Monday, July 22, 2013

Falling from the Sky on Chicago

A large crowd gathered in Grant Park to watch the Wingfoot Express prepare for its third flight of the day.

A few weeks back I was surprised to learn of an air disaster in Chicago back in the summer of 1919 from a post in a favorite Facebook group, the wildly eclectic Chicago Bughouse (Washington) Square.  I was quite astonished because I fancy myself quite knowledgeable about Chicago history, but this event had somehow eluded me.  After all other horrific disasters of the early 20th Century like the Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903 and the Eastland capsize in the Chicago River in 1915 are not only well documented, they have become iconic in the city’s history.
Of course fewer people died when the flaming Wingfoot Express crashed through the skylight of the Illinois Trust & Savings Bank at in the Loop at LaSalle Street and Jackson Boulevard.  Only 17 were killed and 27 injured compared to more than 800 drowned on the Eastland.  But you would think for shear drama, nothing could beat an air ship disaster on the cusp of rush hour on a summer afternoon in one of the busiest cities in America.
Despite the great advances in airplane technology during The Great War, fixed wing powered aircraft were still too limited in lifting capacity and operational range to be considered viable for commercial use.  As it had done since the days of Jules Verne, the world still looked at lighter-than-air craft as the future of commercial aviation.  The Germans under the skillful hand of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin led the world in the development of dirigibles, which had famously bombed London in the War.  The British, French, and Italians were all scrambling to catch up, mostly using German Zeppelins surrendered as war reparations as models.
The United States was lagging far behind.  The Navy, which had operated blimps for anti-submarine patrol, had the most experience and was preparing to go into the dirigible business using one of those German aircraft.  In 1917 the Navy had contracted with Goodyear Tire and Rubber to design and construct its Blimp fleet mostly because the company had developed a rubberized fabric ideal for the construction of the aircrafts gas bag.
Now in the post war, Goodyear was eager to find a commercial use for its technology.  And Chicago business tycoons were just as eager to secure the city’s place as the nation’s transportation hub by making it the center for air ship packet and mail service.  By early 1919 local investors had agreed to bankroll a demonstration aircraft with the hope that it would lead to regular inter-city service.
Goodyear was ambitious.  It recognized the fragility of its blimps, essentially just streamlined balloons with engines and a passenger compartment slung underneath, meaning that any rupture to the skin of the bag would lead to the crash of the aircraft.  It decided to jump to the construction of a small dirigible. 
A dirigible has a rigid frame holding tanks of buoyant gas inside the envelope.  Theoretically this would be safer as a puncture might only affect one tank allowing the aircraft to stay aloft or descend safely, and dirigible could be built much larger and therefore have greater lift capacity.
But there were some major problems.  First was that Goodyear engineers had no experience with dirigibles.  Second was that the contract called for construction and delivery to Chicago in just months.  Finally, despite the availability of non-flammable helium in the U.S. they decided to go with cheaper and more widely available hydrogen as the lift gas.  Unfortunately hydrogen is explosively flammable.
Goodyear also decided to experiment with new, more powerful rotary engines with which it was unfamiliar.  In the rush to complete construction the two engines were slung below the airframe without being tested—or balanced.  As events would show they were also slung too close to the envelope.
Still, everyone was excited when the Wingfoot Express, named for Goodyear’s Mercury foot logo, was built in a hanger at the White City Amusement Park on the grounds of the old Columbian Exposition on the city’s South Side. Heavily promoted in the press, especially in the Chicago Tribune, crowds flocked to the park to get a glimpse at the ship.  The plan was to demonstrate its airworthiness by using it on short excursions between White City the downtown Grant Park.
The Wingfoot Express successfully made two test flights the morning of Monday, July 22 on a route that took the aircraft safely over Lake Michigan.  The lead engineer observed  the twin engines throwing off sparks and hot oil that splattered on the envelope.  Moreover the unbalanced engines made the ship hard to control.
Despite these observations, plans went ahead for a third trip a later that afternoon. 
The ship was smaller than those Goodyear envisioned for packet service—the envelope 180 feet long and thirty feet in diameter.  On board was a full 200 gallon tank of gasoline, enough fuel for days of excursion flights.
It was a hot but near picture perfect late afternoon on when the Wingfoot Express took off from Grant Park for her third trip.  This time it was a virtual press junket.  On board were pilot Jack Boettner, mechanics Henry Wacker and Carl “Buck” Weaver, White City press agent and well known former sportswriter Earl Davenport, and Tribune photographer William G. Norton.
After they were airborne, Norton asked Captain Boettner to deviate from his flight plan and fly over the Loop so he could take pictures.  Despite the fact that he was operating an experimental air craft with less than two hours flight time and that he was just as new as the airship having never before that day operated a ship with the rotary engines, Boettner likely at the urging of Davenport, agreed.  It was a fatal mistake.
When the Wingfoot Express appeared over the Loop shortly before 5 pm flying at a relatively low 1300 feet, it naturally attracted a lot of attention.  People had never seen anything like it.  Pedestrians on the ground craned their necks.  Denizens of downtown buildings leaned far out of their open office windows to catch a glimpse.  Others climbed out on fire escapes or made their way to roof tops.  So there was an astonishing number of eye witnesses to all or part of what happened next.
In the most frequently quoted eyewitness account, Irwin A. Phillips later testified that “I saw a little black spot above the equator line on the bag, and then a yellow flame broke out. Then the flame spread up and down and on both sides. I saw the men jump and I saw the bag fall. When it passed from my view the rear end of the bag was (still) inflated.”
This testimony brings up an interesting point.  Various sources writing about the disaster refer to the ship as a blimp—a powered balloon—or as a dirigible.  The non-technical public used the terms interchangeably, although blimp was more familiar to American ears.  Phillips’ testimony which refers to a “gas bag” clearly indicates he thought it was a blimp even as he noted it did not lose its shape as it sank.
The confusion persists.  One writer tries to split the difference and calls the ship a “non-rigid blimp” containing individual gas cells like a dirigible.  But a blimp could not have maintained its shape without the internal pressure of the lifting gas.  The Wingfoot Express had to have had a rigid frame to support the envelope.  Which is why Phillips noted that it had maintained its shape.
When they passengers and crew first noticed the fire, there was obvious panic on board.  There was a scramble for the parachutes, which would not have been worn but stowed for quick retrieval.  One by one the men scrambled to put one on and jump. 
Captain Boettner was the first man out, for which he was heavily criticized by those who held with the romantic notion that the captain should go down with the ship.  Maybe not a hero, but smart.  He cleared of the wreckage and landed safely.  The chief mechanic also got out with minor injuries.  The other mechanic’s parachute snagged on the ship and he was dragged down to his death under the wreckage.  Photographer Norton jumps clinging to his heavy camera and equipment, and exposed glass plates—a bad mistake.  He landed hard breaking both legs and incurring massive internal injuries.  His photographic equipment was destroyed.  He died days later asking if his precious photographs had survived.  Weaver, the press agent, never got out of the gondola.
The ship was fully engulfed in flames in seconds, the fire only intensified when it reached all of that gasoline.  As the envelope disintegrated, the gondola, engines and gas tank became detached and fell—right into the glass skylight of the Illinois Trust & Savings Bank. 
It was 4:56 pm.  Banking operations for customers had ended at the then customary 3 pm and employees finishing up the days business were just getting ready to leave.  Caught directly under the skylight were the mostly women clerks on the top floor.  Many died instantly, crushed by the heavy equipment and in the raining fire.  The heavy engines and the gas tank plummeted to the ground floor where the gas tanks burst, spreading the fire.  The heat was so intense that the class and frame of the skylight melted adding their molten destructive heat to the inferno.
On the first floor many found some protection under the heavy marble teller counters, but others were trapped there.  Those who could scrambled for exits or even jumped out windows. Survivors recounted scenes of unspeakable horror.
The fire department responded quickly but there was little that they could do but let the fuel burn itself out and attempt sometimes heroic rescue attempts.  But the core of the smoking rubble was too intensely hot to enter for hours.  The final toll on the ground either killed immediately or dying of wounds was 10 bank employees, mostly women but including ten year old and 14 year old boy messengers.  27 others were injured badly enough to require hospitalization, scores more burned, bruised or battered.  The total death toll including one crewman and the two passengers on the ship was 13, an unlucky number.
The public was both aghast and fascinated by the accident, snapping up each new updated extra edition of the newspapers as they hit the streets.  It was a newsboy’s once in a lifetime opportunity.  Meanwhile various players swung into action.
With the fire still smoldering bank officials tapped the huge reservoir of “the reserve army of the unemployed” hiring hungry men off the streets to enter the building to salvage anything they could.  They were working side by side Firemen and police digging for the bodies of victims through the night.
By morning the Bank had secured near-by space and using equipment salvaged from their building and borrowed from other banks, opened for business on time on Tuesday morning.  Employees not dead or still hospitalized were required to report for work, which many of the still bandaged and traumatized did.
Missing was flamboyant Republican Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson and a gaggle of Chicago movers and shakers were off playing cowboy at a Western dude ranch and declined to break up the fun to come home to deal with the disaster.  The City Council, however, swung into action at a meeting the next day.  It considered an ordinance banning flights over the congested central city, but after the immediate howls of businessmen still hoping to cash in on future air commerce elected instead to study regulating such flights.  Any regulations developed promptly went into drawer and were forgotten.
The States Attorney launched an immediate investigation which included the arrest of all of the survivors of the crash, including those in their hospital beds and the dying reporter.  After interrogations, Captain Boettner was put in jail and indicted.  Joining him was Goodyear’s project manager for the construction and operation of the Wingfoot Express, W.C. Young, was also held and charged.
To its credit, Goodyear stepped up and accepted responsibility, promising to pay the medical expenses of all of the injured, as well as the funerals of the dead.  The company, in what modern public relations experts would call “getting ahead of the story,” publicly instructed its employees to fully cooperate with authorities and provided without protest all documentation on the design, construction, and brief flight life of the dirigible.  It made no attempt to cover-up the hurried construction, the use of untried and untested engines, lack of engineering standards and adequate testing. 
For their part at the trial Boettner admitted that prior to the day of the crash he had no experience with the aircraft and had trouble controlling the unbalanced engines.  Young testified that he was unfamiliar with the engines he selected, the need to balance their speed and torque, and had not tested operations for a safe distance from the envelope.
Other testimony at the trial included hearsay reports from one of the injured crew that one of the passengers may have been at the controls when the ship caught fire.  Boettner leapt to his feet calling that charge a “damnable lie.”  But the injured man was never called to testify if the reports of his hospital bed conversations were accurate.
Several expert witnesses offered contradictory testimony about possible caused for the fire that led to the disaster.  Which made it difficult for the prosecutors to prove criminal negligence.  One of the most absurd speculations came from Army Colonel Joseph C. Morrow, the head of training and operations from the Army’s new lighter-than-air craft program headquartered at Goodyear’s Ohio facility at Wingfoot Lake.  That sounds more credible than it was, because the Army was far behind the Navy in and had no operational experience beyond a few Signal Corpsmen who had gone up in observation balloons.  In fact Morrow was being trained for his job by Goodyear.
He was the sole passenger on the second flight of the day and testified on what he had observed of the ships performance.  He seemed unaware of the problems of sparks and hot oil being thrown off the engines as reported by the chief mechanic from his hospital bed.  Col. Marrow speculated that the fire may have started from sparks generated by the silk gas bladders inside the envelope rubbing against each other, a virtual impossibility which ignored eyewitness testimony that the fire seemed to originate on the envelope, not inside of it.
In the end no firm cause was determined, although modern researchers give heavy credence to theories involving overheating engines.
The prosecution was unable to prove criminal charges against the two defendants, both of whom returned to work for Goodyear.
One of the more tangible long-term results of the crash was the closing of the air terminal in Grant Park and the eventual authorization of the Chicago Air Park on the South Side, a comfortable distance from the center city which opened with a single runway in 1923.  That facility would eventually be named Midway Airport.
But none of this explains why the memory of the crash seemed to fade so quickly.  Perhaps it was because of another event which erupted just five days later—the deadly Chicago Race Riots of 1919 which raged until August 3.  At least 38 died—most of them Blacks—and hundreds were injured in fighting across the South Side that included widespread arson and looting. 
In all of the excitement and terror, the crash of Wingfoot Express was almost erased from memory.

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