The death of Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne in the crash of TWA Flight 599 on March 31, 1931, resulted in more than just the death of the football legend and seven others — it was a pivotal moment in early airline and aviation safety.
The flight, which originated in Kansas City, Missouri and was destined for Los Angeles was operated on this route by a Fokker F.10 Trimotor, a three-engined monoplane made out of laminated wood like most airliners of the era. Despite initial reports that strong winds or icing may have caused the crash, the root cause was far more insidious.
Unknown to the airline, moisture had seeped into the structure of one of the airplane’s wings and had begun to weaken the glue that held the wing spars together. Eventually, over Chase County Kansas, one spar failed entirely — causing the wing to flutter uncontrollably and then break off of the airplane completely, forcing the plane to crash with the loss of all eight souls aboard: two crew, six passengers.
Following the death of such a high profile American, the accident was investigated with a thoroughness that would become the hallmark of all aviation accidents in the US to follow.
Previously, the Department of Commerce (who investigated plane crashes before the creation of the Civil Aeronautics Board, and later the NTSB) did not release investigation results to the public, however, that changed in the wake of the public outcry over the Rockne crash.
Additionally, the crash sounded the death knell for wooden-framed airliners in the US, and manufacturers moved towards all-metal craft, which then led to huge advancements in aircraft design and safety.
While the aftermath of the crash almost sank the young TWA, the airline would go on to recover and enjoy a storied history that ran through its merger with American Airlines in 2001. Fokker would likewise survive the tumultuous post-crash period, continuing to build successful civilian and military planes until it declared bankruptcy in 1996, though it would never again achieve the success it saw in the 1920s and 1930s. – AJW
Coroner’s jury begins inquiry at Cottonwood Falls, Kan.
US mourns Knut Rockne: Body of famous coach to be taken to South Bend today
Bulletin – Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, April 1 — A coroner’s jury was told today that the Transcontinental and Western Air Transport plane apparently was in distress for some minutes with its motors backfiring before it hurtled from the clouds yesterday to carry Knute Rockne, and seven others, to death in a pasture near Bazaar, Kan.
Cottonwood Falls, Kans., April 1 — Before an audience composed chiefly of grave-faced cattlemen and ranch hands, a coroner’s jury today attempted to fathom the mystery of the accident which yesterday led to the death of Knute Rockne and seven others in the crash of an airplane near Bazaar.
Three witnesses were called by Dr Jacob Hinden, Chase County coroner. They were RZ Blackburn, rancher, Edward Baker, son of Steward H Baker, upon whose range the plane fell, and Clarence H McCracken, ranch man who saw the liner hurtle to earth from a cloudy sky.
Dr Hinden said other witnesses would be called, among them probably officials of Transcontinental and Western Air Express, Inc [TWA], owners of the ill-fated plane and department of commerce aviation inspector.
CAPTION: Broken fuselage of wrecked Rockne plane — Central Press photo of ill-fated passenger-air mail plane in which Knute Rockne, famed Notre Dame football coach, and others fell to their death, shows fuselage of the aircraft which crashed down on a meadow near Bazaar, Kan. Photo rushed by plane and telephoto to this city.
The inspector, who has viewed the wreckage, is Leonard Jurdon of Kansas City. HG Edgerton, Wichita, district agent of the airplane company, probably will be called.
Dr Hinden said to tell of the last radio message from the craft, received at 10:45am asking about weather conditions.
Harris Hanshue, president of Transcontinental and Western Air Express [TWA], and Anthony Fokker, designer of the craft which carried its crew and passengers to swift death, were expected to arrive here today.
They were reported en route to Wichita, Kan., by airplane from Los Angeles. They planned to drive the 90 miles from Wichita to Cottonwood Falls.
Ranchers in the vicinity of the crash said little of the plane remained for Hanshue and Fokker to examine, the largest part of the debris having been carried away by souvenir seekers.
Eighteen pouches of mail were found intact in the twisted wreckage and forwarded by train to Wichita.
Flying through muggy weather on a trip that would have placed them in California last night, the two pilots and their passengers met instant death.
There was no fire, indicating that the Transcontinental and Western air pilot, Robert Fry, had cut off the engines in the last moments of despair.
The plane, which had left Kansas City little more than an hour before, was shattered against the ground, its motors partly buried.
Jess Mathias of Los Angeles, the co-pilot, signaled by radio a few minutes before the crash that he did not have “time to talk.”
Three bodies were found in the wreckage. The other five were thrown free. HJ Christen and JH Happer of Chicago; WB Miller, Hartford, Conn; Spencer Goldthwaite, New York, and CA Robrecht, Wheeling, W. Va, were the others killed.
Wing of plane found
A half mile from the wreckage was found a wing of the plane. HG Edgerton of Wichita, a representative of the airline, informed Dr Jacob Hinden, county coroner, there was a possibility ice had weighed down the wing, causing its severance from the plane.
Residents of the vicinity, however, said ground temperatures were above freezing, and cowboys who scanned the clouds said the plane was not flying high.
Arrangements were made to take Rockne’s body to South Bend, Indiana, today. Funeral services will be held Saturday or Sunday.
Views of the crash
A comprehensive story in pictures of the country’s most recent tragedy of air transport — an accident which took the lives of Knute Rockne and seven others
No. 1. The section of the wing which left the plane as it was flying in the vicinity of Bazaar, Kans. It was this structural failure which sent the big monoplane and its passengers down to their doom from an altitude which has not been definitely determined. The two arrows in the picture indicate the locations within the wing of its two major supports. The arrow at the left points to the main spar; the other to the rear spar. As large as they are, these members must have given way to permit the wing breaking off.
No. 2. This picture is a general view of the wreck, and clearly indicates to what extent the wreckage was spread over the ground.
No.3. The force with which the plane struck the earth is evidenced here. So terrific was the impact that the tail of the plane was so twisted and broken as to have come to rest at right angles to the remainder of the fuselage, shown in the center of the picture. Much of the structure of the entire fuselage is of steel tubing, yet it was bent, twisted and broken beyond reclamation.
No. 4. The remains of the ship’s nose engine disclose little that may be salvaged. About the best that could be hoped for in the matter of salvage would be that possibly two or three cylinders might be fit for further use. The picture would indicate the big plane struck on its nose, the fuselage breaking in at least two sections at the impact. The engine shown in the picture is one of three 410-horsepower motors which went to make up the plane’s power plant.