If you’ve read Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, you know the significance of January 16; a year ago, since the date coincided with the fall of weekdays culminating in Friday January 16, I conducted a Twitter campaign to take you minute by minute through Carole Lombard’s last hectic 36 hours of life in real-time. That exercise taught me just how fast she careened toward her own death. It’s 11:30, she’s here; it’s 12:15, she’s there; 2:05, time for a wardrobe change to be here at 2:15. She had spent Thursday January 15, 1942 dashing and appearing. Make a speech, sell bonds, dash a few blocks to raise a flag, change clothes, go to a tea, change clothes, go to dinner uptown, then motorcade to the evening “gala.”
Last year’s Twitter recreation of the timeline for today, January 16, took a more linear turn. Imagine you’re flying west on a TWA red-eye, and it’s the middle of the night and you stop in lonely Indianapolis. Modern air travelers have no frame of reference for what a DC-3 interior was like. Basically you sat in the equivalent of a big tin can, sloped uphill, in terrific noise. You can’t imagine the noise of two commercial transport engines on either side of you, so if you got on the plane at LaGuardia or Newark and hopped your way west, by the time you reached Indianapolis, you were bushed. Sleep, when it came at all, was fleeting and fitful. Then as you sit in the silence of a darkened tarmac (the tinnitus of those engines still in your ears), your flight attendant, known then as an “air hostess,” announces that a VIP is boarding and please respect her privacy. Onto the plane steps Carole Lombard, her mother, and their PR man, with Lombard still wired from all she had experienced in the last 18 hours, from her first appearance in Indianapolis on.
As I write this I guess she’s somewhere over Missouri and now she’s sleeping fitfully and fleetingly while flying beside and in front of two passengers who are spitting mad at her for making them travel by air at all. Spitting mad. This is one of many aspects of the story that people don’t quite get because there are no photographs to depict it and few eyewitnesses spoke of it, but this party was Unhappy with a capital Un. Carole’s mother, whom she knew as “Petey” sometimes and “Tots” most of the time, would go to her fiery death furious at her daughter. PR man Otto Winkler would spend his last day trapped on the tin can and anticipating an air disaster because he had dreamed it would happen. So here he is right now over Missouri, expecting the worst after he had expended all his energy in Indianapolis and then hadn’t slept all night. Imagine, just imagine…
Stop after stop followed as the TWA’s transcontinental Flight 3 hedge-hopped west, stopping to pick up and drop off passengers and mailbags and to top off the tanks for the next leg. Then there’s another aspect of the thousand aspects to the story: the Army Air Corps guys. They had gotten onto the plane in dribs and drabs and by the last stop, the unscheduled stop in Las Vegas, there were 15 of these fliers on the plane as passengers, and only four civilians. One of the reasons I decided to write the manuscript I’m finishing today, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, is because of the affinity I feel for the Air Corps boys after writing Fireball. Newspapers reporting the crash of the plane gave the impression these young men were all pilots, but they weren’t. They were also co-pilots, navigators, radio men, and engineers. They were parts of flight crews in the Ferrying Command who took medium and heavy bombers east to the war, then snagged commercial flights back to California and did it over again. In the coming months these young guys were expecting transfer to American bases where they would train Air Corps conscripts because experienced Air Corps fliers were in short supply. Then after promotions they’d head to Europe or the Pacific as senior-level officers or non-coms.
The life of an army aviator wasn’t easy because their ships were reliable and yet not at all reliable. We were then just out of the era of the biplane and still figuring out multi-engine aviation. Here’s something else to think about: When TWA Flight 3 took off into the Las Vegas darkness on this night, January 16, the 15 fliers sat there in the noise analyzing climb rate and engine performance. They could feel the overweight ship laboring to reach altitude because this is what they did for a living—they flew multi-engine planes. And since they were flying out of McCarran, an army airfield, they all knew Vegas and the dangers of the surrounding mountains and must have been wondering where those damn peaks were. But some of them also knew the pilot, Capt. Wayne Williams, because he had been teaching classes for the Army in multi-engine flying so they’d figure, with Capt. Williams up there, we’re OK.
They weren’t OK. A whole bunch of little things happened along the way that conspired to put Mt. Potosi in the way of Flight 3 as she power-climbed to altitude. The result: fireball—the image in my mind for years as I’d fly through Vegas and look over at Potosi and imagine what the people of Las Vegas witnessed in the western sky this night at about 7:30 local time. From 30 miles off they saw a little pinpoint of light that represented 22 humans going up in flames. I’m very fond of, and feel close to, all of them, not just Carole, Petey, and Otto, and on this January 16, with the trees barren and the sky appropriately gray, I’ll look at my watch and think about where they were and what they were doing on this, the last day of their lives.
You won’t be alone in your thoughts this day, Robert. Thank you for the lovely tribute to those beautiful souls.
After reading your book and Warren G. Harris’ “Gable and Lombard” I have thought often about Carol and what she meant to the film community and to her fans when she perished that tragic night; and of course, what really did happen? The facts that you shared in your book after years of thought and research ring true to me – a combination of navigational errors and oversights as well as the glare on that windshield from the lighting inside the cockpit likely contributed to the crash. I’d like to add a point of fact, followed by a theory, to underscore your conclusion. Williams and his co-pilot spotted that mountain perhaps only 5 to 8 seconds before impact, at which time they immediately attempted to steer the plane hard right, since they apparently couldn’t bring it up over the mountain, or go sideways far enough, through that saddle. Your research and the observations of countless others points to the left wing tip striking Mr. Potosi first, leaving a mark on the rock to this day, and barely a micro second later the front side of the plane and left motor, were the first portions of the plane to impact. That explains why they could not recover Carol’s left arm, which was likely pulverized. This makes it conclusive in my view neither pilot suicidally tried to fly the plane into the mountain, as was speculated during the inquiry, and left as an open question. The pilots heroically tried to bring that plane through the saddle opening, as a last futile attempt to avoid the cliff.
Thank you, Robert, for this poignant tribute to Carole and all the passengers of TWA’s Flight 3.
It’s hard to believe it has been 74 years since that fatal night. And thanks to your excellent book, Carole and Flight 3 will not be forgotten. Remembering Carole this night.
I just want to thank you for writing Fireball. I have not read such a gripping tale in a long time. I knew how it would end, however I always hope Lombard will somehow take the train. I’ve read other biographies on Lombard and the plane crash is always a rushed footnote.
I also love the way you brought Lombard to life. She is always portrayed as the ultimate glamour girl/clown with barely a flaw. After reading the book I feel like I can smell Lombard’s cigarette smoke, feel the nervous energy and the sheer cold of that January night on that bumpy noisy plane.