Daily Archives: May 12, 2020

17 March–12 May 1964: Joan Merriam Smith

Joan Merriam Smith, with her Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P, photographed 23 January 1965. (Los Angeles Public Library, Valley Times Collection)

At 1:00 p.m., 17 March 1964, Joan Merriam Smith departed Oakland International Airport, on California’s San Francisco Bay, on what would be the first leg of an around-the world flight. Her first stop would be Tucson, Arizona, approximately 650 nautical miles (1,200 kilometers) to the east-southeast.

Mrs. Smith intended to follow the easterly route of Amelia Earhart, who had departed from Oakland on both of her attempts at the around-the-world flight. The first try, 17 March 1937, was a westerly route, with a first stop at Hawaii. The second try, 2 June 1937, was an eastbound route.

The two routes were planned to take advantage of seasonal weather patterns.

Mrs. Smith wanted to follow Earhart’s eastbound route, but by leaving in mid-March, she put herself at a disadvantage with respect to the weather she would encounter as she traveled around the Earth.

Unlike Earhart, who had two of the world’s foremost navigators in her flight crew, Mrs. Smith would fly alone, her only companion a small teddy bear. She would navigate by pilotage and ded reckoning, and by using radio aids such as non-directional beacons (NDBs) and VHF omnidirectional ranges (VORs).

Joan Ann Merriam Smith loading a teddy bear into her 1958 Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P. Note the auxiliary fuel tank in the cabin. (Calisphere)

Forecast adverse weather caused her to leave Tucson for her next stop, New Orleans, Louisiana, at 2:00 a.m., 18 March. Dodging the weather, she was forced to make an intermediate fuel stop at Lubbock, Texas. She finally arrived in New Orleans at 4:00 p.m. that afternoon. After another early morning start, she flew on to Miami, Florida, on 19 March.

A detailed story of Joan Merriam Smith’s flight is told in Fate on a Folded Wing, written by Tiffany Ann Brown.¹ Her route followed Earhart’s eastward across the United States; south over the Caribbean Sea to South America; then across the South Atlantic Ocean; Africa, Asia, and finally, to the Pacific Ocean, where Mrs. Smith’s route diverged from Earhart’s.

Smith’s itinerary:  Across the United States from Oakland, California, to Tucson, Arizona; Lubbock, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Miami, Florida. Then over the Caribbean Sea to San Juan, Paramaribo, Natal; east across the South Atlantic to Dakar, Gao, Fort-Lamy, Al-Fashir, Khartoum, Aden. From Africa, Smith headed into South Asia: Karachi, Calcutta, Akyab, Rangoon; and then Southeast Asia: Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta, Surabaya, Kupang; Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia; and Lae, New Guinea. From here, Smith deviated from Earhart’s route across the Pacific Ocean by flying to Guam instead of Howland Island; then Wake Island; Midway Island; Honolulu, Hawaii; and, finally Oakland.

Mrs. Smith’s flight was troubled by adverse weather, leaking fuel tanks, out-of-calibration radio equipment, a recalcitrant autopilot, problems with the hydraulic and electrical systems, and a heater that would not work. And weather. . .

She arrived back at Oakland International at 9:12 a.m., on 12 May 1964, having flown approximately 27,750 miles (44,659 kilometers). The total duration of her journey was 55 days, 20 hours, 12 minutes. She had flown 35 legs on 23 days. Mrs. Smith wrote that the circumnavigation had taken a total of 170 flight hours, with 47 hours on instruments and 26 hours of night time.

Joan Merriam Smith is credited with having made the first solo circumnavigation of the Earth by the Equatorial route, and the longest solo flight.

Joan Merriam Smith with her Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P, “City of Long Beach.” (UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library)

The airplane flown by Joan Merriam Smith was a Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, serial number 23-1196, U.S. registration N3251P, which she had named City of Long Beach. The red and white airplane was manufactured by the Piper Aircraft Corporation at Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, in 1958. It had been purchased by the State of Illinois Department of Aeronautics to use checking state-owned aeronautical facilities. When the the state acquired a faster aircraft, the Apache was sold in November 1963. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a registration certificate to Mrs. Smith on 30 December 1963.

The Piper PA-23-160 Apache E was a 4-place, twin-engine, light airplane with retractable tricycle landing gear. It was 27 feet, 2 inches (8.280 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 0 inches (11.278 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 1 inch (3.073 meters). The airplane had an empty weight of 2,230 pounds (1,011.5 kilograms) and maximum gross weight of 3,800 pounds (1,723.7 kilograms).

Joan Merriam Smith’s 1958 Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P, “City of Long Beach.” (Les Clark/Photovault.com)

The Apache E was powered by two air-cooled, normally-aspirated, 319.749-cubic-inch-displacement (5.240 liter) Lycoming O-320-B horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder overhead valve (OHV) engines with a compression ratio of 8.5:1. The O-320-B is a direct-drive, right-hand tractor engine, rated at 160 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. The O-320-B is 2 feet, 5.56 inches (0.751 meters) long, 2 feet, 8.24 inches (0.819 meters) wide and 1 foot, 10.99 inches (0.584 meters) high. It weighs 278 pounds (126.1 kilograms). The engines turned two-bladed Hartzell constant-speed propellers.

N3251P’s engines were modified with Rajay Co., Inc., Turbo 200 turbochargers.

Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P. (Detail from image at Fate on a Folded Wing)

The PA-23-160 had a cruise speed of 150 knots (173 miles per hour/278 kilometers per hour) and maximum speed was 159 knots (183 miles per hour/295 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 17,000 feet (5,182 meters).

During a flight from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Long Beach, 9 January 1965, the cabin heater in the nose of the Apache caught fire. With the cabin filled with smoke and gasoline fumes, and unable to reach any airport, Mrs. Smith crash-landed the airplane in rocky terrain in the Ord Mountains, southeast of Barstow in the high desert of southern California. After it has slid to a stop, N3251P continued to burn and was largely destroyed. Mrs. Smith and her passenger, Willam Harry Eytchison, were slightly injured.

At the time of the accident, N3251P had just under 3,000 hours total time on the airframe (TTAF), and less than 400 hours on new engines (TSN).

The burned out wreck of Joan Merriam Smith’s Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P. (Image from Fate on a Folded Wing)

Joan Ann Merriam was born 3 August 1936 at Oceanside, Long Island, New York, U.S.A. She was the daughter of Arthur Ray Merriam, Jr., a railroad office stenographer, and Ann Marie Lofgren Merriam. The family relocated to Wayne, Michigan, where Joan attended Jefferson Junior High School and Wayne High School.

Joan A. Merriam, Wayne High School, 1952. (Spectator)

Joan’s father died at the age of 43, New Year’s Day, 1952. She and her mother then moved to Miami, Florida. Flying from Detroit to Miami aboard a Lockheed Constellation, Joan was allowed to visit the flight deck and speak to the crew.

The airline flight sparked an interest in aviation. She began taking lessons at the age of 15. Joan learned to fly at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute, then located at at Tamiami Airport. She first soloed an airplane at the age of 16 years. On 7 November 1953, shortly after her 17th birthday, she was issued private pilot certificate. Special permission was obtained from the FAA for her to take the written exams for commercial pilot before she turned 18.

Joan graduated from Miami Senior High School in 1954.

The prototype Cessna 140, NC77260, circa 1946. (Cessna Aircraft Company)
“JOAN MERRIAM Pretty Pilot” (23 December 1953)

Mrs. Merriam gave Joan a Cessna 140, a single-engine light airplane, making her one of the youngest people in the United States to own an airplane. Joan said that her mother was “the bravest passenger,” as she practiced all of the maneuvers required for a commercial pilot’s license. By the time she was 18, she earned a commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating, and a flight instructor certificate. She began instructing at Tamiami. She flew charters from Florida to Texas, living in that state before moving to Panama City, Florida. On her twenty-third birthday, the earliest that she was eligible, Miss Merriam was issued an airline transport pilot certificate (ATP) by the FAA. She had flown nearly 5,000 hours.

Miss Merriam would later own a Piper Cub modified for aerobatics, a second Cessna 140, and a Cessna 172.

In the fall of 1955, Miss Merriam married Harold MacDonald, a student in aeronautical engineering. She worked as a flight instructor for Avex, Inc., at Tamiami Airport. Mr. and Mrs. MacDonald soon divorced.

Joan Ann Merriam, circa 1958.

In 1960, Miss Merriam was living in Panama City, Florida, where she was employed as a pilot for West Florida Natural Gas Company, one of very few women who flew as corporate pilots at the time. (Contemporary newspapers reported that she was “one of three women corporation pilots in the country.”) Reflecting the sexist attitudes of the time, news features often described her as a “blue-eyed platinum blonde,” and made mention of “her personal aerodynamic attributes.” In an interview, Miss Merriam said that a major reason preventing more women from executive flying were, “executive’s wives, and executive’s secretaries.”

She had met Lieutenant (j.g.) Marvin G. (“Jack”) Smith, Jr., U.S. Navy, in 1958. Lieutenant Smith was executive officer of USS Vital (MSO-474), an Agile-class minesweeper homeported at Panama City. She moved to San Leandro, California, and worked as a contract instrument flight instructor at Oakland International Airport for the Sixth United States Army, which was then based at the Presidio of San Francisco.

Miss Merriam and Lieutenant Smith were married at Monterey, California, 23 September 1960. The couple later moved to Long Beach, where Lieutenant Commander Smith’s next ship, USS Endurance (AM-435), was homeported.

Prototype 1960 Cessna 182D Skylane, c/n 51623, N2323G. This airplane is very similar to that flown by Joan Merriam Smith on 17 February 1965. (Cessna Aircraft Company)

In February 1965, Joan Merriam Smith was flying for Rajay Industries out of Long Beach, California. (Rajay was a turbocharger manufacturer which had supplied the turbos for Mrs. Smith’s Apache.) She had been conducting functional and reliability tests on a modified Cessna 182C Skylane, N8784T. The airplane was owned by the V. E. Kuster Co., of Long Beach, a supplier of oil field equipment.

The flight test plan for 17 February 1965 called for the Cessna to be flown at altitudes between 5,000 and 23,000 feet (1,524–7,010 meters). Mrs. Smith was flying. Also on board was her biographer, Beatrice Ann (“Trixie”) Schubert.

Smith was flying across the San Gabriel Mountains, which divide southern California’s coastal plain from the high desert. The highest peak in the range, Mount San Antonio, which was not far east of her course, rises to 10,046 feet (3,062 meters).

The San Gabriel Mountains of southern California, viewed from the south in winter. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Witnesses said that the airplane had been flying normally, estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000 feet (305–610 meters) above the mountainous terrain, when the right wing folded back along the fuselage. The airplane, with the engine revving, went into a dive and crashed into the north slope of Blue Ridge, a few miles west of Wrightwood, California, 10–12 seconds later. There was an explosion and fire.

Joan Merriam Smith and Trixie Ann Schubert were killed.

Investigators found that both wings had failed outboard of the struts. The outer wing panels, both ailerons and the left elevator were located approximately 1½ miles (2½ kilometers) from the point of impact. Examination showed that the aircraft had suffered severe loads. “There was no evidence of fatigue or failure of the aircraft before the inflight structural failure.”

The Civil Aeronautics Board reported the Probable Cause: “The pilot entered an area of light to moderate turbulence at high speed, during which aerodynamic forces exceeding the structural strength of the aircraft caused in-flight structural failure.” According to the CAB, the Cessna 182 had an airspeed in excess of 190 miles per hour (306 kilometers per hour) when it entered the area of turbulence.

Her remains were interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Cypress, California.

(Scott Wilson/Find a Grave)
Harmon Aviatrix Trophy (NASM)

For her accomplishment, Joan Merriam Smith was posthumously awarded the Harmon Aviatrix Trophy for 1965. At a ceremony held in the Indian Treaty Room of the Executive Office Building, 15 December 1965, the trophy was presented to her husband, Lieutenant Commander Marvin G. Smith, Jr., by Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Mrs. Smith had intended to attempt an altitude record with the turbocharged Skylane. On 20 July 1965, her husband, Marvin G. Smith, set the record at 10,689.6 meters (35,070.9 feet), flying a Cessna 210A Centurion with an IO-470 engine.²

TDiA would like to thank Ms. Tiffany Ann Brown for suggesting this subject, and for her invaluable contribution.

¹ Fate on a Folded Wing: The True Story of Pioneering Solo Pilot Joan Merriam Smith, by Tiffany Ann Brown. Lucky Bat Books, 2019.

² FAI Record File Number 9977 (Class C, Sub-Class C1c: powered airplanes, takeoff weight 1000 to 1750 kg).

© 2020, Bryan R. Swopes

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12 May 1953

Jean L. "Skip" Ziegler, with the Bell X-5 at Edwards Air Force Base, 1952. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas.
Jean L. “Skip” Ziegler, with a Bell X-5 at Edwards Air Force Base, 1952. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

12 May 1953: A Boeing B-50A-5-BO Superfortress, 46-011, modified to carry a Bell X-2 supersonic research rocketplane, was engaged in a captive test flight at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) over Lake Ontario, between Canada and the United States. The number two X-2, 46-675, was in the bomb bay.

The bomber was equipped with a system to keep the X-2’s liquid oxygen tank filled as the cryogenic oxidizer boiled off. With Bell’s Chief of Flight Research, test pilot Jean Leroy (“Skip”) Ziegler, in the bomb bay above the X-2, the system operation was being tested.

There was an explosion. The X-2 fell from the bomber and dropped into Lake Ontario, between Trenton, Ontario, Canada, and Rochester, New York, U.S.A.  Skip Ziegler and an engineer aboard the bomber, Frank Wolko, were both lost. A technician, Robert F. Walters, who was in the aft section of the B-50 with Wolko, was badly burned and suffered an injured eye.

The B-50’s pilots, William J. Leyshon and David Howe, made an emergency landing at the Bell Aircraft Corporation factory airport at Wheatfield, New York (now, the Niagara Falls International Airport, IAG). The bomber was so heavily damaged that it never flew again.

Heavy fog over the lake hampered search efforts. Neither the bodies of Ziegler and Wolko or the wreckage of the X-2 were found.

A Bell X-2 rocketplane is loaded aboard the Boeing B-50A Superfortress "mothership," 46-011. (U.S. Air Force)
A Bell X-2 rocketplane is loaded aboard the Boeing B-50A-5-BO Superfortress “mothership,” 46-011. (U.S. Air Force)

After a series of explosions of early rocketplanes, the X-1A, X-1-3, X-1D and the X-2,  investigators discovered that leather gaskets which were used in the fuel system had been treated with tricresyl phosphate (TCP). When this was exposed to liquid oxygen an explosion could result. The leather gaskets were removed from the other rocketplanes and the explosions stopped.

The X-2 was a joint project of the U.S. Air Force and NACA (the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA). The rocketplane was designed and built by Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York, to explore supersonic flight at speeds beyond the capabilities of the earlier Bell X-1 and Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket. Two X-2s were built.

In addition to the aerodynamic effects of speeds in the Mach 2.0–Mach 3.0 range, engineers knew that the high temperatures created by aerodynamic friction would be a problem, so the aircraft was built from stainless steel and K-Monel, a copper-nickel alloy.

The Bell Aircraft Corporation X-2 was 37 feet, 10 inches (11.532 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 3 inches (9.830 meters) and height of 11 feet, 10 inches (3.607 meters). Its empty weight was 12,375 pounds (5,613 kilograms) and loaded weight was 24,910 pounds (11,299 kilograms).

The X-2 was powered by a throttleable two-chamber Curtiss-Wright XLR25-CW-1 rocket engine that produced 2,500–15,000 pounds of thrust (11.12–66.72 kilonewtons)

Boeing EB-50D Superfortress 48-096 with a Bell X-2 (U.S. Air Force)

Rather than use its limited fuel capacity to take off and climb to altitude, the X-2 was dropped from a modified heavy bomber as had been the earlier rocketplanes.

The launch altitude was 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). After the fuel was exhausted, the X-2 glided to a touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base.

The X-2 reached a maximum speed of Mach 3.196 (2,094 miles per hour/3,370 kilometers per hour) and maximum altitude of 126,200 feet (38,466 meters).

Bell X-2 46-675 on its transportation dolly at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1952. (NASA)
Bell X-2 46-675 on its transportation dolly at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1952. (NASA)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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12 May 1938

U.S. Army Air Corps YB-17 Flying Fortresses numbers 80 and 82 fly alongside S.S. Rex, 620 nautical miles east of Sandy Hook, 12 May 1938. (Photograph by Major George W. Goddard, U.S. Army Air Corps)

12 May 1938: Three Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bombers of the 49th Bombardment Squadron, 2nd Bombardment Group, departed Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York, in heavy rain and headed eastward over the Atlantic Ocean. Their mission, assigned by Major General Frank M. Andrews, commanding General Headquarters, U.S. Army Air Corps, was to locate and photograph the Italian passenger liner, S.S. Rex, then on a transatlantic voyage to New York City. The purpose was to demonstrate the capabilities and effectiveness of long-range bombers.

Boeing YB-17 Flying Fortress 36-151, 42nd Bombardment Squadron, 2nd Bombardment Group, Number 80, in flight over New York City, 28 March 1937. The Art Deco skyscraper behind the bomber is the Chrysler Building, 1,046 feet (319 meters) tall. (American Air Museum in Britain)

The flight was led by Major Caleb Vance Haynes, commanding officer of the 49th Bombardment Squadron, flying B-17 number 80. The 2nd Bomb Group commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Olds, was aboard Haynes’ B-17, along with an NBC radio crew to broadcast news of the interception live across the country. Reporters from the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune were aboard the other airplanes.

1st Lieutenant Curtis Emerson LeMay, Air Corps, United States Army.

The planning of the interception and in-flight navigation was performed by First Lieutenant Curtis E. LeMay. Position reports from S.S. Rex were obtained and forwarded to LeMay as the aircraft were taxiing for takeoff.

The flight departed Mitchel Field at 8:45 a.m. They encountered heavy rain, hail, high winds and poor visibility, but at 12:23 p.m., the Flying Fortresses broke out of a squall line and the passenger liner was seen directly ahead. They flew alongside the ship at 12:25 p.m., 620 nautical miles (1,148.24 kilometers) east of Sandy Hook, New York. They were exactly on the time calculated by Lieutenant LeMay.

The B-17s made several passes for still and motion picture photography while NBC broadcast the event on radio.

Colonel Olds would rise to the rank of Major General and command 2nd Air Force during World War II. He was the father of legendary fighter pilot Brigadier General Robin Olds. Major Hayes served in various combat commands and retired at the rank of Major General in 1953.

Curtis LeMay would be a major in command of the 305th Bombardment Group, a B-17 unit, at the beginning of World War II. He personally led many combat missions over Europe, and would command the 4th Bombardment Wing, then the 3rd Air Division. By the end of the war, he was in command of XXI Bomber Command based in the Marianas Islands. From 1948 to 1957, General LeMay commanded the Strategic Air Command. He served as Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force., 1957–1961. General LeMay was Chief of Staff, United States Air Force, from 1961 to 1965.

At the time of the interception of the Rex, there were only 12 B-17s in the Air Corps inventory: the original Y1B-17 service development airplanes. By the end of production in 1945, 12,731 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers had been built by three aircraft manufacturers.

Boeing YB-17 Flying Fortress 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing Y1B-17 Flying Fortress 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)

The Boeing B-17 (Model 299B, previously designated Y1B-17, and then YB-17) was a pre-production service test prototype. Thirteen had been ordered by the Air Corps. It was 68 feet, 4 inches (20.828 meters long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9 inches (31.633 meters) and the overall height was 18 feet, 4 inches (5.588 meters).

Boeing YB-17 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)

The YB-17 was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged 1,823.129-cubic-inch-displacement (29.876 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division Cyclone G59 (R-1820-51) nine-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6.45:1. The R-1820-51 had a Normal Power rating of 800 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 1,000 horsepower at 2,200 r.p.m. for Takeoff, burning 100-octane gasoline. A long carburetor intake on top of the engine nacelles visually distinguishes the YB-17 from the follow-on YB-17A. The engines drove three-bladed Hamilton Standard constant-speed propellers through a 0.6875:1 gear reduction. The R-1820-51 was 3 feet, 9.06 inches (1.145 meters) long and  4 feet, 6.12 inches (1.375 meters) in diameter. It weighed 1,200.50 pounds (544.54 kilograms).

Boeing YB-17 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)

The YB-17 had an empty weight of 24,465 pounds (11,097 kilograms), gross weight of 34,880 pounds (15,821 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 42,600 pounds (19,323 kilograms). The maximum speed was 256 miles per hour (412 kilometers per hour) at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters). Its service ceiling was 30,600 feet (9,327 meters) and the maximum range was 3,320 miles (5,343 kilometers).

The YB-17 could carry 8,000 pounds (3,629 kilograms) of bombs. Defensive armament consisted of five air-cooled Browning .30-caliber machine guns.

Boeing YB-17 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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12 May 1902

Augusto Severo de Albuquerque Maranhão. (Musée de l'air)
Augusto Severo de Albuquerque Maranhão. (Musée de l’air)

12 May 1902: Aeronaut Augusto Severo de Albuquerque Maranhão and engineer Georges Saché lifted off aboard the semi-rigid airship Pax, which Severo had designed, at Vaugirard, Paris.

This was Severo’s second airship. He had designed and built a larger craft, Bartolomeu de Gusmão, eight years earlier in Brazil. It had been destroyed by gusty winds. After raising enough money to build a new ship, he went to Paris, France. His new airship was a semi-rigid keel-and-girder type. The envelope was silk but it was given some rigidity by a structure of bamboo.

The craft was approximately 30 meters (98.4 feet) long and 12.4 meters (40.7 feet) in diameter. The volume of the hydrogen gas used for buoyancy was about 2,330 cubic meters (82,283 cubic feet). A gondola was suspended below.

Though he had planned to power the craft with electric motors and batteries, time and money forced Severo to substitute internal combustion engines. Pax was propelled by two Société Buchet engines, with a 24-horsepower engine driving a 6 meter (19.7 feet), two-bladed propeller in a pusher configuration at the rear, and a second, 16 horsepower engine driving a 5 meter (16.4 feet) propeller in tractor configuration at the front of the airship. The propellers turned at 50 r.p.m.

Augusto Severo had designed both of his airships with a new method which increased their stability in flight. The gondola, rather than being suspended by ropes or cables, was rigidly attached to the envelope above with a structure of bamboo. This structure continued inside the envelope from front to rear and formed a trapezoid. This prevented the oscillation that was common with a more flexible arrangement.

Alberto Santos-Dumont with Augusto Severo and Georges Saché , 12 May 1902.
Alberto Santos-Dumont with Augusto Severo and Georges Saché, 12 May 1902.

Very early on the morning of 12 May 1902, Augusto Severo took his new airship on its first flight. It soon reached approximately 1,200 feet (365 meters). It then exploded, caught fire and fell to the ground near Monteparnasse Cemetery. The descent took approximately 8 seconds. Both men were killed.

 A contemporary newspaper article reported the accident:

AIRSHIP DISASTER.

M. SEVERO AND HIS ASSISTANT KILLED.

TERRIBLE SCENE IN MID-AIR

At an early hour one morning recently all Paris was startled by the report that M. Severo, the Brazilian deputy, and his assistant, M. Sachet, had been killed while making an excursion in the steerable balloon Pax.

M. Severo and his mechanician left the balloon shed, which is behind the Montparnasse Railway Station, at half-past five in the morning in the Pax. The Brazilian, in his eagerness to make the free ascent, had slept alongside the balloon for the last few nights, waiting until the weather should be entirely propitious.

At daybreak he decided that the favourable moment had arrived. Workmen were hastily summoned, the last preparations completed, and the motors started. The Pax left the shed of M. Lachambre for her first free voyage in the air.

The airship Pax outside its shed in Paris.
The airship Pax outside its shed in Paris.

The Brazilian deputy, who was naturally of a gay and genial temperament, was delighted with the ideal morning. He and M. Sachet got the machinery ready, while M. Lachambre and his assistants held on the guide-rope, until Pax should be clear of the surroundings.

As M. Severo cried “Let go!” amid much fluttering of handkerchiefs the Pax rose quietly and steadily, and the calm, blue sky seemed to promise a pleasant excursion.

The propellers are turning as Pax is readied to ascend, 12 May 1902.
The propellers are turning as Pax is readied to ascend, 12 May 1902.

For the first few minutes all went well, and the motors seemed to be working satisfactorily. The airship answered the helm readily and admiring exclamations rose from the crowd. “Let’s follow her,” cried those on bicycles and motor-cars, and immediately a mad race commenced in the direction taken by the balloon.

Pax ascends on the morning of 12 May 1902.
Pax ascends on the morning of 12 May 1902.

But as the Pax rose higher she was seen to fall off from the wind, while the aeronaut could be seen vainly endeavouring to keep her head on.

Then M. Severo commenced throwing out ballast, and M. Lachambre, anxiously watching the balloon from his premises remarked that something had evidently gone wrong.

THE AIRSHIP IN FLAMES.

All this time the Pax was gradually soaring higher and higher, until, just as the balloon was over the Montparasse cemetery, at the height of probably 2000ft, a sheet of flame was seen to shoot up from one of the motors, and instantly the immense silk envelope, containing 9000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas, was enveloped in leaping tongues of fire.

The aeronauts were distinctly seen to be gesticulating despairingly, but no mortal aid could reach them.

As soon as the flames came in contact with the gas, a tremendous explosion followed, an din an instant all that was left of the beautiful airship fell with lightning swiftness to the earth.

After the hydrogen explodes, burning pieces of the airship Pax fall to the city street below, 5:40 a.m., 12 May 1902..
After the hydrogen explodes, burning pieces of the airship Pax fall to the city street below, 5:40 a.m., 12 May 1902.

“I shall never be able to forget the awful sight,” said a spectator; “it made me dizzy, and I was compelled to turn my head away. When I looked again everything had disappeared, and all the people in the street were running towards the spot where the balloon had fallen.

“When I reached the Avenue du Maine the Pax, mangled beyond description, was lying across the street almost at the corner of the Rie de la Gaite, and the two ill-fated passengers lay dead amid the ruins. M. Severo had fallen on his feet. The upper part of his face was uninjured, but blood was flowing from his mouth an dears. The lower part of his body was crushed and horribly mutilated.

“Near him was Sachet, who had fallen on his face, which was dreadfully burned and congested. His hands, and, in fact, his whole body were covered with blisters where he had been burned, and he had also sustained several fractures. It was a gruesome sight, and it must have been a fearful death.”

Crash site of the airship Pax.
Crash site of the airship Pax.

A TERRIFIC REPORT.

“The noise of the explosion,” declared one spectator, “made me jump out of bed. I thought of Martinique and wondered if out turn had come, and when I ran to the window, there were two men lying, crushed beneath the remainder of the balloon.”

Another bystander told how Mme. Severo, wife of the aeronaut, whom he had laughingly kissed only twenty minutes before he met his death, fell unconscious to the ground as she witnessed the calamity which overtook her husband.

Poor woman! He had embarked his all in the airship which carried him to his death, and now she is left with seven children and no resources.

M. SANTOS DUMONT’S OPINION.

“I cannot tell you how very sorry I feel at what has happened, ” says M. Santos Dumont, “but I am not greatly surprised. M. Severo did not know anything about airships. He had only been up once or twice in his balloon, and was quite incapable of managing it. The fact that he commenced throwing out ballast when the balloon was going up showed how little he knew.

“Then his escape-valve was only about three yards from the motor, and my opinion is that, as in going up the balloon dilates and the gas must escape through the valve, in so escaping it came in contact with the motor, which was far too near the balloon, and that caused the explosion. Or if the valve did not work, the balloon may have burst and the gas immediately took fire; but a balloon must be built very stupidly to catch fire.

“From the construction of the Pax, however, it seems to me as if it had been made on purpose to kill somebody.”

M. Severo was thirty-eight years old and a member of the Brazilian Parliament. After the catastrophe his watch was found flattened in his waistcoat pocket. It had stopped at 5.40 a.m., the moment of the accident. The body will be taken to Rio Janeiro for interment. His fellow victim, the mechanic Sachet, was only twenty-five years of age and unmarried.

The balloon which began and ended its career in disaster was cigar-shaped, 100ft long, and 36ft in diameter. It was driven by screw fore and aft.

The Star, Christchurch, New Zealand, Monday 30 June 1902, No. 7411, Page 2, Column 7. (The photographic images are from other sources and were not a part of the newspaper article.)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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