The Loss Of The Old Glory – 1927

The Loss of the Old Glory

September, 1927     

Grim Milestones.  Illustration from Sept. 20, 1927, depicting headstones for those lost on attempted trans-Atlantic flights.

Grim Milestones. Illustration from Sept. 20, 1927, depicting headstones for those lost on attempted trans-Atlantic flights.

     On September 6, 1927, barely four months after Charles Lindbergh completed his historic flight across the Atlantic, three men took off from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, on what was to be a history making non-stop 4,000 mile flight to Rome, Italy.  Their aircraft was large single-engine monoplane named Old Glory capable of carrying three passengers and supplies.

     The project was sponsored by newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst, who sent his representative Philip Payne along as an observer. 

     The pilots, James De Witt Hill, and Lloyd Wilson Bertaud were both experienced flyers who had similar life experiences. 

     Bertaud was born in Alameda, California, on September 20, 1896.  At the age of twelve he built and flew his own glider which he made from plans found in a magazine.  While still in his teens he took a job as a mechanic at a California air field where he spent most of his wages on flying lessons.  By the age of 18 he was a licensed pilot; one of the youngest in the United States.  When America entered World War I, he enlisted in the army where he served as a flight instructor.  After the war he flew as a stunt pilot, and later as a test pilot for an aircraft manufacturer.

     In 1924 he became a postal flyer for the U.S. Mail.  In June of 1926, while flying over a small town in the Allegheny Mountains, he happened to look down and saw a house on fire.  It was still very early in the morning at a time when people would still be asleep, so Bertaud gunned his engine as he swooped low over the house arousing occupants and nearby neighbors. The owner of the burning house later wrote him a letter of thanks for saving their lives.       

     Hill was born in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, March 2, 1885.  While still a boy, he fashioned a parachute made from his mother’s table cloth and used it to jump from a barn roof.  Although the parachute didn’t perform as expected, Hill wasn’t hurt, and the incident didn’t deter him from wanting to fly. 

    He later attended Cornell University to study mechanical engineering, but was forced to quit due to ill health.  After regaining his health, he learned to fly at the Glen Curtis School in California.  Like Bertaud, he too served as a flight instructor with the United States Army during WWI, and also joined the air mail service afterwards.  

     Shortly before take-off Hill won a coin toss for the honor of being at the controls as the plane left America. 

     As the men were climbing aboard, Payne ran back and kissed his wife Dorothy one more time. 

     The take-off went smoothly, but the heavily laden plane required a mile and a half to become airborne.  Once aloft it continued southward for a bit before turning out to sea and fading into the sky.    

    The plane carried with it a wreath which the men were to drop when they reached the coast of Newfoundland in memory of two Frenchmen, Charles Nungesser, and Francois Coli, who both disappeared in their plane, the White Bird, while attempting a trans-Atlantic crossing earlier that year. The banner on the wreath read; “Nungesser and Coli, you showed the way, we followed. Bertaud, Hill, Payne.”  In a twist of irony, they did follow the two French aviators, and have never been seen since.  A few hours later someone from Old Glory sent a wireless S.O.S. to the ships at sea that the plane was in trouble about 500 miles off Newfoundland. 

    The nearest ship was the Transylvania, roughly eighty-three miles distant, but the weather was bad, and there was no moon, which made for nearly pitch black searching conditions.  

    The steamship Carmania later reported that prior to the SOS, Old Glory had transmitted they were following “the great circle to Rome” at a speed of about 100 mph.  The weather service reported that the weather along this route was unsettled, and speculated that they had run into an unexpected storm.    

     The Old Glory was equipped with fuel tanks that could be quickly emptied in the event of an emergency water landing so the added weight wouldn’t pull the aircraft under, giving the crew time to escape in a rubber raft it carried.  However, with rough seas being reported by ships in the area it was offered that the rubber raft wouldn’t last long.

     Many assumed the Old Glory had suffered the same fate her sister ship, the Saint Raphael, which disappeared on August 31, 1927, while on a flight from England to Canada , taking with it Princess Anne of Lowenstein-Werthiem – Freudenberg, Colonel Frederick F. Minchin, and Captain Leslie Hamilton.

    On September 13th, it was reported that the wreckage of Old Glory had been recovered by the steamer Kyle, about 600 miles east of Newfoundland, and 100 miles away from their last known position.  The message read; “Located wreck of Old Glory, latitude 51.17 north, longitude 39.23 west at 4:20 P.m. No signs of crew.  Particulars to follow” 

    A 47 foot section was brought aboard the Kyle, and eventually to New York.  Those who examined it offered the opinion the plane had hit the water head-on at an approximate speed of 90 mph.  Most likely it had dove in nose first.

     The bodies of Bertaud, Hill, and Payne were never found, but at least the mystery of what happened to the Old Glory was solved.  There were those who felt such dangerous oceanic flights should be stopped, and cited other instances where planes had gone missing and lives lost, but despite these protests, airmen all around the world were determined to continue setting new records and pushing the limits of flight ever higher, faster, and farther.  Would we have ever made it to the moon if they hadn’t?       

 Sources:

Woonsocket Call, “Plane Hops Off From Beach At Old Orchard After Fine Run”, September 6, 1927, Pg.1

Woonsocket Call, “Ocean Liner Searches Without Avail 30-Mile Stretch Of Sea”, September 7, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Giant Monoplane Resumes Flight To Windsor England” September 7, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Message Dropped In Sea Emphasizes Bitter Irony Of Fate AS S.O.S. Is Heard.”  September 7, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Bertaud Gave Up Engineer’s Career To Become Flyer”, September 7, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Hill Began Flying Career At Early Age”, September 7, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Ship Captain Ordered To Report Progress Of Search”, September 7, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Commander of Carmania Conducts Vigorous Search” September 7, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Search Bt Steamship Fails To Reveal Fate Of Rome Flyers” September 8, 1927, Pg. 1   

Woonsocket Call, “Royal Windsor Not To Conduct Search For Missing Plane”, September 8, 1927

Woonsocket Call, “Accident While Flying In Fog Chamberlin’s Theory”, September 8, 1927, Pg. 10

Woonsocket Call, “Sentiment Against Perilous Flights Sweeping World”, September 8, 1927, Pg.10    

Woonsocket Call, “No Trace Found Of Old Glory And Canadian Airplane”, September 9, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Flyers Still Intent Upon Conquering Atlantic Despite Wave Of Protest”, September 9, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Wreckage Of Three Planes, One Of Them Old Glory, Picked Up” September 13, 1927, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “Old Glory Believed To Have Hit Water Head-ON In Fall”, September 21, 1927, Pg.1

Woonsocket Call, “Wreckage Of Monoplane “Old Glory” Arrives In Red Cross Liner At Brooklyn From Newfoundland”, September 29, 1927, Pg.1  

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