"I heard the plane flying above the clouds hanging low over the ground. The motor was sputtering. Suddenly the plane shot out from the clouds. It was tipping to one side and headed straight toward the earth. A moment later I saw a part of the wing floating down to the earth."
With the fate of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 dominating the news, let's take a moment to talk about another aviation disaster which took place 83 years ago on this date, triggering major changes in aviation safety and aircraft development in the United States. There were eight fatalities, the two pilots and the six passengers, one of whom was America's most famous college football coach (certainly then, and even, perhaps, still today) - Knute Rockne of Notre Dame.
Rockne had been the coach at Notre Dame since 1918. In thirteen seasons his teams won 105 games, tying five and losing only twelve. Five times (1919, 1920, 1924, 1929 and 1930) Notre Dame had been undefeated, losing more than one game in a season on only two occasions. Knute was an innovator, popularizing the forward pass and backfield shifts and was a phenomenal motivator and he became more than a football coach; he was an American icon, the epitome of sportsmanship and one of the most well-known and popular figures in the country (you can find his NY Times obituary here). An observer of the uproar after his death on TWA Flight 599 remarked:
"The aviation industry, TWA and Fokker [manufacturer of the aircraft] could have had no more adverse publicity had the victim been the president of the United States."
Rockne's Norwegian family emigrated to the United States in 1893 when he was five years old, settling in Chicago. Though Knute was an avid athlete he never graduated from high school but in 1910 passed an entrance exam and enrolled in Notre Dame (Rockne was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism in the 1920s). Rockne played football and became captain of the 1913 team which, in an enormous upset, used the forward pass to an unprecedented extent (with Knute playing end) and upset Army 35-13. After graduating with degrees in Chemistry and Pharmacology, Rockne stayed at Notre Dame teaching chemistry and as assistant football coach taking over as head coach in 1918.
His first great teams were in 1919 and 1920 and starred George Gipp "The Gipper" who played quarterback and halfback while also handling the punting. Gipp, who Rockne always called "the greatest player Notre Dame ever produced" died of a strep infection shortly after his final game at the school. Eight years later, Rockne used what he said were Gipp's final words to him to inspire and underdog Notre Dame team to beat undefeated Army. It also became the big scene in the 1940 film, Knute Rockne, All American starring Pat O'Brien as Rockne and Ronald Reagan as The Gipper.
The undefeated 1924 team led Grantland Rice, after yet another Notre Dame upset of Army, to write one of the most famous ledes in sportswriting:
"Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine. But those are aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below."
1930 was yet another undefeated season for Notre Dame and for the 43-year old Rockne the future seemed limitless. In March 1931 he embarked on a trip to Los Angeles to help in the production of a film The Spirit of Notre Dame, stopping in Kansas City to see his two sons in boarding school. On March 31 he left Kansas City on TWA Flight 599 with its next stop in Wichita. He was traveling in a Fokker F-10A Trimotor, a wood framed aircraft.
(The Fokker which crashed)
In the four years since Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic (see Flyboys) commercial aviation had exploded in the United States despite a spate of fatal air crashes to which Rockne's flight was soon to be added. About 90 minutes after takeoff, in wintry conditions after hitting a cold front, the Fokker fell from the sky hitting the ground near the small town of Bazaar, Kansas. The exact cause remains controversial but it is known that one of the wooden wings separated from the body of the plane. The wing was made of laminated wood and moisture leaking into it weakened the structural members tying the wing to the fuselage.
(from Irish Legends.com)
The overwhelming public interest in Rockne's death and the crash led to two changes in the course of American aviation, one short-term and the other playing out over several years.
Until TWA Flight 599 federal government investigations of air crashes had not been released to the public. The limited authority of the government was vested in the Department of Commerce which had a mandate to encourage the growth of the aviation industry along with no authority to subpoena information in its investigations or specific directive as to how to handle or publicize findings. The result was chaotic. On occasion airline companies actually removed wreckage from sites and destroyed records to thwart investigations while at other times the government gave the industry the results of its reports but did not disclose them to the public or the families of crash victims. The conflict in DOC's mission can be seen in this quote from a department official:
"We are trying to sell aviation to the public and the wreckage of a plane lying around for people to stare at has a bad effect" (Quote from "The 'Rock': The Role of The Press In Bringing About Changes in Aircraft Accident Policy" by Randy Johnson, Journal of Air Transportation World Wide, Vol. 5 N. 1 (2000), a thorough review of this issue)In the aftermath of the Rockne crash the DOC reversed its policy, releasing information and making its findings public for the first time. By 1934 Congress passed the Air Commerce Act giving DOC the authority to issue subpoenas and directing it to make investigations public.
The longer term impact was on aircraft development. The crash meant the end for Fokker as a viable aviation company and more broadly the end of wooden aircraft in commercial aviation. The immediate winners were the all-metal Ford Trimotor and the Boeing 247 which seized the market. More importantly, TWA was frozen out of the Boeing market by rival companies which had tied up all of its production and in response sent a request and specifications for an new all-metal airliner to Douglas Aircraft which in one year developed the DC-1/2 which eventually became the DC-3, the most successful and long-lived (the last DC-3's went out of service in the early 1990s) airliner in commercial aviation history.
The impact of the DC-3 and the crucial role played by TWA Flight 599 is told in The Legacy of the Rockne Crash by Herbert M Friedman and Ada Kera Friedman, Aeroplane Magazine, May 2001.
The DC-3 turned air travel from an adventure into a business. Impressive as its performance was, what especially interested the airlines was the drastic decrease in cost per seat mile. British author Peter W. Brooks showed that the 21-passenger DC-3 achieved an astounding 47 percent reduction on the Fokker F. Vllb/3m the F-10A's tri-motored cousin, still being produced the year after the crash. All told, well over 10,000 DC-3s were built in the USA, plus some 2,000 in Russia and nearly 500 in Japan. As the C-47 it flew in just about every Allied airborne operation of the Second World War, played a significant part in the Berlin Airlift and flew operationally in the Korean and Vietnam wars. In the late 1940s and early 1950s several manufacturers offered "DC-3 replacements", but the DC-3 outlasted them all. The effects were far greater than the feats of this single type. The DC-2/DC- 3 series established the USA as the undisputed leader in airliner construction, a lead that has only recently been challenged by Airbus Industrie.How much of this can be traced to the crash at Bazaar? Even if Rockne had landed safely at Los Angeles, we would not still be flying in three-engined wooden airliners at 120 m.p.h., but the development of the all-metal transport may well have been different. We have only to look at the Junkers Ju 52/3m, manufactured in its thousands from the mid-1930s, to see that the familiar airliner shape was not inevitable. Were it not for the market created by the Rockne crash, Douglas would not have built his masterpiece, the DC-3. Without the economy, safety and comfort of the DC- 3 worldwide air travel would have developed more slowly, and there might have been a slower acceptance of the stressed-skin low-wing monoplane as the key to high performance in military as well as civil aeroplanes.