On June 7, 1934, a United Air Lines, Boeing Model 247D, passenger airliner en route from Spokane to Seattle via Wenatchee crashes in the in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in east King County. The nine occupants of the aircraft survive the accident and are rescued the following day by a search party from nearby Selleck, a small mill town 18 miles east of Kent.
An Airliner and its Flight
The Boeing Model 247 Commercial Transport, developed in 1933, was an all-metal, low-wing, twin-engine aircraft and the world’s first modern airliner. It was a revolutionary design, featuring such innovations as an auto-pilot, two-way radio, heated cabin, variable pitch propellers, de-icing equipment, and retractable landing gear. The streamlined aircraft was 51 feet, 7 inches long, with a wing span of 74 feet, and powered by two 500 horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp radial engines. At a cruising speed of 189 mph, the Boeing Model 247 had a range of 745 miles. It had accommodations for two pilots, one flight attendant, 10 passengers and 400 pounds of cargo. Boeing Airplane Company produced 75 Model 247s, most of which were operated by Boeing Air Transport Company (later United Air Lines).
At 3:22 p.m. on Thursday, June 7, 1934, a United Air Lines, Boeing Model 247D, passenger airliner, registration No. NC-13302, departed Felts Field (now Spokane International Airport) in Spokane en route to Boeing Field in Seattle. On board the airliner were Captain Ben Z. Redfield (1905-1989); second officer Dwight A. Hanson; Marion Bennett, flight attendant; and two passengers: Paul C. Beezley, an executive of the Washington Asphalt Company in Seattle and Mildred A. Johannesen from Spokane. At 4:35 p.m., the airliner landed at Fancher Field in Wenatchee and picked up four other passengers: Helen Curran, a cashier for the Great Western Life Assurance Company in Seattle; Robert C. Clark, a Washington State Liquor Board inspector from Tacoma; and Daisy A. Moony and Mercedes Boyd, school teachers from Winthrop in Okanogan County.
It was relatively clear when the United Air Lines flight departed Wenatchee, but as the plane flew over the crest of the Cascade Mountains, the weather deteriorated. There was a low cloud ceiling and visibility was poor on the west side of the mountains, requiring the pilots to carefully navigate over the landscape on their way toward Seattle. Through a break in the clouds, Hanson suddenly saw the plane was headed toward a hillside and told Captain Redfield to “pull up.” Redfield throttled forward and attempted to gain altitude, but it was too late. The Boeing 247 bellied into the fir trees at a 45-degree upward angle and slid to the ground, tail first. The nose of the all-metal aircraft had been crushed and the wings torn away, but the cabin was intact.
Remarkably, only four persons were injured in the crash. Captain Redfield was the most seriously injured with a compound fracture of the left arm. Second officer Hanson sustained head injuries, a broken nose, and lacerations, Helen Curran had fractured a leg and Robert Clark a wrenched back. Marion Bennett, as were all United Air Lines’ flight attendants, was a registered nurse and took charge of the injured. With Beezley’s help, she fixed a shelter for Captain Redfield under one of the wrecked wings, made Curran comfortable inside the cabin of the aircraft, and handed out blankets and emergency rations. It was cold and raining heavily, but they didn’t dare light a fire for fear of igniting gasoline dripping from the wing tanks of the aircraft.
Seeking Help and Waiting for Help
Hanson, being familiar with the terrain, having flown over the Cascades numerous times, took the responsibility to seek help. He removed the magnetic compass from the aircraft’s instrument panel and then headed west on foot, accompanied by Mercedes Boyd. There were still a few hours of daylight left and although concussed and bleeding from his wounds, Hanson thought he could find a logging road and possibly a telephone. After struggling through the underbrush for several hundred yards, Hanson realized Boyd could not keep up and told her to return to the plane. Hanson continued moving west and after a few miles happened upon rail line belong to a logging company. Although the spur had been abandoned, there were still telephone call boxes that tied directly to the Pacific States Lumber Company dispatcher at Selleck.
Meanwhile, Boyd became concerned she might become hopelessly lost in the approaching darkness if she attempted to return to the aircraft. Instead, she just sat down and waited in the woods throughout the night, hoping for rescue. At daybreak, she found the trail and returned to the plane.
At approximately 8:30 p.m., several experienced woodsmen set out from Selleck on a gasoline-powered railroad speeder to rescue Hanson and find the downed airliner. By the time the search party reached Hanson’s location, approximately three miles from Selleck, it was too dark and dangerous to find their way through the tangle of logging debris and underbrush, so they bivouacked for the night. Hanson, in pain and suffering from shock, was sent to Selleck on a railroad speeder and then transported by ambulance to Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle.
By 6:00 a.m. on Friday, June 8, a large search party headed by Walter Gustke, superintendent of the Pacific States Lumber Company, had assembled at the spur line and set out on foot to find the aircraft and rescue the survivors. They were accompanied by a group of airline officials and newspaper reporters. Hanson had marked his trail with pieces of cloth torn from clothing found scattered about the crash site. At approximately 10:00 a.m., the search party located the wreckage on the slope of a heavily forested hillside at an altitude of 3,300 feet in Seattle’s Cedar River watershed, four nautical miles southwest of Cedar Lake (now Chester Morse Lake).
Meanwhile, Paul Beezley, worried that Hanson and Boyd had become lost, took the ship’s backup compass and at 4:30 a.m. set out in a westerly direction. He met up with the rescuers and offered to lead them back to the airliner. Superintendent Gustke was concerned about Beezley’s health, however, and had him taken to Selleck where he was treated for minor injuries, given breakfast and then driven to Virginia Mason Hospital for observation.
Foul weather made the hike through the rugged terrain slow and treacherous. Five of the passengers were able make it to the logging spur without assistance, but the rescue party had to carry out Captain Redfield and Helen Curran on stretchers. Ambulances were waiting at Selleck to rush the crash survivors to hospitals in Seattle. Redfield was taken to Providence Hospital and the others to Virginia Mason Hospital for treatment and observation.
Evaluating and Salvaging
On Monday, June 11, 1934, officials from Boeing Airplane Company visited the wreckage to determine how much of the $65,000 airliner could be salvaged. Although much of the plane was still intact, it was located in an inaccessible area of the Snoqualmie National Forest and the logistics as well as the cost of removal would be prohibitive. Ultimately, the experts determined that the radial engines, flight instruments, and fittings were all that could be reasonably salvaged. The rest was damaged beyond repair. That there had been no fatalities was a testament to Captain Redfield’s flying skill and the inherent sturdiness Boeing-built aircraft.
An investigation determined that the accident was caused by unexpected bad weather and pilot error. He likely suffered a vestibular (inner ear) illusion resulting in spatial disorientation (vertigo). The pilot experiences a head-up or false-climb illusion and pushes aircraft into a descent to correct altitude.
Such a phenomenon can occur when flying suddenly into foul weather. The pilot looses natural, visual references to maintain orientation and has an overwhelming impulse to disregard the aircraft’s flight instruments. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, statistics show that up to 10 percent of all general aviation accidents can be attributed to spatial disorientation, most of which are fatal.