Transcontinental & Western Air Flight 3, a Douglas DC-3 (NC1946) was a scheduled transcontinental coast to coast flight originating from New York City with the ultimate destination of Burbank/Los Angeles, California.
Unlike today's non-stop transcontinental flights, this flight was to make several stops on it's way across the country. One scheduled stop it made in the early morning hours of January 16, 1942 was Indianapolis, Indiana where the flight boarded several passengers including actress Carole Lombard, her mother Elizabeth Peters, and MGM Studio Agent Otto Winkler. Lombard and company had just completed a successful cross-country trip selling two million dollars worth of war bonds to support the war efforts.
At 5:27 AM, the flight departed Indianapolis and continued west until it reached St. Louis. Taking on cargo, the flight was delayed nearly two hours by a layer of early morning fog that reduced visibility to less than one quarter of a mile. At 9:03 AM, the fog lifted and the flight continued on with more scheduled stops and strong headwinds.
By the time Flight 3 reached Albuquerque, New Mexico it was running more than three hours late. More delays were experienced in Albuquerque as passengers and cargo had to be removed in order to make room for fifteen military pilots and crew who had war time travel priority. Initially, the Lombard trio was removed from the flight, but Carole insisted that their group had priority due to her participation in the war bond tour. The gate agent not wanting to argue with the obviously irritated Lombard, allowed her party to continue their trip. The only other civilian passenger allowed to continue was Mrs. Lois Hamilton. An aircraft crew change also took place in Albuquerque. In command of TWA Flight 3 would be Captain Wayne Williams, Co-pilot Morgan Gillette, and Air Hostess Alice Getz.
Under the normal planned route, the flight would have been able to continue direct to its final destination however the extra weight of passengers, cargo and headwinds required an en route fuel stop at Las Vegas, Nevada. At 4:40 PM, Flight 3 departed Albuquerque for the Las Vegas Air Terminal which unlike Boulder City (TWA Terminal) had lighted runways.
It was 6:37 PM when Flight 3 reached Las Vegas. This stop was quick. Just enough time to take on more fuel, have passengers stretch their legs, and for Hostess Getz to top off the two galley containers with hot coffee.
At 7:07 PM, the flight departed runway 34 and began its climbing left turn across the Las Vegas Valley. The night of January 16th was dark and moonless as the DC-3 leveled off at the cruising altitude of 8,000 feet. The night was made even darker with the government's decision to blackout the lighted airway beacons due to wartime national security threats.
With the passenger cabin lights comfortably dimmed, up front in the cockpit, Captain Williams probably had the instrument and cockpit flood lights turned up to set the power for cruise flight. Perhaps Co-pilot Gillette was busy with a navigation chart or trying to confirm their course. Regardless of the reason or task at hand, neither pilot noticed the selected course was sending them into the snow-capped 8,500 foot Potosi Mountain.
The collision with the vertical cliff of Potosi Mountain was devastating and all 22 passengers and crew were killed instantly. When the final report was issued nearly a year later, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) investigators were never able to determine why the flight flew off course and into mountainous terrain.
It was around 1990 when I started my research of TWA Flight 3. The story of the accident was interesting to me in that it involved many aspects of history, two of which were World War 2 and the other was the "Golden Age" of Hollywood.
Armed with the CAB Report, newspaper articles, and a couple grainy photos, I had little other help to locate the wreck. I decided the best way to find the crash site was to spot the location from the ground and then from the air.
In the next six months I planned my hike carefully and decided the best way to approach the site would be from the south side of the mountain (This was the route used by the recovery teams in 1942). The hike up the mountain was very steep, but I did manage to locate the crash site after a few hours.
The site as I first located it during 1991 was relatively pristine with very little foot traffic. Identifiable components such as landing gear and engines were located and documented. It was the smaller items that most people stepped over that proved to be the most revealing in the visits I have made throughout the years.
Unfortunately today, the crash site is a publicized hiking trip on the internet and I would guess that it is now visited by hikers every other weekend. When I last visited the site in the early part of 2008, soda cans, bottles and other trash littered the site. In addition, one engine has been rolled down the steep mountain slope by vandals. I still have plans to replace a stolen memorial plaque at the site, but I am hesitant due to possible vandalism. I would like to see the U.S. Forest Service be more pro-active and protect this historical resource from further damage.
The crash site itself lies within the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area which is managed by both Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service.
A TWA logo from 1942. Corporate history dates from the July 16, 1930 forced merger of Transcontinental Air Transport (T-A-T) and Western Air Express to form Transcontinental & Western Air (T&WA). The companies merged at the urging of Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown who was looking for bigger airlines to give airmail contracts. Charges of favoritism in the contracts was to lead to the Air Mail Scandal in which the two airlines split in 1934, although the T&WA name would stick.
Both airlines brought high profile aviation pioneers who would give the airline the panache of being called the "The Airline Run by Fliers" be known for several years for being on the cutting edge of aviation. Transcontinental, the bigger of the two, had the marquee expertise of Charles Lindbergh and was already offering a 48-hour combination of plane and train trip across the United States. Western, which was slightly older having been founded in 1925, had the expertise of Jack Frye.
On October 25, 1930, the airline offered one of the first all plane scheduled service from coast to coast -- the Lindbergh Route. The route took 36 hours and initially called for overnights in Kansas City.
TWA relocated its headquarters from New York to Kansas City, Missouri in summer 1931.
William John "Jack" Frye was an aviation pioneer, who with Paul E. Richter and Walter A. Hamilton, built TWA into a world class airline during his tenure as chairman from 1934-1947.
Frye received the first commercial pilot certificate issued in the State of Arizona - #1 - and held Transport Pilot certificate #933. Frye, Walter Hamilton and Paul E. Richter, Arizona pilot certificate #2, founded Aero Corporation in 1926 Los Angeles, with a subsidiary Standard Air Lines in 1927. Jack Frye, as pilot, flew the first commercial plane into Tucson, Arizona (November 28, 1929).
Standard Air Lines was sold to Western Air Express in early 1930. Western Air Express merged with Transcontinental Air Transport in 1930 to form T&WA (TWA). Frye became president of T&WA in 1934 and Richter became Vice President.
The airline suffered near disaster after its reputation was hurt in 1931 when Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne died on a T&WA Fokker tri-motor plane. In 1932 Jack Frye, representing TWA, sought a better aircraft and Douglas developed the Douglas Transport.
Jack Frye, and Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, with a T&WA team of Tomlinson, Fritz and Richter set a cross country record of 13 hours and 4 minutes in 1934 flying the Douglas DC-1. The DC-1 ultimately resulted in the development of the DC-3 (Life Magazine Photo).
The Douglas DC-3 "Sky Club" operated by Transcontinental & Western Air was the workhorse of the fleet during the early 1940's. (LostFlights Photo)
The flight compartment on an early 1940's era TWA Douglas DC-3. Center pedestal with throttle, propeller and fuel mixture levers.
Between the two pilot's seats is the Sperry Automatic Direction Finder which played a roll into the disaster and will be discussed later. (TWA Photo)
The left seat (Captain's side) of a TWA DC-3 Airliner contained both primary (center) and auxiliary flight instruments (TWA Photo).
The overhead panel contained the magnetic compass, light switches, and other gauges and switches (TWA Photo).
The right seat (co-pilot's side) instrument panel contained only engine gauges, electrical gauges, and an 8 day clock. The primary flight instruments located above the center pedestal were shared by both pilots. (TWA Photo)
On early TWA flights the Captain normally made adjustments to the engine and propeller controls. Almost all landings and takeoffs were performed by the Captain.
TWA ROUTE STRUCTURE-1942
This TWA system route map illustrates the transcontinental route structure of the airline during January 1942. TWA would later go on to be one of the largest global air carriers.
This TWA airline timetable dated January 5th 1942 would have provided travel information for passengers booked on TWA's Flight 3.