Friday, October 10, 2014

The Boeing 247 Mystery—First Air Sabotage Still Unsolved

The doomed United Air Lines Boeing 247, registration number NC13304 was photographed over Chicago's Century of Progress and Soldier Field just weeks before it went down.

It seemed like a routine flight for the relatively early days of regularly scheduled commercial airline operations.  In the late afternoon three crew members and four passengers climbed aboard one of United Air Lines most modern aircraft, a twin-engine Boeing 247, at Newark, New Jersey for a transcontinental flight Oakland, California with several stops for fuel along the way.  Most of the passengers had Chicago as a destination.  Other fares would be picked up there.  After a stop in Cleveland, Ohio the plane was cruising at about thousand feet over Indiana around 9 pm October 10, 1933 when it was ripped apart by and explosion, falling in two pieces into cornfields near Chesterton and the Dunes of Porter County, Indiana.  Everyone on board was killed.
The sleek new Boeing 247 was not a likely candidate for an accidental explosion.  The aircraft, which was introduced into fleet service in May and was the highly talked about centerpiece of the Boeing exhibition at Chicago’s Century of Progress, was the safest and most modern commercial plane in the air.  It was so far advanced that it immediately made the high wing Fokker and Ford Trimoters and Curtis Condor bi-planes then in service obsolete.  It was the first airliner with an as all-metal anodized aluminum construction, a fully cantilevered (low) wing, and retractable landing gear. Other advanced features included control surface trim tabs, an autopilot, deicing boots for the wings and tailplane, and even a climate controlled, air conditioned cabin for passenger comfort.  It’s airspeed was faster than the most modern Army Air Corps fighter, but its design allowed it to be set down gently at a mere 62 mph on a remarkably short runway for its size and weight.  The 247 was so revolutionary, it essentially was the prototype for all subsequent multi-engine passenger planes.
Witnesses on the ground in Indiana reported hearing an explosion shortly after 9 pm and saw the plane in flames at an altitude of about 1,000 feet.  A secondary explosion occurred after the main body of the aircraft plowed into the ground.  The tail section aft of the baggage compartment and lavatory was found mostly intact almost a mile away from the main wreckage indicating that the plane had broken up almost immediately after the initial explosion.

Rescuers arriving on the ground immediately noted suspicious conditions of the debris.  By the next morning Melvin Purvis, head of the Chicago office of the United States Bureau of Investigation and already a famous gang buster whose regular appearances in the newspapers was stirring the ire of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover arrived on the seen with a team of agents to investigate the wreckage.  He found the toilet and baggage compartment smashed into fragments with metal shrapnel riddling the inside of the toilet door while the other side was free of the metal fragments.  Purvis later reported to the press that:
Our investigation convinced me that the tragedy resulted from an explosion somewhere in the region of the baggage compartment in the rear of the plane. Everything in front of the compartment was blown forward, everything behind blown backward, and things at the side outward…The gasoline tanks, instead of being blown out, were crushed in, showing there was no explosion in them.
Dr. Carl Davis of the Porter County Coroner’s Office called on the Crime Detection Laboratory at Northwestern University to conduct forensic tests on the wreckage.  His report, based on the Lab conclusions was that the plane had been brought down by an explosive device, probably employing powerful nitroglycerine.  There seemed to be no doubt that the plane was sabotaged with a bomb.  The Coroner’s Jury ruled that the seven dead were homicide victims.
It was the first known case of what we would now call a terrorist bomb bringing down an airplane.
Figuring out who did it and why proved virtually impossible.  No note was found. Nor was there a claim of responsibility that would be common in aircraft bombing decades later.  Investigations turned up no known enemies of the passengers or crew.  There were no attempts to extort the airline or its parent company and plane manufacturer Boeing.  No one carried un-usual or extravagant insurance coverage.  In short, no motive could be established and without a motive, suspects were impossible to identify.
There was a brief stir of excitement when a witness recalled seeing one of the passengers board the plane in Newark with a package wrapped in brown paper.  Then the package was found in tact amid the wreckage.  There was also a rifle on board but it was in the nearly destroyed baggage compartment and was the property of a passenger on the way to Chicago to compete in a shooting match at the North Shore Gun Club.  All of the passengers and crew were evidently in their seats when the mid-air explosion took place. 
The crime has never been solved.  

Press speculation about the bombing.

Air crew victims included Pilot Harold R. Tarrant of Oak Park, Illinois, Co-pilot A.T. Rudy also of Oak Park, and 26 year old nurse and stewardess Alice Schiber of Chicago’s North Side.  The unfortunate Miss Schiber had the distinction of being the first stewardess ever to die on a commercial flight.
Other than the fact that they could afford the hefty cost of a plane ticket during the Depression nothing seemed unusual about the four passengers.  They were 28 year old Chicagoan Fred Schendorf, the manager of the apartment division of R. Cooper, Jr., Inc., a manufacturer of refrigerators; 25 year old Dorothy M. Dwyer of Arlington, Massachusetts; Emil Smith, age not noted, of Argyle Avenue in the Roger’s Park neighborhood; and H. R. Burris of Columbus, Ohio, a United Airlines radio technician dead heading to a work assignment.
The bodies of Smith and Burris, believed to have been seated next to each other nearest the explosion, were thrown from the plane and found the next morning a half mile from the wreckage.
Pilots Tarrant and Rudy had both been married within the year and members of Tarrant’s family rushed to the grim scene of the still smoldering wreckage.  Stewardess Schiber had left her Stevens Point, Wisconsin home just two month earlier to take up the exciting career of an airline hostess.
The crash was the first with loss of life for the seven year old airline.
It could have been much worse.  Only 4 passengers occupied the ten available seats.  The plane was operating therefore at a loss. 

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