On May 30, 1912, during a flight exposition, a plane piloted by J. Clifford Turpin (1886-1966) plows into the grandstand at Meadows Race Track, located south of Georgetown along the Duwamish River. One spectator is killed instantly and another dies a day later. Sixteen people are injured, some maimed horribly, in Washington's first fatal airplane crash. The Meadows was the scene of Seattle's first airplane flight in 1910, and was paved over to create Boeing Field in 1928.
Trained by the Wright Brothers
Turpin and his flying partner, Phil Parmalee (1887-1912), learned how to fly under the tutelage of the Wright brothers, and since 1910 had traveled across the United States and Canada showcasing the wonders of powered flight. A few days before their arrival in Seattle, the two men performed in Vancouver, British Columbia, and then in Bellingham, where no airplane had ever flown before.
Their exhibitions were similar from city to city. They would both perform spins and rolls, and then Parmalee would carry one of their flight team a few thousand feet into the air, where the man would then do a parachute jump. Turpin and Parmalee would then have a five-mile airplane race, and the show would end with Parmalee taking his biplane as high as it could go, and then descending in a "dip of death" dive.
Both men flew planes that were designed by Parmalee in Los Angeles. These planes were more advanced than the ones they trained on with the Wright brothers, and were built for faster flight and greater maneuverability. Unlike the Wright brothers' planes, which had the propeller mounted in the rear, Parmalee's design had the propeller up front, powered by a much stronger motor.
A Fool Rushes In
On May 30, a huge crowd gathered at the Meadows Race Track to see amazing flights of derring-do. At around 2:30, Turpin's plane was wheeled down the race track, 200 yards east of the grandstand. The crowd cheered. The show was about to begin.
Parmalee and the mechanics tinkered with the engine a bit after it was fired up, and then gave Turpin the signal to take off. The biplane headed down the track toward the grandstand, where it was supposed to take flight right in front of the audience. But then, everything went wrong.
Just as the plane had covered half the distance toward the stands, a cameraman rushed out onto the track to snap a photo. Foolishly, he stood directly in the path of the oncoming plane. Turpin, who had not reached the speed needed to put the plane into flight, tried to raise the craft anyway in order not to hit the photographer. The underpowered biplane barely cleared the man's head but then veered to the left and headed directly toward the grandstand.
The spectators had almost no time to react as the plane bore down upon them. The left wing of the flying machine hit an iron pipe in front of the judge's stand, pivoting it further into the crowd. It hit hard, knocking people in every direction. The plane's whirling propeller chewed through the crowd before grinding to a halt.
George Quinby (1884-1912), one of the spectators standing right where the plane hit, was thrown back by the force of the crash. He died almost instantly, but his body wasn't identified until later that evening. The propeller had torn off most of his face.
Twelve-year-old Raymond Chapman (1900-1912) had been standing in front of the grandstand with his father when the plane hit. They had tried to run away when the saw the plane bearing down on them, but the iron pipe struck by the plane's wing collapsed and hit young Chapman in the head, fracturing his skull. The boy died the next day.
Seventeen people were injured by the accident, some of them grievously, with fractured arms, legs, and hands. Mrs. Edwin R. Lang (1862-?) had her hand crushed so badly it later had to be amputated. Other victims suffered deep gashes. A severed nose was seen lying in the blood-stained grass, as was a finger.
Turpin was pulled from the wreckage of his plane, alive but with his face badly crushed. The crowd helped move the injured into automobiles for quick transport to the county hospital in Georgetown. An unknown number of people suffering only minor cuts and bruises just wandered off and headed home under their own volition.
The crowd that remained was not without the morbidly curious. No sooner had the injured been tended to, when some people descended upon the plane wreckage to scavenge for souvenirs. After they started grabbing pieces of the propeller or other parts of the plane, a guard was brought over to keep the curio-hunters at bay.
Because a large number of people were still milling around, management at the Meadows decided to continue the air show as a way of breaking the gloom. Phil Parmalee addressed the crowd through a megaphone and asked if they wanted to see him make a flight. They cheered him on and he took to the air.
Parmalee did a few stunts and maneuvers, but when he came back down for a landing, the plane hit rather hard and bounced 25 feet before rolling to a stop. Parmalee again spoke to the crowd, asking if they wanted to see the parachutist make his jump. This time, most of the crowd shouted, "No!" and the show came to an end.
Death of His Friends
That evening, Clifford Turpin spoke to reporters from his hospital bed, and described the accident from his perspective. He only caught a glimpse of the photographer who ran out in front of his plane and caused the accident. When Turpin was told that spectators had been killed, he replied sadly, "The only thing I wish is that I had been killed myself" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 31, 1912). Unbeknownst to Turpin, one of his mentors, Wilbur Wright (1867-1912), had also died that day in Dayton, Ohio, after suffering a bout of typhoid fever.
While Turpin recovered in the hospital, Phil Parmalee traveled to Yakima to participate in another air show. During the exhibition on June 1, a gust of wind caused Parmalee's plane to crash, killing him instantly.
Upon hearing the news of his partner's death, Turpin vowed to never fly again.