, and George Raft.  She was, by 1940, the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.

After a tragic romance with singer Russ Columbo ended in his accidental shooting death, Lombard entered into a long-time romance with Gable.  Gable, who was still married to Ria Langham, could not divorce because of the cost.  When a tabloid made several extramarital relationships in Hollywood public, Hayes Commission head Will Hayes went to the major studio heads demanding that the wayward leading men either legitimate or cease these relationships.  Gable decided to join Lombard, and took the role of Rhett Butler in the screen adaptation of Gone with the Wind in order to offset the significant financial loss that would accompany a divorce. Gable ended up nominated for the best actor Oscar and proposed to Lombard over the phone the moment he came available.  

Lombard and Gable had settled on a southern California ranch  where they sought to make a family while keeping an active performing career.  Then came war. After completing the filming of her 57th (and last) film To Be or Not To Be in December 1941, Lombard departed on a war bond campaign, flying back to Indiana to support the new war effort, including a one-day total of $2 million raised (about $50 million in current dollars).  She was accompanied by her mother and publicist Otto Winkler, who had been the best man at her wedding to Gable.  Finishing the tour, the legendary screwball actress was anxious to get home to Gable. Lombard had vetoed Winkler’s suggestion that they sleep in at the hotel and then take a train that night.  According to Time, Lombard glibly replied  “I'll curl up and take a pill and pff I'll be asleep.”Leaving Fort Wayne at four AM on January 16, Lombard’s last public words were “Before I say goodbye to you all, come on and join me in a big cheer! V for Victory!” 

TWA Flight 3 (a DC-3) followed a southerly course to LA via New Mexico and Nevada.  When the flight refueled in Albuquerque, military transport authorities sought space for fifteen officers of the ferry command, returning to base on the west coast.  Four passengers gave up seats for the officers. Among them was the world-renowned Hungarian expatriate violinist Joseph Szigeti, who had settled in California after fleeing the Nazi rise in central Europe.  Refueling again in Las Vegas, the plane flew on a clear, moonless night in fair weather. However, as a wartime America adjusted to the conditions of war time, tragedies followed.  Due to ongoing concerns about a Japanese threat to the western US, navigational beacons were blacked out.  The TWA flight veered off course seven miles, and struck Mount Potosi, southwest of Las Vegas on the Red Rock Ranch, owned by radio performers Chet Lauck and Norris Goff.  All 22 persons on board including 15 US servicemen were killed.  As Time Magazine reported the next week:

At 7:30 miners in Nevada's mountains, some 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas, heard a terrific explosion, saw a vivid flash near the top of Table Rock Mountain.Flames shot up from the lonely peak, then faded. Searching parties started out over snow that bogged horses belly-deep. Men toiled up over flinty rock that shredded boots into uselessness, struggled vertically up through some of the most difficult, barren rockland in the U.S.From Los Angeles flew Husband Clark Gable. He reached Las Vegas, sleepless, waited. Breaking away from friends, he tried to scale the mountain, failed, went back to his hotel, haggard, unshaven, weary. Some 14 hours after their start, climbers reached the wreckage.Mangled and burned were Miss Lombard, the other three civilian passengers, the 15 Army flyers, the crew of three. The transport had smacked straight into the mountain's steep wall, only 200 feet below the peak, then had slid, broken, into a ravine. For yards around, the scattered pine trees were scarred, the snow melted clean away. Why the plane had crashed, nobody yet knew.

The crash resulted in epic headlines.  Lombard was the first woman to die in a wartime-related activity, and the media and public were both riveted by the event.  Not all the media were impressed with the coverage with its emphasis on celebrity.  Noted CBS reporter and commentator Elmer Davis criticized, on air, that newspaper coverage of the crash had lost sense of proportion especially for a time of war.  Davis in particular criticized the overemphasis on the celebrity of Lombard and the lack of attention to the loss of fifteen important military personnel. Davis was later “drafted” by President Roosevelt as the head of the Office of War Information, in part because of his no-nonsense, clear-headed thinking about media coverage. Davis was also a Lombard fan, telling the Saturday Review of Literature that Carole Lombard was Indiana’s greatest contribution to culture. 

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, comedian Jack Benny, at a loss for words, cancelled all comedic bits in his January 18 program.

Clarke Gable left Hollywood for the balance of the war, enlisting in the Army Air Corps in August 1942, where he served as a gunnery officer in B-17s.  He flew five missions.  Lombard had implored Gable to enlist when the war broke out, but Gable had initially succumbed to studio pressure (MGM did not want to place their biggest star at risk).  Lombard’s memory was later honored with the commissioning of a merchant marine transport in her name, the SS Lombard.       

The Civil Aeronautics Board report on the accident termed the accident a product of “pilot error.”  The man at the controls, Wayne C. Williams, had over 12,000 hours of flight time, much of it in type on the DC-3.  Post production editing of her last film cut a comedic line uttered by Lombard, “What can happen in a plane?”

About the DC-3: After the crash of a Fokker Tri-Motor on TWA 599 in 1930 (the Knute Rockne crash), Transcontinental and Western Air (T&WA) decided to abandoned the Dutch designer’s craft, grounding all Fokkers.  In order to save the business, T&WA had sought out a new multiengine design with a metal frame, retractable landing gear, and able to run on one motor if necessary. The accepted prototype to replace the suspect T&WA fleet was a reluctant submission by Donald Douglas, the Douglas Commercial.  Type 1, the prototype, completed a cross-country flight in under 14 hours, and went into production as the DC-2 in 1934.  A larger version, the DC-3, went into production in 1935.  Commercial and military demand led to the construction of over 13,000 DC-3s (including 10,000 as the military C-47). Nearly 400 are still in use today.  In the records kept by the NTSB, there are only 43 documented fatal crashes involving DC-3s since 1960, despite the widespread use of the craft as a transportation workhorse into the 1970s.

Friday, August 14, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: A Two-Minute Primer on Aviation Regulation

George Carlin asked one incredibly reasonable question once upon a time: “If black boxes survive air crashes, why don't they make the whole plane out of that stuff?”  Until they do, we’ll have to be content to improve the performance of aircraft, refine the operating and performance excellence of aircraft, and also try to train pilots to respect the limits of their own abilities and the flight conditions that surround them.  In the meantime, when planes crash, we refine both flight and its regulation.
            One aspect of the evolution of American aviation is how crashes are often associated with changes in the administration of air travel; equipment changes and the adopting of new technologies. Since the first fatal plane crash, a significant regulatory and investigative structure has grown up around flying in America. Many of these changes occurred because of the crashes discussed in this book. As a consequence, there are terms and concepts that often come up when you talk about flying, especially as aviation becomes more accessible and more regulated, and as aviation accidents became subject to one investigating body:
            The National Transportation Safety Board: New technologies often require new rules. Aviation, like so many other innovations, started out as an unregulated entity, but like many economic innovations, prospered in part because of government interest and government subsidy to develop the technology.  Aviation grew up because of both civil and military needs – carrying postage and providing reconnaissance.  The Congress created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1915 and the US Post Office authorized the first air mail routes in 1918. 
            As commercial aviation grew, Congress used the Commerce clause of the Constitution to regulate air travel. Numerous accidents in the post-war era led Congress to create the first legislation regulating the airways, the Air Commerce Act of 1926. The Department of Commerce created an Aeronautic Branch, which was chartered as the Bureau of Air Commerce (BAC) in 1934 and consolidated a variety of flight-related functions from Commerce, Transportation, and Post Office. In 1938 the authority of the BAC was transferred to an independent Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA); in 1940 rulemaking, economic regulation, and accident investigation was transferred to a new Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB).
            The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was created by Congress to investigate every civil aviation accident in the United States. The creation of the NTSB was another in a series of steps taken starting in the 1950s to relocate CAB authority to other agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration (1958) and NASA (1958), and by 1978 the CAB’s remaining function – economic regulation of the airlines – was stripped by the Carter Administration’s deregulation of air travel.  The NTSB formally opened its doors in 1967, but this technically-independent agency relied on the US Department of Transportation for funding through 1975.  NTSB investigators have worked over 125,000 airplane accidents; in addition to their statutory charge in the United States, NTSB officials consult on investigations throughout the world. 
            Individuals interested in the National transportation Safety Board, its functions, and especially its excellent data base of reports from its investigations can go to the NTSB directly at 
VFR versus IFR: Different meteorological conditions present different challenges to pilots  And, as a consequence, training and experience as determined by aviation authorities determine the circumstances under which pilots should operate aircraft – no one wants a fair-skies flyer trying to hop over thunderstorms.  Here is a brief description of the flight rules governing domestic flight in the US.
            Visual Flight Rules (VFR) apply when atmospheric conditions allow a pilot to operate based on the conditions observable from the cockpit.  Under these conditions, a pilot should be able to observe potential obstacles to safe navigation – changes in terrain, buildings, and other aircraft—and avoid them based on visual data alone.  This is also referred to as the “see and avoid” principle.  In order for VFR to apply, certain minimal meteorological conditions (VFC, visual flight conditions) must be met, and those conditions may vary by airspace, but those conditions usually relate to cloud cover and ceiling, cloud clearances, darkness conditions, and also the amount of controlled traffic. When these local minimum conditions are met, Minimum Visual Flight Rules (MVFR) apply. 
            Instrument Flight Rules (IFR)  are conditions under which pilots navigate based on instrument-only reference and separation from other craft is maintained by air traffic control. IFR is invoked when meteorological conditions make VFR not possible – instrument flight conditions (IFC) prevail because visual reference to navigation obstacles and other aircraft is not possible.  In the terms of the trade, VFC minima are not met.  There are three stages to IFR (departure, en route, and approach) and navigation is usually performed relative to navigational aides such as beacons. Commercial air traffic and aircraft operating in high-traffic environments also operate under IFR.  In the US, an instrument rating is necessary before a pilot is supposed to fly under IFR.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: Bill Chase, August 12 1974

Bill Chase (born in 1934) had an unusual heritage for an influential jazz man – he came from Boston, born to Italian parents who came from musical roots.  Chase studied classical trumpet in the early 1950s, but soon came under the influence of contemporary jazz.  By 1960, he was playing with Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, and after a decade fronted his own group, Chase, a nine-piece jazz-rock fusion group fronted by four trumpets.  It was through Chase that Bill perfected his fusion sound, built on complex arrangements that put the emphasis on soaring, demanding trumpet play. Chase released three albums: the self-titled “Chase” in 1971; “Ennea” in 1972; and Pure Music in 1974.  The group was working on a fourth album in the summer of 1974.  Sadly, this effort would never come to fruition, as four members of Chase -- Bill Chase, guitarist John Emma, drummer Walter Clark, and pianist  Wally Yohn – boarded a plane in Chicago to fly to Jackson, Minnesota to play a county fair.  The Piper PA-30 Comanche they were flying on came down when pilot Dan Ludwig attempted to land in Jackson in heavy rain.  A distress signal was picked up near Armstrong, Iowa, which was the last communication from the craft. The NTSB probable cause blames pilot error, specifically an improper IFR operation (there was 400 feet of ceiling at Jackson that afternoon).

Monday, August 10, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: The First Fatal Plane Crash

“The airplane stays up because it doesn't have the time to fall.” -Orville Wright

Fort Myer, Virginia, lies a few scant miles from Washington, DC. The post is the traditional billet for the US Army’s chief of staff, and historically it is a destination post for military officers who hope to climb the ranks and wear stars on their shoulders.  Thomas Selfridge was such an officer.  A graduate of the West Point class of 1903, he had ranked a respectable 31st out of 96, and had initially posted in artillery before being assigned to the Signal Corps’ aeronautical division. 

            Selfridge was one of the first pilots in the military.  He had piloted a heavier than air craft designed by the inventor of the telephone, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, in 1907.  Selfridge turned his own efforts towards design, the result of which was the “Red Wing,” which in May 1908 flew for about 300 feet at an altitude of 20 feet but was destroyed in a crash landing; the project was funded by Bell with the support of his wealthy spouse (Selfridge was not piloting).  After returning the US following the test of the Red Wing, Selfridge and two other Army pilots turned to the assignment of learning to pilot lighter-than-air craft, training in August 1908 to fly the US Army’s first dirigible out of Omaha (later the home of the Strategic Air Command). However, on learning that the Army had purchased a successful Wright Flyer, Selfridge arranged appointment to Fort Myer to participate in the trials of the heavier-than-air craft. 

            On September 17, the Wright Flyer trials took place and 1st Lt. Selfridge arranged to accompany Orville Wright as a passenger on the trial.  They circled above Fort Myer at the incredible height of 150 feet, when a mechanical failure on their fourth orbit led to a fatal turn of events.  Writing to his brother Wilbur, Orville Wright described the mechanical failure and the crash:

On the fourth round, everything seemingly working much better and smoother than any former flight, I started on a larger circuit with less abrupt turns. It was on the very first slow turn that the trouble began.

            A hurried glance behind revealed nothing wrong, but I decided to shut off the power and descend as soon as the machine could be faced in a direction where a landing could be made. This decision was hardly reached, in fact I suppose it was not over two or three seconds from the time the first taps were heard, until two big thumps, which gave the machine a terrible shaking, showed that something had broken.

            The machine suddenly turned to the right and I immediately shut off the power. Quick as a flash, the machine turned down in front and started straight for the ground. Our course for 50 feet (15 meters) was within a very few degrees of the perpendicular. Lt. Selfridge up to this time had not uttered a word, though he took a hasty glance behind when the propeller broke and turned once or twice to look into my face, evidently to see what I thought of the situation. But when the machine turned head first for the ground, he exclaimed 'Oh! Oh!' in an almost inaudible voice.

When the craft crashed, Wright and Selfridge were thrown forward.  Wright struck the tension cables of the flyer, breaking his ribs, pelvis and a leg.  Selfridge’s head struck a wooden strut, resulting in a severe skull fracture.  He died later that day.  For nearly five years flyers had taken experimental flights that often ended in crashes.  Orville Wright’s crash at Fort Myer was the first fatal crash of a heavier-than-air craft in aviation history, and it took as its victim a rising military officer who had independent successes in aircraft design.

            Thomas Selfridge was 26, and the Army would later name a field in his honor – Selfridge Field in Mount Clemens, Michigan.  The foundation was laid for Selfridge’s celebrity to grow, if not for his death in the open-air frame of a Wright Flyer.  Popular publications covered the flight of his airplane design in 1907 – the “Selfridge Aerodome.” His name was rising to rank with his contemporaries such as the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss, who was backed by Bell as part of the Aerial Experiment Association.  It was between two of Tom Selfridge’s contemporaries (Wright and Curtiss) that the battle was waged for military aviation contracts, ultimately won by Curtiss on the basis of design with his “Jenny” that was the backbone of American military aviation for the next decade.          

            History remembers Thomas Selfridge because he was the first person to die in a plane crash.  His untimely death illuminates the seemingly risky nature of flight and also the ease with which some human beings assume that risk.  It also reminds us of a heady environment of invention and innovation that existed at the dawn of the modern era, when electronic innovations – telephone, movies, and the airplane – broke down the barriers of time and space and created instant communications and, eventually, nearly instant travel.  Thomas Selfridge navigated the circles of this heady period of innovation, working with entrepreneurs in aviation such as Wright and also Bell, who had a tremendous hand in inventing modern communication by virtue of his telephone.  More information on the first crash of a Wright Flyer can be found in can be found in Noah Adams' excellent 2004 book Flyers: In Search ofWilbur & Orville Wright.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: Audie Murphy, May 28 1971

He was the most decorated soldier of World War II.  Rejected from the Marines for his size (he was just 5’ 4”) Murphy enlisted as a private in the Army and served with the Third Infantry Division in the European Theater of Operations.  His repeated heroics earned him both promotion and decoration; he won the nation’s highest honor --the Congressional
Medal of Honor -- and ended the war as a first lieutenant.

Murphy grew up on a sharecropper's farm in Hunt County, Texas and left school at a very young age to help raise 10 brothers and sisters when his father deserted their mother. Audie was only 16 when his mother died. He watched as his brothers and sisters were doled out to an orphanage or to relatives.

Murphy’s post war life was initially difficult. After Murphy was assigned to inactive status in 1945, actor James Cagney invited him to Hollywood in September 1945, when the actor saw veteran Murphy's photo on the cover of Life Magazine. The next couple of years in California were hard times. Struggling and becoming disillusioned from lack of work while sleeping in a local gymnasium, he finally started to receive small acting parts.

                  Murphy reassembled his family while also trying to start a career in Hollywood.  The slow start led to eventual stardom as Murphy accumulated nearly fifty acting credits. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: Will Rogers & Wiley Post -- August 15, 1935, A Day the Earth Stood Still

"The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn't get worse every time Congress meets." -- Will Rogers

The 20th century was the dawning of the age of speed.  Man moved farther and faster than ever before and by means imagined but not anticipated to ever be realized.  And, the words of man also moved farther and faster than ever before. The age of flight was accompanied by the age of rapid and electronic communication.  Airmail cut the delivery time of the mails from days to hours, even across oceans. Radio and film carried entertainment and news to the far-flung corners of the nation, bringing word of the latest feats of aviation derring-do, athletic accomplishments, and the world of humor and comedy.  Radio and movies also created national celebrities, their word and deed transmitted and recorded, and a literate population consumed every word written and broadcast about the movement of celebrities.

This new age of technology and sport and entertainment would produce many celebrities.  Those who promoted and used celebrity – the celebrities themselves and also their sponsors -- needed to make celebrities visible to the new breed of consumer, the celebrity fan. The airplane allowed the more daring of celebrities to move about the nation and eventually the globe to satisfy the needs to market to fans, to promote celebrity. Air travel was where business met news met entertainment met adventure, and smack dab in the middle of all of it was a rope-twirling good ol’ boy from the Green Country of Oklahoma named Will Rogers.  He was by every possible measure the world’s largest celebrity, possible the largest celebrity ever. Fittingly enough, he was also the biggest booster aviation had known.

Will Rogers defined singular wit.  Born in 1879 on a ranch on the Osage Reservation (northeastern Oklahoma), Rogers rose to international prominence as a vaudevillian, writer, radio broadcaster, commentator, and film actor.  He is still one of the three-most quotable people in the English-speaking world, elbowing with Winston Churchill and Samuel Clemens in a continual fight for first place.  He was the Man Who Never Met a Man He Didn’t Like. Will Rogers performed in 71 motion pictures, and made the easy jump from silent pictures to talkies, in part because his radio profile made his one of the best-known voices in America. At the time of his death he was the highest-paid performer in Hollywood. His papers fill five hefty volumes published by the University of Oklahoma Press.  Will Rogers  penned over 4,000 columns on affairs of the day ("Slipping the Lariat Over") which appeared daily in all the major papers of the United States and over 500 newspapers in all. His writing was both ridiculous and sublime, and his motion-picture “travel guides” were a fitting, fanciful follow-on to Samuel Clemens’ sometimes biting Innocents Abroad.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: A Series on Celebrity Plane Crashes

Back in October of 2002, I was in Minocqua, Wisconsin, visiting my friend Joe Handrick. As we sat at his parents' B&B, with snow falling from an October sky, we saw the news that Senator Paul Wellstone's plane had crashed in Minnesota. We spent a good bit of the afternoon recounting other political and celebrity plane crashes.

This turned into a minor obsession, as I started trying to track down every celebrity plane crash I could. I had thought about writing a book, and ultimately I did draft a manuscript that I did not publish, tentatively titled Collision With Fame.  Then my friend Scott Cooper later joined me to help research some of the cases. But the trigger never got pulled on the project.

Well, now I'm gonna share the project. This post will be the first of several that excerpts the manuscript and details these plane crashes. It will highlight some of the obvious ones -- Buddy Holley, Will Rogers -- as well as obscure ones. I'll probably drop in one or two posts a week, not more. Whenever possible, the post will link to photographs and NTSB/CAB reports on these horrible, famous events.

Below the jump  is an edited version of the introduction to the original book manuscript.

Coffee With Coach: You Know You've Thought It

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Doonesbury Skewers John Kerry . . .

Way back in 1971, Gary Trudeau captured the essence of John Kerry in a pair of strips:

Now, given, this is probably a more animated portrayal of Kerry than the real thing in 2004.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Looking into China

My friend and student David Stroup is spending the year in China on a Fulbright Fellowship.  David is collecting data for his doctoral dissertation, and spending a lot of time in the Chinese interior learning about the relationship between non-Han Chinese minorities and the dominant Han state.  In order to keep the rest of us informed, he is maintaining an interesting blog, China at the Crossroads.

As a fan of political architecture, I'll direct you to one of David's many interesting posts, on the durability of old public architecture from the pre-Communist era in Nanjing. The written commentary is accompanied by some great photographs:
Places like ZhonghuaMen distinguish Nanjing from other cities in China. Many cities only bear the faintest traces of their former landmarks: a name on a sign, a plaque on a roadside. In Beijing the city's walls were the envy of many an urban metropolis. Now their path is marked by a wide-laned highway. The names of subway stations mark the sites of former gatehouses: Dongzhimen, Andingmen, Xuanwumen. In Jinan, streets where shopping malls and public squares now stand bear the names of former temples. Nanjing, however, is somewhat different. Unlike other second-tier, provincial capital cities, its old spaces, for the most part, survive.
David's research centers in part on the impact of the redevelopment of China's cities on indigenous communities and minority communities. Put another way, he is looking at how urban economic redevelopment collides with old political and social culture, and its consequences for traditional communities. As much as it will be a story about China, it is also a story that can be appreciated by anyone living in a city where the new meets the old. 

If you are interested in, fascinated by, or worried about China, you need to give David's blog a regular read. It's a combination of history, anthropology, and political journalism and offers a first-hand view of the situation in China.  It presents the nuance of China -- that it isn't all one giant redeveloped Beijing occupied by development millionaires and overstressed workers jumping into suicide nets. 

#CollisionWithFame: Frank Wells & Beverly Johnson, April 3 1994

Frank Wells loved mountains.  He loved to climb up them ,and he loved to ski down them.  Together with Dick Bass and Rick Ridgeway, he had sought to climb each of the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.  Ridgeway, a veteran climber, chronicled the effort of Wells and Bass as they made it up six of those peaks –Mount Vinson on Antarctica, Cerro Aconcagua on South America, Kilimanjaro on Africa, Elbrus on Europe, Kosciuszko on Australia, and McKinley on North America.  Only the grandest peak of all, Everest, defied them. The book,  Seven Summits, was published in 1988 by Grand Central, and it still continues to sell as a story of camaraderie and inspiration. Wells, 62,  had not given up on the dream of Everest, but he would never get the opportunity. On April 3, 1994, the helicopter he was flying on lost power on takeoff and crashed in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. 
            Wells had also climbed the mountain of success in Hollywood.  He built his career at Warner Brothers, eventually rising to president of the studio in 1973 and later becoming vice-chairman.  After leaving WB, he was recruited by Disney to serve as president  of the moribund studio, also acting as chief operating officer.  His partner in the rejuvenation of Disney was Michael Eisner, whom principal stockholder Roy Disney had lured away from Paramount. Wells was beloved at Disney. If one goes to Disneyland to the classic Matterhorn Bobsled ride, an homage to Wells appears on skiing expedition boxes labeled “Wells Expedition.”
            Wells death left a gaping hole in the succession at Disney, and caused CEO Michael Eisner to cast about for a successor.  Initially the gap was filled by high-power superagent Michael Ovits, then later by Jeffrey Katzenberg.  It is often speculated that only the success of Disney’s partnership with Pixar saved the company’s movie division from the loss of Wells. Observed Michael Krantz in Time Magazine, “When a helicopter carrying Frank Wells, president of the Walt Disney Co., crashed in Nevada on Easter Sunday, 1994, Hollywood whispered that the tragedy had taken Disney's heart with it.
            On the chopper with Wells was documentary film maker Beverly Johnson, who also died in the crash.  Johnson was the first woman to ever solo climb El Capitan, the 3,000 foot sheer cliff face in Yosemite National Park. Her husband, climber, stuntman, and outdoor cinematographer Mike Hoover, survived the crash.  The group was returning from a skiing outing with Dick Bass and Clint Eastwood up in Nevada’s Ruby Range.  Two helicopters were ferrying the party home. As Outside Magazine related the events, the group, led by ski guide  Paul Scannell “stayed in the high country, swooping through open bowls and over rolling benches studded with limber pines.”
Later, helicopters arrived to carry them home to their lodge. But the weather turned, and when Wells, Hoover, and Johnson took off,

a fierce storm had blown in, forcing them to land minutes later. They waited out the squall for about two hours and then took off again, the pilot slowly picking his way down a rugged canyon. Hoover was snapping photographs from the backseat when suddenly, through his viewfinder, he saw a light flashing red on the control panel. The engine had shut down, and the helicopter, some 250 feet above steep terrain, began to tumble. "Brace yourselves," Hoover said to his wife and Wells beside him on the seat. "We're going in."

Pilot Dave Walton radioed the other helicopter, then engaged in a controlled crash of the helicopter into the smoothest terrain he could locate.  According to Hoover, Walton’s last words were “like the shout of a surfer about to drop into a wave: ‘Wahoo!’”
            The basic facts of the crash itself are not in question. According to the National Transportation Safety Board official history of the flight, “the helicopter … was landed at a remote site due to poor weather. After landing, snow fell & accumulated on the airframe.” In addition, the NTSB observes that “no external engine snow covers were available” while also noting that such covers were not required equipment for the operation of the Bell 206B3, and also noting that the craft lacked the “(optional) auto re-light ignition system.”  Walton had, after landing for the last time, restarted the engine and let it run for 15-20 minutes, then shut it down and restarted it again for five minutes. The helicopter took off, lost power, and crashed.  It was overweight by almost 500lb for a safe autorotative landing (a landing where the stored energy in the rotors is used to slow the descent of a chopper that has lost power.)
The National Transportation Safety Board’s probable cause determination for the crash was

the ingestion of foreign material (snow) in the engine, which resulted in a flameout (loss of engine power). Factors related to the accident were: the adverse weather conditions (snow falling & high density altitude), the lack of snow covers to protect the engine intakes while parked and awaiting for the weather conditions to improve, improper planning/decision by the pilot and the company/operator management, inadequate information in the flight manual, and the lack of suitable terrain for an emergency landing.

Hoover subsequently litigated Bell helicopter over alleged design flaws that led to the engine flameout prior to the crash. He settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
The Equipment: Bell 206B3 Jet Ranger: The 206B3 is a successor to a line of choppers created by Bell in response to a 1961 request from the department of defense for a reconnaissance chopper.  The 206 first flew in January 1966 and was delivered to commercial customers in 1967.  The craft is slated to cease production in 2010.