On April 24, 1927, two women die when the airplane in which they are riding crashes shortly after takeoff from Pearson Field in Vancouver. The plane's pilot, Dan Grecco, is the only survivor of the accident. The two women are Harriet Franklin, 25, and Zola Schau, 21, both long-distance operators from Portland. Franklin was a friend of Grecco's and had flown with him on several occasions.Home to Early Aviators
Pearson Field in Vancouver, located on the site of the old Vancouver Army Barracks, is one of the oldest airfields in the United States. The site’s connection to air travel began in 1905, when Lincoln Beachey (1887-1915) landed a Baldwin airship there on a flight from the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition grounds in nearby Portland. Beachey’s flight marked the first aerial crossing of the Columbia River.
Beachey’s pioneering flight inspired others. By 1911, the field near the Army barracks (formerly used for polo) was regularly staging flights by fixed-wing airplanes, many piloted by amateur pilots from in and around the Vancouver area. Some specialized in stunt flying (one, Silas Christopherson, flew a Curtis “Pusher” bi-plane from a ramp atop Portland’s Multnomah Hotel to the field in 1912), while others engaged in more practical endeavors. Walter Edwards, also in 1912, used the same Curtis “Pusher” to inaugurate airmail service between Oregon and Washington, albeit for two special runs only. Edwards is thought to have been the first flyer in the Northwest to deliver mail via air. (Although, technically, Beachey carried a letter on his historic flight in 1905.)
World War I brought tremendous changes to the Vancouver Barracks Aerodome, as it was known at the time, and the military’s presence continued through the early 1920s. By 1925, with commercial and leisure flights growing in prominence, the Aerodome was renamed Pearson Field in honor of Alexander Pearson, an army pilot who had been killed the previous year.Death from Above
Although flying was hardly the novelty it had been 10 or 20 years previous, it was still an unusual and (occasionally) dangerous pastime. Such was demonstrated on April 24, 1927, when pilot Dan Grecco offered to give Harriet Franklin and Zola Schau an aerial tour.
According to the Grecco, conditions were good and the takeoff was fairly routine until he turned east in an attempt to line himself up with some railroad tracks adjacent to Pearson Field. Approximately 150 feet in the air, Grecco leveled out when the rudder became jammed -- he later speculated that one of the women may have accidentally gotten a foot stuck in the instrument cables. This left Grecco unable to maneuver the plane, despite frantic efforts to regain control.
According to witnesses, Grecco’s plane went into a sudden dive and plowed into a railroad embankment, stopping 300 yards short of the Columbia River. Onlookers and airfield personnel rushed to the crash site, but judging from the crumpled fuselage Franklin and Schau mostly likely died on impact. Grecco was alive but unconscious -- he was immediately rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Vancouver.
Mechanics at Pearson Field, who had worked on the plane earlier that day, reported nothing that would indicate potential mechanical failure. Grecco, in fact, had already flown the plane that Sunday and was very satisfied with the way it handled.