Monday, November 7, 2016

The First Mid-air Collision In The U.S. Involving An Airliner. Ford Trimotor vs Boeing PW-9

The First Mid-Air Collision Involving An Airliner
San Diego, California
April 21, 1929

There are no fender benders in the air....none. Simply put, if two airplanes try to occupy the exact same hunk of airspace at the exact same instant in time it will not end well for at least one and most likely both of them. The balance of forces that provide lift for an airplane is actually pretty delicate, and those forces are kept in balance...and the plane's kept in the the wings, tail surfaces, and the pilot's skillful and competent manipulation of the control surfaces there-on.

It doesn't take but so much collision-induced damage to knock that delicate balance fatally out of kilter, and any elementary school aged airplane buff can tell you why it's so easy to do so without even having to think about it real hard. The reason why? An airplane will absolutely not fly without it's wings and/or tail.  Damage them beyond a certain not-that-hard-to-reach point...or worse, tear them away completely...and the airplane stops flying and starts falling.

 With that thought in mind, guess which part of at least one of the involved aircraft is going to be the first thing to get hit in a good 99% of mid-air collisions?? Everyone who guessed  'The wings and/or tail' gets a gold star.

Think about it. The wings, horizontal stabilizers, and vertical stabilizer extend several yards out to the sides and above the fuselage, so it's just about a given that either a wing or one of the tail surfaces will be the first point of impact in a mid-air collision, subjecting them to bending/sheering/crushing forces that absolutely will either damage them beyond function or completely tear them away from the airframe.  As I noted above, once that happens the plane absolutely will not stay in the air. 

If a plane looses a wing, it's going to go into either a spin or an unrecoverable 'graveyard' spiral into the missing wing, and continue that spin or spiral right down to what accident reports call 'Collision With Terrain'.  Loose a horizontal stabilizer? Your damaged aircraft is going to nose over until it's on it's back, and go straight in, inverted. Loose a vertical stabilizer?  Your aircraft will most likely become uncontrollable and probably go into a flat spin, where it stays upright and spins about an axis passing vertically through the plane. It'll continue this spin all the way to the ground.  There have also been more than a few cases where a plane that was damaged in a 'midair' spun around two or more axes at the same time as it fell...or, to put in more simply, it tumbled. And again, a violent and usually fiery impact with Terra Firma was the inevitable result.

If a smaller plane manages to hit...or get hit by...a larger plane, it's a good bet that the smaller plane will just disintegrate, the separate pieces fluttering down like wind blown, possibly burning leaves while the larger plane, usually fatally damaged, augers in.  We won't even go into what would happen if either plane takes a direct hit to the cockpit...suffice it to say if that rare, but always cataclysmic event should occur, that airplane has just become, at best, an unguided missile.  Needless to say, none of the above possibilities will end well for the occupants of the aircraft.

The very first mid-air collision occurred early in the history of flight, on October 3rd, 1910 at an airshow in Milan, Italy when a French pilot named Renee Thomas, while flying an Antoinette IV monoplane and performing what today would be called a 'Full performance descent'...a high angle, high speed dive...slammed into the top wing of a Farman biplane flown by British Army Captain  Bertram Dickson, who was climbing at the moment of collision.  The two planes became entangled  as the Antoinette IV literally slammed the Farman into the ground from low altitude, injuring both pilots, Dickson badly enough that he never flew again.

A newspaper report of the first ever mid-air collision, during an airshow, in Milan, Italy on October 3rd, 1910. Inset is an artists rendition of the instant of impact. If the position the planes ended up in is any indication, the artist pretty much nailed it.  When Thomas' Antoinette Monoplane rammed Dickson's Farman from above and behind, it apparently shoved it right into the ground...the two airplanes ended up almost inextricably entangled. Dickson's Farman Biplane is completely crushed beneath the Antoinette...the square object visible just about mid-frame with the numeral '18' printed on it was the Farman's tail.

The first fatal mid-air occurred just shy of two years later, on June 19th 1912, when Capt. Marcel Dubois and Lt. Albert Peignan of the French Army were killed near Douai when their planes collided in mid-air. Try as I might, I could find no other details of the accident, but it was very likely at another air show or demonstration, or, just as likely as war clouds gathered in Europe, during flight training. That early in the ballgame, it just about had to have taken place at a gathering of early aviators. There just wasn't anywhere near enough random air traffic in 1912 for two planes to have collided over the country side, because cross country flights just hadn't become quite that common or routine...yet.

 I have a feeling, though, that as war clouds gathered, hostilities ramped up, and hundreds of pilots were trained en masse to fly these new-fangled, fragile, still very experimental, and more than a little dangerous flying machines, more mid-airs occurred. There were definitely a few during early dogfights, both between opposing aircraft and aircraft on the same side.  But, whether during training, military flight operations or air combat, these early mid-airs all involved single pilot military aircraft, or possibly as World War-I progressed and multi-engined bombers were developed, aircraft with 3-5 man crews. So far, when two planes collided in mid-air and with the notable exception of Renee' Thomas, civilians and non-pilots had been spared.

That record would, sadly, soon change. By the time the war ended aircraft had became dozens of times more reliable, there were some legitimately big planes flying, and business-types were taking a look at these new, more sophisticated, and larger airplanes with dollar signs in their eyes almost before the ink on the Armistice agreement had dried.

The first scheduled airlines were founded in Europe immediately after the war ended, almost a decade before air travel really caught on in the US, and the general public...those in Europe, anyway... quickly discovered that air travel was far faster and more direct than any other form of transportation. And, as the European skies did become more crowded, it also became more probable that one...or maybe even two...of these primitive airliners would be involved in a mid-air collision. 

And that's exactly what happened near Picardie, France on April 7th 1922, when a twelve passenger Farman F.60 Goliath (Derived from the design for a planned heavy bomber to become the world's first true airliner) collided with an eight passenger DeHaviland DH-18 mail plane at just under 500 feet in heavy fog. Both pilots were navigating using the tried, true, and, during aviation's formative years, oft-utilized 'Iron Compass' (Following the railroad), both pilots following the same rail line with their eyes cast downward, peering through the fog at the tracks. They were both also, unfortunately, at the same altitude and flying directly towards each other.  From what a couple of eyewitnesses told investigators, the pilots apparently spotted each other at the last instant, and at least one and possibly both of the planes started banking into a turn to avoid, but it was far too late for either pilot to take any effective evasive action. They collided all but head on, destroying both planes', I believe, left wings. All five aboard the Goliath were killed as well as both crewmen aboard the DH.18, which was carrying only mail and no passengers, when both planes spun in.

The two types of aircraft involved in the very first midair collision involving airliners, over the small town of Picardie, France on April 7th, 1922. The Farman F60 Goliath (Top drawing) and DeHavilland DH.18 (Bottom photo). At just shy of 50 feet long, with a 97 foot wingspan,  the 12-14 passenger Goliath was a legitimately huge airplane for it's day. Don't let the front windscreen fool you though...that was part of the passenger cabin. The pilot and mechanic shared an open cockpit, visible directly forward of the wing strut, and directly above the engine. I have a feeling it was a bit drafty in the cabin as well...the pilots accessed the open cockpit from inside the plane, and the cockpit was open to the cabin with no separating door.

The DH.18 was a smaller, single engine airplane. It was ten feet shorter with a wingspan twenty-five feet shorter than the Goliath's, and could only carry eight passengers. It's pilot, like the Goliath's crew, made do with an open cockpit while the passengers enjoyed an enclosed cabin.

So far, though, we'd been spared from major air crashes on our side of 'The Pond', if for no other reason than the fact that Europe had out-paced us by leaps and bounds in the development of air travel, scheduled airline service and, unfortunately, air disasters. That was about to change, however. And three events occurring over a span of six years would ultimately come together to change it.

The first event of the three occurred in 1923, when Boeing developed a small, fast, nimble little fighter based on the legendary Fokker D-VII that served the German Air Force so well in World War I. How, you ask, did Boeing get their hands on an example of what many believe to have been WW-1's 'best all round fighter'? part of the Armistice agreement, the victors got to pick and choose just what bits and pieces of German technology they'd like to take home with them to study at their leisure. The U.S. took possession of 117 of the nimble little German fighters, flight-testing them relentlessly and Boeing wasted no time in using the D-VII as a pattern for  the U.S. Army Air Corps.
newest fighter.

They came up with the Model 15, which the Army Air Corps designated the PW-9...a nimble little open cockpit biplane with wood framed, fabric covered high lift wings,of unequal span (The lower wings were shorter, with a smaller chord, than the upper wings), and a steel tube framed, fabric covered fuselage. Like pretty much every airplane from that era it was a tail-dragger with fixed landing gear...a tail skid rather than a tail wheel at that.

Boeing PW-9...the 'Hot Fighter' of the late 1920s

The PW-9 was powered by a water cooled 435 HP Curtis 'D' V-12 engine, and was armed with a pair of 30 cal. machine guns. It could also carry a single 450 lb bomb if called upon to do so...but it's pilots really hated having to do so, because that spoiled the fun of flying the nimble little fighter. It was, for that era, fast, boasting a top speed of just under 160 MPH, but most importantly, it was an extremely nimble airplane. Pilots could pretty much throw it all over the sky at will, and took every opportunity to do so...they absolutely loved stunting it, and loved showing off just what it could do. Keep that last little factoid in mind.


The second of our two converging events occurred in 1925 when Henry Ford, along with his son Edsel, purchased the Stout Metal Aircraft Company along with it's designs. At about the same time this happened, Henry Ford bought a Fokker Tri-Motor for his son Edsel...a gift to him for coming in first in the Ford Reliability Tour. Edsel promptly named the Fokker for his daughter Josephine, then lent it to Admiral Richard Bird to use for his Antarctic Expedition.

After Admiral Bird returned from his expedition and returned the plane to Edsel, Edsel based it at Ford Airfield, which was also the home of the Stout Metal Airplane company.  And speaking of Stout...their designs were not working out well. Henry Ford did not like failure...if he was going to build airplanes, he intended them to be successful airplanes! So he looked at the Fokker, which was one of the premier early American airliners, rubbed his chin meaningfully, said 'What if we built something like that, except all metal...'  And several months after that insightful chin-rub...and after a few more events that I cover in a bit more detail in 'Notes'...the first example of America's first all metal, multi-engined airliner, the legitimately legendary Ford 4-AT/5-AT Tri-Motor, lifted off of Ford Airfield's runway on it's first flight.

Ford Tri-Motor...the State OF The Art of American airliners in the mid to late 1920s and early '30s. All metal, with a heated, enclosed cabin and cockpit, and even available with an on-board option that most airlines that purchased the plane went with, much to the very literal relief of their passengers. The Tri-Motor could carry 12-14 passengers at a cruise speed of 110 MPH. Of course it had a few weaknesses, one of which was the fact that it's control cables were on the outside of the aircraft, therefore susceptible to damage.. Look below the cockpit, and you can see the bell cranks and cables.

This particular example was completely and immaculately restored by the Experimental Aircraft Association, and wears the colors of Eastern Air Transport, the predecessor to Eastern Air Lines, and tours the country going to airshows to show what air travel was like eighty-plus years ago. Rides are given (For a fee) and from what I've heard it's an awesome experience, so if you ever get the chance, go for it!

 ...And if you don't get to fly on the EAA's restored Ford Tri-Motor, you can at least watch this video, shot by a passenger. You can see how cramped the passenger cabin actually was here, as well as the way the cockpit was situated s couple of steps above the cabin. The EAA's Tri-Motor has been modernized a bit, with a more modern starting and electrical system and modern radios, but the engines are original Pratt and Whitney Wasps, and the sound and flight experience are both authentic. Take note of the business jet holding at the end of the active runway for the Tri-Motor finish to it's approach and touch often do you think a modern pilot gets to hear 'LEAR 12X, Hold at the turnout for inbound traffic, a Ford Tri-Motor'?!

Ford ended up selling 199 Ford Tri-Motors in two models before it was outclassed by more modern aircraft in the early '30s. The 2nd model...the 5-AT...was also the most numerous, with 116 built.The Ford Tri-Motor was just over 50 feet long with a wingspan of 77' 10”, an empty weight of 7840 lbs, and a useful load of around two tons. It's most distinctive feature was it's corrugated aluminum skin, often kept in it's natural color. While the corrugated skin contributed drag and reduced the airliners performance, it also, when coupled with the plane's steel tube frame,  gave it outstanding ruggedness and strength. The 5-AT was powered by a trio of 450 HP Pratt and Whitney Wasp 9 cylinder radial engines, which gave it a top speed, with all three throttles fire walled, of about 130 MPH, and a cruise speed of 110MPH. It could carry 12-14 passengers and a crew of 3 (Pilot, Co-pilot, and Flight Attendant) with a range at cruise speed of a shade over 500 miles. It had a service ceiling of 18,500 feet, but seldom flew much higher than 6000-9000 feet in passenger service.

The Ford Tri-Motor is easily the best known airliner of the 1920s and early '30s, so it's not surprising that it amassed a few airline industry 'Firsts'. Sadly a couple of the one I'm posting about here...were tragic.

The last of our trilogy of related events happened in 1927, when a L.A. based Ford/Lincoln dealership owner named Jack Maddux decided he also wanted to start an airline...being a Ford dealer it was a no-brainer what species of airplane the new airline would fly. The airline's first revenue generating flight was on September 22nd 1927, from San Diego to L.A., with 12 passengers aboard. This was apparently a daily round trip, and it was apparently full or close to it on most of it's flights, because 1400 passengers made the trip before 1927 became 1928. A flight from L.A to San Diego or vice-versa cost you eight bucks, a round trip ticket would set you back fifteen dollars.

A Maddux Airlines Ford Trimotor in flight. Maddux would ultimately operate 14 of them...the largest fleet of  Trimotors operated by any airline. They flew 40,000 passengers in 1929. Keep in mind that the Ford Tri-Motor was a 12-14 passenger airliner, so that adds up to around 3300 flights.

A Maddux Airlines schedule, route map, and fare schedule from the late 1920s. Maddux Airlines had several routes in California and Arizona, providing service to San Francisco and Oakland as well as San Diego. They also offered the very first regularly scheduled international US airline flights (Between San Diego and Agua Caliete, Mexico), and handled the western end of the first transcontinental air service (Actually a combination of air and train) in a joint venture with Transcontinental Air Transport (T-A-T).  Less than a year after the midair collision, T-A-T bought Maddux,. T-A-T would ultimately merge with a former rival, Transcontinental and Western Airlines. This airline would change it's name years later, but keep the same initials...TWA. 

Jack Maddux, being sharp and very astute, quickly figured what routes would be the most popular, put his fleet of big, reliable Tri-Motors to work, and saw to it that the flights were on time, the service good, the aircraft well maintained, comfortable, and clean. Maddux Airlines quickly gained a sterling reputation among those SoCal residents with the means and need to fly from point 'A' to point 'B'. As the next year and a half went by, Maddux bought more Ford Tri-Motors, ending up with 14 of the legendary airliners, and put them in service on several new routes. One of these new routes was from San Diego to Phoenix, with a stop at Imperial, California, in California's Imperial Valley.
These three events would all intersect violently on April 21, 1929.

 Sunday, April 21st, 1929 along the California Coast was said to have been a beautiful day for flying, and prominent Baja California lawyer Arturo Guajardo, his 19 year old daughter Amelia, and a 21 year old newspaper reporter from Phoenix named Cecelia Kelly all three planned to take advantage of it. All three of them needed to fly from San Diego to either Imperial Valley or Phoenix, so sometime about mid-morning on that warm early Spring day they made their way to Lindbergh Field...San Diego's almost brand new airfield, located just about exactly where San Diego International is today, hard by the waters of San Diego Bay. They were welcomed aboard the big Maddux Airlines Ford Tri-Motor by Captain (Called 'First Pilot back in the day) Maurice Humphry and copilot Louis Pratt.

Think aisle widths are narrow in today's airliners? Take a look at this.  This is the interior of a Maddux Ford Trimotor...and yes, they are indeed wicker seats, which were pretty much standard passenger seating for airliners until the newer planes such as the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-2/DC-3 started going in service in the early '30s.  The vents in the floor you can see in the left hand pic...the one looking forward, towards the front of the cabin...are heat vents.

As young women who have to spend a couple of hours together have done for ages, Amelia and Cecelia (Probably Amy and CiCi to family, friends, and, with-in minutes of meeting, each other) bonded even as they boarded. They likely grabbed seats across the Tri-Motor's narrow center aisle from each other as Amelia's dad resigned himself to being sort of ignored, conversions between young women being just as indecipherable to fathers eighty-six years ago as they are to fathers today. This would be Amelia's first time...ever...flying, so she was probably all but shivering with excitement, while Cecelia...a veteran of a couple of flights due to having to travel for work...was probably extolling the virtues of air travel (Or maybe cautioning her new friend about some of the pitfalls of air travel).  It's almost a sure bet that Amelia noticed the diamond glittering from CiCi's left hand, and that CiCi gushed about her upcoming wedding, which was only a month away. And it's an equally good bet that Amelia took note of the two pilots, who, especially in her teenage eyes, looked particularly dashing in their sharp Maddox Airlines uniforms.

Our two dashing (In a pair of young girl's eyes) young pilots loaded their passengers' luggage (Airline pilots literally did everything back in that era.) and finished pre-flighting the big Ford as the girls settled into discussion of wedding plans and dashing pilots and whatever else young women talked about in the Spring of '29, while Arturo likely settled down with a newspaper or book. Humphry and Pratt closed and latched the main entrance door, on the aft right side of the fuselage, and squeezed down the narrow center aisle, probably getting a delighted little twitter-giggle from the girls as they said something like 'Ladies...hope you enjoy the flight'. Humphry or Pratt likely looked at Arturo, and said something to the effect of 'You, too, sir...we should be off the ground on a couple of minutes...'

This particular Ford of the new 5-ATs, with CAA registration number 'NC-9636' painted on the vertical stabilizer and the underside of the left wing...was almost brand new. Maddux Airlines had taken delivery of it in early December of 1928 and it's first revenue generating flight had been just in time for the Christmas rush that slammed the transportation industry just as hard almost 90 years ago as it does today. She was only five months old, her black and natural aluminum color scheme shining in the late morning sun as pilots Humphry and Pratt climbed the couple of steps from the passenger cabin to the cockpit and took their seats, Humphry on the left and Pratt on the right. They may have kept the door that separated the flight deck (Referred to by airline crews as 'The Front Office' since the days of the Fokker and Ford Tri-Motors) from the passenger cabin open, allowing the three passengers to watch as they flipped magneto switches on, set throttles and mixture, and, one by one, engaged the electric inertia starters that the Maddux aircraft were very likely equipped with.

Arturo and Cecilia very possibility, and Amelia all but definitely, got a little excitement-buzz as the inertia starters' flywheels spun up, filling the cabin with a piercing, high-pitched whine for several seconds until the big Pratt and Whitneys coughed to life with a cloud of blue smoke and a staccato roar. Humphry and Pratt checked engine gauges (Mounted outside and behind them on the engine mount struts for the left and right engines), waited for the oil temps to ease up into the green, then Humphey released the brakes and eased the throttles forward and the big 'Tin Goose' as the Fords were affectionately called, started rolling towards the active end of the runway.


There's been a naval air station on North Island, in the middle of San Diego Bay and a couple of miles South of Lindbergh Field for just about as long as Lindbergh Field itself has been in existence. Today North Island Naval Station is huge, the home port for several carriers as well as home to North Island N.A.S., and is exclusively a Navy billet. Back in 1929, however, the Army Air Corps shared the field, which was known as Rockwell Field at the time, with the Navy. One of the resident Army Squadrons was 95th pursuit squadron, and on that long ago Sunday morning, one of the 95th's pilots...a young lieutenant by the name of Howard Keefer...climbed into the cockpit of PW-9 Serial Number 28-37 and started going through the pre-start checklist, setting up for what was very likely a training flight.

 There was a muted 'clank' as one of his ground crewmen inserted a long crank into a key-way on the left rear of  the PW-9's engine cowling, mating it to the fighter's manually spun inertia starter. Keefer flipped the twin magneto switches to 'on', then called ' 'Switch on!' to the ground crewman on the starter crank, who then spun the crank furiously.  The inertia starter's whine pierced the late morning air as seagulls banked and circled over the field, scolding this rude interruption of their peaceful morning's feeding.  The whine wound up the scale to a wail and stayed there until Keefer engaged the inertia starter's gears at just the right second, kicking the big V-12 over with a series of loud 'POP's as each cylinder fired, the big two bladed prop jerking around a couple of times, then spinning into a disk of blurred invisibility as the big engine roared to life. The ground crewman pulled the crank from the keyway, stepped down and backed away as Keefer checked his gauges just as Humphry had done a couple of miles to the north. At his signal, his ground crew yanked the chocks clear, then he released his own brakes, eased the throttle around it's quadrant, rolled across the airfield and turned into the wind.


Across San Diego Bay, at Lindbergh Field, Humphry swung the big Tin Goose around into the wind at the active end of San Diego's single runway, and he and Pratt went through their pre-take-off checklist, checking control surfaces, running the engines up, doing mag checks, etc, then looked around and upward for any other traffic. Given that the very first airport to employ air traffic control of any kind at all did so later this same year (It was St Louis, BTW, and consisted of a guy in the middle of the field with a folding chair, and a pair of red and one green) the two pilots simply checked visually for traffic, especially and, as it would turn out, more than a little ironically, to their south, where North Island's Army Air Field was located. When they were absolutely sure there was no conflicting traffic, Humphry released the brakes, and shoved all three throttles to the firewall.

All conversation in the cabin ceased as all three big Pratt and Whitney Wasps...the two mounted beneath the wings just a few feet to the side of them...wound up to that distinctive radial engine roar  and the Tri-Motor started rolling forward. Arturio likely put his paper down, made a very probably unheard but still fatherly comment to his daughter, and watched out of his window as the plane started bumping across the field. Amelia likely gave her dad, then Cecelia, that little 'I'm kinda scared but I'm really excited, too' grimace-smile that young girls use in new and exciting situations, and all three watched as the sod moved faster and faster beneath them.

The cabin's back-slanted floor leveled off as the plane's tail rose, while the field's bumps evened out, became gentler, then disappeared altogether as the ground started dropping away. Humphry and Pratt trimmed the Tri-Motor for best rate of climb and, if they did indeed depart to the West as I have a feeling both planes did, banked the big Tri-Motor gracefully to the right...once again to stay clear of North Island's traffic bring them around on a course towards Imperial Valley. If Humphry, sitting in the left seat glanced towards North Island before he started the turn, he may have actually seen Keefer's PW-9 climbing out, and may have even said (Or more likely, yelled over the engine roar) something to the effect of 'Let's give the Army some room here...'  But he and Pratt may have been feeling a little trepidation, too...see, those Army pilots had a problem.


At, I have a feeling, very close to the same time that Maurice Humphry pushed his three throttles forward, Harold Keefer was shoving the PW-9's throttle around it's quadrant, located on the cockpit's left sidewall, and doing a little footwork on the rudder bar to keep the little fighter pointed down the runway as it gathered speed and finally lifted off.  When it did lift off, Keefer likely pointed it's nose skyward and let 'er eat. Fighter pilots have been, well, fighter pilots ever since that particular job title was created. 

They fly the hottest aircraft in the sky, and today's F-16 and F-18 drivers will tell you that their mounts are not intended to be flown like a 'Freakin' Cessna 152'.  On top of that, fighter pilots are forever training and keeping current, and building their hours in type (The type of aircraft they're assigned to fly). And they are always practicing their craft, whether it's a purpose designed exercise, or playing around a bit while in transit from one air base to another,..

...And it was probably much the same in 1929. The top speed of Howard Keefer's PW-9 was only 40 knots or so faster than a F-16's landing speed, and Keefer could only dream of having the capabilities and technology that today's fighter jocks take for granted, but the PW-9 was still the 'Hot Fighter' back in 1929, and Keefer still would have told you that it was not meant to be flown like a 'Freakin' JN-4 'Jenny'.

Keefer probably kept the throttle fire-walled as he climbed out sharply, wind whipping around the open cockpit as the bass-roar of twelve cylinders assailed his ear drums. His head was on a swivel as he, too, watched for other traffic, both to avoid and to use as tool. It was as he looked around to his right that he probably spotted sunlight glinting off of aluminum as the Maddux Tri-Motor climbed out of Lindbergh Field, departing to the west, then banking as it turned away from him in a long, wide 180 that would head it East...and there we have the problem. The Army pursuit pilots just couldn't resist playing games with the airliners flying out of Lindbergh Field.


Pilots flying out of Lindbergh Field had been griping about the Army pilots buzzing them and stunting too close to the airliners for months. When cautioned about it, the Army pilots in question probably stated that they were 'keeping their skills in engaging enemy aircraft current'...never mind the fact that the big Tri-Motors weren't even vaguely a match for them. Once those big old Ford Tri-Motors were trimmed for cruise, they had about the same inherent stability as a brick church, which gave setting up for a simulated attack on one of them just about the same level of difficulty as sitting in your backyard and setting up to shoot the side of your garage.

Passengers really loved the 'Tin Goose' because of this very same rock-solid stability. If you discounted the noise from those three big radials, it was actually a pretty pleasant ride as long as the flight was fairly short, the weather was calm, no one got airsick, and not too many people made use of the chemical toilet in the rear of the cabin (Think airborne porta-potty). Flying was still very much considered an adventure in 1929, and watching the scenery roll by several thousand feet below was still new and exciting. Passengers probably also loved the sight of the nimble little PW-9's pirouetting around the sky only a hundred or so yards away from them, giving them their own personal airshow.

But the Maddux pilots, on the other hand, were really beginning to hate the army pilots. That same inherent stability that made the Tri-Motors such comfortable aircraft for their passengers also made them just about as nimble as 'A '48 Kenworth log truck', as the pilot of a restored Tri-Motor noted in one modern video. He also noted that the Tri-motor would do anything you asked of it...when it was good and ready.

The unboosted manual control surfaces made for some seriously heavy control forces, and any control input was answered with a slow, plodding grace. The plane was not designed to be tossed all over the was designed to get from Point 'A' to Point 'B' safely and comfortably, and it did just exactly that. Pilots had to pretty much plan any maneuvers a bit in advance, which made any evasive action, should something suddenly appear in their path, a lost ball game before the first pitch was thrown out. Thus the reason that the Maddux Airline pilots flying in and out of San Diego hated the Army pilots.Taking quick, decisive evasive action to avoid getting hit by one of the fighters, should it's pilot screw up, was pretty much an impossibility.


The PW-9's very reason for being, however, was to be thrown around the sky, and that's exactly what Keefer did as as soon as he spotted the Tri-motor. Keefer probably kept the throttle fire-walled, winding that big V-12 out to a roar as he kicked in right rudder and aileron, banking the little fighter almost vertically as he both turned inside the airliner and gained ground on it as if it was suspended motionless in the air. They were probably just about over Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo as he  leveled off and throttled back to fall in a couple of hundred yards behind and probably a bit to the right of the Tri-Motor, which was just coming out of it's own turn and beginning it's climb to cruise altitude.  Keefer centered the airliner in his gun sight (Likely also checking to see that the arming switch was in the 'SAFE' position). Then he sighed in bored frustration...there wasn't even any sport in it. As I noted above, it was like setting up to shoot the wall of your garage from your own back yard. Time to play now...

He first eased up beside the airliner, and eased in close, letting the passengers get a good look at the fighter (And maybe even getting a wave from at least Amelia) while drawing the ire of Humphry and Pratt...if they saw him. With the Tri-Motor's three big Pratt and Whitney radials pounding away in their ears and drowning out the fighter's engine, it's not at all improbable that they never even knew he was there, especially if he stayed back a bit. Whether they saw him or not, it's a no brainer that they had no clue what was coming next. Keefer throttled back a bit, letting the Tri-Motor gain a little bit of a lead, then pulled back on the stick and shoved the throttle around the quadrant.

Neither Keefer or the passengers and crew of the Maddox airliner had more then a few minutes to live as they approached Manzanita Canyon, which was about two and a half miles west of Balboa Park, and between four and five miles west of Lindbergh Field. I think I know what Keefer was trying to do as he palmed the PW-9's throttle round it's quadrant and pulled the stick back, aiming the fighters nose skyward. He wanted  get ahead and above the airliner, then make a tight, descending left turn well ahead of the airliner and shoot beneath it. It was probably a maneuver that the pilots on North Island had performed more than a few times, but I think this time Keefer made three very basic mistakes...the first one being unplanned maneuvering within rock-throwing distance of an aircraft whose pilot wasn't aware of his intentions, or even, very possibly, of his existence.

A modern map of San Diego (Thank you Google Earth) with the probable flight paths of both the Maddux Airlines airliner and the Army fighter shown. Both Lindbergh Field (San Diego International) and North Island Naval Air Station (Now Halsey Field) were pretty much where they are today, except for being much smaller back in 1929.  If the incident went down the way I think it did, Keefer took off at about the same time as the airliner, spotted it, and decided to show off for the passengers, possibly after setting up a simulated interception and attack. I think he got so carried away with choreographing the stunt that he forgot to check to see how close he was to the Tri-Motor before executing a sharp left turn.

A closer view of the east end of Manzanita Canyon today, with the possible areas where both the Tri-Motor and the PW-9 crashed after the collision indicated. Keep in mind as you look at this that it's a good bet that none of the streets east of 39th street and possibly south of Quince Street likely existed in 1929 with the possible exception of a short dead end piece of Quince Street...I know the plane crashed near Quince and 39th thanks to a period newspaper article.  I'm leaning towards the northern most portion of the area enclosed by the red line for the Tri-Motor's crash site... on the rim of the small side canyon...due to the fact that houses are visible in pictures taken from the right side of the wrecked plane.

As for the PW-9, and the center engine and remains of the cockpit of the Tri-Motor, it could have been pretty much anywhere with-in or close to the area enclosed by the blue line...the fighter went just about straight in after the collision, the Tri-Motor may have made it another quarter mile, out of sheer momentum, before angering in inverted, and the remains of it's cockpit, and definitely the center engine, would have dropped straight down once they separated from, the aircraft. The PW-9 apparently all but disintegrated when it hit the Tri-Motor, as it was noted that 'A large blanket could have almost covered the debris from it's crash'. Sadly, enough was left to snag Lt Keefer's parachute when he tried to bail out.

Tragic as the crash was, it could have been even worse had the collision occurred just a few hundred yards further north and west. Then the planes would have crashed in the middle of Lexington Park, probably hitting a house, and if that had happened all that spilled gasoline would have inevitably found an ignition source. This is of course exactly what happened, on a much larger and even more tragic scale just shy of fifty years later, under a mile west in North Park, when a PSA Boeing 727 collided with a Cessna 172 and crashed in the middle of a crowded residential neighborhood.

The second mistake Keefer made as he shot skyward was loosing sight of the Tri-Motor, thinking he was way further ahead of it than he was, then not looking to see exactly where it was before he hauled the PW-9 around in a tight left turn.  He was either counting seconds or maybe just guesstimating how far above and ahead of the airliner he was, but definitely didn't look over, back, and down to see exactly how far ahead and above it he actually was. This was compounded by his third mistake...I think he forgot that the airliner was still on climb-out, which would have made it even closer to him as he started to turn. Instead of being well below him, it was actually climbing with and towards him. And, while the Tri-Motor may not have been fast, it'd climb like a homesick angel, with a rate of climb of about 950 feet per minute. Which means that if it took, say, fifteen seconds to set up the maneuver, when Keefer kicked the PW-9 into that tight left turn in front of the Tri-motor it would have been 240 or so feet closer to him than he planned.

 Keefer climbed fast, and he thought, far enough ahead and above the airliner to give the passengers a thrill (And the pilots heart attacks) but still safely pass below them as he came at them wide open and almost head on. With the wind whistling past him and the big V-12 roaring just ahead of him, he shoved the stick forward, kicked in hard left rudder, and racked the little fighter over on it's left wing, banking her into a sharp, descending left turn. G forces shoved him down into his seat and now his head was swiveling...the PW-9's cockpit was behind the top wing, which was actually fairly close to the fuselage, so he had pretty decent vision ahead, and excellent vision above him, and I'm thinking he was expecting to see the Tri-motor well below him and a couple of hundred yards, at least, to his left (Actually 'above' him because of the near-90 degree bank) .

 Instead, Keefer was already deeply into the turn when the sky to his left ('Above' him) was suddenly filled from horizon to horizon with Ford Trimotor, blossoming bigger by the instant even as he pulled the stick back hard against it's stop and slammed it to the right, trying desperately to reverse both the dive and turn and, maybe, go over the airliner  and in that very same heart stopping, bowel loosening instant he realized that he'd screwed the pooch big-time, and most importantly, that, because of the energy and inertia he'd built up as he arced around to the left, there was absolutely no way he was going to be able to reverse the turn or the dive in time..

Ford Tri-Motors had windows in the cockpit ceiling, but  Humphry and Pratt had no reason, in their mind, to look above them while climbing out. If they had seen the PW-9 a few seconds earlier, they had done a quick scan of the surrounding sky, and, not seeing it, assumed that it had apparently disappeared to harass someone else, becoming a non-problem.  If they hadn't seen it, as far as they knew they were, basically, the only thing in the sky. They were taken completely and utterly by surprise when the Tri-Motor's windshield suddenly turned yellow as the fighter's top wing filled it from side to side, and barely had time to shout a curse before the airliner's nose slammed hard into the wing, and their world shattered...

...Keefer spent a terrifying second trying desperately to level off and maybe go over the airliner but it wasn't even close...the Trimotor slammed into the PW-9's top left wing with a crackling 'crump!', center prop eating into the top wing like a buzz saw for a micro-second, as the top wing slammed down onto the bottom wing, ripping both left wings away even as the impact flipped the fighter over and twisted it around violently to the left. As the fighter flipped and twisted, it's prop tore into the Tri-Motor's nose, then cockpit, first ripping the center engine away, then killing both Humphry and Pratt instantly as it tore most of the cockpit away before the nose of the fighter slammed into the Tri-Motor's left wing between the fuselage and the left engine, sending the crumpled fighter tumbling up and over the left wing. The shattered fighter then probably took out the airliner's left horizontal stabilizer and damaged the vertical stabilizer before hurtling towards the ground, rolling and twisting as it went.

The Tri-Motor's three passengers had absolutely no warning before they were first pitched forward into a sudden cacophony of crashing, tearing banging horror-of-noise accompanied by a hurricane-class in-rush of wind, then thrown bodily onto the cabin ceiling as the airliner nosed over violently and, nose down at about a 45 degree angle, went straight in from about 2000 feet. All they could do was hang on for dear life, and stare out of the wreckage filled hole where the cockpit had been only seconds earlier, watching the ground rush up to smite them...

Humphry and Pratt probably had only an instant of terror before they died as the PW-9's prop sliced through the cockpit like a possessed buzz-saw, beheading Humphry as it killed both of them instantly. The two pilots' bodies were tossed from the airliner as it flipped over to fall alongside the doomed Tri-Motor

We'll never know if Keefer was thrown from his shattered fighter or if he actually jumped, but when he did come out of the cockpit he was conscious and alert enough to, in a desperate, last second play for survival, pull the rip-cord for his parachute. Sadly, he made one more final...and fatal...error. He yanked the ripcord far far too soon. The 'chute billowed, the canopy trailing and never even having a chance to start to fill before it snagged on either the stub of one of the PW-9's wings or its tail, jerking Keefer around like the end man on a violent game of snap-the-whip. Then the shattered fighter corkscrewed as it hurtled to the ground, dragging it's pilot to his doom as it went. It would slam into the ground first, probably shattering itself against the sloped canyon walls as it crashed deep inside the canyon. The one thing it didn't do was burn...had it done so in the brush filled canyon, it would have all but inevitably touched off an even bigger disaster in the form of a major brush fire.

The wreckage of Keefer's PW-9 after it slammed into the floor of the canyon. Note the star in a circle that was the national insignia at the time, just to the left of mid-frame. That's probably the remains of a wing, as most PW-9a only had the star painted on the wing, while the squadron insignia was painted on the side of the fuselage. If you look to the right of mid-frame you can see the fighter's damaged propeller. The PW-9 apparently impacted at the bottom of the brush-filled canyon, only sheer luck kept it from lighting off and instigating an even bigger disaster in the form of a major brush fire.
Again note the number of spectators and how close they are to the wreck. That just absolutely would not happen today!

The Tri-Motor probably seemed to take forever to fall as it plummeted, inverted, earthward.  It slammed into the the ground near the north rim of the canyon's west end with a heavy, metallic thud, forward end first followed a micro-instant later by the tail, raising a huge cloud of dust as it did so, while the crushed center engine and shredded remains of the nose and cockpit slammed into the floor of the canyon between the downed airliner and the crashed fighter.


San Diego, like it's neighbor 100 miles of so to the North, L.A, was already well into a car culture by 1929, with both new commercial districts and new subdivisions, connected to downtown San Diego by good roads and wide streets, popping up well east of the ocean and bay. One of these fairly new subdivisions was Lexington Park, sitting hard by the north rim of a narrow, half mile or so long slash in the So-Cal landscape called Manzanita Canyon. It was a shade after noon, and the residents of Lexington Park were getting home from church, or doing yard work, or whatever else could be done on a warm, bright, early spring Southern California Sunday eighty-seven years ago, and I have a feeling that the majority of those who were outside looked up almost involuntarily as the Tri-motor rumbled over 2000 feet or so above them. They also realized that there were two planes up there, but this wasn't that unusual fact the residents of San Diego were probably used to seeing both the Maddux Tri-motors and the Army Air Corps fighters. The kids especially probably enjoyed the impromptu airshows that the Army pilots put on for them. So they weren't all that surprised at first when the fighter darted ahead of the airliner, then pirouetted into a hard left turn, standing up on it's left wing as it did so.  Then they suddenly, with identical gasps of horror, realized that the fighter was far too close to the airliner when it banked into that hard left turn...

All of them heard that cataclysmic, crunching 'CRUMP!!!' from on high, some of them actually saw the Tri-Motor hit the fighter, pointing upward and gasping or yelling, or screaming, or maybe just standing mute with shock as the fighter came apart like a fragile toy kicked by an angry child, watching as the once sleek, graceful little plane suddenly became a tumbling, spinning falling object even as the airliner pitched over on it's back and started dropping like the oft-referenced rock.

Others. intent on whatever activity they were in the middle of, didn't look up until they heard that horrible 'CRUMP!!!' above them, and probably looked up just in time to see the Tri-motor flip over and start it's death-dive as objects...the center engine, the remains of the nose and cockpit, the PW-9's wings...fell away from the shattered planes to land in the canyon itself. Then they realized, with renewed and even more intense horror, what two of the falling objects were.

An overall view of the Tri-Motor's crash scene. You can see here how close the airliner came to either crashing in the canyon, or tumbling into the canyon after it hit the ground. Note the number of people around the crashed aircraft and how close they are. There was a huge problem with citizens grabbing pieces of the plane as a souvenir until SDPD and the Army set up a perimeter, but the wild thing is, this pic was taken after the perimeter was established. Look just to the left of the tip of the wing and you can see the rope that was used to mark the perimeter..


Another over-all view from directly behind the crashed airliner, probably taken from the other side of the narrow canyon. Again note how close the crowd was allowed to get...parents even brought their kids along. You wouldn't get with-in a mile of a similar incident today. This picture and the one above it was taken well into the incident, with the investigation well under way. Note that the right the right horizontal stabilizer is still attached to the plane, but that the left stabilizer...the one taken out by the PW-9, along with at least part of the vertical stabilizer, as it tumbled after the missing.

Hundreds of people descended on the west end of Manzanita Canyon, where they found the Trimotor in one piece but mangled, upside down, and missing everything from the leading edge of the wings forward. It had missed tumbling to the bottom of the shallow canyon by a matter of's tail was, in fact, overhanging the rim.

They very likely fully expected to see a column of smoke as they approached the crash scene, but like the PW-9, the Trimotor didn't burn after it crashed, and the fact that it hit inverted is very likely what saved it and it's three passengers from that fate. The right and left engines were suspended beneath the wings, which housed the fuel tanks. Of course, when she flipped over, the engines were then above the fuel tanks. The PW-9 probably damaged at least one of the tanks as it tumbled over the left wing and fuselage, and a good bit of fuel would have leaked out via those ripped seams as the Tri-Motor fell, anything left in the tanks after it hit the ground probably flowed out from under the crushed wings and down into the canyon...away from the still hot engines and exhaust.

 While several dozen people probably called the twin plane crashes in on the Police and Fire emergency numbers, a slew of others ran to the nearest street boxes and pulled them, and all of the phone calls lit up the switchboard at SDFD's nearly new alarm office at Marsten's Point at the same moment that multiple boxes started tapping in on the tape.  When the phone calls started coming in reporting the crash at the same time that multiple boxes started tapping in from the same area, the alarm office dispatchers added two and two in about two instants and quickly called the ring-down lines at the assigned stations, telling the station captains '(Name)., we've got report of two planes down in Manzanita Canyon...' and gave the phone-reported locations, even as other dispatchers transmitted the boxes. The dispatchers on the ring-downs could probably hear the bells starting to bang out the box numbers in the background...

With-in a couple of minutes of that first phone call and first box being pulled, SDFD Engine 17's crew abandoned Sunday lunch and slid the poles from the second floor of the trim two story fire station at University and 41st streets, seconds later the big Seagrave pumper that 17's was all but inevitably running at the time was pulling out of the station and swinging to the right on University, siren beginning to'd have about a five minute run...University to Central Avenue, then four blocks south to Thorn, a right on Thorn, then a left on 39th street, then a straight shot south to Quince Street and probably a left on Quince, to the dead end, maneuvering the rig as close as they could get to the crashed airliner. From what a couple of contemporary news reports said, they still had to go a hundred yards or so...and this includes hand-jacking hose...on foot.

 San Diego P.D. was likely the first to arrive, but even they were beaten to the scene by the horde of resident that descended on the crash. Engine 17's siren was probably already drawing close as these first arriving citizens ran up on a scene that was blurred by dust still hanging in the air and still reeking of spilled gasoline. The two remaining engines, tilted but still securely mounted on the wing pylons, were probably ticking as they cooled, and the landing and wheels bizarrely intact,,,thrust skyward like the legs of a slain medieval dragon.  A couple of the men headed for the front of the over-turned airliner, where the cockpit should  have been only to find a gaping maw clogged with bent structural members and shredded bits of the corrugated aluminum skin, and no signs of the two pilots. They did however, think they heard faint moaning from inside the wrecked plane.

A pic of the wrecked Tri-Motor from the right side as the investigation progressed. Note that the cabin door's of the first things that SDFD and SDPD did upon arriving on scene was force that door open, enter the cabin, and remove the two girls, both of whom were still alive...barely. Both girls were transported, but Cecilia Kelly died at he hospital, and Amelia Guajardo died enroute to the hospital. Mr Guajardo, as well as the two pilots, sadly, died on scene.
It actually looks like the three guys at the door may be either taking a short break here or discussing some aspect of the crash. A conversation is obviously in progress, and one of them is even sitting in the door opening.

What looks like it could be part of the vertical stabilizer is sitting on the ground mid frame. Also note that you can read the entire name 'MADDUX' on the side of the fuselage in this take a look at the next picture.
Another pic of the wrecked Tri-Motor from about the same angle as the pic above, taken even later in in the incident...note that in this shot, the right horizontal stabilizer has been folded up against the fuselage, hiding the 'M' and 'A'  in 'MADDUX', while in the pic above...and, in fact, in all of the first three's in it's more or less normal position. My thought is that the stabilizer was actually folded against the fuselage in preparation of moving the wrecked plane from the area.

A group of investigators examines the area where the cockpit and forward fuselage used to be. The gentleman in the white shirt appears in several pics, along with the gentleman wearing the beret kneeling next to him...they are standing at the door in the pic above. The guy kneeling to the right of our beret-wearer appears to be either an SDPD officer or an Army definitely looks like he's wearing a uniform.

Now one of a couple of things could have happened about this time...either a couple of the citizens made their way to the cabin entrance door, within a dozen yards of the canyon rim, or the first arriving police officers quickly moved everyone back from the gasoline-soaked scene and entered the passenger cabin themselves, or Engine 17's crew (Followed in short order by most of the rest of the first alarm assignment) made their way from the rig to the crashed plane, carrying forcible entry tools and likely stretching a hand line and made entry as the cops pushed the crowd back  (And to be honest, I'm going with option #3)

Fire fighting and emergency response was gaining a bit of sophistication, especially in large cities, by the late 20s, and while aircraft crash response was still a new discipline, flammable liquid fires were not. If 17 carried foam, the rig's MPO (Motor Pump Operator) was hustling to get the foam hopper set up as well as setting up a water supply, If 17 didn't carry foam, the Battalion Chief quickly mentally reviewed the companies responding on the box to see if any of the engine companies had foam powder and a hopper...if none did he sent his aid to the nearest street box to use the telegraph key it was equipped with to have the alarm office special call the closest rig with foam.

 Meanwhile the rest of the crew, and probably the crew of the first due truck company as well, opened the cabin door, probably having to use a pry-bar and a judicial application of elbow grease, and entered the cabin (Very likely hoping like hell that the line was charged by then, because it sure as hell smelled like the inside of a gas tank!) and found most of the seats torn loose, and the three passengers tangled in fallen seats and the overhead baggage racks.

Arturo was obviously deceased when they got to him, but moans and labored breathing were coming from beneath a tangled pile of fallen seats, and the fire fighters wasted no time in moving them aside to find both of the girls still alive.  They gently removed them from the cabin, even as more sirens wailed the approach of more fire rigs and ambulances, but by the time they got the girls out of the wrecked plane and carried them away from the potential gasoline bomb the scene had become, Amelia Guajardo had stopped breathing. Cecelia Kelly, however, was breathing raggedly and moaning (Unknown if she was conscious or not). stretchers was called for, and both girls were carried to one of the waiting ambulances, and transported to the hospital, but Amelia would be declared dead on arrival, and her new friend Ceclia would die with-in the next couple of hours, probably without regaining consciousness.

Meanwhile, someone yelled from a half a football field away that they'd 'Found another one!'...cops and firefighters rushed to the location to find the body of one of the pilots.... A search for the other pilot was probably quickly organized, and likely with-in a few minutes, the second body was found, at about the same distance to the other side of the crashed Tri-Motor. Neither had survived the collision, and both had been thrown clear either as the fighter's prop had shredded the cockpit or as the airliner nosed over on it's back...both bodies were probably found tangled in the brush on the slope below the rim of the canyon.

The first alarm assignment was probably split...either by the dispatchers using the ring-down lines to dispatch specific units to each crash, or by the battalion chief as they rolled in on the scene of the Tri-Motor crash...and the crew of at least one engine, and probably a truck company made their way down to the shattered fighter, where they found no fire, but a gruesome scene, with Keefer's body still entangled in his parachute shrouds, the canopy wrapped around either the stub of a wing or the tail. Dozens of spectators surrounded the wrecked fighter and the body of it's pilot. Most likely the Army wanted the body in place until they could take pictures and start the investigation. The horde of curious citizens was pushed back...somewhat. The body was covered to hide it from the prying eyes of both Press and citizens, and SDPD set up a perimeter and guarded the wreck until soldiers from North Island arrived, and the investigation got under way.

An SDPD Officer (Probably the same one in the shot above) examines the remains of the forward portion of the Tri-Motor's traumatically truncated fuselage. The PW-9's prop chewed into the forward part of the airliner, ripping away everything from just forward of the cockpit's rear bulkhead forward. If you look closely, it looks like the remains of a couple of seats in the lower left of the pic, next to the bent piece of corrugated aluminum skin and perforated structural member,,,click on the pic to get the full sized image so you can see it better. That was likely the co-pilot's seat. and it looks like the remains of a second seat above and to it's right. Also, it doesn't appear as if the right engine was producing any power when the plane hit the ground...the visible propeller blade isn't bent, but the other blade either broke or buried itself in the ground as the airliner hit.

Once they took care of any hazards and made sure that the two injured girls were transported to the hospital, SDFD was pretty much in the stand-by mode. They may have left a single engine company (Probably 17...first in's always last out) because of the gasoline that had soaked into the ground, but the balance of the assignment cleared the scene, and headed back to quarters with-in a couple of hours of the call if not sooner.  Meanwhile, the cops roped off the perimeter, and, very likely with the help of soldiers from North island, moved the crowd back (But nowhere near as far back as they'd be today), and the investigation of the accident went into high gear. The bodies likely stayed in place just long enough for pictures to be taken, then were removed to a local funeral home that acted as a temporary morgue. Of course, as both a military and a civilian plane were involved in the accident, there were probably two parallel investigations going on, and depending on how well the civilian and military authorities got along, this could have made it cumbersome as hell, smooth as silk, or anything in between. However smooth or awkward the investigation was, we know that a dozen or more investigative types spent the rest of the day and probably part of the evening climbing all over and in both of the shattered aircraft, shooting roll after roll of photos of each, taking measurements, and interviewing dozens of witnesses to the collision and crash.

Interviews with eyewitnesses! That'll get to the bottom of it! Yeeaaaah....not so much. Here's the thing about eyewitnesses to anything...just because they saw something doesn't mean they remembered it accurately. There were discrepancies as to just where the fighter first struck the Tri-Motor, how long the airliner continued to fly before it flipped over on it's back and plummeted to the ground, and just what maneuvers it performed before it nosed over...according to some witnesses the Tri-Motor performed an airshow all it's own on the way down, which the aviation experts among the investigators pretty much knew couldn't have happened. The PW-9 took out the Tri-Motor's cockpit and fatally damaged it's tail as it tumbled over the wing. According to one eyewitness (And this report made it into a news article) one of the injured pilots almost got the Tri-Motor back under control, which one look at the wrecked plane would tell anyone with a tiny bit of knowledge about aviation wasn't true. There was no way that the airliner stayed in the air more than a second or so (And the location of the remains of the cockpit and the center engine pretty much proved that) but there was one thing that every witness agreed on...the pilot of the fighter was stunting far too close to the airliner.

A view of the forward left side of the wrecked Tri-Motor. You can really see how badly the PW-9's propeller damaged the forward portion of the airliner in this shot as well as the next one. The cockpit and nose of a Ford Tri-Motor normally extends about 11 feet or so beyond the wing's leading edge. The right engine was apparently either still producing power when they hit the ground or, more likely, it nicked part of the PW-9 as it tumbled over the airliner after the collision. Note the way the tips of the prop are bent opposite the direction of rotation.Also note the massive damage to the wing, at least some of which may have been caused by the collision with the fighter as it tumbled over the left wing on the way to taking out the left horizontal stabilizer. Most of the damage was probably caused by ground impact, though, as you'll see in the third pic in this set of three.

This pic is probably the best illustration of just how badly the PW-9's prop devastated the Tri-Motor's nose and cockpit...there is almost nothing left forward of the wing leading edge.

From behind the left wing root. I can't decide if the Tri-Motor hit slightly left-wing-low, digging a shallow crater as it did so, or if there just happened to be a small rise right where the wing root impacted the ground, but I'm leaning toward hitting wing low. Either way, this pic illustrates how most of the massive damage to the wing root was caused by ground impact. The impact also split the fuselage just aft of the cabin...there is, I believe, a bulkhead right there, separating the lavatory from the cabin.

But with all the inaccuracies that our eyewitnesses spouted, one thing all of them said in one way or the other was right on the money...the fighter flew into the airliner while performing aerobatics ('Stunting').

A coroners jury was convened the very next day, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it didn't take them long at all to agree on the cause of the accident...all of the blame was heaped on Howard Keefer for 'Stunting and otherwise violating air traffic rules.'  The official announcement of the cause was made by a gentleman named J.Alison Moore, chairman of the 'San Diego Board Of Air Control'...a regulatory organization that's long gone and, I can only assume, was folded into the domain of the C.A.B/F.A.A. decades ago.

The wrecked airliner was removed within a day or so, as was the wreckage of the PW-9, theoretically leaving no remnants of the planes to remind residents of the day death visited Manzanita Canyon.

A wrecker crew works on removing the wrecked Tri-motor from the rim of Manzanita Canyon. Note that they've removed the landing gear in preparation of moving the wreckage. Also, note the houses visible in the background.

I have a feeling, though, that small bits and pieces of both planes remained in the canyon for decades (And a few small to tiny remnants may remain to this day, especially of the PW-9 and the Tri-Motor's cockpit, considering the fact that both crashed in the canyon itself). Whether or not any small bits and pieces of the planes remain in the canyon, it wouldn't surprise me at all if the current residents of a couple of the near-90-year old homes in the area occasionally gaze at the hunk of corroded corrugated aluminum or maybe a control cable bell crank tucked back in a dark corner of their garage or attic, scratch their head, and wonder 'What the heck is that???'  

While it would be nice to think that rescuing the Tri-Motor's unfortunate passengers was the main thought on the collective minds of the area residents who fell upon the crash scene before the dust even settled, it wasn't. When the first San Diego P.D. officers arrived on scene, these residents were treating the crashed air liner like a garage sale, helping themselves to various airplane parts, and hundreds of bits and pieces of the Tri-Motor left with residents. So it's a good bit that a few of those bits and pieces may still be up in the attic of one of the 1920s era homes that were all but brand new when the big Ford slammed into the rim of Manzanita Canyon nearly 90 years ago.

  And that, gang, is where the trail goes cold. Over the passing decades this one's kinda dropped off the radar. This is actually pretty understandable when you think about it. Eighty-seven years have passed since Harold Keefer banked into a hard left turn far too close to that Ford Tri-Motor.  As the family members of the victims aged and passed on, and the residents of the area who witnessed the crash and snagged souvenirs and pressed against the police line to get a glimpse of the smashed Tri-Motor aged and died, and the fire-fighters, cops, and members of the military who responded to and investigated the crash retired and went End-of-Tour, the accident slowly but surely passed out of memory. Anyone who was an infant on the day of the crash would be an octogenarian today, and kids who were in Jr. High would be pushing or at the century mark, so the probability of anyone being around who has actual memories of the crash is somewhere between slim and none. With the exception of a few really dedicated aviation historians, there are few people who even remember this one at all.

I have a feeling that rules against buzzing civilian air liners that were already in existence were enforced to the letter, with penalties for violators the likes of which you didn't even want to ponder on,. If they weren't enough, I also have a feeling that a few new rules and regulations were put in place...quickly. But I couldn't find anything that actually says that happened.

That being said, you'd think that, after one of their own not only died in a mid-air collision caused by his own recklessness, but caused the deaths of five civilians as well, military pilots would have learned to keep their egos in check, at least while flying near civilian airliners, but sadly, you'd be wrong. The stunting was more low-key, but it still went on...and it wasn't entirely confined to the pursuit pilots, as fighter pilots were called back in the day.  The bomber drivers got in on the fun too.

And, with the stunting and showing off around civilian aircraft still occasionally happening, it was all but inevitable that it'd cause yet another tragedy. It would be twelve years before reckless behavior caused another mid-air involving a civilian airliner...and this time it wouldn't be a fighter pilot who screwed the pooch.

<***> Notes, Links, And Stuff <***>

As I've noted several times before, when you go hunting for facts and such about an incident that's approaching it's 90th anniversary, you're going to be behind the 8-Ball unless that incident is particularly historic, or unusual.  Newsflash...'First Mid-Air Collision Involving An Airliner In The U.S'. is only considered 'historic' among serious aviation historians. There was all but no info on line about this one. Which means I really had to do a bit of digging to get what I got...and lets be honest here, gang, it wasn't all that much, info wise, though I lucked out big time with both finding the crash site, and finding photos of the scene  thanks to the Wreckchasing Message Board and the San Diego Air And Space Museum's photo archive on Flickr.

But it's what I couldn't find...the accident report...that caused me  to really have to do a bunch of speculating on this one. Pre-1934 Aeronautics Board Air Crash Reports are just about as rare as sharks in North Dakota...all but nonexistent.  Back in 1929 the Aeronautics Board had a policy of nondisclosure of air accident investigation results  and neither the media or the public could get their hands on the reports. It would take the death of a beloved celebrity to change that policy so that the reports were available to the media and general public. (Yes, I'm planning a post about that one, but here's a teaser to see if you can figure out who it was...he was a college football coach.). Interestingly enough, it was only air crash reports that were considered classified...rail accident reports have been publicly available since 1912 or so.

There were two bits of critical information that I couldn't find....the first involved the first few minutes of both the airliner's and the PW-9's flights. Full confession here, guys, I have no idea which one of them took off first, or which runway was the active runway either at Lindbergh or North Island that day, so I really have no clue which way either of them departed when they took off.  I took what I like to call 'Author's Prerogative' , and chose the departure heading that made the most sense and  seemed to fit the facts of the story best. (And, lets be honest here, made for the best narrative).

The second thing I couldn't find was the exact angle of impact between the aircraft, so I had to play the 'If the Tri-motor ended up with this damage, and flipped over on it's back, etc, etc, than the angle of impact almost had to be...'  In other words, I guessed...but I have a feeling that I was close.

 No matter which way they departed, or what the angle of impact was, the end result was the exact same...the Tri-Motor ended up on it's back on the rim of the west end of Manzanita Canyon, the PW-9 ended up a smashed hulk at the bottom of the canyon, six people were dead, and only sheer luck kept either or both aircraft from making it another tenth of a mile or so, burning after crashing in the middle of Lexington Park and becoming an even eerier precursor to San Diego's most infamous air disaster...the 1978 PSA Flight 182 midair and crash in North Park...than it already was.  The PSA 182 crash site, BTW, is less than a mile north-northwest of the Tri-Motor's crash site.


 This was one of the first...if not the first...major crash of a scheduled airline flight in the U.S. A Colonial Western airways Ford 4-AT Tri-Motor crashed on take-off from Newark, New Jerseys airport a month earlier when two of it's three engines failed. The pilot was unable to gain altitude , and the airliner slammed into a railroad car loaded with sand in a nearby rail yard, killing fourteen of the fifteen on board, making it the worst air crash in U.S. History...but that wasn't a scheduled flight, it was a chartered sightseeing flight.

Interestingly, the crash that took the 'Worst Crash In The U.S.' title from the Newark crash was not only a crash of a scheduled flight, it was Maddux's second...and worst...crash, detailed in the next note.


The San Diego Mid-Air collision was Maddux Airlines first and by far most infamous crash...but it wasn't the only crash Maddux had, or the worst. Maddox Airlines had two crashes within a year of each other, and the second one held the very dubious distinction  of worst air disaster in U.S. Aviation history for several years.

This second crash occurred on Jan 19, 1930 just North of Oceanside California, on a route that was one of the very first regularly scheduled international airline routes in the U.S., from San Diego to the casino in Agua Caliente, Mexico, near Tijuana...a very popular destination because of the casino, horse races and, probably most importantly, legal alcohol. Remember, in January 1930 Prohibition was still in full swing in the U.S.

Maddux Flight 7 had departed Agua Caliente at about 5:30 PM that afternoon with all 14 seats filled and a crew of two, enroute to Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale...L.A.'s major airport pre-L.A.X. Somewhere north of Oceanside the plane ran into a wall of torrential rain and fog that had blown in of of the nearby Pacific. This was one of those dense, pea soup fogs that can instantaneously drop visibility to a couple of hundred feet and cause sudden and total disorientation if it takes a pilot unaware...especially eighty-six years ago when flight instruments were nowhere near as sophisticated as they are today, or were even fifty years ago.

 They apparently didn't have much altitude to begin with, and the two pilots let the airliner loose more altitude as they fought the sudden weather induced disorientation and possible vertigo, flying blind as they made the decision to turn around and land in San Diego. Or maybe, just before they were completely socked in, they spotted the open, relatively flat strip of land between the railroad and a highway and decided to land and wait the weather out...we'll never know which. 

What we do know is that they were in the process of making a left turn when, not realizing how low they were, they managed to snag the Tri-Motor's left wingtip on the ground, causing the airliner to cartwheel, finally slamming down right side up, nose very likely facing the direction they'd been coming from. This time the left fuel tank split open when the airliner slammed into the ground, dumping raw gasoline on the hot, still running left engine, and the fireball that accompanies the majority of air crashes ensued. All sixteen occupants of the airliner died in the crash and ensuing fire.

A view of Maddux Flight 7's wreckage. very late in the incident, as crews work to remove the wreckage. Note the burned out fuselage on the far left of the shot, as well as the crew on the wrecker.

A news paper illustration of how the crash probably happened. All sixteen on the plane...14 passengers and 2 pilots...died in the crash, making it the worst air crash in the U.S. to that date, and for several years afterwards.

Severe weather was an ongoing serious problem for early airlines, and air travelers. Planes were unpressurized, and generally incapable of flying at an altitude that would put them 'Above The Weather', so they were vulnerable to any and all weather extremes. Even worse, airline management often demanded that pilots fly through severe weather in order to stay on schedule. Crashes were not unusual during these pioneer days of air travel, and this is one of the reasons why. A fix wouldn't be in for a couple of decades, when pressurized airliners able to fly above the weather became the norm.

As for the location on this one, all I know for sure is that it was between the Santa Fe RR and a road, north of Oceanside and eleven or so miles south of San Clemente.  The site is very likely on land that's now part of the Marines' Camp Pendleton, which encompasses a huge area north of Oceanside.

This crash held the dubious title of 'Worst Air Crash in U.S. History' for several years...keep in mind that the first airliner capable of carrying more than 20 passengers (The DC-3) wasn't introduced until 1935.


This also wasn't the only mid-air collision in the San Diego area that weekend. A pair of Navy aircraft collided over Coronado...on North Island, hard by Rockwell Field...only two days earlier, resulting in the deaths of all four crew members between the two aircraft.  This one was mentioned in one of the contemporary news articles I ran up on while researching the Maddux mid-air, couldn't find any more info on it.


There actually were rules and regulations regarding minimum separation between aircraft already in place in 1929, but they were far, far less stringent than today's regulations regarding separation between aircraft. Back in 1929, aircraft were supposed to get no closer than 300 feet from each other, either vertically or horizontally.

Today, if you fly with-in 300 feet of another plane, at best you'll be having a long conversation with an FAA examiner. Modern regs call for aircraft flying IFR to have a minimum vertical separation of 1000 feet and a minimum horizontal separation of five miles while enroute and three miles in the area of an airport, though there are exceptions to this rule.

Pilots flying under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) don't have a numerical minimum, but instead are cautioned that 'No person may operate an aircraft so close to another aircraft as to create a collision hazard' as well as that good old catch-all 'No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another'


Speaking of 'Rules of the this case, pretty much literally...the very first Mid-Air between airliners, covered at the beginning of this post, was actually caused by the difference in driving rules between the British Empire, and most of the rest of the world. As we all know, the British drive on the left side of the road, while most of  the rest of the world drives on the right side of the road. In the early days of air navigation...the era of following roads and utilizing the 'Iron Compass'...pilots didn't fly directly above the road or rail line. Instead they'd off set to the side of the center of the road or rail line by 100 feet or so, and they'd generally offset to the same side of the road they would use if they were driving on it. 

The Farman Goliath involved in that first midair involving airliners was a French plane. The DeHavilland DH18 was British. SO the French pilot was off-set to his right of the rail lines center -line. And the British pilot, coming towards him, was flying to his left of the rail line's centerline, putting them on the same side of the tracks, and on a collision course.

Very shortly after this collision, a general right-of-way rule was written that mandated that pilots following roads or rail lines would always fly to the right of the road's center line, therefore two aircraft flying in opposite directions but at the same altitude while following the same road would simply pass left side to left side.

Lindbergh Field, AKA San Diego International may have been in the exact same spot since 1928, but it wasn't San Diego's first  airport, or even the first airport in that general area. The first airport was Dutch Flats Airport/Ryan Field, located at what's now the intersection of Midway Drive and Barnette Drive, just north of the Marine Corps Recruiting Station that was there in the '20s, and that still exists today. Lindbergh Field is just south of the Marine Corps Recruiting depot.

Ryan Field was built on a reclaimed mud flat, and was developed by Claude Ryan, of Ryan Aircraft fame, opening in 1923. The first airline providing service to L.A. from San Diego...also owned and operated by Claude Ryan...began operations from Ryan Field in 1925, using a Standard J1 trainer, modified to include a 4 seat cabin (A very cramped 4 seat cabin). The airline operated for about a year and a half (Until Maddux began flying that route, with the far, far better Ford Tri-Motor, in September 1927). Ryan had decided by then to concentrate of designing and building airplanes, and this led to construction of Ryan Aircraft's factory a couple of blocks away, and ultimately to Ryan Field's greatest claim to fame.

In 1927 a gentleman by the name of Charles Lindbergh contracted with Ryan for the design and construction of an aircraft with transatlantic capability, to compete for the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first non-stop flight between New York and Paris.It had to be able to fly across the Atlantic, carry 450 gallons of gasoline, and be uber fuel efficient. OH...and he needed it to be finished in two months. Ryan, of course, knocked it out of the park. They based the airplane loosely on their M-2 mail  plane, designing it, building it, and making the first flight in 60 days.

The Spirit Of St Louis made it's first flight from Dutch Flats Airport on April 28th, 1927, piloted by none other than Lindbergh himself. Interesting little factoid about The Spirit of St Louis. The plane...arguably the best known high wing monoplane in history...made 174 flights, counting the transatlantic flight, most of them in the course of a national tour after the NY-Paris flight, and 'Lindy' was the pilot on all but one. Lifelong friend and fellow pilot Bud Gurney met him on one of the tour stops, and Lindbergh allowed him to take it around the pattern (He must've had loads of confidence in Gurney's stick-and-rudder skills, because the Spirit of  St Louis was not an easy airplane to fly!
Gurney, in fact, is said to have remarked something to that very effect when he climbed from the Spirit's cramped cockpit.)

The Spirit of St Louis lifting off on it's first flight on April 28th, 1927

Dutch Flats airport ultimately became Speers Field and coexisted with Lindbergh Field for another decade or so before closing at the onset of WWII, and being converted to base housing for the Marine base. The area's been entirely built over, with a good bit of the original development torn down and built over again in the ensuing seventy-six years, so there's not a single solitary trace of the old airport left. The Post Office on Midway Drive is supposedly built just about where the hangers at Dutch Flats Airport were decades ago.


Henry Ford was not above grabbing a good idea...anyone's good idea...and running with it. Lets take the Ford Tri-Motor. Sturdy, stable, reliable airplane that had a well deserved reputation for being built like a tank. Here's the thing, though, and I mentioned this briefly in the body of the post. The Ford Trimotor basically ripped off two good ideas.

First take a look at the Ford Tri-Motor and the Fokker F-10 side by side:

Fokker Trimotor on the left, Ford Trimotor on the right. This Fokker, BTW, is the very one that Henry Ford gave to his son, lent to Admiral Richard Byrd, and used for inspiration...and information...while the Ford Tri-Motor was in the development stage.

I picked that particular Fokker Trimotor for a reason,'s the one that was given to Edsel Ford by his dad, based at Ford airfield, also the home of the Stout Metal Aircraft Division of Ford Motor Company...the actual builder of the Ford Tri-Motor. OK, it's not a line by line copy by any means, but it's easy to see where Henry Ford got the inspiration for his airborn legend...the popular story is that he basically studied every detail and feature of his son's plane, enlarged and improved it, and built his version from aluminum.

Another popular rumor is that he somehow got someone inside the Fokker of America plant where the Trimotor was built, and got measurements, drawings, the whole Industrial Espionage thing, of  the Fokker F10, and looking at he Ford Tri-motor, that would make more sense because there is a far stronger resemblance between the F10 and the Ford, but there's one problem. The F10 was a later variant of the Fokker...the Ford had already been flying for a couple of years when it made it's first flight. Besides, Henry Ford had a Fokker Trimotor to study at his leisure.

The origins of the Ford Tri-Motor's corrugated aluminum skin is a bit more blatant. Stout Metal Airplane Co. lifted that idea directly from Junkers Aircraft, in Germany, who had pioneered the use of both all metal construction and corrugated aluminum for strengthened skin. Junkers, in fact, successfully sued Ford...twice...for infringing upon their patent for the stressed, corrugated aluminum skin they used on their aircraft.


The development of the Ford Tri-Motor is closely entwined with another disaster of sorts...the destruction of the original Stout Metal Airplane Company factory at Oakwood Ave and Village Road, hard by the Ford Airport in Dearborne, Michigan. The story goes that Stout's airplanes were actually pretty horrible, and that Henry Ford, as owner of the money (and reputation) loosing division, banned William Stout from the company's engineering and design department and sent him on a publicity tour.  Then, in the early morning hours of 1-27-1926 Dearborne fire fighters were snatched from sleep as multiple boxes were pulled in the vicinity of Oakwood and Village, and rolled in to find the Stout Metal Airplane Company building in full bloom. Lines were laid, master stream devices set up,, 'Big Water' started flowing in earnest, and the long defensive battle that major structure fires entail even today was waged in earnest. When the fire was knocked down several hours later, all that was left were collapsed walls and heat-twisted steel beams...and the charred and melted remains of all of Stout's prototypes.

Almost before the remains stopped smouldering, Ford had contracted with Albert Kahn to design and build a pair of new buildings at Ford Airport. One would be a new, 60,000 square foot aircraft factory, where the Tri-Motor would be built. The other was a brick hotel...still in business today, and still named The Dearborne Inn...that would be the very first hotel ever designed specifically to serve air travelers.

At the same time the Stout Metal Airplane Company was renamed 'The Aviation Division of Ford Motor Company. The Stout Name never again graced an airplane.

When asked about the timing of the fire, all Henry Ford would say was:

"For the first time in my life I have bought a lemon, and I don’t want the world to know about it", 


The site of the old Ford Airport is now occupied by the Ford Motor Company Proving Ground, and, in fact, the former runways were in the middle of the test track, actually part of the roadway system, and occasionally actually used by aircraft for decades. The test track campus was reconfigured in about 2005, eliminating almost...but not quite...all traces of the old runways. According to Google Earth, the end of the runway nearest Oakwood Ave still exists, as does the former runway intersection. At least one of the old hangers is also still in existence.


Maddux Airlines had a pretty distinguished history other than it's two crashes.  They formed the western leg of the first scheduled transcontinental travel package (An Air-Rail combination where passengers flew during the day and traveled by train overnight), then merged with Transcontinental Air Transport in 1930. T.A.T later merged with Western Air Express to form Transcontinental &Western Airlines, which ultimately morphed into air travel powerhouse Trans World Airlines, better known as TWA. TWA was absorbed by American Airlines in 2001. Interestingly, and a little sadly, Maddux is seldom mentioned in histories of TWA despite the fact that they were a big part of the airline's beginnings.


While I couldn't find but so much info on the accident itself...really, there wasn't even a Wikipedia article on it...I found all kind of interesting side facts about aviation history,  planes, airports and such. I'm including the links to a few of the better sites.   An article from the awesome aviation history site Historic Wings about the first mid-air collision, at the Milan airshow, back in 1910. The article was originally published in the British Royal Aero Club's weekly newsletter, 'Flight', and detailed the crash pretty well.  Of equal interest is an excerpt from that very same issue that detailed the reasons why they didn't support the use of parachutes for pilots!  Another Historic Wings article, this one covering the first mid-air between airliners in far more detail that I did. It not only covers the details of the accident, but the changes to air traffic rules that came about because of it. Among these new rules and regulations were the beginnings of the airway system that's used to this very day.  And a third and final Historic Wings, with an article on the development of the very first true airliner...the Farman F60 well as the aircraft's pivotal role in the development of regular scheduled air travel. This was a pretty extraordinary aircraft.  Also a quick word about Historic Wings...this is an awesome, awesome site chock slam full of interesting trivea, obscure aircraft, and little known facts. If you've got a thing for Aviation History, don't start reading this site's articles unless you've got plenty of free time!  If you want to know what it was like to actually fly a Ford Tri-Motor, read this article by the incomparable Bud Davisson, who wrote Pilot Reports for Air Classics Magazine for years. To write a pilot report, you actually have to fly the aircraft. The list of aircraft types that Bud Davisson has been able to add to his log book is an aviation Just for the fun of it, another short Bud Davisson pilot report on the Ford Tri-Motor.  When Bud did these reports there were only a couple Tri-Motors still airworthy.  Since he wrote them, several more have been resurrected from junkyards and forgotten corners of obscure airfields...there are eight airworthy examples flying (Most notably the EAA's pristine bird) and five or so more under restoration.  A history page from Tuscon, Arizona's Davis Monthon Air Force Base's...originally Davis-Monthon air field history page, detailing the registry of all of the Ford Tri-Motors that landed at the airport when it was still a civilian field. Well illustrated, with a good discussion on the plane itself, as well as a period newspaper article about the retirement of the Ford Tri-Motor as the Douglas DC-2 and DC-3 began going in service.

Davis-Monthon is an Air Force base now, and if it sounds kind of familiar, it's because it's the home to what's probably the largest airplane bone yard in the world. This is where all of the military branches of service send their old airplanes when they're retired.  Ford Trimotor Owners Manual
Yes gang, I found the original text and illustrations of the Ford Tri-Motor owners manual. Better yet, it's a PDF file, so it's downloadable.

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