Friday, 27 March 2015

I've moved!

This blog has moved to www.planecrashgirl.ca.

I have also changed the blog slightly to reflect my interest both in Newfoundland and Labrador aviation history and in travel, so it will include both research and travel/tourism information. This reflects my almost post-doctorate work which will focus on tourism while my research will continue to look at aviation.

I look forward to seeing you there.
Lisa

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Land and Sea and moving sites

Hello all,

After some trouble with this site in the past year, I have decided to move it. I have moved some of the more pertinent posts and have every intention of posting much more regularly. The new blog will be a little different. I plan to have a page showing Hindenburg sightings around Newfoundland (I haven't yet heard of any in Labrador although it did fly over the Big Land at least once), a page of some of my favourite websites for information, and I am diversifying. Rather than just look at aviation, I plan to look at my two passions: archaeology and tourism. So not only will the site feature Newfoundland's aviation history, but it will also look at my own travels around Newfoundland (and hopefully Labrador again), the places I visit, and the places I bring visitors to this beautiful province.

I hope you will join me at www.planecrashgirl.ca.

On another exciting note, this Sunday, February 8, 2015, CBC's Land and Sea will be doing an episode about Gander called Fallen War Birds, featuring myself, my supervisor, and a Gander local, visiting a couple of crash sites in Gander, exploring their history, and focusing on the importance of remembering and protecting these sites. I hope you will tune it. The trailer can be found at http://youtu.be/SPVJkgAq0Io. 

Thank you all, and see you on my new site!

Lisa

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Sorry I've been missing

Hello all,

I've been absent for a while. Poor health mostly, and when my health started to improve, the thesis became my focus. I'm now just waiting for a date to defend. I hope to start fresh this year, and have bought a website. I plan to focus on Newfoundland aviation history (like here) and Newfoundland tourism (I also work as a tour guide in St. John's).

Once everything is set up and started I will post here. Once the PhD is over I really want to focus on aviation and Newfoundland history.

Thank you for your patience, and I hope to bring you much more history and plane crash sites soon.

Lisa

Thursday, 27 March 2014

New images of the 1946 AOA crash in Stephenville, NL

Recently, another aviation archaeologist emailed me to tell me of some pictures on ebay. Original press photos from the 03 October 1946 American Overseas Airline crash in Stephenville, Newfoundland. The images are from historicimages.com who have a lot of amazing images for sale. A few more Newfoundland pictures, and a couple of aviation pictures of Labrador. It would have been nice to pick up all of them, but my research budget is pretty tight at the moment. Check them out and see what they have to offer.

Anyway, the pictures are amazing. I have put the stock images up, so they are watermarked, but you can see a lot of the detail. On the back of each reads:

812302   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   NEW YORK BUREAU
AIRVIEW OF BURNING NEWFOUNDLAND WRECKAGE
NEWFOUNDLAND. THIS AIRVIEW OF THE BURNING
WRECKAGE OF TRANSATLANTIC AIRLINER WHICH
CRASHED IN NEWFOUNDLAND THIS MORNING (10/3)
WAS TAKEN BY NAVIGATOR ROBERT ALBER OF AIR
FRANCE PLANE THAT FEW OVER THE SCENE JUST
ONE HOUR AFTER THE PLANE CRASHED. ALL PASS-
ENGERS AND CREW MEMBERS ARE BELIEVED TO
HAVE PERISHED, THOUGH RESCUE TEAMS ARE ON
THEIR WAY TO THE WRECKAGE.
CREDIT LINE (ACME)              10/3/46                    (EO)

Overhead view of the crash.

Note Stephenville in the background.
These were taken an hour after the crash, the top picture showing the top of the hill, and shows how the wreck itself didn't do nearly as much damage to the hill as the subsequent blasting to cover the wreckage. The blasting damage is much more visible below:
Image taken in the 1950s. Original image can be found in the Our Lady of Mercy Church on the Port-au-Port Peninsula. This copy is found at thetelgram.com.
All said, this is a great find, and absolutely amazing images of the site. I hope to share these with the folks at the Stephenville Regional Museum of Art and History the next time I'm out that way.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Review: Disaster in the Air by Colonel Edgar A. Haine

Disaster in the Air by Colonel Edgar A. Haine (published in 2000 by Cornwall Books, New York) was recommended to me by a descendant of the navigator who perished in the 1946 Stephenville air disaster. It also came with the warning that some facts and figures should be checked, as her grandfather's name was misspelled.
According to the dust jacket "This book is mainly concerned with the serious subject of airplane safety" and details "eighty-nine of the world's most serious (in terms of human lives lost) airplane disasters starting in 1927". As the focus of this blog is Newfoundland aviation, I will only  look at the disasters listed for this area, but the text does make for a good reference point if researching any air disaster, particularly if an American aircraft is involved. Many well-know crashes are profiled, such as PAN AM Flight 103 which crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland and TWA Flight 800 east of New York, but others, such as the 1946 Sabena crash in Gander, Newfoundland and the 1998 Swissair Flight 111 disaster off the coast of Nova Scotia are not covered, both with heavy casualty rates for the time. An updated edition would be nice to include Air France Flight 4590, the aircraft involved in 9/11 and others to maintain its status as a good reference book.

The introduction is well written and explains why aircraft disasters and incidents need to be investigated, and the steps of an investigation and how they have changed with the types of aircraft, technology and with the advent of devices like the black box. The introduction then goes through the evolution of safety boards and regulations, with an American focus, and how those changes were reflected by, or caused by, the number of disasters in different time periods. Again, such an overview is a great starting point for any research, and explains it in a clear manner that anyone can read.

NC-4 off the Azores, 1919. From wikipedia.org
Prior to delving into the disasters, Haine give a brief overview of early aviation history, again, with a focus on American aviation history. He starts with the Wright Brothers, into the Daily Mail prize, the successful flight of the Curtiss seaplanes from Newfoundland to Lisbon in 1919 (with a stop in the Azores as pictures above), to Alcock and Brown's non-stop flight from Newfoundland to Clifden, Ireland through many other aviation firsts up to the end of the 1920s. Again, it is a wonderful overview of early aviation, and a good starting point for any research. Haine actually returns at the end of the books (Appendix 5: Biographical Information and Airplane Data) to discuss the specification of some of these early aircraft as well as those featured in the main part of the book (the disasters).

Strangely, the major aviation accidents from 1927-1998 are listed in a table in chronological order, but the individual accident narratives are actually in reverse order, starting with 1998. This is a little odd as the reason for including many of the incidents are that they are the worst disaster of that time, but the impact of this is lost when looking at the incidents in reverse order. As well, listing them in chronological order would have better showed the evolution of the aircraft and safety standards, something touched on in the introduction.
Site of the Arrow Air Crash in Gander, Newfoundland, overlooking Gander Lake.

Only two Newfoundland incidents are listed in this text, "12 December [1985]. Arrow Air Crash, Gander Newfoundland, 256 deaths" and "3 October [1946]. DC-4 Crashes in Newfoundland, Killing 30 Persons." The Arrow Air Crash is covered in under a page, looking at the route, the crash and the investigation. According to Haine, sabotage was quickly ruled out and the cause, though undetermined, may have been due to the aircraft being overweight and/or no de-icing although there was freezing rain falling prior to takeoff. It is a simplistic look at the crash, but, as this book is an overview, it is a good place to start. For something more detailed, try Improbable Cause by Les Filotas.

Wreckage from the 1946 Stephenville crash

The 1946 Stephenville DC-4 Crash is much more detailed. Haine discuses the planned route for the aircraft, how it was diverted to Stephenville due to Gander being "socked" in and early theories regarding the crash. Over four pages, the author discusses the rescue/recovery parties that went to the site, the investigators who visited the crash the day after the crash and the efforts made to comply with family wishes for funeral arrangements and the final outcome of the site. Back in the introduction of the book, it is stated that "in one case, in Newfoundland in 1946, the wreckage and intact bodies were simply covered over by an avalanche of rocks, generated by a powerful explosion, in order to obliterate all traces of the calamity." This indicates that it is the only time this has been done. While other research has shown (see post) that the remains were in fact collected, put in a mass grave, then the site covered by blasted rocks on 5 October 1946. Haine also states that "an acre plot of ground, surrounding the jutting cliff, scene of the crash within sight of Harmon Field, was set aside as an official cemetery". It is assumed that this includes the memorial cemetery above the crash site.



Images of the memorial cemetery from heritage.nf.ca. Note, since this image was taken, many of the wooden crosses have fallen.

The article ends with a discussion of the investigation and the findings by the Board of Inquiry. The Civil Aeronautics Board determined the probable cause of the investigation as "the action of the pilot in maintaining the direction of takeoff toward higher terrain over which adequate clearance could not be gained". The author indicates that this disaster, as one of the largest at the time with high civilian casualties, would have to prepare the public for increasingly larger disasters due to the "rapidly increasing size of air transports".

Overall, the book is an excellent reference tool, and good as a starting point for the investigation of any incident. The fall-backs are that it is not as comprehensive as it would lead a reader to believe in the introduction, and facts are not cited nearly enough. While many end-notes can be used to find more sources, many accidents are not references at all (i.e. the Arrow Air crash in Gander). If you have an interest in aviation history, this is worth having in your collection, just be sure to verify its information.



Sunday, 24 November 2013

Review: Flight from Gander by Al Fales

In recent weeks, I have been doing a poor job of keeping up on my social media. I started with a grand scheme involving a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and this blog, while also maintaining my Academia.edu and Linked In pages. So far, the Academia.edu account is the best maintained, mostly because it needs so few updates (only when new talks are announced or papers published). I have also just taken a part-time job, coupled with the full-time effort of trying to finish the last few edits of my thesis, plus editing reports overdue for the Provincial Archaeology Office, and preparing a small paper for the same and a talk for the Society of Historical Archaeology conference in Quebec City this winter, my social media time has been drastically reduced. But, I plan to renew my efforts and try to get more blog posts out. Over the winter, they will most likely consist of book discussions (like this one), and once the thesis is in, I plan to cut and paste parts of that to share more of Gander’s aviation history with you.

I did make an interesting discovery today: http://airportcoffeeshop.blogspot.ca/. This came to my attention via academia.edu when I noticed someone found my page from the blog. After glancing through the blog, there are some very interesting aviation links, and a great way to keep updated on the goings on at GIAA.

On to today’s post.

I picked up Flight From Gander: On Board A B-24 in the C.B.I. by Staff Sgt. Al Fales, WWII Radio Operator, 493rd Bomb Sqdn. primarily based on the title. Without reading anything but Flight From Gander, I thought the book would be about Gander, Newfoundland. Turns out, Michigan was also (still is?) referred to as Michigander, and because that is where Fales and his crew initially flew out of, the book is called Flight From Gander. But, all is not lost when it comes to it being a resource for Newfoundland aviation history. Fales and his crew did fly from Gander to the Azores on their way to overseas.
Fales (front row, 2nd from the right) and his crew. Fales 2007.

Fales describes Gander is “colder than Scrooges [sic] heart” and learned what they needed cold weather gear for as they landed on the icy and snow covered runways. They were actually delayed for two days due to the runways being too slippery after a cold weather system moved through.  While waiting, Fales enjoyed the high calorie meals provided, and between those and the winter suits, were quite comfortable during their stay.
Fales talks about how many aircraft were decorated with images of their women back home. Fales 2007.

Most interestingly is how Fales remembers the little details. To leave Gander, the engines had to be heated because the cold weather would make the oil in the radials of the engine slow and difficult to pour. Trying to use the engines in that state would make them stiff, overheat the starters and drag on the batteries. So, big fan forced oil heaters were used and long flexible ducts were used to warm the engines enough that they would start. They were heated for about a half hour, then they started each engine in turn, giving each one time to cough, sputter, and “belching smoke like a cold diesel engine” before “settling into a smooth rumble”. The propellers “fanned a cloud of snow across the field as the engines were run up” and once they were at full power, the B-24 took off from Gander.
Fales and others on their way home. Fales 2007.

This is just an example of the detail used by Fales in his book. He tends to focus on what would typically be considered the mundane;  the food, the Postal Exchange, his crew mates, and people that he met when out on pass. Fales’ book a great look into the lives of servicemen in the USAAF and focuses the day-to-day operations and activities, something which is often lacking in memoirs. While I was disappointed in the lack of talk about Newfoundland (especially when I was expecting the book to focus on Gander, Newfoundland), Flight from Gander is still a great source to know what the lives of those passing through Gander were like. Certainly there would be big differences between being stationed in in US or overseas than in Gander, mostly because Gander was so isolated and passes to go to Grand Falls or Corner Brook were less frequent than passes to go into “town” when stationed somewhere a little closer to the nearest community.

One thing in the book that I do need to research further is a reference near the end of the book (and the end of the war) of  an experimental flight the author was involved with. Well, the flight wasn't experimental, but the radar on the aircraft was. The aircraft looked a little different, with the bottom turret removed and a "cream colored plastic tub that could be raised and lowered" in its place. It was a special radar that they were to use along the coast of Burma which proved that radar could be mobile and effective. I would need to do more research, but the first site I worked on in Gander involved a USAAF B-24 which was carrying a top secret radar and the aircraft carrying it were designated "Eagle". Unfortunately, as I worked on this one, it did end tragically, with a crash at it was flying into Gander on 14 February 1945, killing all 10 men on board. When I look into it a little more I will see if I can figure out if this is the same radar system.
An image of a B-24 carrying the radar system. On this image, you can see a long beam under the aircraft. This was one portion of the radar. From Masters 1945.
Part of the APQ-7 radar system found in Gander, Newfoundland. Photo by Lisa M. Daly.

 References:
Fales, Al.
2007        Flight From Gander: On Board a B-24 In The C.B.I. Xlibris: USA.


Masters, D.
1945       The Eagle Strikes. It Paid Off at War's End. RADAR (11):36-45.
 

Friday, 2 August 2013

"The worst disaster in the history of commercial American aviation"

Adapted from Daly and Green 2013.

On 3 October 1946, an American Overseas Airlines (AOA) NC90904, a DC-4, took off from Harmon Airfield in Stephenville, NL at 0833 GMT. Moments later it crashed in to Hare Hill, killing all 8 crew and 31 civilians (Wilkins 1946). This was "the worst disaster in the history of American commercial aviation" (Canadian Press 1946) with a larger death toll than the Sabena disaster which took place in Gander, NL, two week previous. The aircraft had departed from LaGuardia, New York, destined for Berlin, Germany, with stops scheduled in Gander, NL, and Shannon, Ireland (Author Unknown 1946b). The AOA aircraft had been diverted to Stephenville due to thick fog around Gander (Canadian Press 1946). The passengers consisted of 12 women and 6 children en route to be reunited with family stationed in Europe as well as businessmen bound to assist in the rebuilding of Berlin (Wilkins 1946).
Stephenville had strong ties to the United States Air Force, as seen by the monuments found throughout the town. Photo by Shannon K. Green.
The DC-4 was scheduled to leave from runway 30, but a sudden wind change diverted the aircraft to runway 7. The aircraft impacted the side of Hare Hill about 2 and a half minutes after take-off (Wilkins 1946). The subsequent explosion could be seen from the airport (Landis et al. 1947). At first light, the site was checked for survivors by passing aircraft, but none could be found (Author Unknown 1946a). A recovery mission departed at first light that morning to investigate the incident and cover the wreckage. Initially, the plan was to blast above the site to cover the wreckage and human remains, but when the size of the site was established, it was decided to create a mass grave near the wreck site for the human remains (pers. comm. Leo Fitzgerald 2013). Over the next couple of days, bodies and personal effects were recovered, and where possible, identified. The rocks above the site were then dynamited to cover the aircraft, but the site was too large to be completely obscured (Fagan & Fitzpatrick 1946). Personal reports
from Nelson Sherren (2011) indicate that the hill may have been blasted again in the 1970s in an attempt to cover more of the aircraft. In 1946, only days after the crash, a memorial cemetery was built at the summit and a large monument which lists the names of the victims was air lifted to the memorial cemetery. Family members were invited to view the site and drop wreathes from an aircraft passing overhead. A Catholic, Protestant and Jewish burial service was held on the helicopter for those who had perished (Time 1946).

In 1989, the memorial cemetery was redone when Dixie Knauss, a surviving family member, visited the cemetery and found that all of the crosses had fallen. She attempted to secure acrylic crosses, such as are used in United States military cemeteries, but could not and the site was redone with wooden crosses (Knauss 1989).

More of Stephenville's aviation history as seen by a repair hangar and a Cold War scramble station. Photos by Shannon K. Green.

Over time the site was lost. The hill was now known as Crash Hill, and it was common knowledge in Stephenville that a plane crash had taken place, but the location and specifics about the crash were less known. In fact, hunters and hikers had been exploring the area trying to find the site, but could not (pers. comm. Don Cormier 2012). It was believed that when the site was dynamited it had been successfully obscured and researchers were unsure that anything would remain.
Alder Pond. Crash Hill is the last peak visible in the distance.

In 2012, a small group of researchers, lead by guide Don Cormier, and based on a picture found in Our Lady of Mercy church on the Port-au-Port in comparison to GoogleEarth images, located the site. Unlike what was expected, most of the wreckage remains. Much is obscured by blasted rock, which also makes the site extremely treacherous, but the aircraft remains. Archaeologists did a preliminary survey of the site, taking GPS readings and photographing pieces, but it was obvious that the site was too large to fully survey in the little time the team had on site. On a second trip that year, videographer Dave Hebbard and Cormier returned to the site and found further wreckage that was not photographed nor mapped on the first trip.
Route taken from Little Long Pond to the crash site.

Our Lady of Mercy church and museum in Port-au-Port.

Next week, a slightly larger team will return to the site for a two to three day stay in an attempt to properly survey the site, find the extent of the site boundaries, and survey the memorial cemetery at the top of the hill. The site is difficult to access as Crash Hill is a fairly isolated site and the incline of the hill seems to be around 60 or 70 degrees. That coupled with the loose rock leftover from blasting makes it a difficult site to navigate and impossible to bring out much in the way of archaeological equipment. Researchers will be limited to a handheld GPS and measuring tapes and a compass to survey the site.

In an attempt to illustrate the slope of the hill, the top picture is of the author coming down from the crash site, and the bottom is of Shannon Green climbing up the hill toward the crash. It is a difficult hike.
Once this survey is complete, the data will be mapped to give a better idea of site distribution. As well, when the top of the hill is mapped, it will show the extent of the damage that time and the elements has done to the memorial cemetery, which will hopefully end in the site being redone, perhaps with the plastic military crosses that Dixie Knauss wanted in 1989 (Knass 1989).

I will be giving a presentation about the history of Crash Hill and the 1944 C-54 crash at Garden Hill will be given at the Stephenville Historical Society Regional Museum of Art and History on 9 August 2013 at 7pm.
The museum entrance is around the back of the legion. It's a great museum, well worth the visit.
*03 October 2013 update: Myself and my team did not make it out to the site this year, we were kept away due to poor weather. I hope to get out next spring or early summer to continue to work. The presentation at the Stephenville Regional Museum of Art and History was well attended, and I had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people from the area, many of whom were happy to share stories with me. I hope to have many more conversations with the people of the area, and do much more research that will be of interest to them.

References Cited

Author Unknown
1946a Fears Expressed All of 39 Occupants Perish in Crash; Plane Bursts Into Flames. Evening Telegram, 03 October 1946.
 

Author Unknown
1946b Fire on the Hill. Time Magazine, 14 October 1946.
 

Canadian Press
1946 Twelve Women and Six Children Are Among the Victims. Daily News, 04 October 1946.
 

Daly, Lisa M. and Shannon K. Green
2013 Crash Hill: A Survey of the 1946 AOA Crash in Stephenville, NL. One file at the Provincial Archaeology Office, Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Fagan, J. and G. Fitzpatrick
1946 Report on Wreck of American Overseas Airlines Airliner on Mountain Eight Miles North East of Stephenville. Report to the Chief Newfoundland Ranger, GN 13/1/B Box 355 File 3.
 

Knauss, Dixie L.
1989 Personal communication from D. Knauss to Francis Walsh, 18 April 1989. On file PANL GN 4/5 AG 57/7 Box 2 Aviation.
 

Landiss, J.M, Oswald Ryan, Josh Lee and Clarence M. Young
1947 Civil Aeronautics Board Accident Investigation Report American Overseas Airlines, Inc. Stephenville, Newfoundland, October 3, 1946. On file PANL GN 4/5 AG 57/7 Box 2 Aviation.
 

Wilkins, F.S.
1946 Accident to American Overseas Airways Aircraft NC 90904 at Stephenville 3rd October 1946. Royal Canadian Air Force Accident Investigation Report Newfoundland Government No. 2. On file PANL GN 51/21.