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Launched Aug 26 1996.


This reproduction of a 1927 article describes thinking about aircraft accidents in 1927. It was provided to us by the office of Public Affairs of the NTSB around 1973 by Ed Slattery.

December, 1927

Inquiry into the Causes of Fatal Accidents,


REQUESTED to inquire into the causes of fatal accidents in commercial aviation — fatal accidents that have a tendency to reflect against this type of flying and on the manufacture of airplanes for private and commercial uses — U. S. AIR SERVICES has learned from an authoritative source in the Department of Commerce, Aeronautics Branch, that 19 of the 25 fatal crashes during the six months between January and June of this year could have been avoided by more experienced pilots. Mr. Frank J. Lynch, a war flyer and now president and general manager of The Sun Tube Corporation, New York City, is in the same boat with thousands of others who want the facts.

A survey of the accident reports made by the Department of Commerce’s Aeronautics Branch indicates the same old story; that is, inexperience in the majority of cases. The causes of the accidents may be set forth in three major subdivisions: Weather, stalls and stretching glides, and structural failure.

The Aeronautics Branch figures for the January-June period are as follows:

Fatal accidents, 25; fatalities, 43, of which 15 were for pilots and 28 for passengers.

The causes set forth by the Department with respect to this particular group of crashes are: Error in pilotage, 13; power-plant failure, 3; weather, 2, and structural failure, 7.

Education is the only remedy to prevent these common causes from reappearing in statistics every six months. The Aeronautics Branch pleads and implores with the ambitious, young and inexperienced airman, who has built a plane in his garage, to submit it for thorough inspection first. On two distinct occasions home-made planes went aloft after the Aeronautics Branch gave its opinion that they should not fly, and the planes crumpled up in the air, killing their occupants.

That potential pilots should receive more time on dead-stick landings and emergency landings in the schools to prevent them from spinning in after stalls, either with dead engine or not, is another vital point to be emphasized in order to cut down the “error in pilotage” figures.

The Aeronautics Branch or no other official or semi-official organization desires to place on the grave of a dead pilot a sign reading “Dumbbell,” and the general public is left with the thought that, inasmuch as the engine cut out on the take-off and the plane crashed, flying never will be safe until engines stop the practice of quitting before the plane has reached a safe altitude.

If the Aeronautics Branch could get before the public the actual findings of its investigators—and that word “propriety” seems to be the stumbling block at present—a large number of skeptics and die-hards would come over to the side of flying.

Weather probably always will remain unbeatable but there are many times when the pilot can beat the weather by sticking to the ground if it is possible for him to do so. One report to the Aeronautics Branch, assigning weather as the cause of a fatal accident, states that ice formed on the wings and forced the pilot down to the ground for a crash. That pilot was flying a mail route and it rested with him whether to go on when he found the ice getting thicker and thicker.

Another “weather” accident reported by the investigators involved the case of a pilot who, knowing that fog which covered the particular field usually clears about 10 o’clock in the morning, took off in anticipation of its clearing; got into a spin and crashed. The fog on that day did not clear as he had expected. It is doubtful if the public ever learned of these direct causes, which are not enough to scare a person away from flying.

The 13 “error in pilotage” cases involved engine cutouts on taking off and attempts to turn and get back to the field in the majority of cases. The remainder concerned attempts to stretch glides, and one collision. As long as pilots will attempt to get back into a field with a rapidly dying engine, this category will include most of the fatal accidents. The rule of every military field is to land straight ahead. It has been done time and again with little or no injury to the pilot.

STRUCTURAL failure will be eliminated, surely, in a very short period. The seven cases of structural failure involve, with few exceptions, home-made products. One report, assigning structural failure as the cause, tells of the flight of an old Jenny, whose wings and fuselage had been clipped. In the air it ceased to be an airplane, got into a dive and never recovered. Report No. 2 under this heading tells of an experimental homemade job, which the Department warned against. The wings folded in flight. Report No. 3 involves an old Can Canuck, the control connections of which snapped and were carried away in flight. Another was an experimental monoplane, built by a farmer, which the Department had warned against. The wings fluttered and he was killed. Another experimental monoplane developed excessive wing flutter and resulted in the death of the pilot.

The wings of a commercial type prod uced in small numbers have ripped off in flight, but the Aeronautics Branch has found the cause, assigned an inspector to the plant and firmly believes it will receive no more reports from this type with respect to lost wings.

Statistics and detailed reports on the accidents between June and December will be available early next year. Among them will be included the crash of the Fokker monoplane in New Jersey, several weeks ago, with the loss of seven lives. All sorts of horrible newspaper accounts of the crash were published, but the conclusion was arrived at by Department of Commerce inspectors that it was brought about by the pilot’s heroic, yet vain, efforts to stretch his glide in order to get his passengers down safely. Had Harry Chandler been flying alone on the night transcontinental mail, he would not have hesitated to “set down” his Douglas mail plane in a forest. His thoughts this time were for the safety of his passengers.

Just as automobile fatalities may be grouped under direct causes, which causes will remain as long as there are humans driving them, so will aircraft fatalities be grouped until a nonstallable ship is produced; until a nonspinnable ship is produced; until an infallible engine is produced; and until a perfect human being is born to fly the finished product.

And we are headed in that direction.

SIX MONTHS from the day he reached an altitude of 42,470 feet in an Army Air Corps balloon, Capt. Hawthorne C. Gray, of Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois, on November 4th ascended in an effort to stake out an official claim on that mark which had been disallowed and succeeded to the point of duplicating the altitude mark to the inch—but he paid with his life.

The tragic end of Captain Gray’s brilliant career came under circumstances that probably never will be known. Robbed of the record last May because he elected to cheat death at that time by utilizing his parachute when the balloon dropped with terrific speed, Captain Gray stepped into the basket and was found the next day, dead, on a farm near Sparta, Tennessee. The fact that his oxygen tube was severed, as if by a knife, led to the almost unanimous conclusion that, while ripping open sand bags, the knife accidently cut the tube.

The 42,470 foot figure has been officially calibrated by the Bureau of Standards; and the National Aeronautic Association, mindful of the F. A. I. regulations requiring the pilot to be in possession of his aircraft on landing, nevertheless will seek to have the mark set down as being the highest point ever reached by man in any type of aircraft.