American Airlines Flight 28 Crash Site


An American Airlines Douglas DC-3

 


A Lockheed B-34 Ventura Bomber

 

   American Airlines Flight 28 was a domestic passenger flight that crashed on October 23, 1942 near Palm Springs, California after being struck in mid air by a Army Air Corps B-34 bomber. The B-34 suffered only minor damage, and landed safely at the Army Airport of the Sixth Ferrying Command, Palm Springs, California.

   All nine passengers and three crewmembers on board the DC-3 airliner died in the crash and fire; neither of the two Army pilots aboard the B-34 was injured. The army pilot was later tried on manslaughter charges, but was acquitted by a court martial trial board. The victims included Academy Award winning composer Ralph Rainger, who had written a number of hit songs movie themes including "Blue Hawaii", "Love in Bloom" (which was Jack Benny's theme song), and "Thanks for the Memory", Bob Hope's signature song.

 

   American Airlines Flight 28 was a Douglas DC-3, registration NC16017, piloted by Captain Charles Fred Pedley, 42, who had flown for 12 years with American Airlines, and had logged over 17,000 hours of flight time. The co-pilot was First Officer Louis Frederick Reppert, Jr., a 26-year-old pilot with 800 hours of flight time and six months' employment by the airline. The stewardess was Estelle Frances Regan, age 27.

   The Army Air Corps Lockheed B-34 Ventura IIA bomber, S/N 41-38116, piloted by Lt. William Norman Wilson, 25, attached to the Air Transport Command and stationed at Long Beach, California. The copilot was Staff Sergeant Robert Reed Leicht, also 25, of the Army Air Forces Ferrying Command, Sixth Ferrying Command, Army Air Forces, and also stationed at Long Beach.

 

   Flight 28 departed from Burbank, California at 4:36 p.m. on October 23, 1942 on a flight to New York. At 5:02 p.m., Captain Pedley reported his position over Riverside, California, and estimated his arrival over Indio, California, at 5:22 p.m. and 9,000 feet. At 4:26 p.m., the B-34 bomber departed from Long Beach, California, en route to Palm Springs. Lieutenant Wilson proceeded to Riverside, circled twice near March Field, and continued on toward the San Gorgonio Pass.

   At approximately 5:15 p.m., at an altitude of approximately 9,000 feet, Flight 28 was hit by the B-34. The DC-3 lost its rudder to the propeller from the B-34's right engine, along with portions of its tail. It came down in a flat spin and impacted a rocky ridge below San Jacinto Peak, with parts of the aircraft tumbling down the side of the rocky slope and bursting into flames.

     Tourists and soldiers came running up the ridge from resort town of Palm Springs to see if they could help the passengers but were fought back by the flames.

 

  Lt. Wilson later testified at his court martial that he first realized that the two aircraft had collided when he heard a "noise and a wrenching of my ship up... to my left." He also testified that he noticed that his aircraft handled sluggishly and the right engine felt "rough." He was told by his copilot that they had hit the airliner. The B-34 called the Palm Springs tower to notify them of the accident and then subsequently landed at Palm Springs Army Airport with only minor damage to the right propeller and engine nacelle.

  The Burbank operator at the company station reported that he had picked up a message from Flight 28 at exactly 5:15 p.m., saying: "Flight 28 from Burbank... correction Burbank from Flight 28..." The radio operator was only able to distinguish the flight calling Burbank, and though he attempted to respond, he received no answer from Flight 28. He then directed the message to the American Airlines Flight Superintendent at Burbank. The Civil Aeronautics Board determined that, as Flight 28 crashed at 5:15 p.m., it was possible that the pilots were attempting to report the collision.

 

  Three separate investigations into the accident occurred: a coroner's inquest, a military investigation and court martial, and a Congressional investigation of the Civil Aeronautics Board. All three investigations were independent of the others.

  The coroner's inquest was the first investigation to be completed, occurring shortly after the crash. Its purpose was not to decide blame, but rather to determine the exact manner of death of the involved individuals. During the inquest, both Army pilots testified that they had seen the airliner, but that they had  lost sight of it when their aircraft had flown into smoke from a nearby forest fire.

  Air safety investigators of the Civil Aeronautics Board arrived at the scene of the crash at midnight of October 23. The remnants of the aircraft were placed under military guard for the duration of the investigation. During the course of the investigation, it was learned that Lt. Wilson of the B-34 and First Officer Reppert of Flight 28 had trained together, and had met up the previous night at a cafe and talked about their chances of meeting while in flight. Though they briefly discussed the possibility of signalling each other, they made no such plans to the effect. The B-34 copilot, Sergeant Leigh, told investigators that Wilson had confided that he'd like to fly close to the airliner and "thumb his nose at him." It was for this reason that the bomber circled twice around March Air Force Base in order to ensure that the aircraft would meet up during the flight to Palm Springs.

   Depositions revealed that Lt Wilson flew his B-34 level with the DC-3 and rocked his wings in a greeting to First Officer Reppert. When Flight 28 did not respond in kind, the B-34 crossed over the airliner's line of flight and throttled back to allow the slower DC-3 to catch up. Lt Wilson flew close to the airliner to attempt a second greeting, but misjudged the distance between the aircraft, and when he tried to pull up, the B-34's right propeller sliced through the airliner's tail section.

   The Civil Aeronautics Board determined that the cause of the crash was the "wreckless and irresponsible conduct of Lt. William N. Wilson in deliberately maneuvering a bomber in dangerous proximity to an airliner in an unjustifiable attempt to attract the attention of the first officer (copilot) of the latter plane."

   Lt. Wilson faced manslaughter charges by the Army. During the course of the court martial proceedings, a number of military witnesses produced testimony that corroborated the findings of the CAB.  However, the court-martial trial board acquitted Lt. Wilson of blame in the accident.

 

  The Lockheed B-34 Ventura that collided with American Airlines Flight 28 was repaired and re-designated as an RB-34A-4, a target tug. On August 5, 1943 this same RB-34, serial number 41-38116, suffered engine failure during a ferry flight and crashed into Wolf Hill near Smithfield, Rhoad Island, killing all three crew members.

 

   Less than 1% of the American Airlines DC-3 remains at the crash site today.

 

Stewardess Estelle Regan

Composer Ralph Rainger

Interesting article on this Forgotten Composer.

 

 

A Cross painted high on the ridge with a star for each of the 12 victims aboard Flight 28; 
Capt. Charles F. Pedley, pilot, Irving, Texas.
L. F. Reppert, first officer, Fort Worth, Texas.
Estelle Regan, stewardess, Dallas, Texas.
Lt. Joseph R. Rosser, Santa Ana, Cal., Army air base.
Frank Bird, Lockheed aircraft employee

M. C. Henderson, state industrial commission, Phoenix, Ariz.
C. Baker, Phoenix accompanying Henderson.
B. R. Vest Jr., of Allison Engineering corporation.
E. H. Wallace, Las Vegas, Nev.
L. A. Hege, Winston-Salem, N. C.

 

 

 

 

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