Reviewed by Gord McNulty
Witnesses who saw and heard the airliner flying erratically may have thought it was probably one of the wartime training planes that beat a path over the area day and night.
Within moments, the American Airlines DC-3 plunged into a farm field at Lawrence Station, 14 miles southwest of St. Thomas, at a steep angle. Seventeen passengers and three crew members lost their lives. The tragedy on the night of October 30, 1941, was the worst aviation disaster in Canada at the time.
In Final Descent: The Loss of the Flagship Erie, aviation historian Robert Schweyer revisits the poignant story of how the routine flight from Buffalo to Detroit went horribly wrong. Schweyer, who lived in Jarvis, extensively researched the crash. He completed a manuscript before his untimely death from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2010.
His family, in a fitting tribute to both the author and the victims of the accident, recently managed to self-publish the full story in an excellent book. Schweyer’s writing is rich in detail and engages the reader from start to finish. He sketches the lives of the people who perished and the impact on their families and the community.
Everything was in order when Captain David I. Cooper, a highly respected American Airlines pilot, took off from Buffalo at 9:03 p.m. in the reliable DC-3. First Officer Richard Cooper was making his first trip as co-pilot. Stewardess Mary Blackley was enjoying her new-found airline career.
Several industrial executives were among the passengers. Four others were employed in the blossoming aviation industry and three were union officials.
It was a typical late autumn evening in Buffalo, overcast, with a ceiling of 3,500 feet. The flight was cleared only to Detroit, since a lowering of ceilings to below minimums for scheduled arrivals in South Bend, Indiana and Chicago was anticipated.
Cooper reported passing over Jarvis at 9:39, advising that he was proceeding routinely at 4,000 feet and that weather conditions were fairly good. He was never heard from again.
Shortly after 10 p.m., as drizzle began, residents of tiny Lawrence Station heard the engines of an aircraft surging. Startled observers saw the twin-engined plane descend in right turns, while making sudden roller coaster-like movements that must have been nightmarish for those on board. The crew pushed the engines to the limit trying to gain altitude, but the Flagship Erie continued to spiral downward. It missed a farmhouse before finally hitting the ground at high speed. A huge fire erupted as gasoline and oil spewed from ruptured fuel tanks and bedlam erupted in Lawrence Station.
Despite the reduced visibility, the blaze could be seen as far away as St. Thomas. Would-be rescuers and neighbours quickly flocked to the burning wreckage, but couldn’t do anything except spread the news. Virtually all of the physical evidence that might have helped to determine the cause of the crash was destroyed.
The grim story made front-page headlines in virtually every major Canadian and U.S. newspaper. It was the worst plane crash in American Airlines’ history and the company’s first fatal accident involving the seemingly invincible DC-3.
Schweyer traces how exhaustive investigations failed to solve the mystery. Speculation persisted that the aircraft might have struck a goose, so 200 military personnel were mobilized for an intensive ground search of goose remains. They covered hundreds of acres of farmland in a fruitless effort.
Investigators probed various theories, such as jamming of the controls, possibly caused by automatic pilot malfunction; a vagrant bolt of lightning blinding the crew; carbon monoxide from the exhausts incapacitating the crew; the health of the pilot; and more. Cooper had suffered for several days from torticollis, an annoying and often painful condition more commonly referred to as wryneck. He was cleared to fly three days before the accident. In the end, there wasn’t any evidence to bolster any of the suppositions.
Schweyer, who was employed as assistant curator and curator at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum for eight years, concluded that he was “personally convinced that something either jammed or failed aboard the aircraft suddenly and without warning.”
The crash underlined the need for flight data recorders or “black boxes” that eventually became widespread. Schweyer dedicated his book to the 20 crash victims who, he felt, had not died in vain as their loss had helped to produce essential improvements in aviation safety.
Final Descent is an achievement of which the Schweyer family can be proud. They deserve high marks for ensuring that a painful story in aviation history isn’t forgotten.