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Transcontinental Air Transport Plan Crash 1929

Transcontinental Air Transport plane crashes on Mt. Taylor, 1929

1929 Airliner Crash on Mt. Taylor Falls off the FAA Historical Radar Screen

By Mark Thompson

Albuquerque: Present at the Birth of Commercial Aviation

The Associated Press said it was the first crash on a regular commercial land route.  The New York Times declared that it was “the first great tragedy on a national air route since giant passenger planes became a mode of transcontinental travel . . . .”  The Albuquerque Journal, true to the “ballyhoo” spirit of the time, featured it in front page banner headlines for fifteen issues over six days.  Today, as we approach the 80th anniversary, the crash of the Transcontinental Air Transport,  Ford Tri-Motor plane on Mt. Taylor New Mexico, Tuesday September 3, 1929, gets no mention in the 600 page “Historical Chronology, 1926-1996” issued by the Federal Aviation Administration.[1]

Transcontinental Air Transport, Inc. (“T.A.T.”) was formed in 1928 with the intent of emphasizing passenger service instead of the mail service considered the more profitable business.  Its backers were fortunate enough to engage the services of famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh as a technical adviser and many dubbed the airliner the “Lindbergh Line.”  When T.A.T. inaugurated its 48 Hour coast to coast by train and plane service in July 1929, Lindbergh piloted the first eastbound leg from Los Angeles to Winslow, Arizona.  Making the first westbound trip as a passenger was the almost equally famous Amelia Earhart, also a T.A.T. official.[2]

Albuquerque may have been a natural choice for a stopover but legend has it that James G. Oxnard, the New York businessman who created Oxnard Field on the present site of the Albuquerque International Airport and Kirkland AFB, wined and dined the T.A.T. officials at the Albuquerque Country Club to close the deal.[3]  A westbound trip started with an overnight train trip from NYC to Columbus, Ohio where the first day of flight began.  With stops in Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Wichita, the plane arrived in Waynoka, Oklahoma about 6:30 P.M. and the passengers then took the train to Clovis, N.M.  Albuquerque was the first stop on the second day of flight which ended in Los Angeles about 6: 00 P.M.   T.A.T. also made Albuquerque its Western Division Headquarters and built an administration building, including a Harvey House restaurant for the passengers.[4] Unfortunately, this happy connection between T.A.T. and Albuquerque turned tragic with the first crash of one of its scheduled flights.

The crash: What, Where, When, Why & How

DAY ONE: TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 1929.  The westbound City of San Francisco took off from Albuquerque about on schedule at 10:20 A.M. mountain time with a crew of three and five passengers.  The Journal evening edition, published in the afternoon, noted the flight as it did for all arrivals of planes and trains in those days, and the Albuquerque boarding by A. B. McGaffey, prominent Albuquerque and Los Angeles businessman, and Mrs. George Raymond of Los Angeles, the daughter of a T.A.T. official located in Albuquerque.  The newspaper also noted the anticipated arrival of the eastbound flight at about 4:40 P.M., with passengers including the movie star, Dolores del Rio.  The westbound plane should have reached Winslow, Arizona by about 1:15 P.M. mountain time.  The first Associated Press dispatch, dateline Albuquerque, garbled the geography and introduced the first false sighting, indicating that the plane had been reported passing Kingman, Arizona, on the west side of the state, but was also reported that it was “seven hours overdue at Winslow, Ariz.”[5]

DAY TWO: WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, 1929.  The local paper may have had an advantage of proximity and two editions but accuracy would be the victim as the newspapers and wire services worked to scoop the competitors.  The Journal morning edition banner was “Westbound T.A.T. Plane Is Missing,” but another false sighting was introduced.  An eyewitness reported sighting “a T.A.T. plane over Black Rock, about 30 miles south of Gallup at 6:00 P.M.”  The Wednesday evening edition said an unverified time line had a sighting west of Gallup by 11: 40 A.M. on Tuesday.  By the time the “Special to the New York Times” got to the editors from the Albuquerque stringer (unnamed), and was published on Thursday morning, the story was “8 Killed When Air Liner Hit By Lightning, Falls in New Mexico Wilds; Wreck of Transcontinental  Craft Found 26 Miles South of Gallup, N.M.”  That late evening revelation forced the Journal to put out an early “Extra” for Thursday morning: “Plane Found in Black Rock Wash 26 Miles South of Gallup.”  This story of a wreck near Zuni Pueblo endures today as researchers assume the mystery had been solved by Wednesday night.[6]

DAY THREE: THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 5, 1929.  By the time the Journal published its regular morning edition it had begun to backtrack.  “Fate of Plane Still Unconfirmed.”  The extensive article acknowledged that the alleged crash site had not been reached.  The evening edition confirmed that the search was not over and that a “$5,000.00 Reward for Missing Plane” was being offered by T.A.T.  This edition also indicated that R.J. Hazen of the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce was heading to Winslow to open an official investigation.  The Times special, published the next morning, announced “Air Liner Not Yet Found” and that there were “Many Conflicting Reports” of where the plane might have gone down.  The Times also indicated that as many as ten T.A.T. planes and thirty military planes from California were searching from Winslow in all directions.  On the ground, some 600 Native Americans had joined in the search, including well known distance runner, Andrew Chimoney of Zuni.

DAY FOUR: FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 6, 1929.  With the publication of the morning edition, the Journal had become philosophical about the matter, expressing in its page one report that “[o]nce again Nature has laughed sardonically at Man.  She alone knows the whereabouts of the missing T.A.T. air liner and, like most of her secrets, she guards it jealously.”  That issue also reported a “belief in air circles” that the plane was down somewhere in Southern California. But the reverie was broken almost immediately by an Extra morning edition: “Four Men Sighted in Desert; Believed to Be Passengers from Lost Plane.”  This sighting from the air occurred over Walpe, Arizona, but by the time of the evening edition, the Journal reported that T.A.T. officials doubted the reliability of the report.

The special to the Times for that day was late enough that its Saturday edition could report that the four men were “just enthusiastic natives.”  The Times then shifted to the big news for Friday—Colonel Lindbergh was joining the search and had taken off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island in a small but fast open cockpit plane, accompanied by his new bride, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  An Associated Press dispatch, dateline El Paso, Texas, also printed by the Times on Saturday, reported that a rancher in Columbus, New Mexico had seen a “large tri-motored plane in distress flying south on Tuesday.”  A search team had headed into Mexico by automobile.  The northern most “sighting” during the six days—one that placed the plane in the vicinity of Rainbow Bridge near the Colorado River in Southern Utah--now seemed conservative by comparison.

DAY FIVE: SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 7, 1929.  The Journal morning edition had to concede that “Another Clue to Lost T.A.T .Plane is Proved False by Investigator,” but assured its readers that Lindbergh was due in Albuquerque today, Saturday. That morning the pilot and passengers on the eastbound Western Air flight spotted the wreckage as it passed Mt. Taylor, about twenty minutes flying time from Albuquerque.  An Extra was issued for the afternoon edition of the Journal after T.A.T. officials confirmed the news at 1:30 P.M.  A two line, 3 inch banner declared: “WRECKED PLANE FOUND, ALL DEAD NEAR MOUNT TAYLOR.”    The regular evening edition changed the banner slightly, but it was still two lines, 3 inches tall:  “ALL DEAD ON BURNED T.A.T., PLANE FOUND NEAR MT. TAYLOR.” The newspaper could also report at that time that Lindbergh had flown past Albuquerque, presumably on his way to Winslow. By Sunday morning, when the Times published its special filed Saturday night, it  reported that recovery parties were underway, both from Lobo Canyon on the west and from San Fidel, the closest point, about eight miles due south of the crash site.

DAY SIX: SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 8, 1929.  Several of the searchers reached the plane by 7:30 AM.  Eventually about seventy-five people made it to the site.  Although the Western Air pilot who made the initial observations from the air thought the T.A.T. plane had been headed back east, the eye witness report in the Monday Times said that the debris field indicated it was heading due west. One of the T.A.T. officials attempted to prevent photographs[7] and insisted that the bodies be taken off immediately. He was persuaded by (armed) forest rangers that the Valencia County District Attorney should give approval.  After the D.A. arrived he swore in the cowboys sent from the Fernandez Ranch on the northwest side of the mountain by rancher, and political patriarch, Floyd Lee.  The D.A. later concluded the inquest Sunday evening in Grants with the same men who had been sworn-in at the crash site.  The official N.M. Bureau of Public Health certificates, signed by Dr. McMillan, are unique for the absence of a medical reason for the “principal cause of death,” and instead merely stating “Air-plane crash.”

The Aftermath

T.A.T. was quick to issue its report from corporate headquarters in St. Louis on Monday, September 9, 1929.  The interesting aspect was the claim that the report was based upon Col. Lindbergh’s “observations at the scene.”[8] Any observations by Lindbergh were apparently made from the air.  The Journal in the Monday morning Extra reported that Mr. & Mrs. Lindbergh left Winslow early Sunday morning and there were various reports that they flew over the crash site before arriving in Albuquerque at 12:40 P.M.  They took off headed east at 1:20 P.M. and arrived in Waynoka, Oklahoma at 5:50 P.M. central time.  Not that there was much doubt that the weather had caused the accident, but relying on Lindbergh for corporate exoneration appears to be questionable.
 

The September crash was first of three serious accidents for T.A.T. over the next five months.  An accident at Indianapolis December 22, 1929, resulted in the death of a Philadelphia businessman and his widow filed a wrongful death action seeking $150,000 in damages, probably one of the first such legal actions following a commercial air crash.[9]   In February of 1930 the President of T.A.T. was forced out by his fellow financial backers and the headquarters was moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles.[10] 
 

The merger with Western Air Express occurred only five months later with the creation of a new corporation, Transcontinental and Western Air, commonly known as “TWA.”  (Western Air Express survived as a corporate entity with noncompeting routes and became Western Airlines in 1941.) TWA legally became Trans World Airlines in 1950, but did not loose its commonly used name.[11]

The federal regulation of air commerce had begun with the adoption by Congress of the Air Commerce Act of 1926, creating the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce.  William P. MacCracken Jr. was the first Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics. MacCracken had served as a WWI pilot and as general counsel for a mail carrier, National Air Transport.  As chairman of the American Bar Association aviation law committee, he was involved in drafting the 1926 statute.  In 1927, MacCracken appointed Clarence M. Young, another WWI pilot and a lawyer from Iowa, as director of the branch, MacCracken remaining as Assistant Secretary.  In what today would likely be considered a conflict of interest, Charles Lindbergh was appointed Technical Adviser to the Aeronautics Branch in February, 1929, a position he held simultaneously with his position at T.A.T.

As noted, the government sent an investigator to Winslow from Los Angeles as early as Wednesday, September 4th and Clarence Young left Washington D.C. for New Mexico the same day.  By September of 1929, MacCracken had submitted his resignation and Young had been designated as the new assistant secretary.  But the change had not yet occurred and an interesting conflict between the two took place as they sought to assure the public that the government would do a thorough investigation.  MacCracken was quoted in the Friday September 6 article in the Times saying that the report of the causes of the accident would not be made public “in accordance with the department’s policy.”  On September 11, 1929, Young announced that the report would be made public.[12]  Apparently MacCracken still had more influence with the Secretary of Commerce, forcing the legislative branch to intervene.

On Thursday, September 12, 1929, Senator Sam G. Bratton of New Mexico announced that he would seek a Senate probe of the crash.  He went further, however, by taking the position that air commerce should be regulated by the Interstate Commerce Commission.[13]  Regardless of the merits of his position, the Senator thus opened up a political “turf battle” in addition to a simple debate over an investigation.  He found a worthy adversary in the Senator from Oregon, Charles L. McNary, who was Bratton’s equal in legal experience, and, just as importantly in 1929, a Republican who could get the votes to defeat Bratton’s resolution on September 30, 1929.[14]

The defeat of Bratton’s Senate Resolution 119 was not a total loss. During the floor debate McNary asked leading questions of Bratton, allowing the New Mexico Senator to show that not only were MacCracken and Young disagreeing about the need for a public disclosure but that the 1926 law provided for public disclosure.  Bratton was also able to show that Secretary of Commerce Robert P. Lamont had responded to a letter requesting a report by telling the Senator in a phone conversation that all he could get was a confidential, oral report![15]  The Senate then passed Resolution number 135 reciting the refusal of Commerce to issue a public report and “requesting” that the Secretary furnish the Senate with a statement of the cause of the Mt. Taylor accident as well as the cause of a separate September 1929 crash in Tennessee.
 

In his response to the request, Secretary Lamont said the investigation disclosed that “it is obvious that the airplane encountered a severe thunderstorm in the vicinity of Mount Taylor, during which it collided with the slope of the mountain.”  The Department took the position that there was no evidence that the airplane failed to function properly.  In the absence of eyewitnesses, the Department posited three possible scenarios:  (1) the pilot attempted to fly through the storm, miscalculating the direction and velocity of the winds; (2)the pilot may have thought he could fly under the storm; or, (3) he may have been attempting to pass between the storm and the mountain, miscalculating the relative velocity of the winds and his airplane.  The Department pointed out that it did not attempt to determine any legal responsibilities and investigated accidents for the purpose of finding remedial measures for future air operations.[16]

One interesting conflict in the evidence, which may or may not have had a bearing on the possible scenarios, related to the time of the accident.  Historian Richard Melzer, in his excellent short essay published in the Los Lunas News-Bulletin April 1, 2006, says that four wrist watches were found at the crash site with the time at 11:01.  The Times, on the other hand, reported that three watches were found, two of which were believed to be those of the pilots.  The Times indicated that the pilots watches read 11:05 and 11:10, whereas the watch assumed to be that of a passenger read 12:08.  The Times added in bracketed language that “T.A.T. rules require the pilots on the Albuquerque-Los Angeles run to keep their logs in Pacific Coast time.”[17] Obviously if the plane had been in the air for approximately an hour and thirty minutes after pulling away from Albuquerque, one could speculate even more about what evasive action had been taken by the pilot.
 

The 1929 crash was more than just a newspaper or government regulation story—it was a personal tragedy for the families of the eight persons killed, three of whom had some New Mexico connection.  The pilot, J.B. Stowe, had just moved with his wife to Clovis, undoubtedly because that was the starting and ending point for his work as a pilot on the western half of the T.A.T. transcontinental route.  Violet Corinna (Horton) Raymond had been visiting her parents in Albuquerque.  She was only 22 years old.  And there was A.B. McGaffey who had a residence in Albuquerque and for whom the town in McKinley County is named.
 

Amasa Bemis McGaffey[18] was born in 1870 in Vermont and had come to New Mexico in the 1890s, his first child having been born here in 1897.  He ended up in the lumber business and the town in McKinley County grew out of a lumber camp.  His third child was born in California in 1907 and by the 1920 census he may have considered California his principal home.[19]  Although he was buried in California, the service at St. John’s (Episcopal) Cathedral in Albuquerque was like a state funeral   Both the incumbent and a former governor were there and the list of active pallbearers reads like a who’s who of Albuquerque.  United States Senator, Sam Gilbert Bratton, gave a eulogy.[20]  Unfortunately, as related by Richard Melzer’s story on the crash, McGaffey’s death may have accelerated the decline of his New Mexico business and the town named for him.
 

We know, of course, that Senator Bratton’s effort to put commercial aviation under the Interstate Commerce Commission failed and the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce became the Civil Aeronautics Authority, then the C.A.B. and finally, today’s FAA.  The first crash in the FAA Historical Chronology is the TWA crash of March 31, 1931, near Bazaar, Kansas, which also killed eight persons, including Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne.  The investigation disclosed a defective wing construction of the Fokker F-10A, admittedly of major significance to air commerce regulators.  Perhaps if the actress Dolores del Rio had been on the westbound September 3, 1929, T.A.T. flight, instead of the eastbound flight which apparently landed safely in Albuquerque, the first commercial route crash may have made a bigger impact on the FAA historians.


[1] The A.P. reference carried a New York byline of 9/5/29 and appeared on page one of the Friday morning edition of the Albuquerque Journal, 9/6/29 (hereinafter, ABQ J, edition.and date).  The NYTimes quote appeared on page one of the Thursday, 9/5/29 edition.  In 1929, The Albuquerque Journal published a morning edition seven days a week and an evening edition every day but Sunday.  In addition to the regular eleven editions for six days, Wednesday through Monday, four “Extras” were published.  The term “The Ballyhoo Years,” describing the newspaper culture of the time, was coined by Frederick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday (New York: Harper & Row; 1931). See also, Mark Thompson, The Governor Hannett Case: Lawyers, Judges, Politics and the Press—1927 Style (N.M. State Bar Bulletin, July 25, 2005.)  The FAA chronology can be found on its website, www.FAA.gov.

[2] A good, short history of T.A.T., including its eventual combination with Western Air Express and the later change of the merged airline into Trans World Airlines is by George E. Hopkins, “Transcontinental  Air Transport, Inc.,” American Heritage Magazine, Vol. 27, Dec. 1975. See also, “Lindbergh Flies First T.A.T. Leg,” NYTimes, July 9, 1929, p. 3.

[3] Don E. Alberts, Balloons To Bombers: Aviation in Albuquerque, 1882-1945 (The Albuquerque Museum; 1987), p. 36.

[4] The T.A.T. building eventually became the home of the Sandia Area Credit Union, KAFB Building no. 20600.  Alberts, note 3 supra, at p.37.  The T.A.T. schedule is described in the American Heritage article and can also be found online in its original timetable form thanks to the work of Daniel Kusrow, Bjorn Larsson and David Zekria.  See www.timetableimages.com

[5] “Two Leave Here on T.A.T. Plane For West,” ABQ J., eve ed., 9/3/29, p. 2.  “TA.T. Plane Carrying Five Overdue 7 Hours in Arizona,” NYTimes, 9/4/29, p. 1.

[6] See e.g., “Zuni, NM Plane Crash Kills Eight, Sep 1929; Struck by Lightning  T.A.T. Machine Dropped in Black Rock Wash, 26 Miles South of Gallup” posted on November 30, 2007 at gendisasters.com, a website devoted to helping genealogists find persons killed in disasters.

[7] Scenes of the crash site were preserved in the photographs of J.R. Willis and are available for purchase from the Photo Archives Dept. of the N.M. Palace of the Governors (collection nos. 166105-166120).

[8] “T.A.T. Issues Report on Wreck,” ABQ J., morning ed., 9/10/1929, p. 1.

[9] “One Killed, Two Hurt as T.A.T. Plane Crashes Into a Snow-Hidden Stump at Indianapolis,” NYTimes, Dec. 23, 1929, p. 1. “Batchen and Jones Testify for Flier,” NYTimes, June 10, 1931, p. 26.

[10] “Six T.A.T. Chiefs Out In Drastic Shake-Up,” NYTimes, Feb. 2, 1930, p. 1.

[11] July 19, 1930 entry on the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996.

[12] “Complete Inquiry In Air Liner Crash,” NYTimes, Sept. 11, 1929, p. 16.

[13] “Bratton For Senate Probe of T.A.T. Disaster,” ABQ J., eve. Ed., 9/12/29.  As early as Saturday the 7th, Congressman John J. Cochran, the Representative from St. Louis, had called for an investigation but it is not clear that he did anything further after Bratton got the matter to the floor of the Senate.

[14] “Blocks Air Crash Inquiry,” NYTimes, Oct., 1, 1929, p. 9.  Both McNary and Bratton had served on their state’s supreme court before election to the Senate.  Bratton would eventually leave the Senate for a 28 year career as judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.  McNary, on the other hand, stayed with electoral politics and became minority leader after the Democrats gained control in 1933.  He was the (losing) Republican candidate for Vice-President of the U.S. in 1940.

[15] 71st Cong., 1st Sess., U.S. Senate, September 30, 1929, Cong. Rec. p. 4057.

[16] The Department of Commerce response dated October 26, 1929 was issued on October 30th as Senate Doc. No. 36, 71st Cong., 1st Sess.

[17] “Searchers Find All Dead On the Wrecked Air Liner; Plane and Bodies Charred, “ NYTimes  Sept. 9, 1929, p. 1 et seq.

[18] No doubt an interesting combination of names for genealogists to ponder.  Amasa is the name of a character (not the same person) in two books of the Hebrew Bible, 2nd Samuel and 2nd Chronicles.  Bemis was McGaffey’s mother’s maiden name.  McGaffey is an Anglicized form of a Gaelic name which may be translated as “Son of a Horseman,” although as with many such Gaelic names, the experts disagree.

[19] Amasa McGaffey household, 1920 U.S. census, Los Angeles County, California, population schedule, Los Angeles Assembly District 63, enumeration district [ED] 149, supervisor’s district [SD] 8,  dwelling  40, family 48; National Archives micropublication T625, roll 106.

[20] “McGaffey Eulogized; Senator Sam Bratton Pays Tribute To Memory Of Man Who Died In Plane Wreck,” ABQ J, morning ed., Thursday, 9/12/29, p. 1.