The Ghost of 'Jenny' - Ninety years later, aircraft still has story to tell

  • Published
  • AETC Director of Safety
With almost 600 hours of flight experience, 2nd Lt. Philip R. Meyer remained confident when he spied an obstruction 500 feet down the makeshift "runway." After all, it was just a fence. To clear it, he'd have to get the aircraft to at least 45 mph, but he had plenty of open pasture to reach that speed.

As he thundered his Curtiss JN-4D "Jenny" biplane toward the fence, with the engine producing a healthy 1,400 rpm, onlookers from the Texas town of Eden spurred him on with their enthusiasm -- it was the first plane to visit their community. Meyer knew one valve on the motor was not quite right, but he had full confidence in the airplane. In fact, the aircraft was brand new and had been thoroughly tested just 17 days prior. Moreover, the pilot and mechanic inspected the plane before the flight.

Little did Meyer know, however, his airplane was not going to soar that day ... or ever again. For in seconds, he would make flight safety history.

The date was March 25, 1919.

A closer look at this mishap began in September 2007, when Carolyn Moody, the president of the Eden Heritage Preservation Association, provided the Air Education and Training Command Safety Directorate with copies of photos from the Annie Justice and Emsy Swaim Papers, West Texas Collection, Porter Henderson Library, Angelo State University, San Angelo, Texas. Seven tattered photos, with scribbles on the back, were the only evidence initially available to shed light on this historical tale.

It took about a year, but with help from the Air Force Research Agency, Suzanne Campbell of Angelo State University, and Michael Stowe's, another look at the mishap became possible. And while the almost 90-year-old documents found are hard to read and incomplete in some places, it became clear that similarities between this mishap and today's flying operations exist.

Decades after 1919, Hollywood stunt pilot Frank Tallman seized an opportunity to fly an antique Jenny. In describing his takeoff, he said, "I was airborne in about 250 feet, apparently with a speed of about 43 mph. The climb was as slow as a man going to a funeral."

But for Meyer and his 1919 takeoff roll in Eden, 250 feet of pasture came and went, but a safe liftoff speed did not.

"What's happening," he probably thought as the fence loomed closer. "Engine is fine, I'm into a light wind, and there is sufficient room. ... I'm doing everything we learned at the Air Service Flying School at Kelly Field, but this isn't working out!"

To the horror of the Eden spectators, Meyer attempted a last second, low-speed "hop" but struck the fence. As the plane nosed over, the whirling propeller chopped into earth like a giant lawnmower blade. It simultaneously splintered, shooting thousands of sharp wooden daggers in all directions. The nearly 2,000-pound plane then rolled on its back, which threatened to crush Meyer. And like a Jenny crash that same day at Wright Field, Ohio, in which the 21-gallon fuel tank ruptured and burst into flames, the lieutenant was in danger of burning to death.

Meyer could have been impaled, crushed or burned like many of his peers were in similar mishaps in those days. As a matter of fact, AETC Commander Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz mentioned in a recent AETC News Service article that his grandfather participated in "too many funeral processions when he attended pilot training in 1919."

Meyer, however, had luck on his side as he remained uninjured.

The badly damaged airplane was not as fortunate. A local blacksmith clicked a picture of the remains being trucked from downtown Eden, and today, an almost 90-year-old scribble on the back of that photo reads, "Eden's first airplane leaving in disgrace."

An accident investigation board, consisting of two captains and two lieutenants, under the direction of Col. J.E. Fechet, the commander of the Air Service Flying School, convened on April 1, 1919, at Kelly Field. The board determined the mishap "was caused by the ship striking soft ground on take-off, which was not visible from the starting point, causing the ship to lose flying speed before reaching a fence, which it struck and turned over on its back."

Ninety years later another "board" convened Nov. 5 in the Headquarters AETC Safety Directorate. Although more like a modern-day working group, experts included AETC's flight safety division, the aerospace medicine division chief and the command's safety functional manager. The group reviewed mishap details associated with this 1919 crash in an effort to learn from the past.

Without a doubt, this mishap was caused by the improper execution of a soft field takeoff. Soft surfaces hinder acceleration, so adequate liftoff speed may not be possible to attain with normal techniques. Flight instructors stress that if pilots do not reach an adequate velocity by a preplanned "go/no-go" point, they should abort the takeoff.

During the post-mishap interview, Meyer told the investigation board that because of the unanticipated softness of the ground, he did not have "enough speed when he got to the fence." However, he said that his attempt to hop the fence was unsuccessful, which suggests he pulled back on the stick despite his low airspeed. This is problematic because an attempt to climb prematurely, or too steeply at a low speed, may cause the airplane to settle back to the surface or stall.

The aircraft's specifications and operating instructions, which pilots were tasked to study at least once a week, points out the dangers of a low-speed takeoff. In fact, it suggests that while 45 mph is the minimum speed for flight, pilots should keep the plane on the ground until a liftoff speed of 75 mph.

Recall from Tallman's flight in an antique Jenny that he became airborne in about 250 feet with a speed of about 43 mph. Certainly, Meyer had to know something was wrong when half his takeoff surface was behind him and he was still slowly sloshing forward toward the fence.

Why didn't he abort the takeoff?

Would you have aborted?

We will never know the answer to the first question, but the second one is more important. In fact, the literature is filled with academic studies, mishap reports, regulations, safety manuals and even eulogies that attempt to address why some pilots make the decision to leave the ground, in unfavorable conditions, while other pilots do not.

Interestingly, one frayed photo shows more than 60 people appearing quite impressed with this marvelous machine. Moreover, the victory of World War I and the emergence of airpower were fresh in the minds of Americans. Finally, this was the first time a pilot with airplane visited this patriotic community. Indeed, March 25, 1919, was a big deal in Eden, Texas.

Would you have aborted the takeoff on this ceremonious day and in front of this admiring crowd?

Dr. Tony Kern, in his 1998 book Flight Discipline, describes a hazardous attitude known as "airshow syndrome." In a nutshell, Kern says this dangerous condition occurs when aviators succumb to the temptation to "show their stuff" to family, friends or adoring crowds. Caught up in the excitement, they might push the envelope beyond their abilities or the capabilities of the aircraft. Or they might ignore factors such as weather or other unfavorable conditions, because "the show must go on." Tragically, and far too often, the "show" the audience sees is not the one intended, Kern says.

Could Meyer have been influenced during his take-off attempt in unfavorable conditions because he simply didn't want to disappoint an adoring crowd?

We'll probably never know.

Nevertheless, Kern says aviators can avoid the pitfalls of "airshow syndrome" by developing, briefing and flying a safe plan for all flights." After all, he added, "the crowd will likely not know the difference, unless you end the show in a smoking hole."