Earlier this year I wrote a post about the media coverage surrounding Joan and Trixie’s 1965 plane crash. Since then, I decided that I wanted to try and figure out what lawsuits were filed following the crash, and learn (for the record) what was ultimately concluded?
With help from the archives division at the Los Angeles Superior Court, over the course of months I was able to uncover a few stacks of documents pertaining to old legal cases. After sorting through notes, filings, depositions, statements, motions, claims, and so on, I’ve whittled it down to this.
On February 7, 1966 Marvin G. Smith filed a Wrongful Death Complaint (the first document filed in court to initiate a lawsuit) against Rajay Corporation, V.E. Kuster Company Inc., Cessna Aircraft Company, Belmont Aviation, West Coast Sales and Service Company, and Banning Aviation Company for $500,000 ($4.6 million in 2022 dollars).
On February 15, 1966 a Complaint on insurance policy was filed between Delwyn G. Schubert and The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York.
On April 25, 1967 Delwyn G. Schubert et al filed a Proposed First Amended Complaint (wrongful death) against the same entities as Marvin G. Smith for $1,000,0000 (roughly $9 million in 2022 dollars).
Some time later (presumably), V.E. Kuster Co., Inc. filed an undated Cross Complaint against Rajay Corporation, Belmont Aviation, West Coast Propeller sales and Service Company, Banning Aviation, Inc.
On May 12, 1967 a Notice of Ruling was filed with plaintiffs listed as Delwyn Schubert and Marvin G. Smith, and cross-complainant V.E. Kuster, whereby it was stated that the defendants had 15 days from receipt of Notice of Ruling to answer plaintiffs’ first amended complaint.
On February 27, 1968, the deposition of William H. Mastin of Rajay was taken.
On October 21, 1968 a Supplemental Declaration of Counsel in Support of Motion to Set Case for Trail was filed in a case between Delwyn Schubert and The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York.
On November 21, 1968 the deposition of Delwyn Schubert was taken.
On December 24, 1968 a Request for Entry of Dismissal was filed in the case between Delwyn Schubert and Mutual Life Insurance Company.
While I’m undoubtedly missing other documents, to summarize, it looks to me like Jack Smith and Delwyn Schubert each sued the same six entities for negligence , and that Delwyn also sued the life insurance company following Joan and Trixie’s deaths.
In the deposition given by Delwyn Schubert for the life insurance case, I came across a particular point that I found interesting when Delwyn stated that Jack felt the cause of the plane crash to be mechanical. He said:
Q: Do you recall any statement which he made to you or which, obviously he made in your presence about the crash? A: Yes. Of course we talked about every aspect of it, as you can well imagine, and he felt very positive that it was due to mechanical failure of some sort.
Similarly, from the October 21, 1968 Supplemental Declaration of Counsel in Support of Motion to Set Case for Trial (relating to the Mutual Life Insurance case), Delwyn’s attorney John E. Sweeney declared:
“Lt. Cdr. M.G. Smith, Jr. is a key witness for the trial of this case. He has been on a Navy cruise for several months presently … Lt. Cdr. Smith is an extremely important witness in this case. He has first hand knowledge of many of the specific details in issue in this case. He has uniquely qualified both from the standpoint of his expertise as a long time Navy pilot as well as his position as a percipient witness to many of the facts in issue.”
Based on these statements, it surely seems as though Jack would have had a good idea about what happened to Joan’s plane based on his own expertise with planes. If he assumed mechanical failure, why was his case dismissed? The paperwork I have doesn’t specify.
While I don’t have a formal notice of Delwyn Schubert’s negligence/wrongful death case being formally dismissed, I do know that Delwyn’s Mutual Life Insurance case was settled out of court. Initially in the Mutual Life Insurance case, the life insurance company deemed that Trixie’s death was not covered under her life insurance policy because she was a passenger in a non-commercial plane. From an October 1965 letter from Mutual Life Insurance to Delwyn’s attorney:
“We are sorry to have to inform you that we will be unable to honor your request for payment for accidental loss of life under the contract. If you will refer to the contract, you will note that the policy does not cover any loss resulting from, any kind of aircraft, except riding as a passenger in an aircraft then being operated (i) commercially to transport passengers for hire or (ii) by a private business organization to transport its personnel or guests.”
Challenging this definition as to whether or not Trixie qualified as “crew” on a plane operated by a private business organization explains (in part) why Rajay Inc. provided a deposition about the nature of Joan’s arrangement with their company to test turbochargers and how Trixie was involved. An excerpt from the October 1968 deposition of William H. Mastin of Rajay Inc. follows below:
Q: Mr. Mastin, did you advise the CAB that Mrs. Schubert was a member of the crew? A: Technically, yes, as an observer. Q: All right. There had been a briefing prior to the flight which resulted in the crash, had there not? A: Yes. Q: Mrs. Schubert was present at the briefing? A: She was present but not party to it. Q: She was in the room; is that it? A: (Witness shakes his head from side to side.) Q: No? A: The briefing was conducted at my desk. My desk is in a trailer. She was standing right outside the trailer door. Q: Who else was present actually, then? A: Joan Merriam Smith. Q: Yourself and Joan Merriam Smith? A: Yes. Q: You were aware that Mrs. Schubert was going to accompany Joan Smith? A: Yes.
While there is still plenty more detail to sort through, for now this information does answer the basic questions of who was sued and why. Of course I’m still curious to learn why the negligence cases were dismissed. Perhaps another post on this topic in the future …
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.
With research institutions across the country now physically re-opening after months of Covid shutdowns, I recently heard back from the Eisenhower Presidential Library about an inquiry I made many months ago. Because this library holds the historical files of Jackie Cochran, I wondered if there might be any info about Joan’s experience of being tested for the First Lady Astronaut Trainees program, a.k.a. Mercury 13.
While I didn’t end up finding any info about Joan’s involvement in the program, I did find a series of letters catalogued between Jackie, Joan, the National Aeronautic Association, and others that shed some additional light on the events that unfolded following Joan’s 1964 world solo flight.
When the package containing the copied materials from archives arrived in the mail, I was excited to see what was inside. Prior to this, the only correspondence I’d seen from Jackie regarding Joan’s flight was a letter that she had written to the NAA on Joan’s behalf courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution’s archives. Individuals involved in the new correspondence that I received include:
Jackie Cochran, famed aviatrix and honorary lifetime president of National Aeronautic Association (NAA)
Floyd Odlum, Jackie’s husband, and one of richest men in the U.S. at the time
Colonel Mitchell Giblo, Executive Director of the NAA
William Ong, President of the NAA
M.J. “Randy” Randleman, Secretary of Contest Board under Mitchell Giblo, NAA
Ruth Deerman, outgoing President of the 99s
Alice Roberts, incoming President of the 99’s
Joan Merriam Smith
John Sarver, Joan’s PR Person
Peg Schroeder, friend of Joan’s and head of “Citizens committee for recognition for Joan Merriam Smith”
Two U.S. congressmen
While reading through these letters, there was a lot to unpack. There’s nothing quite reading actual history vs. someone else’s account of it! I also couldn’t help but think about how much more complicated communication seemed back then having to write formal letters, copy them out in the mail to everyone, and then retain paper copies. Email is so much easier.
Below follows a top-level overview of the correspondence, along with direct links to a couple of these letters for historical value.
May 12, 1964 – Joan becomes first person in history to fly solo around the world at the equator, the first person to complete the longest single solo flight around the world, the first woman to fly a twin-engine aircraft around the world, the first woman to fly the Pacific Ocean from west to east in a twin-engine plane, and the youngest woman to complete a solo flight around the world.
Following Joan’s flight, John Sarver (Joan’s press person) sends out letters to multiple agencies and individuals attempting to find a way to have her flight more formally recognized. In July of 1964 Sarver received a letter from the FAA telling him that there was nothing they could do to help Joan get recognition for her flight.
Joan next reached out to Jackie Cochran directly for help by telegram. (Download telegram)
Jackie’s husband Floyd responded the next day to Joan’s telegram, and he also drafted a response letter for Jackie to send to Joan. In his drafted letter he included a note to Jackie that said: “Maybe a show of interest in Mrs. Smith’s problem along the lines of the attached draft letter would be a good on the record action for you irrespective of results accomplished.” (Download telegram)
Next, Jackie reached out to Colonel Mitchell Giblo, executive director of the NAA for more info, and said she would be in DC soon and would make an appointment before coming to the office.
Jackie received a formal response from the NAA, then sent another letter asking follow-up questions to NAA’s secretary of the contest board, Randy Randleman.
After receiving a response that Jackie felt was sufficient from Col. Giblo with a copy of a letter written from Randleman to Ong, she explained to NAA in another letter that she felt satisfied with the actions taken.
During this time, Jackie received a letter from Joan thanking her for looking into the matter. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
On 9/14/64, Jackie wrote a letter to Joan summarizing her findings after inquiring about her world flight with the NAA. Jackie explained to Joan that she understood her disappointment but that there was nothing more that she could do.(Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
On 9/16/64, Jackie sent Joan another letter acknowledging receipt of her first letter, which she didn’t receive until after her 9/14/64 response.(Download letter)
From here, Joan decided to send Jackie a follow up letter on 9/17/64 explaining what “really” happened, in that she felt there was favoritism. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
Jackie’s secretary then responded saying that Jackie was out of the country for a month. (Download letter)
Incidentally, in this very same month of September of 1964, Jackie was featured on the cover of National Aeronautics Magazine, which was a quarterly publication of the National Aeronautic Association, edited by William Ong, with feature stories by Col. Giblo. (View the publication)
After Joan died, a woman by the name of Peg Schroeder reached out on behalf of a citizen’s committee to gain recognition for Joan in the form of a commemorative stamp to celebrate Earhart and Joan’s accomplishments. (Download letter)
Jackie clearly did not like this idea as she wrote a condescending letter back to Peg in July of 1965, in which she said “I think you and those on your committee may be emotionally carried away by the fact that Miss Smith is dead. She was killed in an airplane accident when the wing of her light plane pulled off. Of course this was a structural failure, but whether the plan was structurally weak or had a stress put on it beyond its designed strength, I do not believe, has yet been officially determined.” Jackie copied NAA’s executive director on this letter. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2, Page 3)
Jackie next reached out to the incoming and outgoing presidents of the 99s, she reached out to two congressmen, and also followed up with the NAA.
The NAA (Giblo’s) response to Jackie on 7/22/65 was “congratulations for sending the type of reply that Peg Schroeder deserved.” (Download letter)
After reading all of these letters, my main takeaways were these: 1) If there truly was any favoritism, Jackie was not asking the right questions to NAA 2) What would Jackie have gained anyway from telling the NAA that they were wrong in how they handled the sanction process between Joan and Jerrie? 3) What reason would there have been for Jackie to have pressed the issue considering she had never even met Joan and also had close ties to NAA leadership? 4) Since Jackie was a close friend of Earhart’s, and together she and Earhart were among the most accomplished women in aviation history, it seemed to me that asking for her support to create a “Joan Merriam Smith-Amelia Earhart Aviation Day” after Joan’s death was a bad idea. The reasoning is evident in her July 1965 letter, as Jackie felt Joan’s supporters were somehow trying to equalize Joan and Amelia when all they were trying to do was find a creative way to get Joan some recognition.
In conclusion, I felt that Joan had noble intentions, and Jackie intended to help her so long as it was convenient to do so, but that’s about the extent of what could be expected given her stature and her political ties. If you’ve followed along this far, would love to hear your thoughts!
If there’s one thing I have learned in this research, it’s that most information about Joan is buried in historical archives such as this and not easily findable. Needless to say, the treasure hunt continues!
Each and every day, countless files from around the globe are newly digitized, catalogued, uploaded, organized, shared, or otherwise published to the web. Take for example the online newspaper archive services. Even though the Newspapers.com database (the largest online newspaper archive) currently features 20,700 newspapers from the 1700s–2000s, it is still adding millions of new pages to its archive every month! Similarly, NewspaperArchive.com is currently adding one newspaper page every second, which equates to over 80,000 images a day or 2.5 million pages per month! With this in mind, every now and then I like to search around and see what new items have popped up.
Recently I was able to locate some new articles I’d never seen before about Trixie, related to her work as a journalist. I was delighted to find an October 17, 1943 Milwaukee Journal article entitled “The Adventures of WTMJ’s Trixie,” where the writer provided an overview of a day in the life of Trixie as Wisconsin’s first female radio news writer.
I also learned that Trixie traveled to Hollywood in the 1940s to personally invite movie stars to Milwaukee’s 1946 100th birthday “Centurama” celebration (see article “Throngs Turn Out for ‘Two Guys’ – Stars Arrive for Fliers Meet.”) While on the Warner Bros. lot, she apparently rode around on the handlebars of Bob Hope’s bicycle.
According to the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the Milwaukee Centurama was comprised primarily of a 31-day festival near the current site of the War Memorial on the lakefront. Concerts, food and entertainment made the festival one of Milwaukee’s most memorable.
During this celebration, I also learned that Trixie helped organize a private gathering for 300 private pilots with special guest Tyrone Power (see article “Private Fliers Get Together, 300 at Gathering“). Power was a big movie star in the Golden Age of Hollywood. From the 1930s to the 1950s, he appeared in dozens of films, according to Wikipedia, and was often cast in “swashbuckler roles or romantic leads.” From the above-referenced article, he is quoted as saying: “I’m delighted to be here. I want to thank Trixie Gehrung for inviting me. She’s the reason I’m here tonight.”
For the historical value, below follows the full text of the article about Trixie’s work as a radio news writer. I felt this article not only provided a good description of Trixie’s character, but it also gave a fascinating historical look into the history of journalism and the heyday of radio news.
The Adventure’s of WTMJ’s Trixie by Bea J. Pepan Milwaukee Journal | 10/17/47
“Just back from a trip to New York, Beatrice “Trixie” Gehrung, woman news writer at Radio City, is still quietly glowing over the part she played in a television experiment at NBC‘s Radio City.
As the story goes, Trixie was touring the NBC studios, comparing them mentally with Milwaukee’s own Radio City and enjoying her post man’s holiday immensely.
Her tour party came to a studio where a demonstration of television operation had been scheduled. But at the 11th hour a live subject was lacking. Miss Gehrung, with her televisable black and white dress, be so kind as to sit in? Without hesitation, or even a moment to experience the qualms of stage fright, Trixie acquiesced. Her directions were to talk about anything she desired for six minutes.
She was placed before a backdrop of forest scenery, facing one wall on which was placed a small Televisor, comparable to the lens of the camera. Flooding the room and the subject were blinding lights, as on a movie set. Add a signal chicks he began to speak about Milwaukee’s Radio City. From the studio in which she stood, her picture was flashed upon a screen in front of the audience in the adjoining room, just as slides are flashed on any screen. And sitting in the world’s most famous radio center, the party saw and heard a lecture on the Milwaukee facilities of WTMJ, 1000 miles away.
Unusual experiences seem to be Trixie’s lot in life. And traveling? She’s covered a godly mileage and her 20 odd years, living in big towns and small from Coast to Coast. Born in Denver, Colorado, she found herself in Tampa, Florida, at the age of two, and shortly thereafter the family moved to Hollywood. Her father’s profession, acting, accounts for the steady changes in scenes. On the screen he was known as Gene Gehrung; on the stage he was known as Judd Morgan.
Misfortune over took the family in California – the death of Trixie‘s mother. So from the West Coast Trixie and her brother came to the middle west, to Oshkosh, where they went to school. Trixie spent two years in Oshkosh state teachers, but got her degree at Wisconsin University in Madison.
Ambitions? Trixie had many at different stages of her youth, but finally settled on journalism. And she made up her mind to combine newspaper work with radio if possible.
With this in mind she set out for Tomahawk, Wisconsin. After graduation from Wisconsin, she picked up all around newspaper experience editing the Tomahawk leader. Then Trixie took a job as announcer and news writer for station WSAU, Wausau, Wisconsin. Still climbing the ladder she moved onto Radio City, Becoming WTMJ’s first woman news writer.
Here is the radio news riders daily routine: Trixie’s day starts at 5 AM, continuing through until 2 PM, which means rolling out at 4:30 AM daily, dressing in 10 minutes flat, whizzing through breakfast, mounting her bicycle and arriving at Radio City at 5 o’clock promptly. Bicycling in Trixie’s case is not only a convenience but a necessity. Bus service has a tendency to be erratic at that hour.
Trixie’s first duty each morning is to clear the teletype machines of all associated press copy sorting it in piles on her desk according to Washington news, London news, War base news, news from Southwest Pacific, miscellaneous matters, human interest stories, feature stories, local news, etc. That takes about half an hour. As she sorts all this she’s planning her first broadcast, five minutes long, at 6:05 AM. A sustaining program, meaning a broadcast without commercial announcements, generally takes about 75 lines. Sponsored news broadcasts take less depending upon how much time is given over to “plugs.”
All copy news writers hand to announcers must be practically letter perfect. Each WTMJ-W55M announcer spiels at a different rate of speed. Don Stanley usually covers about 55 lines of copy in five minutes. Bob Shannon takes about 48. Words and sentences for news broadcasts must be brief and concise, which naturally throws out those lovely nine and 10 letter words like “diaphanous,” which look good in print but are devilish pitfalls for fluffs.
So it goes throughout the day, the machines pounding out a study ream of AP copy and Trixie writing news broadcasts for 6:30, 7, 7:30, 7:55, etc. … until 2 o’clock, when Jack Kruger takes over.
Trixie says her work doesn’t get dull. She’ll never forget the day when, wearing a very precarious pair of French sandals, she tore into the studio where one of the announcers was on the air awaiting the late baseball scores she was carrying. Trixie skated and fell just inside the door and it banged behind her. Its incidents like these that can start an announcer off on a laughing jag with disastrous results. Trixie hates to recall the moments she spent sitting on that studio floor, trying desperately to regain her composure and stifle the laughter welling within her.”
Recently I came across a couple of old newspaper articles documenting the “feud” between Joan and Jerrie following their respective world flights. Because I had not come across these articles before, I thought it would be fun to share them here for anyone interested. (Links to articles follow below.) Reading the full text offers an interesting glimpse into the past.
Article #1 – Jerrie Calls Joan a “Poor Loser,” Wants Guam to Oakland Race Pacific Stars and Stripes | May 16, 1964 (Note: same text with different headline also ran in the Pasadena Independent on same date.)
The growing feud between America’s two long-distance women pilots leaped into the open Thursday when Mrs. Jerrie Mock charged Mrs. Joan Merriam Smith as “a poor loser.”
Mrs. Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world April 17 when she landed her single-engine plane here to end a 29-day flight. Mrs. Smith, who left Oakland, Cal., several days before Mrs. Mock left Columbus on her flight, arrived back in California Wednesday in her twin-engined plane.
Article #2 – Aviatrixes Fly at Each Other in World Hops Long Beach Press-Telegram | May 15, 1964
A feud which had been smoldering for weeks between Long Beach’s Joan Merriam Smith and Mrs. Jerrie Mock of Columbus, Ohio, who both recently completed solo global flights, broke into the open Thursday.
“I think she’s a poor loser,” Mrs. Mock charged in a Columbus interview.
“That’s the most ridiculous statement I have ever heard from a licensed pilot,” Joan snapped back.
Mrs. Mock’s ire apparently had been raised by a comment made by the Long Beach pilot on her arrival at Oakland to complete her flight.
Joan was asked if she considered herself the first or second woman to fly alone around the world.
“I believe if you check any almanac it will say the distance around the world is 25,000 miles,” she answered.
Mrs. Mock flew a 22,800-mile distance to back up her claim. Joan’s route, which followed that planned by Amelia Earhart in 1937, covered 27,750 miles.
Ten years before Joan Merriam Smith and Jerrie Mock successfully completed their solo flights around the world, Dianna Converse Cyrus Bixby planned to become the first woman to complete an official solo flight around the globe. While I had heard of Dianna and knew a little bit about her, it wasn’t until recently that I learned a whole lot more.
While looking for articles that Trixie had written about other female pilots, I came across this gem from a March 1954 edition of The Milwaukee Journal about none other than Dianna Bixby! In the article entitled “Young Mother of 2 Ready to Try to Fly Alone Around the World,” Trixie interviews 31-year old Bixby and reports on her plans to fly around the world in a De Haviland Mosquito Bomber. Back in 1954, no woman had yet completed an official solo flight around the globe.
While there were at least two women who had completed solo flights around the world prior to 1954, neither flight was considered official. For example, both Mary Petre Bruce and Elly Beinhorn flew around the world in 1930 and 1931, respectively. In both cases, their planes had to be shipped across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Dianna was an accomplished pilot with some 5,000 hours of flight time accumulated by age 31. In 1954, she flew produce 3-4 times per week in-between the United States and Mexico. She also flew passengers around the western half of the United States for the U.S. Forest Service. And, she also flew DC-3s for the movie industry, accumulating some 4,000 hours alone as a DC-3 (camera) pilot.
Standing at just 5 foot 2, Dianna’s personality was described as spunky; she was referred to as a “pretty pixie” with an infectious smile. As a child she rode horses bare back in the circus, accumulating a room full of trophies earned through horsemanship. She studied soprano singing and acted in Santa Barbara, California-based theater groups; she also played violin.
Dianna had a famous grandmother named Mary Parker Converse, who was the first woman to be commissioned by the United States Merchant Marine. (Click here to read “Running over the waves: Mary Parker Converse” from the Boston, MA website Wicked Local, which offers a wonderful summary about Mary’s life and accomplishments.) With a grandmother like Mary, there’s no doubt that Dianna gleaned much wisdom and inspiration from her. From the above-referenced article, the author writes this about Mary:
No stranger to tragedy, Dianna lost her first husband Capt. John Volney Cyrus in 1945 when his plane was shot down during the Battle of the Bulge. According to the book Soaring Skyward by Claudine Bennett, Dianna accepted John’s proposal of marriage on the condition that he would teach her to fly. Dianna would continue flying following her husband’s death. Shortly after the loss of her husband, her mother passed away. While flying air freight in 1948, she met and married Robert Bixby, a wartime Air Transport Command pilot. Together they had two children. Her first born, Lillian, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Dianna’s World Flight Attempts
After the loss of her first husband, Dianna set her sights on becoming the first woman to circle the globe. Seeking out Paul Mantz (who had been Earhart’s technical advisor) for assistance, she got to work and in 1947 she set her first air record, which was a speed record between Denver and Burbank of 2 hours, 19 minutes, and 20 seconds. With Mantz’s prompting, she entered the Cleveland to Los Angeles Bendix Air Race. While she didn’t win the race, she was one of only two women who entered.
In 1950, Dianna and her husband Robert attempted a world flight, but their right engine blew a gasket near Calcutta. Due to the need for major repairs, they were unable to continue. Robert next agreed to let her make the attempt by herself since no one else had yet completed the record. However, it would take them some time to raise the money. The cost of such a flight to Dianna (minus sponsorships, presumably) was estimated to be around $17,000 for fuel plus a $2,500 fee to the aeronautical association, or $190,000 in 2021 dollars. In the early 1950’s, she underwent specialized high altitude training at Lockheed Aviation in Burbank, CA.
Dianna worked long and hard hours in preparation for her world flight attempts. Together with her husband, she ran a business transporting produce known as Bixby’s Airborne Products. It is of interest to note here that Jack Smith, Joan Merriam Smith’s husband, worked for the Bixby’s. A normal day for Dianna would begin at 5 am. After leaving her children in the care of a nurse, she would set off for flying until at least 4:30 p.m.. She is quoted as saying: “In aviation, you’re either in it 24 hours a day or not at all.”
Dianna’s planned route for her 1954 attempt was 20,525 miles, beginning in San Francisco, continuing on to Newark, followed by a 3,642-mile leg over to Paris, then Bashra (Iraq), Karachi, Calcutta, Tokyo, Midway Island, and back to San Francisco. On April 3, 1954 (just a few days after Trixie’s article was published) she was set to make the journey, but power plant troubles with her plane in addition to the prospect of bad weather forced her to cancel. She was determined to try again.
In the runup to her next world flight attempt, tragedy again struck when Dianna ran out of gas in inclement weather en route to Mexico. Less than a year following her interview with Trixie, Dianna crashed into the ocean and died. A January 5, 1955 summary from the Pomona Progress Bulletin reads as follows:
Even though Dianna was not able to achieve her dream of becoming the first woman to circle the globe as a solo flier, her efforts were not lost. She was a true pioneer: focused, goal-oriented, and willing to take great risks to achieve her dreams. “The problem human beings face is not that we aim too high and fail, but that we aim too low and succeed.” — Michelangelo
Recently I had the pleasure of finishing three books about four amazing women who collectively make up a huge chunk of aviation history—Sheila Scott, Jackie Cochran, Jerrie Cobb, and Jerrie Mock. All four of these women lived, flew, and accomplished during the same time period as Joan Merriam Smith. The three books I read include:
Not unlike today, the 1960’s was a period characterized by accelerated change, while at the same time an era filled with promise. Despite the noise and distractions of the day (civil rights marches, JFK’s assassination, the space race, Vietnam, the pervasive threat of nuclear war), rather than becoming too caught up in the drama, these women were instead collectively busy blazing trails, exploring new arenas, living lives filled with adventure and purpose, and generally creating the future that they wanted to live in. For these reasons and more, each of these books offers a real depth of discovery, a reflection about challenges, and a re-imagination of possibilities in times of deep change. In short, they’re simply inspiring.
One of my favorite things about reading books in general is coming across new information, new connections, and new insights. While reading Fighting for Space, for example, I learned that Joan was one of the first few women to be secretly tested by the Lovelace Clinic for the Mercury 13 program! For those who are interested in learning more about the Mercury 13 program, Netflix recently put together a documentary about it. You can watch the trailer here:
While I had suspected that Joan must have been at least considered for this program aimed at getting the first woman up into space (since so few women met the criteria for being tested at the time), this was the first I was able to confirm it. Now if only I could find some more information about her experience there. But first, onto the book reviews!
Barefoot in the Sky by Sheila Scott
Even though I had heard of Sheila Scott and knew she was famous for not only becoming the third woman to fly around the world solo, but for completing a polar flight, as well as breaking over 100 flight records, I really didn’t know anything much about her. Though it took me awhile to actually sit down and read her book, once I cracked it open I simply couldn’t stop! I was surprised to find that her book was extremely poetic, very introspective, and filled with vivid details. This made the experience of reading the book almost as pleasurable and realistic as if you were on the journey together with Sheila herself.
As an actress who originally took a flying lesson on a dare, Sheila soon found flying as her calling and went on to commit to a life of flying and achieving impressive feats. From the book’s epilogue, a particular statement jumped out at me. While reflecting on her experiences after many years of flying, Sheila wrote:
“But why did I have to fly to find happiness? I think it is because in the sky I am able to stretch my brain rather than my legs, and find motivation to satisfy my insatiable curiosity to experience things myself, to be able to understand them, and to find meaning and a sense of man’s superconscious. I must fly over every horizon to see what it is like on the other side!
Flying also gives me a spirit of adventure—which I believe is a necessary thing for future progress, both individually and internationally. Soon computers will install a great deal of knowledge into all men’s mental processes in a very short space of time, much quicker than the old fourteen to eighteen years of present-day scholastic learning periods. But unless man has individuality and some responsibility for his own actions, he will become as a computer himself.”
Sheila Scott, page 211 of Barefoot in the Sky
She goes on to say:
“Through my personal self-evolvement, my flights and what they are teaching me, I am meeting more and more people in other spheres of life who are thinking and striving as I am. Together our experiences may only be particles toward renewed discoveries of the superconscious, but I believe these are of value to man’s higher development. Occasionally I want to switch on my personal autopilot and sit back, for modern life is increasingly automatic, but then I find I am bored, negative, and I become self-destructive. Fortunately, another unexpected idea soon arises and once I have put it into words, I am chasing again, thinking of nothing else until it is done. I must live for the idea totally, completely involved, and know that it is what I have been born for. It is always a flight path of the sky that I am following, but it is not an escape. It is a search, not for fame or riches, but for self and understanding.”
Sheila Scott, page 212 of Barefoot in the Sky
What a profound set of statements! In other words, Sheila’s passion for flying was really about pursuit and progress as much as the thrill of a challenge and the joy of adventure. Her experience is something really anyone can learn from. We could also all take a cue from her bravery, her interpretation of the times, the potential pitfalls, and her commitment to progress.
Another thing that stood out to me about Sheila’s book, among the others I have read in this category, is that she was highly intuitive. She connected very much to the world above the ground, appreciated all that it had to offer, respected the privilege of flying, acknowledged the constant threat of death, and took solace in the idea that she was contributing to the greater good. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand the ups and downs of taking on impressive challenges, or who enjoys philosophy or poetry.
Fighting for Space: Two Pilots and Their Historic Battle for Female Spaceflightby Amy Shira Teitel
In Fighting for Space, Amy Shira Teitel dives into the story of Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb, zeroing in on their unique plights to become the first woman in space. I was impressed with the level of research that the author completed, and her ability to synthesize that research into a captivating, well-structured, and engaging story that lines up with actual facts and events. I particularly appreciated how Amy addressed the nuances of both Jackie and Jerrie’s personal stories and varied recollections in her author’s note. The work that went into bridging the narratives of these two complex characters was by no means an easy task.
Prior to reading this book, I knew nothing about the details of Jackie’s personal life other than she was married to one of the the richest men in the United States, that she headed up the WASPs, and of course broke countless aviation records. This story brought so much more color to the complexity of Jackie’s life, which underscored the depth and nuance of her character. I particularly enjoyed the opening chapters which laid a beautiful groundwork for the book.
Here’s a particular excerpt I enjoyed about Jackie’s experience of breaking the sound barrier for the first time:
“For a brief moment, she felt how small she was in her little jet plane, and felt as though she were teetering precariously on the horizon close to the gates of heaven. For a moment she was entranced, but soon realized she wasn’t there to stargaze. Forcing her focus back into the cockpit, Jackie put the sabre into an S-dive. In an instant, she was losing altitude so fast that the needle on her altimeter was a blur …
Then, without warning, the turbulence stopped. The shock waves disappeared. The rattling was replaced by an unearthly silence. She was through the sound barrier; the turbulent air and shock waves were behind her and the noise couldn’t catch her. For a fleeting moment, Jackie felt a spiritual connection with something greater than herself. She didn’t feel scared just confident and keenly aware of the plane’s every moment.”
Fighting for Space, page 117
As mentioned in Fate on a Folded Wing, Jackie Cochran was both a friend and supporter of Joan’s, and for lack of a better descriptive word she was simply badass (according to one dictionary definition, that is to say “distinctively tough or powerful, or so exceptional as to be intimidating”). Because Jackie was concerned that Joan’s world flight didn’t receive the recognition it deserved, she wrote letters in support of her accomplishment to the National Aeronautical Association.
As for Jerrie Cobb, unbelievably I had never heard of Jerrie Cobb until I read this book. I appreciated the opportunity to learn about Jerrie’s life, how she came to head up the initiative of getting women into space (in an industry that worked against her at a time when women had so much progress yet to make). These times were messy, non-standard, emotional, unprecedented, littered with power plays, punctuated by valiant efforts, and filled with highs and lows. On top of everything, I was saddened to hear that Jerrie only passed away in 2019!
In short, without giving too much away, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand this period in history, or who enjoys a riveting, real-life story about two dynamic and complex characters who played a glorious role in history’s unfolding.
The Jerrie Mock Story: The First Woman to Fly Solo around the World by Nancy Roe Pimm
While I have read Three-Eight Charlie, originally published in 1970, I also wanted to read Nancy Roe Pimm’s book The Jerrie Mock Story for additional perspective. Since Jerrie flew around the world solo the same year as Joan, it never gets old hearing additional details about the experiences of women pilots in the 1960’s. While this book was written for a young adult audience, it’s actually perfect for adults! The story is well-laid out, easy to follow, and filled with excellent details. The author provides a thorough overview of Jerrie’s life, her personal experiences, the events leading up to her great accomplishment, as well as the adventure of her world flight. From the book, I enjoyed this particular description, as well as many others from Jerrie’s experience of traveling around the globe:
“During her final approach, ‘the last rays of the sun broke through the cumuli and bathed the little seacoast town with its golden radiance. It was an eerie light that often comes after a storm. The white ships in the harbor, the shiny rooftops, and the emerald palms shimmered against the backdrop of a deep purple sky. The rain-swept runway was like a golden finger.’
The Jerrie Mock Story, Page 51
In short, Jerrie is truly an American legend, and her story is 100% worth exploring!
Even though each of these women lived in different locations (Ohio, England, Oklahoma, and two in Southern CA), because of the global nature and strategic importance of what they were involved in, they naturally had many of the same contacts, supporters, and industry connections in cities around the globe. That’s what makes reading all of these books together so entertaining. I hope you can set some time aside to enjoy them too and give these women some more of the credit they deserve by honoring their legacies!
Bryan R. Swopes from “This Day in Aviation” recently wrote a very detailed and well-researched piece about Joan Merriam Smith and her historic 1964 solo flight around the world. As such, and with Bryan’s permission, I am re-posting his write-up here. To view the original piece, please visit the “This Day in Aviation” website. You can also like his page on Facebook to keep up with all the latest and most fascinating aviation history!
17 March–12 May 1964:Joan Merriam Smith By: Bryan R. Swopes
At 1:00 p.m., 17 March 1964, Joan Merriam Smith departed Oakland International Airport, on California’s San Francisco Bay, on what would be the first leg of an around-the world flight. Her first stop would be Tucson, Arizona, approximately 650 nautical miles (1,200 kilometers) to the east-southeast.
Mrs. Smith intended to follow the easterly route of Amelia Earhart, who had departed from Oakland on both of her attempts at the around-the-world flight. The first try, 17 March 1937, was a westerly route, with a first stop at Hawaii. The second try, 2 June 1937, was an eastbound route.
The two routes were planned to take advantage of seasonal weather patterns.
Mrs. Smith wanted to follow Earhart’s eastbound route, but by leaving in mid-March, she put herself at a disadvantage with respect to the weather she would encounter as she traveled around the Earth.
Unlike Earhart, who had two of the world’s foremost navigators in her flight crew, Mrs. Smith would fly alone, her only companion a small teddy bear. She would navigate by pilotage and ded reckoning, and by using radio aids such as non-directional beacons (NDBs) and VHF omnidirectional ranges (VORs).
Forecast adverse weather caused her to leave Tucson for her next stop, New Orleans, Louisiana, at 2:00 a.m., 18 March. Dodging the weather, she was forced to make an intermediate fuel stop at Lubbock, Texas. She finally arrived in New Orleans at 4:00 p.m. that afternoon. After another early morning start, she flew on to Miami, Florida, on 19 March.
A detailed story of Joan Merriam Smith’s flight is told in Fate on a Folded Wing, written by Tiffany Ann Brown.¹ Her route followed Earhart’s eastward across the United States; south over the Caribbean Sea to South America; then across the South Atlantic Ocean; Africa, Asia, and finally, to the Pacific Ocean, where Mrs. Smith’s route diverged from Earhart’s.
Smith’s itinerary: Across the United States from Oakland, California, to Tucson, Arizona; Lubbock, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Miami, Florida. Then over the Caribbean Sea to San Juan, Paramaribo, Natal; east across the South Atlantic to Dakar, Gao, Fort-Lamy, Al-Fashir, Khartoum, Aden. From Africa, Smith headed into South Asia: Karachi, Calcutta, Akyab, Rangoon; and then Southeast Asia: Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta, Surabaya, Kupang; Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia; and Lae, New Guinea. From here, Smith deviated from Earhart’s route across the Pacific Ocean by flying to Guam instead of Howland Island; then Wake Island; Midway Island; Honolulu, Hawaii; and, finally Oakland.
Mrs. Smith’s flight was troubled by adverse weather, leaking fuel tanks, out-of-calibration radio equipment, a recalcitrant autopilot, problems with the hydraulic and electrical systems, and a heater that would not work. And weather. . .
She arrived back at Oakland International at 9:12 a.m., on 12 May 1964, having flown approximately 27,750 miles (44,659 kilometers). The total duration of her journey was 55 days, 20 hours, 12 minutes. She had flown 35 legs on 23 days. Mrs. Smith wrote that the circumnavigation had taken a total of 170 flight hours, with 47 hours on instruments and 26 hours of night time.
Joan Merriam Smith is credited with having made the first solo circumnavigation of the Earth by the Equatorial route, and the longest solo flight.
The airplane flown by Joan Merriam Smith was a Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, serial number 23-1196, U.S. registration N3251P, which she had named City of Long Beach. The red and white airplane was manufactured by the Piper Aircraft Corporation at Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, in 1958. It had been purchased by the State of Illinois Department of Aeronautics to use checking state-owned aeronautical facilities. When the the state acquired a faster aircraft, the Apache was sold in November 1963. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a registration certificate to Mrs. Smith on 30 December 1963.
The Piper PA-23-160 Apache E was a 4-place, twin-engine, light airplane with retractable tricycle landing gear. It was 27 feet, 2 inches (8.280 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 0 inches (11.278 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 1 inch (3.073 meters). The airplane had an empty weight of 2,230 pounds (1,011.5 kilograms) and maximum gross weight of 3,800 pounds (1,723.7 kilograms).
The Apache E was powered by two air-cooled, normally-aspirated, 319.749-cubic-inch-displacement (5.240 liter) Lycoming O-320-B horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder overhead valve (OHV) engines with a compression ratio of 8.5:1. The O-320-B is a direct-drive, right-hand tractor engine, rated at 160 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. The O-320-B is 2 feet, 5.56 inches (0.751 meters) long, 2 feet, 8.24 inches (0.819 meters) wide and 1 foot, 10.99 inches (0.584 meters) high. It weighs 278 pounds (126.1 kilograms). The engines turned two-bladed Hartzell constant-speed propellers.
N3251P’s engines were modified with Rajay Co., Inc., Turbo 200 turbochargers.
The PA-23-160 had a cruise speed of 150 knots (173 miles per hour/278 kilometers per hour) and maximum speed was 159 knots (183 miles per hour/295 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 17,000 feet (5,182 meters).
During a flight from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Long Beach, 9 January 1965, the cabin heater in the nose of the Apache caught fire. With the cabin filled with smoke and gasoline fumes, and unable to reach any airport, Mrs. Smith crash-landed the airplane in rocky terrain in the Ord Mountains, southeast of Barstow in the high desert of southern California. After it has slid to a stop, N3251P continued to burn and was largely destroyed. Mrs. Smith and her passenger, Willam Harry Eytchison, were slightly injured.
At the time of the accident, N3251P had just under 3,000 hours total time on the airframe (TTAF), and less than 400 hours on new engines (TSN).
Joan Ann Merriam was born 3 August 1936 at Oceanside, Long Island, New York, U.S.A. She was the daughter of Arthur Ray Merriam, Jr., a railroad office stenographer, and Ann Marie Lofgren Merriam. The family relocated to Wayne, Michigan, where Joan attended Jefferson Junior High School and Wayne High School.
Joan’s father died at the age of 43, New Year’s Day, 1952. She and her mother then moved to Miami, Florida. Flying from Detroit to Miami aboard a Lockheed Constellation, Joan was allowed to visit the flight deck and speak to the crew.
The airline flight sparked an interest in aviation. She began taking lessons at the age of 15. Joan learned to fly at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute, then located at at Tamiami Airport. She first soloed an airplane at the age of 16 years. On 7 November 1953, shortly after her 17th birthday, she was issued private pilot certificate. Special permission was obtained from the FAA for her to take the written exams for commercial pilot before she turned 18.
Joan graduated from Miami Senior High School in 1954.
Mrs. Merriam gave Joan a Cessna 140, a single-engine light airplane, making her one of the youngest people in the United States to own an airplane. Joan said that her mother was “the bravest passenger,” as she practiced all of the maneuvers required for a commercial pilot’s license. By the time she was 18, she earned a commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating, and a flight instructor certificate. She began instructing at Tamiami. She flew charters from Florida to Texas, living in that state before moving to Panama City, Florida. On her twenty-third birthday, the earliest that she was eligible, Miss Merriam was issued an airline transport pilot certificate (ATP) by the FAA. She had flown nearly 5,000 hours.
Miss Merriam would later own a Piper Cub modified for aerobatics, a second Cessna 140, and a Cessna 172.
In the fall of 1955, Miss Merriam married Harold MacDonald, a student in aeronautical engineering. She worked as a flight instructor for Avex, Inc., at Tamiami Airport. Mr. and Mrs. MacDonald soon divorced.
In 1960, Miss Merriam was living in Panama City, Florida, where she was employed as a pilot for West Florida Natural Gas Company, one of very few women who flew as corporate pilots at the time. (Contemporary newspapers reported that she was “one of three women corporation pilots in the country.”) Reflecting the sexist attitudes of the time, news features often described her as a “blue-eyed platinum blonde,” and made mention of “her personal aerodynamic attributes.” In an interview, Miss Merriam said that a major reason preventing more women from executive flying were, “executive’s wives, and executive’s secretaries.”
She had met Lieutenant (j.g.) Marvin G. (“Jack”) Smith, Jr., U.S. Navy, in 1958. Lieutenant Smith was executive officer of USS Vital (MSO-474), an Agile-class minesweeper homeported at Panama City. She moved to San Leandro, California, and worked as a contract instrument flight instructor at Oakland International Airport for the Sixth United States Army, which was then based at the Presidio of San Francisco.
Miss Merriam and Lieutenant Smith were married at Monterey, California, 23 September 1960. The couple later moved to Long Beach, where Lieutenant Commander Smith’s next ship, USS Endurance (AM-435), was homeported.
In February 1965, Joan Merriam Smith was flying for Rajay Industries out of Long Beach, California. (Rajay was a turbocharger manufacturer which had supplied the turbos for Mrs. Smith’s Apache.) She had been conducting functional and reliability tests on a modified Cessna 182C Skylane, N8784T. The airplane was owned by the V. E. Kuster Co., of Long Beach, a supplier of oil field equipment.
The flight test plan for 17 February 1965 called for the Cessna to be flown at altitudes between 5,000 and 23,000 feet (1,524–7,010 meters). Mrs. Smith was flying. Also on board was her biographer, Beatrice Ann (“Trixie”) Schubert.
Smith was flying across the San Gabriel Mountains, which divide southern California’s coastal plain from the high desert. The highest peak in the range, Mount San Antonio, which was not far east of her course, rises to 10,046 feet (3,062 meters).
Witnesses said that the airplane had been flying normally, estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000 feet (305–610 meters) above the mountainous terrain, when the right wing folded back along the fuselage. The airplane, with the engine revving, went into a dive and crashed into the north slope of Blue Ridge, a few miles west of Wrightwood, California, 10–12 seconds later. There was an explosion and fire.
Joan Merriam Smith and Trixie Ann Schubert were killed.
Investigators found that both wings had failed outboard of the struts. The outer wing panels, both ailerons and the left elevator were located approximately 1½ miles (2½ kilometers) from the point of impact. Examination showed that the aircraft had suffered severe loads. “There was no evidence of fatigue or failure of the aircraft before the inflight structural failure.”
The Civil Aeronautics Board reported the Probable Cause: “The pilot entered an area of light to moderate turbulence at high speed, during which aerodynamic forces exceeding the structural strength of the aircraft caused in-flight structural failure.” According to the CAB, the Cessna 182 had an airspeed in excess of 190 miles per hour (306 kilometers per hour) when it entered the area of turbulence.
Her remains were interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Cypress, California.
For her accomplishment, Joan Merriam Smith was posthumously awarded the Harmon Aviatrix Trophy for 1965. At a ceremony held in the Indian Treaty Room of the Executive Office Building, 15 December 1965, the trophy was presented to her husband, Lieutenant Commander Marvin G. Smith, Jr., by Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Mrs. Smith had intended to attempt an altitude record with the turbocharged Skylane. On 20 July 1965, her husband, Marvin G. Smith, set the record at 10,689.6 meters (35,070.9 feet), flying a Cessna 210A Centurion with an IO-470 engine.²
TDiA would like to thank Ms. Tiffany Ann Brown for suggesting this subject, and for her invaluable contribution.
¹ Fate on a Folded Wing: The True Story of Pioneering Solo Pilot Joan Merriam Smith, by Tiffany Ann Brown. Lucky Bat Books, 2019.
² FAI Record File Number 9977 (Class C, Sub-Class C1c: powered airplanes, takeoff weight 1000 to 1750 kg).
Recently, the Long Beach Press Telegram featured a story about Joan Merriam Smith and the work that G. Pat Macha of Aircraft Wrecks is doing as it pertains to researching historic aircraft wrecks. You can view the full article here.
I first came across Macha while researching all that I could about plane crashes for Fate on a Folded Wing. During that time period, I inadvertently came across a TV show called Aircraft Confidential in which Macha was featured. In that episode, Macha talked about a woman who survived a plane crash caused by clear air turbulence near the top of Mount Whitney in the 1970s, among other topics that piqued my interest. Soon thereafter I found myself reaching out to him over email. I explained that I was working on a book about Joan Merriam Smith: coincidentally—and much to my surprise—he had recalled visiting the area of Joan and Trixie’s fatal crash site back in 1965!
As it turns out, Macha truly was best expert talk to, and it was serendipitous because I came across that television show by complete accident (not much of a television-watcher). Not only has Macha visited over 800 crash sites, but he’s also written a handful of books documenting plane crashes across Southern California. You can visit his website to learn more about his work here. In addition, he’s given countless lectures and has also been featured on many television shows.
To hear more about how he got involved in this line of work, watch the below video:
What’s so neat about the way that the Long Beach Press Telegram article came together, is that in part due to our correspondence, Macha’s team decided to research, locate, and visit Joan’s first plane crash site in the Southern California desert over 50 years later. In the Press Telegram article, you can read more about how they located the site and what they found along the way.
Prior to connecting with Pat, I had no idea that there were people out there who researched and documented aircraft wrecks. I also didn’t realize that there were teams of volunteers who worked to honor those who have been lost in plane crashes. From the website, Macha writes:
The Project Remembrance Team is a volunteer organization dedicated to facilitate requests of next of kin who wish to learn more about the loss of loved ones in aircraft accidents, including crash site visitations, and the placing of memorials where legal to do so.
In the past twenty-five years the Project Remembrance Team has assisted more than one hundred next of kin fulfill their wishes for accident reports, maps, photographs, and crash site visitations. On one occasion where a crash site could not be safely reached on foot a flyover was arranged. More than a dozen memorial markers have been placed at, or near crash sites, all with the permission of the property owners, be they private, state, or federal.
All missions are completed with respect and admiration for those who have come forth to honor the memory for those whom they have loved and lost. Losses suffered by our first responders, and members of our armed forces receive an appropriate extra measure of attention.
At least for Macha, for myself, and for his counterpart Tom Maloney (also mentioned int he article), it seems as if there’s something simply special about Joan’s story that is truly compelling and completely worth exploring. Like Maloney, I too have had a sense of pull and intrigue with this story from the very beginning. It certainly does provide an invitation for us all to explore! What do you think?
Recently I had the chance to dig through volumes of Trixie’s old photo albums, scrapbooks, and journals. As an avid writer and journalist, she was certainly adept at cataloging her many personal reflections and experiences. Luckily for me, this made my job of pulling together Fate on a Folded Wing not only fascinating, but fun.
With that being said, I wanted to take this opportunity to simply share some of the interesting photos and newspaper articles I came across as it pertains to women’s flight history, and specifically the Ninety-Nines. Please enjoy the following photo essay.