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The crash of the TWA “Sun Racer” near Uniontown on April 7, 1936
The First TWA Flight Attendant Hero
On April 7, 1936, a DC-2 Sun Racer, made a crash landing in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Nellie Granger, a member of the second training class, became a heroine for her brave efforts to help her passengers. The impact of the plane’s crash into a mountainside had thrown Nellie from the plane. She went back into the mangled plane and pulled out a woman, the wife of the mayor of Newark, and a man with two broken legs. She then got two blankets and covered them before walking to look for help. Hours later, she finally reached a farm house and phoned TWA’s office in Pittsburgh. When the rescuers arrived, she insisted on accompanying them back to the site of the crash. They traced where she had walked, and it was eleven miles.
On April 7, TWA Flight 1 left Newark at 7:45 am and made its regularly scheduled stop in Camden, outside Philadelphia, at 8:27 am where they picked up additional passengers. In Camden, piolet Otto Ferguson and copilot Harry C. Lewis received the weather report for their trip, which indicated heavy clouds and icing conditions in western Pennsylvania below 15,000 feet. The DC-2 was certified to operate in these conditions, which required instrument flying rules. Ferguson’s plan was to fly west from Camden, using
compass readings and radio beacons as guidance, then make an approach into Allegheny County Airport from the northeast. During the trip, he kept in radio contact with TWA Flight 21, a direct flight from Newark to Pittsburgh. That flight was scheduled to arrive about the same time as Flight 1, and Ferguson wanted to avoid problems.
Unbeknownst to Ferguson, the course he flew was about 8 degrees south of his plan. After passing the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania radio beam, TWA Flight 1 began to drift south. Heavy cloud cover prevented Ferguson from seeing any landmarks, and he was relying wholly upon instruments. Shortly after 10 am, Ferguson began his decent to Pittsburgh, believing it to be much closer than it actually was. At 10:09 am, he asked for weather conditions and was told the skies were overcast, with thick clouds above 1,700 feet. He confirmed the report and said he was about 10 miles east of the airport, flying in clouds at 3,000 feet. Ferguson said the tower’s radio signal was “very weak” and asked, “Is it OK to come on in?” It was the last communication from the plane.
At 10:10 am, witnesses near Connellsville reported hearing and seeing the plane fly overhead through gaps in the fog. Several people reported seeing the plane flying low over houses. Investigators later concluded that during these final moments before the crash, Ferguson realized he was lost and began following a small creek to the northwest. The heavy clouds forced him to fly lower to follow the creek, which turns into a small valley before its source. After entering the valley, Ferguson would have had only three-quarters of a mile to climb 650 feet over the mountain. About 10:20 am, Flight 1 crashed.
For those aboard, the first inkling that something was wrong came when the first trees flew by the passenger cabin's windows. Until that point, the flight had been an uneventful one, with few bumps. The seatbelt warning light had not been lit. Pilot Ferguson and co-pilot Lewis were killed instantly upon impact, their bodies trapped within the wreckage. A handful of passengers were more fortunate, as they were thrown from the aircraft as it tore itself apart, then flipped over and began burning. Flight attendant Nellie Granger was the first of these passengers to realize what had happened.
She remembered nothing of the crash itself and awoke about 125 feet from the plane's wreckage. Though stunned by the concussion and bleeding from several injuries, she managed to pull two passengers away from the burning aircraft and administered first aid. Realizing they needed immediate medical attention, she went to find help. Despite the thick fog, clouds and freezing rain that dominated the scene, she noticed a set of telephone wires in a nearby field. Wearing only a light uniform, she followed the wires 4 miles to a farmhouse, where she telephoned the TWA office in Pittsburgh to notify them of the crash.
In Pittsburgh, Flight 21, which had been ahead of Flight 1, arrived at 10:33 am without incident. The Allegheny County Airport air traffic controller began radioing in vain for news of Flight 1, but received no news. Not until Granger's phone call about 1:55 pm did anyone at the airfield realize the plane had crashed. Help was immediately dispatched to the area, and Granger retraced her steps to the crash site, where she greeted rescuers before being escorted to an ambulance and a hospital in Uniontown.
Of the 14 people—eleven passengers and three crew—aboard the aircraft, three people survived the crash, but one of those later died of infection. Flight attendant Granger was the sole crewmember to live, while the wife of Meyer Ellenstein, the mayor of Newark, was the sole survivor among the passengers. Charles Challinor, who was rescued by Granger from the crash, died a week after the accident when a series of amputations failed to stop the advance of an infection. Early reports indicated more of the passengers survived, leading to tragedy when friends rushed to the crash, only to be informed of the truth. Four of the dead passengers were students at Valley Forge Military Academy and were on Easter vacation from classes, enjoying their first airplane trip. The pilot, Otto Ferguson, died on his 42nd birthday; a party had been planned at Indianapolis, one of the stops on the flight's path to Los Angeles. This is a listing of the passengers:
Nellie Granger (Injured), flight attendant
Mrs. Meyer Ellenstein (Injured), housewife
Charles G. Challioner, 34, engineer
Robert G. Evans, 18, student
Crawford T. Kelly, 18, student
Donald V. August, 17, student
Charles H. Smith, 17, student
Frank Hardeman, 33, labor union official
John J. O'Neill, 32, labor union official
Guy Renadeau d'Arc, 33, engineer
Stanley W. Bayerdorfer, account executive
G. W. Heffernam, 35, salesman
Otto Ferguson, pilot
Harry C. Lewis, co-pilot
Even before the survivors had been rushed to the hospital, investigators had begun to determine the reason for the crash. The Bureau of Air Commerce, predecessor to the modern Federal Aviation Administration, was put in charge of the investigation, but TWA sent independent investigators as well. Bad weather was pointed to as an early suspect, and TWA backed the idea that a faulty radio beacon was to blame, resuming an argument that had begun in February, when TWA's president testified to the U.S. Congress that airplane radio beacons were being poorly maintained.
At the crash scene, investigators measured the plane's slide and found the DC-2 had cut a swath more than 200 feet long, indicating the plane had been going at a fast pace rather than a landing speed. Interviews with Nellie Granger established the plane had not been readied for landing, indicating pilot Ferguson did not believe he was in a final descent. Government tests revealed the landing beam was not faulty, but TWA refused to accept those results and was persuaded only when independent testing confirmed the results.
Major R. W. Schroeder of the Department of Commerce said, "In my opinion the cause of this catastrophe will never be known,” but investigators gradually uncovered the truth through interviews with people who had seen the plane's course diverge from schedule. In the end, the Bureau of Air Commerce concluded pilot Ferguson was at fault and demonstrated "poor judgment" by descending to a dangerous altitude in an attempt to navigate visually. By the time he realized his mistake, ice buildup on the plane's wings prevented it from gaining enough altitude to avoid the mountain. TWA disagreed with the report's conclusions but did not offer an alternative explanation.
In 1935, the Bureau of Air Commerce encouraged a group of airlines to establish the first three centers for providing air traffic control along the airways. Following the crash, the Bureau itself took over the centers and began to expand the network, leading to the development of the modern air traffic control system.
For her efforts, flight attendant Nellie Granger from nearby Dravosburg, Pennsylvania was acclaimed as a hero. She was profiled by the New York Times and Time Magazine, and TWA promoted her to the top position among its flight attendants. She continued flying on the Sky Chief, another TWA New York-Los Angeles flight, albeit after a seagoing cruise paid for by TWA. Country music singer Joe Barker was inspired by her story to write the song "The Crash of The Sun Racer," which tells the story in verse:
"Her flight was made on schedule till she reached the mountain tall. / It's just 12 miles from Uniontown the ship began to fall. / Our praise goes to the stewardess who spread the news around / And tried to help the passengers as the ship blazed on the ground."
TWA continued to use the "Sun Racer" name and flight number throughout the late 1930s. In 2002, a 475-pound granite monument was erected on the crash site to memorialize those killed in the accident.