Today marks the 57th anniversary of Joan Merriam Smith and Trixie Ann Schubert’s fatal 1965 plane crash, which is hard to believe! Even though this crash happened before I was born, the more I’ve learned about it over the years, the more it continues to intrigue me.
To provide a quick recap for those unfamiliar with the crash, on the morning of February 17, 1965, Joan invited Trixie to fly with her on a routine flight to test turbochargers for the Rajay Corporation, by whom Joan was employed as a pilot. Rajay’s primary business was to manufacture and sell turbochargers. Joan’s job was to put hours on the plane to achieve company certification for the turbochargers. Trixie had flown with Joan doing the very same thing just a few weeks prior.
On this clear and sunny day, no flight plan was filed. The plane took off from Long Beach, CA and was headed towards Wrightwood, CA when a single witness noticed the right wing fail and watched the plane crash. The story made newspaper headlines around the country. (For reference, a copy of the original witness letter is here.)
The US Forest Service initially responded to the scene of the crash, as did the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAP), various private citizens, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) were ultimately all involved in either 1) the response 2) the collection of evidence and/or 3) the analysis regarding the crash.
Key parts of the plane (forensic evidence) were missing from the outset. From a March 20, 1965 article in the Long Beach Independent, it was noted that poor weather conditions were delaying the search efforts for missing plane parts from the crash, and that much of the plane was still missing (to aid in forming a conclusion as to what caused the crash).
But in a May 1965 issue of the Civil Air Patrol Times the discovery of missing plane parts was reported when a hiker inadvertently came across them.
The article went on to say, oddly, that neither the nearby Air Force Base or the U.S. Forest Service ranger knew of any recent crashes in the area. Once the missing parts were delivered to the FAA, the Civil Aeronautics Board investigator found great interest in the missing parts.
A year following the crash, the CAB issued a final report (the original report as of this writing has not been located in archives). Referring to this report, a February 2, 1966 article in the Los Angeles Times reported that Joan was flying a plane with an “experimental turbocharged engine” and was “flying in excess of 190 MPH” at the time of the crash.
It was also reported that “turbulent air at high speed” was the cause of the accident.
The official crash report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) cites probable causes as “pilot in command,” “airframe – wings,” and “miscellaneous acts.” Clear air turbulence in flight is cited as a factor.
However, many people I’ve talked to over the years find these conclusions to be a bit perplexing.
- It doesn’t make sense that Joan would have been flying so fast as to push the limits of her airplane (i.e. the media reported her speed as 190 mph, whereas the maximum structural cruise speed of her plane was 160 mph).
- Other than clear air turbulence caused by the mountainous terrain, what other factors could have created such extreme turbulence?
- If the wing failed first (and caused the crash), then the tail would have failed second. But in this case, key tail portions of the airplane were found 1 – 1.5 miles away, meaning the tail broke apart before the wing. If the tail failed first, then the wing would not be cause of the crash.
- Just five weeks prior to the accident, Joan was involved in another near-fatal crash in a different plane when her engine’s heater caught fire mid-air. Coincidence or bad luck?
- How likely was it that Joan made a mistake with 9,000 hours of flight time and zero accident history? (Not counting the January 9th crash.)
Additionally, there were many other conflicting statements made in the months following the crash. Not only was the plane reported flying in different directions, and at different altitudes, but there were references to both a nose-first and a tail-first crash (can’t be both).
In looking at statements made in the media regarding the crash, the following excerpts point out some areas of speculation, but not FACT.
From a February 18, 1965 article in the Miami Herald it was reported that “a wing apparently folded back, causing the crash.” But, it wouldn’t be until a year later that a true cause of the crash was reported.
On the same date, The Wichita Eagle reported that Joan liked to fly fast. However, the article’s title was a bit sensational had to do with a statement she made when she first learned to fly 13 years prior, and nothing to do specifically with her accident.
On February 22, 1965, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that “Joan ran her plane into the mountain and killed herself.” The writer speculated that she could have been in fog and hit the peak at the last second. Obviously there was no fog, Joan did not “run into a mountain,” and this was not what happened.
Perhaps most interestingly, from a news clipping saved by Jackie Cochran—courtesy of the Eisenhower Presidential Library’s files on Joan Merriam Smith—it was also noted that “a fellow 15,000-hour pilot Joan spoke with at the airport restaurant on the morning of the crash told him she planned to reach 190 mph” and that she would “have to throttle back at low altitudes to avoid exceeding red line.” According to one pilot I talked with, it would not have been possible for her to get to 190 mph at that altitude.
In summary, there were so many entities involved and so many conflicting statements made, it’s been difficult to nail down the facts. To this day, no one really knows for sure what happened. Will we ever know?
Working backwards, I’ve tried to locate information from a variety of sources over the years to put together a better picture of what actually happened. I’ve reached out to various organizations for copies of accident reports or summaries from various investigating bodies (CAB, NTSB, CAP); to records departments at Sheriff’s offices; to archives departments at county courthouses; to historical societies and newspapers; and to friends and fellow pilots who have taken on a similar interest in this over time, some who even recall the day of the crash. Unfortunately, some of the material is protected by privacy laws. There are TV news clips that exist but are unavailable for viewing. The full narratives for the CAB report and the NTSB report due not appear to exist in any publicly available archives.
Adding to the intrigue, there were at least three civil lawsuits filed after the crash. In one, Joan’s husband sued several entities for negligence. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $500,000 in 1965 is the equivalent of $4.5 million in 2022.
Most recently, I was able to get a hold of some 100 pages of archived files from the Los Angeles County Superior Court pertaining to a lawsuit against Trixie’s life insurance company. The info provided filled in many gaps but it also created many more questions.
In essence, the hunt for more information continues. Feedback, questions, expert opinions, and insights are always welcomed. The ultimate goal? To work toward clearing Joan’s name as the “cause” of her own demise.