An Overview of Legal Activity Following Joan’s & Trixie’s Fatal 1965 Plane Crash

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 10, 1968 a Request for Entry of Dismissal was filed in the case between Marvin G. Smith, Jr. and Rajay Corporation et al.
  • 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 …

Revisiting Joan and Trixie’s 1965 Plane Crash on its 57th Anniversary

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.)

A copy of the original Los Angeles Times article dated February 18, 1965

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.

Source: Reno Gazette Journal
February 10, 1966

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.

  1. 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).
  2. Other than clear air turbulence caused by the mountainous terrain, what other factors could have created such extreme turbulence?
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

Source: Santa Ana Register, February 10, 1966

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.