I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In October 1933, a United Airlines Boeing 247 was blown out of the sky over Indiana. There were seven people aboard the flight and they all perished in what turned out to be the first ever case of aeronautical terrorism.
The United Airlines flight 23 left Newark, New Jersey in the late afternoon of October 10, 1933; it was the start of a hop-scotch journey to Oakland, California. The plane had stopped at Cleveland and was headed on the next leg of its route to Chicago when disaster struck.
The plane was a Boeing 247, often described as the first purpose-built passenger aircraft. It went into service in February 1933. It had a top speed of 200 mph and a maximum range of 745 miles. The airliner could carry 10 passengers in air-conditioned comfort. On the night of the disaster, flight 23 had four passengers and a crew of three.
The Crash Site
Just before 9 p.m. witnesses on the ground near Chesterton, northern Indiana, heard a loud explosion. They saw a plane plummeting from the sky in flames, and there was another explosion when it hit the ground.
The plane was about 1,000 feet up when the explosion happened so the debris field was not huge. Flight 23 came to rest in a wooded area close to a gravel road, the mangled fuselage was in one place but the tail section had been blown off and crashed elsewhere.
Within a couple of hours, United Airlines staff from Chicago had reached the site to find that state police had found and remove five bodies. The two other passengers had fallen out of the broken rear section of the plane and were found near the tail section.
The People on Flight 23
- The chief pilot was Harold R. Tarrant, 25. He had been with United for about two years and was considered something of a veteran in a fledgling industry.
- The co-pilot was 28-year-old A.T. Ruby who had complained to his brother about being pressured to join the pilot’s union.
- The flight attendant, or stewardess as they called in those days, was Alice Scribner, 26. At the time, stewardesses were required to be trained nurses and to be no taller than five feet, two inches and to weigh less than 123 pounds. Ms. Scribner had only recently joined the airline.
- Passenger Frederick Schendorf, 28, was the manager of R. Cooper, Jr., Inc., Chicago, a company that made refrigerators.
- H.R. (Warren) Burris was an employee of United and worked on radios.
- Forty-four-year-old Emil Smith of Chicago was returning home after watching a couple of World Series baseball games in New York.
- Finally, there was Dorothy M. Dwyer, 25, from Arlington, Massachusetts. She was flying to Reno, Nevada to marry her fiancé. She was booked on an earlier flight that she missed because of a flat tire on the way to the airport.
The Investigation of Flight 23
In 1933, there were no such aids as black boxes to help investigators determine the cause of a plane crash. In fact, there were no specialized aviation investigators so the job of finding out what happened fell to the FBI and Agent Melvin Purvis in particular.
The early theories revolved around fuel from a ruptured line coming into contact with a hot exhaust. But, under the microscope, bits of wreckage showed they had been penetrated by small shards of metal. Only a high explosive was powerful enough to force pieces of metal through other pieces of metal. The source of the explosion was tracked down to the baggage compartment.
Mel Purvis reported that “Everything in the front of the compartment was blown forward, everything behind blown backward and things at the side outward. The gasoline tanks, instead of being blown out, were crushed in, showing there was no explosion in them.”
The agent of the blast was identified as nitroglycerine. A time bomb had brought down Flight 23. But, who would do such a thing?
At first, suspicion fell on passenger Emil Smith. He had clung to a package throughout the flight, even when deplaning during the refuelling stop in Cleveland. And, he’d taken out flight insurance at Newark Airport. Could he have been on a suicide mission? But, the package turned up intact in the debris and its contents were harmless.
United Airlines had been having a lot of labour strife as it battled efforts to organize its workforce. Could the developing union be trying to smear the airline as unsafe? That seemed unlikely.
Could it have been an accident? Some unknown person might have placed a container of nitroglycerine in the baggage area, who knows when, with the intention of retrieving it later. Nitroglycerine is not very stable and it may have exploded after being jostled by a bumpy flight.
Scrutiny fell on the Mob. A U.S. attorney who was aggressively prosecuting bootleggers was known to take Flight 23 regularly. Was organized crime trying to rub out an enemy?
In the end, all the FBI had was theories. Nobody was ever charged, and the world’s first case of aeronautical terrorism remains unsolved.
- At the time of the crash of Flight 23, United Airlines was owned by the Boeing Aircraft Company.
- An early theory about the cause of the crash surrounded a missing propeller blade that could not be found anywhere. Many years later, it was revealed the blade had sheared off in the crash and been picked up and taken home as a souvenir by firefighter Donald Slont.
- Mel Purvis, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation of Flight 23, later gained great notoriety for tracking down bank robber John Dillinger who died in a shoot out with FBI agents. Purvis himself died by gunshot in 1960, possibly by suicide.
- “Revisiting the 1933 Crash of United Flight 23 in Chesterton.” Jane Ammeson, Northwestern Indiana Times, May 20, 2012.
- “United 23 Took off From New Jersey 80 Years Ago; Its Midair Explosion Remains a Mystery.” Ted Sherman, NewJersey.com, September 30, 2013.
- “80 Years Later, Plane Bombing Remains a Mystery.” Phil Rogers, Chicago 5 (NBC),October 7, 2013.
- “United Flight 23 to Chicago: The First Airline Terrorism?” Whet Moser, Chicago Magazine, September 9, 2011.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor