A Most Unusual Air Battle Over Boston – 1936

Originally published in The Smithfield Times magazine, August, 2015.

 A Most Unusual Air Battle Over Boston

 By Jim Ignasher

       “Lady, please,” the policeman begged, “all I want is your name and address for my report. Then I promise I’ll leave you alone.”

     “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.      

 

 

 

East Boston Airport – 1922

East Boston Airport – 1922

Boston, Massachusetts

Vintage Post Card View Of East Boston Airport

Vintage Post Card View Of East Boston Airport

     The East Boston Airport later grew to become Logan International Airport.

     The following newspaper article appeared in The New York Herald on May 16, 1922, Page 8.  

     Airport For Massachusetts

     Through the action of Governor Cox of Massachusetts in signing the bill providing for an airport in East Boston that Commonwealth becomes the first state in the Union to join with the Federal Government in establishing an airplane landing in conformity with the recommendations of the President.  Once again Massachusetts shows the way to other states in creating an institution which must eventually be imitated all over the country.

     Last March Mayor Curley of Boston wrote Governor Cox asking his help in obtaining the enactment of the bill, adding that of the $35,000 needed for the purpose Boston would have to pay about 40 percent, and that the city was prepared to assume that obligation.  Then he made two statements which showed that he was thoroughly aware of the future importance of aircraft.  One was that if the Federal Government adopted the ship subsidy it would inevitably tend to the development of a great merchant marine, which merchant marine, in the event of war, can best be protected through the service of aircraft.  He also pointed out that one inevitable result of the signing of the Four Power Treaty would be an “intense activity of the leading Powers of the world in aircraft development.”

     These are shrewd and far seeing observations, for a result of the failure of the Conference on the Limitation of Armaments to restrict aircraft building is the likelihood of just such activity as the Mayor of Boston pointed out.  In many parts of the country this possibility either has been overlooked or has not been considered worthy of much attention.  It is to the credit of Massachusetts and the city officials of Boston that they not only have foreseen this possibility, but had had the wisdom to act on the need created by the situation regarding aircraft. (End of article)    

East Boston Airport Accidents

                                      

      The following is a list of some early accidents/crashes which occurred at East Boston Airport.  For further information about any of them, refer to the “Aviation Accidents” – “Massachusetts” section of this website.  This is by no means a complete list of every accident that occurred at the airport, and others will be added as they become known.

     July 24, 1923: An army plane crashed on takeoff. 

     May 2, 1925: An army plane spun into the mud flats off runway.

     Dec. 19, 1925: A U.S. Army Curtis JN-4 crashed on landing.

     Dec. 19, 1928: A U.S. Army O2C biplane crashed in Boston Harbor.

     July 3, 1929: An army observation aircraft flipped on takeoff by gust of cross wind.

     July 8, 1929: Civilian airliner crashed making emergency landing.

     Aug. 27, 1929: Cessna aircraft crashed on approach.

     March 17, 1930: Army plane crashed in Boston Harbor.

     May 18, 1930: A Curtis monoplane crashed in water.   

     June 5, 1930: Fort Tri-motor passenger plane crashed on takeoff.  

     Sept. 27, 1930: Landing gear collapsed on army plane while landing.

     Feb. 26, & 27, 1934: Two U.S. Mail planes crashed into snow banks on landing.

     May 30, 1936: Army plane crashed into harbor.

     Dec. 22, 1937: “Santa Clause” parachuted over airport, landed in water, drowned.

     August 18, 1941: Army plane crashed into harbor.

    Sept. 15, 1941: Army P-40 aircraft collided with another aircraft.

    June 22, 1942: Army P-40 aircraft went into harbor at end of runway.

      

      

      

 

 

Boston Airport – July 3, 1929

Boston Airport – July 3, 1929

     On July 3, 1929, an O-1B army observation aircraft, (Ser. No. 27-285) was landing at Boston Airport when a gusty cross-wind caught the left side of the aircraft and flipped it so that the plane crashed on its right wing and nose.  Neither the pilot, 2nd Lt. T. R. Starratt, or his passenger, 1st Lt. S. G. Frierson, were injured. 

     Source:  Air Corps Aircraft Accident Report, dated July 3, 1929  

Boston Airport – June 28, 1942

Boston Airport – June 28, 1942

Updated March 7, 2016

     

P-40 Warhawk  U.S. Air Force Photo

P-40 Warhawk
U.S. Air Force Photo

     On June 28, 1942, 2nd Lt. Albert J. Wiebe was on a formation training flight over the Boston area when his aircraft, a P-40E, (Ser. No. 40-539) developed engine trouble.  He left the formation to return to Boston Airport.  As he was making his approach to land when his plane lost power and crashed.  Lt. Wiebe did not survive.

      Lt. Wiebe was from West New York, New Jersey.  He enlisted in September of 1941, and received his commission on April 23, 1942.  He was survived by his wife.    

     At the time of his death he was assigned to the 64th Fighter Squadron.

     Sources:

     New York Times, “4 Army Fliers Die In Ohio”, June 29, 1942  (The article covered more than one accident.)

     U.S. Army Air Corps Technical Report Of Aircraft Accident, dated July 12, 1942

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