Earl Ward, center.
- Courtesy of the Air Mail Pioneers
On the night of October 2, 1926, Ward crashed while trying to land his Douglas mail airplane #621 at Sunbury, Pennsylvania's emergency airmail landing field. He filed a forced landing report, but was asked for more information. Ward was carrying mail along with a special package of film footage of the World Series.
Ward provided his superiors with a two-page letter explaining the incident:
Left Hadley Field, New Brunswick at 10:25 P.M. October 2nd with 588 pounds of mail. Delayed waiting for special World Series Files. Weather for Hadley to Bellefonte Sector was doubtful but apparently flyable provided no change for worse took place. After leaving Hadley the first doubtful indications were found at Pickles Mountain Light, where the light was revolving in masses of light fog. Between Pickles Mountain and West Portal Lights this layer of fog began to get solid, but lights could be seen thru it dimly when directly over them. From Stewartsville west there was a solid overcast which extended almost from the ground up to about 3000 feet. In flying at sufficient altitude to clear this I was bucking a strong head wind and making from sixty five to seventy miles per hour ground speed. All towns of any size were showing a glow thru the clouds, making it easy to keep on the course.
At the Blue Ridge the top of the cloud formation rose sharply to about six thousand feet yet thru the occasional small holes could see it extended almost to the ground. Upon striking these clouds started climbing steadily and came out on top at 6000 feet. Proceeded west and at Numidia top of clouds again dropped to about 3000 feet. From Numidid west the holes in the clouds became more numerous and much larger although the Beacons were still very dim. Passed Sundbury, where one red flare was showing. At that time Sunbury and vicinity was clear, so judged the "caution" flare was shown account Woodward weather. At Hartleton the Beacon could be seen, also a red flare. Was still at 3000 feet, which I increased to 3500 feet to allow for possible error in altimeter. Upon reaching the mountains the clouds again were piled high. Circled over Hartleton while climbing to 6000 feet, then headed west on the course again, climbing wide open. Reached 6000 feet but was not yet above clouds when I ran out into a small hole just over the Woodward Field. Came down to 1600 feet in this hole – about 800 feet below surrounding mountains and 400 feet above ground but could not see town of Millheim, 2 ½ miles west and 200 feet lower. (Attempted to release flare to judge condition of Woodward Field but was unable to trip the release.)
Decided it would be impossible to find Bellefonte, as it was too low to fly under and at 8000 feet the ship was near its ceiling and too "mushy" for blind flying, so climbed to 3500 feet and flew blind back over Woodward Mountains. Blind flying was very difficult because of turbulence in clouds. Passed Hartleton, which by that time was covered over by low clouds, which seemed to be forming rather than blowing across the course. Continued back to Sunbury, which by this time had become very foggy, the town being covered, (also the south end of island) and the Beacon on the hill revolving in fog, although the Field itself was clear. Circled the Field and again tried to release a flare but with no success. So swinging north up the river to reach position for landing, a short distance north of the Field struck a solid bank of fog and began a turn at once, motor turning about 1200 R.P.M., and trying to maintain same altitude and speed in order to be able to land in Field. Had completed 180° turn when right wing caught tree on west band of river, pulling airplane down, next striking log in the edge of water and ending upside down in about four feet of water about 50 feet from shore. Fuselage was slightly on its side, upside down, permitting exit through high side. Caught a box of films thrown out in crash and climbed on fuselage. Remained there for one hour and forty five minutes before boat arrived, sent by Sunbury Police Department. Had talked to caretaker across water and had him phone Bellefonte, also get boat.
Was assisted in salvaging mail by two men who drove to scene. Was unable to find all boxes of films. Manager Ingalls arrived from Bellefonte shortly after we had landed the mail and took charge. Later on was brought airplane by Pilot Chandler and I proceeded to Cleveland with mail. Crash occurred at 1:55 A.M.
Injuries to Pilot – few minor bruises and scratches.
Some of the film footage was later found, along with Ward's extra set of clothes and some personal items, by kids walking along the Susquehanna River shortly after the accident.
This newspaper clipping from the New York Times details Ward's landing and the story of the missing film footage he was carrying.
- Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration