September 6, 2015

1928: Famous Record-Breaking Airplane Crashes in Prescott

Less than 12 hours after this picture was taken, the Yankee Doodle would be reduced to "confetti" in the Bradshaw mountains:

On November 3rd, 1928, the Prescott Evening Courier printed an Associated Press story about a record-holding, Lockheed Vega monoplane named "Yankee Doodle." It would be attempting to break its own non-stop, transcontinental record flying from L.A. to New York, taking off that day. (*1)

The Courier could never have known that later that very night, the Yankee Doodle would crash into the Bradshaw mountains desperately searching for the Prescott airport.

The flight was not long planned.  Captain Callyer and Harry Tucker were flying to New York quickly because of some urgent business there.  Still, the two would take the opportunity to try to break their own record. (*1)

But only four hours into the flight, there was trouble.  The plane was flying in a heavy rain and fog at the time.  Reportedly, it circled the Hasayampa mining district and then around Mt. Union.  One resident of the Venezia area stated that the plane came within 50 feet of his house top and was clipping the trees. (*2) It was also was heard by a rancher and his two sons "all of whom agreed that the engine (noise) was missing."(*3)  They then heard a crash followed by a large explosion; and "what a blast...430 gallons of gasoline" went off. (*2)  It was felt that only the heavy rain stopped the forest from catching fire.

The plane's tail.
"Hardly a piece of the plane or the engine large enough to recognize was left.  The wreckage was strewn for a quarter of a mile in each direction." (*2)

The description of the scene was graphic: "Various articles of clothing, fragments of maps and bits of the machine hung on trees about the place. The men, whose bodies were mangled, were identified by letters and pictures found in their clothing." (*3)

Wrecked body of the craft.
"A helmet, containing part of the head of one of the fliers was found at least a hundred yards from the place where the Yankee Doodle (made impact). Both men were decapitated." (*3)

In a day before black-box recorders, when pieces of the evidence was scattered among many "souvenir collectors," we'll never know exactly what happened, but the two flyers seemed to know they were in trouble.  Parachutes were found with both men as well as a parachute flare that would have been used to light up the area underneath them. (*2)  Unfortunately, the plane crashed into the side of the mountain before they could make their leap.

One expert (who did not actually view the wreckage,) offered one potential theory:

"The flyers, circling over the mountains, saw the lights of Venezia and planned to open their parachutes over the canyon, where they would have sufficient altitude. Apparently, one of the men had a flare in his hand ready to release it...when the carriage of the descending plane struck the low brush on the side of the mountain. The dump valves in the bottom of the tank had been opened to drain the tank before they made a forced landing. The tank was nearly empty when the undercarriage struck the bushes, tearing loose part of the electrical system, which ignited the gasoline dripping from the tank. An explosion resulted." (*4)

It got ugly!
Early traffic laws showed how the transition from animals to automobiles was problematic and at times humorous.

For the city of Prescott, the postmortem was clear: The Prescott airport needed to install light beacons expediently.  "We should realize that had lights been gleaming upon the field...the two gallant fliers of the Yankee Doodle plane might be alive today," the secretary of the Yavapai County Chamber of Commerce stated at the time. (*5)

"It will not cost an exorbitant sum to light the field and we owe it to the public to take immediate steps to have beacons placed there. We can never become and remain a station on the trans-continental flying route unless our field is marked by friendly lights that offer a haven of safety to airmen coursing over the rugged hills of Yavapai." (*5)

It was the inaugural running of the Arizona Gazzette Cup-- Only 1 car was able to drive back to Prescott, Arizona!

Tourist Tips:

Venezia is one of Arizona's many mining ghost towns and is located 1.3 miles north of Palace Station on Senator Highway.  


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(*1) Prescott Evening Courier; November 3, 1928, page 6 col. 5
(*2) Ibid; November 5, 1928, page 5 col. 3
(*3) Ibid; November 5, 1928, page 1 col. 5
(*4) Ibid; November 5, 1928, page 5 col. 4
(*5) Ibid; November 5, 1928, page 1 col. 6

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