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 to 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. 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 Trimotors 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, an 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.
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
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 bombings 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 intact 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.
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 price 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.