Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Early Aviation History – the Tales of Two Harrowing Plane Crashes in WH

The following article appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of the WHCSA News & Views newsletter

The “cradle of aviation” is a term ascribed to Long Island that highlights the important role that our island played in the history of early human flight. At the turn of the 20th century, the treeless, flat terrain of the Hempstead Plains, just a short distance from the country’s largest metropolis, made for an ideal location for the frenetic aviation activity that would take place in the region for the ensuing half-century. During those years, many triumphant and celebrated milestones in human flight would be marked on Long Island, most notably Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight from Roosevelt Field to Paris in 1927. As well, numerous but lesser known avionic tragedies and mishaps occurred in those early days. The following paragraphs recount the stories of two such plane crashes that occurred in the immediate West Hempstead vicinity.

The first incident involved a machine dubbed the “Christmas Bullet”, after its eccentric inventor, Dr. William W. Christmas. By 1918, in the aftermath of WWI, numerous enterprising manufacturers from across the country offered up radical designs for airplanes that they hoped would produce improved speed and efficiency and win lucrative government contracts to produce their planes for the US Army Air Service. Dr. Christmas theorized that the struts that supported the wings of the standard bi-plane design of that era generated a lot of wind resistance, and as a result, he pioneered a “strutless” design of the type pictured in the photograph below. Critics allegedly warned that without struts, the wings were liable to break apart during flight, and indeed, history proved these critics right; the Christmas Bullet was among the worst planes ever designed.
1918 photo of the Christmas Bullet.  (photo from  via Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, Christmas went ahead with his plans and got his prototype ready at his plant in Copiague, NY. A 27 year-old Army Air Service aviator named Cuthbert Mills was hired for the Bullet’s initial test flights and her maiden voyage to Hazelhurst (later Roosevelt) Field was indeed spectacular, with unofficial reports of her breaking the existing air speed records of the time. (Reports varied from anywhere between 160mph and 197mph). Shortly after the Christmas of 1918, Dr. Christmas announced that the Bullet would shortly give a demonstration by encircling the Woolworth Building in Manhattan (the tallest building in the world at the time) before returning to Long Island.

On a crisp and clear late afternoon on Monday, December 30th, Mills took off from Hazelhurst heading due south before turning west toward Manhattan. The plane reached about 3,000ft as it headed over the Hempstead reservoir when it encountered immediate problems. Reports conflict as to what exactly went wrong, but Lakeview resident E. J Jennings who was an eyewitness to the incident claimed that one of the plane’s wings had collapsed, causing her to spiral out of control. For an instant, Mills managed to stabilize the machine by bringing her down in small concentric circles, but the area surrounding Hempstead Lake was heavily wooded and offered no good place for a crash landing. The plane came down right around the present location of Exit 18 of the Southern State Parkway (before the parkway was built), into a chestnut tree while narrowly missing the home of a man named Quinn Porsert, before dropping to the ground. Porsert, his son Frank, and EJ Jennings were on a hunting excursion in the wooded property and were the first to respond to the scene, and they cheered wildly when for an instant, it had seemed that Mills had miraculously survived the crash. But as they raced toward the wreckage, they were greeted with a loud boom that lit up the purple dusk sky, as it became evident that the fuel tank had exploded and quickly consumed the wooden fuselage. Without a water supply, all the hopeless group could do was to futilely throw gravel upon the mangled aircraft and watch her unfortunate pilot burn beyond recognition. Incredibly, in the wake of this tragedy, the undaunted Dr. Christmas produced a second “Bullet” and three months later, her initial test flight similarly went awry and claimed the life of the pilot. Such were the risks and realities of early aviation.

About three-and-a-half years later, a second incident occurred that was not quite as tragic and produced a somewhat comical unplanned meeting between a Manhattan aristocrat and a hardened Long Island farmer.

Photo taken from the DH6 wiki page

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, June 10, 1922, a Madison Ave. socialite named Oscar Jay was soaring over central Long Island in his DeHavilland DH6 monoplane (after WWI, the Royal Air Force had decommissioned and sold off hundreds of these DH6s and many ended up in the hands of leisure pilots throughout the world) when he abruptly realized he had ran out of gas and frantically looked for the nearest clearing to bring the plane down. That clearing happened to be upon the potato field of John Jacob Rasweiler, a local farmer who owned a homestead along Dogwood Ave. (Today, the small side street off Dogwood that bears the original owner’s name along with his adjacent farmhouse is a surviving testament to this farm). Jay successfully glided his plane down upon the patch while leaving a divot of tens of dollars of torn-up potatoes in his wake. The pilot brushed himself off, nonchalantly walked over to the farmhouse, knocked on the door and introduced himself as a wealthy merchant. He asked the owner if he could borrow some gasoline and be on his way, all the while pledging that he would reimburse the farmer for his gas and for his ruined potatoes once he returned home. Rasweiler obliged and refueled the plane with some automotive gasoline he had siphoned from his car. Jay started up the machine, and after a 500ft taxi barely managed to get her off the ground before she sputtered and fell back to earth in a dive, dragging along another long divot of ruined potato crops. The apparent hard lesson learned was that automotive-grade gasoline was incompatible with the DeHavilland engine.

Shaken and exasperated but otherwise unhurt, Jay walked away from the wreckage and began looking for the closest train station to get back to Manhattan. Rasweiler caught up to Jay and yelled, “Hey, what about your plane!?!?”.

 “You can go ahead and keep it!”, was the response.

 “Well, what in tarnation will I have any use for a wrecked plane!?”, the old farmer quizzed, “And besides, how can I be so sure that you’re gonna repay me?”

Jay then gave the farmer his coat as a pledge along with his calling card, and headed off to the train station for Manhattan. Rasweiler went home, but then became suspicious of his uninvited visitor’s story, thinking instead that the plane might have been stolen, and he promptly called the local sheriff. The police made inquiries and found out that Jay’s story was completely legitimate. But the aftermath of this mangled heap of metal, with its nose firmly planted in the ground and its tail up in the air,made for a curious sight that Summer for passersby along Dogwood Ave before Rasweiler was finally able to extricate it from his farm.

No comments: