Originally published in The Smithfield Times magazine, August, 2015.
A Most Unusual Air Battle Over Boston
By Jim Ignasher
“Just give me a gun!” Was all she would say. “Just give me a gun!”
The patrolman was growing weary of the young woman’s refusal to answer his questions, but showed patience by reminding himself that she was obviously ill. One reason he loved his job was because of the unending variety of situations he encountered, and this one was certainly different. Looking at the woman, he wondered why someone so pretty would do what she did. There had to be more to the story, but whatever it was, she wasn’t telling.
The date was May 22, 1936. The setting was the Boston Airport. (Today known as Logan Airport.) Earlier in the day the woman had arrived at the hangar belonging to Intercity Airlines and asked to take a one hour observation flight over the city. She had taken several such flights in the past and always with the same handsome young pilot whom she requested again. However, that pilot, she was told, was unavailable that day, and was asked by the operations officer if she would consider flying with someone else. After some hesitation she agreed, and the job fell to Charles W. Sutherland.
Almost from the start something about the woman made Sutherland uncomfortable, but he couldn’t say exactly what that “something” was. She was attractive and well dressed, wearing a white linen skirt under a finely tailored blue coat. Her hair and makeup were perfect. Maybe that was it; she looked more like she was ready for an important date than someone who wanted to go flying.
They climbed into an open-cockpit bi-plane, of the type commonly seen in old World War I movies. The seats were in tandem. While Sutherland took the front seat where the pilot’s controls were located, the woman sat in the rear. There was a rearview mirror, similar to those in an automobile, mounted above the front cockpit which allowed Sutherland to periodically glance back at his passenger as he went though the pre-flight safety check. Although Sutherland’s gut told him something wasn’t right, the woman’s demeanor seemed normal.
Flying in such open aircraft generally required a leather helmet and goggles. The helmet kept the wind from pulling at ones hair and offered minimal protection in an accident, while the goggles protected ones eyes from wind and grit. The woman seemed reluctant to don the headgear, and Sutherland wondered if it was because of her stylish hair-do, but finally and carefully, she put it on.
Seeing that the woman was settled in, Sutherland started the engine and taxied out to the runway. The weather was clear and seasonable and he hoped the flight would be nothing more than routine. The takeoff and rise to altitude went smoothly, and in a few minutes he leveled the plane at 10,000 feet and began a long lazy circle over Boston Harbor that would take them around the city and back to the airport.
Things appeared to be going well, and the pilot began to wonder if his fears had been unfounded. Periodically glancing in the rearview mirror, he saw that the lady seemed to be enjoying the flight, but then she suddenly unfastened her seatbelt and begin shifting around in her seat. At one point she leaned way out of the cockpit to peer over the side. Sutherland turned to ask if she was alright and she nodded, but didn’t smile. To him, it appeared as if she was trying to make up her mind about something – was she going to jump? Sutherland couldn’t take the chance. He put the plane into a steep dive with the intent of returning to the airport, but as the plane descended the woman’s behavior became more erratic.
At 1,500 feet she suddenly pulled off her helmet and goggles and tossed them overboard, letting her thick brown hair billow in the slipstream. Then she tried to climb out of the airplane! As she put one leg over the side Sutherland knew he had to act quickly. Unfastening his own safety belt, he stood up, reached back, and grabbed her by the only thing her could – her hair. He then used his brawn to pull her back into her seat, but by this point she was intent on finishing what she’d come to do. She fought back, hitting, scratching, swearing, and biting, but Sutherland held tight.
There he was, standing up in the airplane roughly 2,000 feet over the city, with one hand on the control stick and the other gripping the woman’s hair, struggling to keep the ship steady as he searched for the airport. Strong winds coming in off the ocean buffeted and rocked the plane making the situation all the more difficult, for it wouldn’t take much to toss both of them into space.
The battle against life and death raged for the next fifteen minutes over the skies of Boston. There was no way for Sutherland to call for help, and there was nothing anyone could do even if there had been. He was on his own, trapped in the sky struggling with a deranged woman who could at any moment bring both of them hurtling to their deaths.
She screamed and swore at Sutherland, calling him every name in the book, and a few that hadn’t been invented yet, all the while trying every move she could think of to get him to let go. The question was; did she want to kill herself more than Sutherland wanted to save her?
She flailed and twisted. Sutherland locked his arm and continued to hold tight. Every time he brought the plane closer to the ground she would cause him to jerk back on the controls and regain altitude. As the low flying plane passed erratically over the city, people on the ground thought it was some sort of publicity stunt, but for what they weren’t sure.
The battle continued, and both participants grew tired. Sutherland still held firm, but his arm was cramping. He could feel his strength ebbing and wondered how much longer he could hold on. Then an idea came to him. He swung the plane hard throwing the woman off balance and causing her to tumble into her seat. In that few seconds it took her to recover, he switched hands, and battle started anew. Spotting the airport ahead, he made a straight line for it. Boston’s airport was a busy one, and he hoped other air traffic would see him coming and get out of his way. If it didn’t, then his efforts would have been for naught.
Miraculously, he managed to land the plane in his contorted position, and as soon as the wheels touched the tarmac the woman stopped fighting, slumped in her seat, and accepted defeat. Airport employees raced out in a car to meet them and gave Sutherland a hand in holding the woman until Boston police could arrive.
Even though the woman had flown with Intercity Airlines before, nobody had ever bothered to ask her name, for such things were not required in 1936. She carried no identification, and when police questioned her all she would say was, “Just give me a gun.” Exasperated, they took her to a nearby hospital for evaluation where she was admitted as a “Jane Doe”. Her picture was posted in local papers hoping someone would recognize her, but follow-up articles for this story could not be located.
As for Mr. Sutherland, he was hailed as a hero, and he no doubt decided to trust his instincts more in the future. What motivated the pretty young woman to try to end her life is unknown, but her actions made for what is perhaps the most unusual aerial battle to ever take place over Boston.