Floatplane piloted by adventurer Bradford Washburn crashes upon landing at Lake Union and two drown on May 7, 1938.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 12/20/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9247

On Saturday, May 7, 1938, a Fairchild F-24 floatplane with four persons aboard crashes upon landing at Lake Union in Seattle. The pilot, Henry Bradford Washburn Jr., and one passenger, Will H. Borrow Jr., survive the accident, but two passengers, Dorothy M. Mathews and Elsbeth C. Daiber, are trapped inside the submerged cabin of the plane and drown. Washburn freely admits responsibility for the accident and a coroner's jury will find the deaths are due to pilot error. The owner of the aircraft, Lana R. Kurtzer of Kurtzer Air Service, will be specifically absolved from any blame for the mishap.

Four Friends and Their Fates

Henry Bradford Washburn Jr. (1910-2007), was a renowned mountain climber, aerial photographer, cartographer, adventurer, and author from Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was visiting his best friend in Seattle, Ome Daiber, on his way to Valdez, Alaska, to lead a National Geographic Society expedition to climb 13,250-foot Mount Saint Agnes in the Chugach Mountains. George Craig “Ome” Daiber (1907-1989), was one of the Pacific Northwest’s foremost mountaineers, skiers, and the owner of the sporting goods company, Ome Daiber, Inc. Both Daiber and his wife, Elsbeth, grew up in West Seattle, graduated from West Seattle High School, and attended the University of Washington. They were married on September 17, 1934, and lived at 5002 California Avenue SW with Elsbeth's parents, John P. and Clara R. Jacobsen.

Washburn was scheduled to leave for Valdez, Alaska, on Sunday, May 8, 1938, to rendezvous with his climbing team and wanted to rent an airplane for a sightseeing trip over Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula. Daiber left on a sales trip to Oregon, so he invited Elsbeth (1912-1938), age 26, and mountaineering friend, Will H. “Jim” Borrow Jr. (1908-1964), age 29, and Borrow's fiancee, Dorothy M. Mathews (1914-1938), age 24, along for the ride.

The Floatplane

On Saturday afternoon, May 7, 1938, Washburn went to the Kurtzer Seaplane Terminal on South Lake Union and asked to rent a Fairchild F-24 floatplane. Lana R. Kurtzer had instructed Washburn how to fly at Boeing Field in a Fleet biplane four years earlier and took him aloft on an orientation flight. Although familiar with the land version of the Fairchild F-24, Washburn had never flown a plane with pontoons. But after 30 minutes of instruction and accomplishing two water landings without difficulty, Kurtzer rented him the aircraft. At about 4:45 p.m. Washburn’s three passengers climbed into the cabin and the aircraft departed Lake Union, flying north.

The Fairchild F-24 was a single-engine monoplane built by the Fairchild Aircraft Corporation in the 1930s and 1940s as an easy-to-fly touring aircraft. The aircraft was 24 feet in length, had a wing span of 36 feet, and weighed 1,524 pounds. The cabin was made of aircraft aluminum and the wings and control surfaces were fabric covered. With a choice of either a seven-cylinder Warner Scarab radial air-cooled engine or a six-cylinder Ranger inline air-cooled engine, the F-24 had cruise speed of 120 m.p.h. and a range of 720 miles. Although built for land operations, the plane was easily adaptable to skis or pontoons. During World War II, Fairchild’s production line was diverted to the military and the F-24 became the Army UC-61 Forwarder light utility transport. Approximately 1,800 Fairchild F-24s were built during the years the model was in production.

The Accident

At 5:45 p.m., Washburn was returning to Lake Union and on final approach from the north. Witnesses, many of whom lived on houseboats, said they heard the aircraft engine and turned to watch it land. The plane appeared to be flying normally and was about to touch down in the middle of the lake. But when the pontoons touched the water, the aircraft suddenly nosed down and overturned.

Washburn and Borrow were sitting in the forward section of the cabin and managed to escape by kicking out the plane’s windshield. But the two women, wearing old-style (not quick-release) safety belts, became trapped in the cramped rear section of the submerged cabin. The two men surfaced almost immediately and commenced diving in an attempt to rescue the women. But the water was extremely murky and they couldn’t find the doors. Meanwhile, the plane floated upside down in the water, supported by its buoyant pontoons.

Trying to Save Them

There was a loud crash when the aircraft hit the water. Almost immediately, people began arriving in motorboats, rowboats, and skiffs, but many could only watch helplessly as Washburn, Borrow and others tried to reach the two trapped women. Edward Heckingkamp, age 32, said:

“I dived down and tried to open the door of the plane, but I must have turned the door (handle) the wrong way, since the plane was upside down. All I can remember is seeing a woman’s hand up, trying to grab the door handle and escape. But I was helpless to assist her. I dived three more times, but no luck” (The Seattle Times, May 8, 1938).

The two U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats arrived at the scene and towed the wreckage toward the Westlake Avenue shoreline. Kurtzer had witnessed the crash from the his seaplane terminal at the south end of Lake Union and was aboard one of the Coast Guard boats. A special inhalator squad and a rescue truck from the Seattle Fire Department, an ambulance, and the coroner’s hearse, as well as hundreds of spectators were there waiting. Washburn, still dressed in his suit, and Borrow, wearing only his underwear, rode on the pontoons of the overturned plane, keeping the tow lines securely fastened.

Several yards offshore, the wreckage hit the shallow bottom of the lake. Some 50 volunteers, under the direction of police and firemen, pulled on tow lines until the aircraft was positioned so rescue workers could gain access into the cabin. Perry Koch and Edmund Hughes, firemen on the inhalator squad, worked for a half-hour to revive the two victims, unwilling to give them up for dead. Finally King County Coroner Otto H. Mittelstadt told the firemen their efforts were fruitless and coroner’s deputies placed the bodies in the hearse.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard patrol boats towed the wrecked Fairchild F-24 to the Kurtzer Seaplane Terminal, located at the south end of Lake Union at Terry Avenue N and Valley Street. (Later, during World War II, the government built the U.S. Naval Reserve Building on the property. Later still, on July 1, 2000, the Navy Department deeded the building and five-acre site to the Seattle Parks Department, which created Lake Union Park.)

Because Washburn was scheduled to leave for an Alaskan expedition, Coroner Mittelstadt, in conjunction with Inspector William S. Moore from the Bureau of Air Commerce, began an immediate investigation into the fatal accident. They impaneled six aviation experts from Boeing Field -- Oliver R. Phillips, Henry Riverman Jr., Leland Clark Jr., Cephas J. Goddard, Max Witters, and Ernest Piercy -- to serve on the coroner’s jury. On Sunday afternoon, May 8, 1938, the jury accompanied Mittelstadt and Moore to the Kurtzer Seaplane Terminal to inspect the wreckage of the aircraft.

Saying Goodbye

On Tuesday, May 10, 1938, a funeral service for Elsbeth Crins (Jacobsen) Daiber was held at the home of her brother, John T. Jacobsen, 3702 E Highland Drive, under the direction of the White Funeral Home, 3909 California Avenue SW in Seattle. She was cremated and Ome Daiber scattered her ashes on Mount Rainier, where they had climbed, hiked, and skied together.

A funeral service for Dorothy M. Mathews was held at Saint James Cathedral, 804 9th  Avenue on Wednesday, May 11, 1938. She was buried at the Calvary Catholic Cemetery, 5041 35th Avenue NE in Seattle’s University District. Mathews had been a stenographer at the King County Welfare Office.

The Investigation

On Thursday, May 12, 1938, a coroner’s inquest into the deaths of Daiber and Mathews was convened at the King County Courthouse. The first witness was Lana Kurtzer, who testified about the orientation flight and the two successful landings with Washburn at the controls. He explained that the faster the speed at which a seaplane is landed, the more water drag is encountered. The rapid deceleration caused the ship to nose down, the pontoons dug into the water, immediately flipping it upside down.

After seeing the floatplane crash, he called the U.S. Coast Guard and then flew out to the site in another floatplane, landing within 20 feet of the wreckage. Meanwhile, Washburn and Borrow continued their frantic efforts to get into the cabin and rescue the women. A motorboat ferried Kurtzer to one of two arriving Coast Guard patrol boats and they tried unsuccessfully to right the aircraft. Finally, it was decided to tow the submerged plane toward shore so rescuers could gain access to the cabin.

Coroner Mittelstadt asked Kurtzer: “Do you think Mr. Washburn and his man companion in the plane did everything they could to save the two women?” He replied: “There is no doubt of it. I never saw two people try harder to do anything in my life” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

George H. Adair Jr., testified that he flew the Fairchild F-24 an hour before Washburn rented it and the plane was in good condition. Several eyewitnesses to the accident testified the aircraft literally appeared to fly into the water. Clark Jorden, an experienced floatplane pilot who saw the crash, testified the plane landed too fast and the pontoons hit the water at an incorrect angle, upending the ship.

Washburn, who had always accepted full responsibility for the accident, testified he had flown Fairchild F-24’s with wheels many times, but never one with pontoons. During the check flight, Kurtzer had specifically warned him it was necessary to pull up the nose higher than usual when landing on water. Washburn said:

“Evidentially it was necessary to have the nose up at a greater angle than I realized, and the first thing I knew the ship was upside down and water was pouring into the cabin. I managed to kick my way out and get to the surface. Both Borrow and I tried to go back after the girls, but we were so exhausted and waterlogged, we couldn’t do it” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 13, 1938).

Borrow, who was experiencing his first flight, had little to add about the landing:

“A moment before the crash, it appeared to me that we were traveling very gracefully and gently to the water. I had a feeling of complete security and I was looking forward to the landing, which I had heard was even more thrilling than the takeoff” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 13, 1938).

Most of his testimony was about their futile attempts to rescue the two victims. Both Borrow and Washburn lamented the fact there were no crash boats or equipment readily available to break into the aircraft’s fuselage. Mittelstadt pointed out that Lake Union was not a regular seaplane base and could hardly be expected to have such elaborate provisions.

On Thursday afternoon, the coroner’s jury returned the verdict that the deaths of Daiber and Mathews were accidental and due entirely to pilot error. The jury specifically absolved Kurtzer, who owned and rented the aircraft to Washburn, of any responsibility for the mishap.

After the Accident

Bradford Washburn eventually rendezvoused with his climbing team in Valdez, Alaska. The ascent of Mount Saint Agnes (renamed Mount Marcus Baker) was postponed for a few more weeks, however, due to bad weather. The party, led by Washburn, finally reached the peak of the mountain on Friday, June 19, 1938. After an aerial mapping expedition of the Alaska Coast Range, he returned to Massachusetts and established the Boston Museum of Science in 1939, serving as it director until 1980.

In 1940, Washburn married Barbara Teal Polk, a Smith College graduate whom he had recruited as his personal secretary. On their honeymoon, the Washburns made the first recorded ascent of Mount Bertha (elevation 9,751 feet) in Alaska’s Saint Elias Mountains. On June 6, 1947, he became the first climber to twice reach the summit of 20,320-foot-high Mount McKinley (Denali), North America’s highest peak, and Barbara became the first woman to summit. Washburn died of heart failure on January 10, 2007, at the age of 96 in Lexington, Massachusetts. He was honored in 2008 with the opening of the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum in Golden, Colorado, a project cosponsored by the National Geographic Society, the American Alpine Club, and the Colorado Mountain Club.

In 1938, Will Hannum “Jim” Borrow Jr.,  was employed by the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company (which became Pacific Northwest Bell in 1961, then U.S. West Communications in 1984). While working there, he met Leona Lucile Satterlee, (1910-2006) whom he married in 1940. After a hitch in the military during World War II (1941-1945), Borrow returned to his job with the telephone company, eventually becoming district plant manager. The couple chose to live in West Seattle and had four children, two boys and two girls. An inveterate outdoorsman, Borrow died of a heart attack at age 56 on Thursday, September 3, 1964, while hiking in the Cascade Mountains. He was buried at the Acacia Memorial Park, 14951 Bothel Way NE, Shoreline, Washington. His wife, Lucile, died at the Hearthstone Retirement Community, 6720 E. Greenlake Way N, Seattle, on February 25, 2006, at age 98.

Ome Daiber continued making and selling hiking and mountaineering outerwear and equipment, some of which was marketed under the Eddie Bauer name. On December 29, 1940, Daiber married Matie Salome Johnson in Spokane, Washington. The couple had met while mountain climbing in Wyoming's Grand Teton Mountains. Due to climbing injuries, Daiber was ineligible for service during World War II, but he designed cold-weather gear and advised the army on mountain and winter survival techniques. After the war, he left equipment manufacturing and became a full-time building contractor and carpenter.

In 1948, Daiber co-founded Seattle Mountain Rescue with Dr. Otto Trott and Wolf Bauer, under sponsorship of The Mountaineers, the Washington Alpine Club, and the Northwest Region of the National Ski Patrol. The organization became a model for similar mountain rescue councils all over North America. When a climber died on a mountain, Daiber was known to say, “All any of us can hope and pray for is that when the time comes, it comes quick and easy” (The Seattle Times). But he wasn’t so lucky. Suffering from diabetes, he lost his eyesight in 1984 and both legs below the knees, due to circulatory complications, in 1985. Ome Daiber, died of a stroke on Sunday, April 2, 1989, at the Evergreen Vista Convalescent Center in Kirkland, Washington, at age 81. His wife, Matie, died at her home in Kenmore, Washington on January 21, 2009, at age 98.

Lana R. Kurtzer (1908-1988) founded Kurtzer Flying Service at Boeing Field in 1928, teaching pilots how to fly in open-cockpit biplanes. He established the Kurtzer Seaplane Terminal on Lake Union in 1931, taking advantage of the need for seaplane service in the vast area of Puget Sound. After being displaced on Lake Union by the U.S. Navy in 1941, and with private flying severely restricted in the Puget Sound region during World War II (1941-1945), Kurtzer moved his operation to Yakima where he was enlisted by the War Training Service to teach flying to Army Air Corps cadets. Following the war, he returned to Seattle, purchased 440 feet of waterfront along Westlake Avenue N on Lake Union and reestablished Kurtzer Flying Service (now headquarters of Kenmore Air Harbor).

In 1986, the legendary Seattle pilot was grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration after failing his flight physical. During 60 years as a flight instructor and professional pilot, Kurtzer had logged in some 36,000 hours in the air and taught more than 1,200 people how to fly. He died of heart failure in a Seattle hospital on Friday, January 17, 1988, at age 79. Kurtzer was cremated and his family took custody of the ashes. 

Sources: “Two Die in Washburn Plane,” The New York Times, May 8, 1938, p. 30; “Two Die in Plane Crash: Noted Author at Controls; Pair Escapes,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 8, 1938, p. 1; “Girl Victim Fond of Airplanes,” Ibid., May 8, 1938, p. 7; “Two Men Weep in Telling How Plane Crashed,” Ibid., May 9, 1938, p. 1; “Plane Crash Inquest Set,” Ibid., May 10, 1938, p. 11;”Funeral Notices: Mathews,” Ibid., May 10, 1938, p. 19;“Jury Blames Pilot’s Error in Air Tragedy,” Ibid., May 13, 1938, p. 1; “W. H. Borrow Jr., Lifelong Seattle Resident, Dies at Age of 56,” Ibid., September 7, 1964, p. 29; “Mountain Rescuer Ome Daiber Dies,” Ibid., April 4, 1989, p, D-8; “Bradford Washburn Unhurt in Air Mishap,” The Seattle Times, May 8, 1938, p. 1; “Six Air Experts on Crash Jury,” Ibid., May 9, 1938, p. 13; “Inquest Is Held in Plane Deaths,” Ibid., May 12, 1938, p. 3; “Will H. Borrow, Jr., Funeral,” Ibid., September 7, 1964, p. 39; Don Duncan, “Legendary Mountaineer Dies At 81; Seattleite “Ome” Daiber Inspired and Saved Many a Climber,” Ibid., April 4, 1989, p. C-1; “Obituaries: Lucile S. Borrow,” Ibid., March 5, 2006, p. B-4; “Elsbeth Jacobsen Is Married Monday,” West Seattle Herald, September 20, 1934, p. 3; “Funeral Rites Held for Mrs. Ome Daiber,” Ibid., May 12, 1938, p. 3; “Dead at 96, Bradford Washburn Was Explorer of Alaska’s Unclimbed Peaks,” Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News, January 12, 2007, p. A-1.

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