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Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3
By Robert Matzen
GoodKnight BooksCopyright © 2017 Robert Matzen
All rights reserved.
A Perfectly Routine Friday Night
It was after six o'clock on the evening of January 16, 1942, when Pfc. Tom Parnell first learned that a TWA airliner intended to stop at McCarran Field in Las Vegas. Private Parnell worked the tower of the Army airfield that evening, and it was going to be a cold one, temperature down around forty. McCarran had been leased to Transcontinental and Western Airlines, or TWA, and Western Air Express for use as a commercial field, which meant that the place saw more action than if it had been occupied by the Army alone. Parnell hadn't been expecting to work this evening, but a buddy, Private Craft, had asked him to switch so he could go to the pictures, and Tom said yes because maybe he would need a favor himself down the line.
Now, at 6:26, Parnell received a radio call from TWA Trip Number 3 inbound from Albuquerque asking for wind speed and a runway assignment. Parnell had been handling these duties for only a week and knew he needed some practice with his radio calls. He hoped his inexperience couldn't be heard as he radioed, "Winds are calm from the east. No traffic at this time. Captain's choice of runway." McCarran Field had two landing strips, a north-south runway and a diagonal northeast-southwest runway.
Three minutes later Parnell spotted the twin beams of forward landing lights on a DC-3 as it swung to come in from the southwest, and TWA Flight 3 eased into a smooth landing. It was a new DC-3 with a polished aluminum body. A red TWA emblem outlined in black showed on the left wing surface, and the plane number NC 1946, also in red, appeared atop the right wing. In red script above the eight rectangular passenger windows along the fuselage read the words, The Lindbergh Line; an arrow next to the script pointed forward, toward the nose of the plane and the limitless horizon beyond.
With the plane safely landed and taxied to the station, Parnell stood down on an otherwise quiet evening. He knew nothing about the plane and didn't much care. With a glance he noticed Army guys piling out, which was usual these days with the war on. Parnell cared only that the plane had landed safely, and once he saw that it took off safely in a few minutes, his job would be done.
On the runway thirty-one-year-old TWA station manager Charles Duffy walked from the station into the cold night air. He pushed aluminum steps on wheels out to the cabin door of the plane. The door swung open and there stood the air hostess, a good-looking brunette with dark eyes. Duffy moved the steps into place, locked the wheels, and climbed up to receive from the hostess a card that contained cargo and passenger information. She smiled as she handed it down and made eye contact that could have been flirtatious; he didn't know.
Duffy moved down next to the stairway and watched a number of Army men step off the plane, one set of striped, khaki pants after another. It was his habit to make sure each passenger descended the steps smoothly without mishap, so he watched legs and feet. Legs and feet. Suddenly a very different leg appeared; a shapely leg in stockings and high heels. He held out his hand instinctively to help a lady off the plane and looked up into the face of a pretty young woman with dark hair. She smiled, thanked him, and moved past. More Army men stepped down. Bang. Bang. Bang. Precise masculine strides, one after another.
Then another toned leg appeared beneath another hemline. Duffy caught the glint of an ankle bracelet and saw a black high-heeled shoe. He held out his hand again. A gloved hand took his, and when he looked up he was staring into the sculpted face and topaz-blue eyes of motion picture actress Carole Lombard. No mistaking it; she was a distinctive-looking woman. Duffy attempted to hide the fact that his heart had skipped a couple beats — to show that he was startled would be seen as unprofessional. The movie star managed a faint smile, forced it he thought, as she stepped off Flight 3 into the cold desert night. It was funny how the brain worked. In the split second that he had made eye contact with this woman he had never met, he could tell she was exhausted. Her makeup had worn off hours earlier revealing pale skin and circles under the eyes the color of storm clouds. Two other passengers seemed to be with her, a middle-aged man and a much older woman, and all proceeded into the station to stretch their legs and warm up while the plane refueled. Notables routinely appeared at the little Las Vegas airfield because of its proximity to the bigger air terminals at Burbank and Los Angeles to the southwest. Just ninety minutes of airspace separated Las Vegas from the movie capital of the world.
Flight 3's block time was 6:36, and Duffy followed the last of the passengers, one more cluster of soldiers, into the station. His was a high-pressure job, handling all the paperwork and cargo for the flights en route as well as passenger questions and final clearance with TWA control in Burbank. He heard the fuel truck being driven into place and knew that things were moving smoothly. Trip Number 3 was a transcontinental flight that had begun at LaGuardia in New York City the previous day, then stopped at Pittsburgh, Columbus, Dayton, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Wichita, Amarillo, and Albuquerque. The flight crew would have changed over a couple times by now, along with all the passengers, so the DC-3 itself and some of its cargo and mail contents were the only constants from New York City all the way to lonely Las Vegas.
Out at the plane, young Floyd Munson, not yet eighteen, leaned a ladder against the fuselage, and Ed Fuqua, the cargo man, climbed up on the wing and sticked the fuel tanks. He scribbled numbers on a slip of paper and handed it down to Munson, who walked the paper inside and stuck it in Duffy's palm before ambling back to his duties at the plane.
As Chuck Duffy processed paperwork, some of the Army personnel from the plane stood in a group, smoking and talking. Others sat quietly, one of them already slumped asleep in a chair. They were various ages, up to thirty he thought, but mostly they were young, barely shaving, and full of enthusiasm. Carole Lombard shared none of their energy or good spirits. All the while, she paced in front of the two other people, the businessman with slicked-back hair and the elderly lady who had followed the actress off the plane. Duffy glanced at the passenger list. Otto Winkler was the only civilian male he saw on the list, and there were two women passengers, a Mrs. Elizabeth Peters and a Mrs. Lois Hamilton. He wasn't sure who was who, but nobody looked happy. The actress was pale and thin and wore a sour expression, not at all what he might expect from a star of comedy pictures. The elderly woman sat rigidly in her seat and stared at nothing. Nobody said a word. After a while the businessman approached Duffy and asked to send a telegram. Duffy handed him a Western Union form, and the man scribbled some lines and handed the form back along with a quarter.
Out the corner of his eye, Duffy saw the pilot edge up to his desk. "Say, is Flight 3 going on to Long Beach?" the pilot asked. Duffy replied that he didn't have that information and the captain would have to check upon landing at Burbank. Wayne Williams was the captain's name, one of the veteran TWA pilots but a recent addition to this route, about forty years of age and a nice guy.
The captain nodded and motioned toward the plane. "Fill the oil tanks to 20 gallons each, will you?" Duffy said he would see it done. He told Captain Williams that his man had sticked the tanks and there were 125 gallons of fuel remaining on the plane at landing. Chuck said he had ordered 225 gallons to be added for a total of 350. Capacity was more than 800, but Duffy was concerned about weight because he could see from the hostess card that the plane was already maxed out on passengers and cargo. Williams nodded his approval of the addition of fuel.
A few feet away Carole Lombard, dressed in a pink suit and wrapped in black fur, stopped pacing and stared out at the plane, watching Ed Fuqua continue to work. She fumbled for a cigarette, lit it, and took a deep drag. She huddled up and began pacing again, arms folded tightly about her. She pulled a bit of tobacco off the tip of her tongue with her fingers, and then continued to smoke and pace. Duffy thought her a tight little firecracker about ready to go off. The turnaround was longer than he would have liked, this quick service job that should have been ten minutes at most and was now more than twenty. No cargo or mail was being added to or removed from the plane, which should have made turnaround a snap. Floyd Munson, the young cargo assistant, simply had to work with the TWA hostess still aboard the plane to remove the remnants from a dinner served to passengers in the air between Albuquerque and Las Vegas, and that should have been done by now.
Outside, Fuqua worked as fast as he might. Western Air employed him and he preferred the smaller Western fuel truck. But the Las Vegas terminal served both Western Air Express and TWA, and by agreement he serviced the TWA ships too, and on those occasions he was forced to use the unwieldy TWA Texaco truck with too many levers and gauges. He was up on the wings adding gas to the mains, and then down, up again, and then down. The second time he almost bumped into a soldier who had strayed near the wing, obviously the guard assigned to watch the plane while it remained on the ground. They were just forty days past Pearl Harbor after all. McCarran Field was an Army facility, and they had the place buttoned up tight, with guards at every entrance and by every plane.
Finally, Fuqua was done adding gas and oil. Munson confirmed that he had removed the meal service. Fuqua brought the maintenance sheet inside and handed it to Chuck Duffy. Chuck then prepared Flight 3's final clearance and gave it to Captain Williams. Pilot and copilot returned to the plane. Duffy was conscious of the delay and hurried over to the door to the station, calling for passengers to line up by seat assignment. He led them outside and stood by the portable aluminum stairway as the large group of Army personnel and the few civilians began to file past and climb aboard. By the order of boarding, Miss Lombard was sitting in the center of the plane. He held out his hand and she took it as she climbed the steps, her high heels clomping on aluminum. She thanked him for his help and seemed a bit less high voltage getting onto the plane than she had been stepping off. Then Duffy helped the elderly lady make the climb and set foot inside the plane.
When all were aboard, he swiveled the door into the hands of that pretty uniformed stewardess, who gave him a smile and a thank you. "Happy landings," he said, and she smiled again and pulled the door closed. He heard the lock catch inside the plane. He pulled his steps away and returned to the station, his work for the day now finished. Flight 3 hadn't been scheduled to land at McCarran and had been on its way to Boulder City to the south, but the flight was well behind schedule and had run out of daylight, and Boulder airfield didn't have runway lights. Flight 3 then had made the call to McCarran and the airfield had accommodated. Now Chuck Duffy was bushed and anxious to get home to dinner.
Up in the control tower, Private Parnell was once again engaged. Word hadn't reached him about Carole Lombard, and so all he cared about was getting Flight 3 airborne without incident.
He watched the pilot turn over one propeller, and then the other, and the twin-engined bird started to run up those big Wright Cyclone engines to takeoff speed.
The pilot radioed for permission to taxi to the northern edge of the north-south runway, and Parnell gave him the OK. The engines were practically screaming by now. Parnell was used to the throaty growl of the Western DC-3s, but this TWA airship had two engines that seemed to be working hard. A DC-3 was a DC-3, so why would the engines sound so different? He couldn't understand it, but then he was new and shrugged to himself that he didn't know what he didn't know.
Flight 3 began to move north to south along the runway. It continued to gain speed without getting off the ground, past the intersection with the diagonal runway. A streak of flame trailed each engine, which Parnell found a spectacular sight, like Independence Day fireworks. The ship didn't seem to be in any hurry to leave the ground, he thought, as she kept rolling along the runway, down and down. As quickly as he grew concerned, there she went, easing into the air and gaining altitude. The flame of the engines illuminated the plane enough for him to see the wheels start to retract.
Parnell glanced at his watch and grabbed his clipboard to write down the departure time. From downstairs he heard the maintenance man's voice — Parnell didn't know his name — as he called up suddenly, "What was that just took off, an AT-6? What's a trainer doing taking off at night?"
The engine of the AT-6 Texan made a terrific high and distinctive roar, a sound heard all day every day around McCarran since Pearl Harbor. That's what the engines of Flight 3 had sounded like; they were working hard to get off the ground because of a heavy load.
"Nope," Parnell shouted down the stairs. "It was a DC-3."
There was a pause. "Huh," said the operations man, as if a little embarrassed to have guessed wrong.
At about two miles downrange to the south or southwest, the TWA ship radioed back, "TWA Flight 3 takeoff time, seven zero seven," and Parnell acknowledged.
On the radio he heard Air Traffic Control talking to TWA Control: "Traffic for TWA 3 is northeast-bound Western 10, estimated Daggett 7:59, climbing to 9,000."
"K.F.," had come the response from ATC.
In Las Vegas tower life had grown quiet again, and Parnell thought about his buddy at the movies and envied him that little bit of Hollywood excitement. As it was, the private settled back and waited for Western Flight 10 on what was in all respects a perfectly routine Friday night in January.CHAPTER 2
Perpetual Motion Machine
Aboard TWA Flight 3 on takeoff from McCarran Field, the softhearted, hard-charging, caffeine-fueled, self-promoting, profanity-laced, nicotine-addicted, business-oriented, and usually optimistic sexpot and perpetual motion machine known to the world as Carole Lombard could finally see the end of the road. A Hoosier from Fort Wayne, Indiana, she was born Jane Alice Peters, the third child of Frederick and Elizabeth Knight Peters. Fred had money courtesy of his father, John C. Peters of the hardware Peters. Bess came from money courtesy of the Knight banking interests. Money would practically grow on every tree in the vicinity of Carole Lombard her whole life, symbolized in childhood visits to the mansion of old J.C. on West Wayne Street and the larger-still plantation-style home of Charles Knight across the Maumee River on Spy Run Road. These were the playgrounds of Jane and her big brothers during her first six years of life. But having money didn't mean the kid had it easy.
"I always had the feeling that I couldn't keep up," she said of a youth spent in the shadow of her brothers, which is odd considering that Carole Lombard gave the appearance all her Hollywood life of being comfortable in her own skin. Whether posing in a negligee or bathing suit (and nobody in the 1930s struck more cheesecake poses than Lombard), dancing on-screen, shooting skeet, attending the Academy Awards dinner, camping in long johns, or launching Gone With the Wind with 150,000 people looking on, Lombard always seemed on the verge of saying, "You bet your ass I belong here."
But she had good reason not to grow up a powerhouse. Before Fred Peters and Bess Knight had married, he had nearly been killed in an industrial accident at the manufacturing plant owned by his father, J.C. Fred had been mashed up badly and nearly lost a leg. But it was the head injury that would plague him the rest of his life, and after his marriage to Bess and the birth of their three children, headaches crippled him, and then came seizures so frightening that Bess feared she would have to take the children away. The episodes didn't seem to be spells of epilepsy, the "falling sickness," but more on the order of blind rages for which there was then no cure, no warning, and absolutely no defense. Testing for chronic traumatic encephalopathy was generations away, but this condition may have been responsible for Fred's erratic, dangerous behavior.
It was the dark cloud in an otherwise bucolic turn-of-the-century life in Fort Wayne. Jane grew up idolizing her two big brothers, Freddy, nicknamed Fritz, and Stuart, known as Tootie after Jane's early attempts at Stuart. Endless tagging along with Fritz and Tootie hardened Jane into a tomboy the likes of Scout in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
Excerpted from Fireball by Robert Matzen. Copyright © 2017 Robert Matzen. Excerpted by permission of GoodKnight Books.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: All Uphill ix
1 A Perfectly Routine Friday Night 1
2 Perpetual Motion Machine 9
3 The Radiating Halo 14
4 The Long Road 21
5 A Long and Grim Weekend 41
6 Merely Physical 44
7 A Perfect Flying Experience 57
8 Inflexible Fate 62
9 Jimmy Donnally Lands His Plane 67
10 Calculated Mayhem 73
11 Flight 3 Is Down 82
12 A Man in a Man's Body 87
13 The Plane That Fell 100
14 Somber Hymns and Cold Marble 103
15 Hoping Against Hope 111
16 Certified Bombs 115
17 The Plain, Black Night 123
18 Malaise 125
19 Road King 137
20 A Flame to Many Moths 140
21 Fool's Errand 150
22 The VIPs 152
23 Gleaming Silver 175
24 The Coin Flip 178
25 The Computer 183
26 Stranded 189
27 The Glamorous Life 193
28 I Won't Be Coming Home 211
29 There's No Rush 220
30 Caring Enough to Climb a Mountain 227
31 The Entire Gang Showed Up 234
32 Groaning Pines 238
33 Unfixable 243
34 I Still See It in My Dreams 247
35 The Fatal Flaw 256
36 The Complication 260
37 Just a Few Yards Apart 265
38 All in a Day's Work 272
39 The Little Boy Was Gone 277
40 Flying with Full Acceptance 281
41 The Under Side 286
42 Even the Unfortunates 294
43 The Cream of the Crop 299
44 Skyrocketing 305
45 Mangled 310
46 If I Can Do It, So Can You 335
Epilogue: High-Energy Impact 346
Chapter Notes 357
Selected Bibliography 376