On November 3, 1937, a Navy bomber and a Navy pursuit plane collide over Boeing Field during gunnery maneuvers. The two men in the pursuit plane parachute to safety, but all five men aboard the bomber perish as the planes crash into a cow pasture south of the runway. The five crash victims are Lieutenant Henry Twohy, Aviation Cadet Kenneth Rhuddy, Aviation Cadet Kenneth Schmidt, Aviation Machinist’s Mate First Class Matthew McCroddan, and Radioman First Class Russell Reagan. At the time, this is the largest aviation disaster to occur locally.
A Day Like Any Other…
It was a partly cloudy day, perfect for gunnery maneuvers. The planes were equipped with camera guns, which mimicked machine guns, but instead took a rapid succession of still photographs for later review. The two-winged bomber, a PM-2 type, “patrolled” the skies at 90 m.p.h., and two open-cockpit pursuit planes (Berliner-Joyce OJ-2's) took turns diving out of the clouds in simulated combat 3,500 feet off the ground.
Maneuvers of this type were common, but on this day something went horribly wrong. After about 15 “attack” dives at speeds of over 150 m.p.h., one of the pursuit planes came out of the clouds a bit too close to the bomber, with little time for evasion on the part of both pilots. The right wing of the smaller plane connected with the right wing of the bomber, crippling both planes.
…Ends in Tragedy
Aviation Chief Machinist’s Mate J. D. Goodsell and Seaman W. S. Bowman jumped from the damaged pursuit plane, although some witnesses on the ground seemed to think that they were thrown out on impact. The two men parachuted down, almost in shock, as their plane drilled itself into the ground below.
The bomber limped along for a few seconds, but then its wing collapsed, sending the craft into a violent tailspin. Its engines racing, the plane plummeted towards the ground. At some point Twohy, the pilot, was able to cut the motors, preventing a fire upon impact. None of the crew was able to escape the plane before it pancaked into the field, strewing gasoline-soaked wreckage over most of an acre.
It took hours to extricate the bodies from the wreckage. The men had been clutching their parachutes upon impact, unable to use them as they tumbled through the sky. The chutes, meant to save their lives, were instead used as shrouds to transport the dead men away from the crash site.
Ten-year-old Matthew McCrodden Jr. burst into his house after school, when his mother called him home from a football game. Suddenly facing a group of naval men and his teary-eyed mother, he knew something was amiss. “Do you remember how we used to talk about planes that crashed in the air?”, his mother asked. He softly replied that he did. “Well, daddy was killed in one today,” his mother choked out as the boy was reduced to sobs.
“You mustn’t do that,” she comforted him, “Daddy wouldn’t want that. He is gone now and you must take his place. You’re the man of the family.”
Gertrude Twohy was at home making preparations for her and her husband’s “semi-anniversary.” They had been married exactly six months ago, to the day. As she busied herself in their apartment, waiting for her handsome aviator husband to arrive home from Sand Point Naval Base, she turned on the radio, only to hear that her husband had perished in the crash along with four other men.
Only a few friends knew of Kenneth Rhuddy’s wife, Ann. Cadets were not allowed to marry until they had served a certain number of years, but Rhuddy had married his sweetheart, Ann, in secrecy seven months earlier. They kept their marriage under wraps, until the accident pulled the veil aside, revealing a grieving widow before anyone knew her as a wife.
An Unfortunate Accident
Although there were multiple witnesses to the accident, both on the ground and in the air, no clear consensus was arrived at for the cause of the crash. Many witnesses claimed to see a wing fall off one of the planes prior to impact, but the wreckage did not confirm this. The pilot of the wrecked pursuit plane felt that his plane had collapsed before impact, but the pilot of the other pursuit plane witnessed no structural damage to either plane before the crash.
The Navy produced records showing that both aircraft were fit for duty, and their investigative panel also concluded that neither pilot was negligent. It was hoped that the camera on board the plane would provide clues, but most of the film was ruined upon impact. In the end, the Navy determined that the crash was an unavoidable accident, and nothing more.