lombard plane crash

Time Machine

I imagine that time travel would be a pretty cool thing to experience. This past weekend I flirted a little with time travel at “World War II Weekend,” staged at the Reading Regional Airport in eastern Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. There, several hundred living historians (a.k.a. “reenactors”) got together to represent American G.I.s, German infantry, French resistance, and many other groups for the benefit of the history minded of this millennium. The authenticity was astonishing to the extent that the very sight of the “Krauts” in person and up close produced in me a chill—broken only when these 1940s apparitions, precise in every detail, tall, square shouldered, in gray-green uniforms and helmets, would sneak a peek at a smartphone.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

U.S. paratroopers check an all-important equipment check before their jump.

What makes a guy enact a paratrooper jumping out of a plane at 1,500 feet to provide an audience of thousands a sense of what it was like to see a flock of C-47s overhead if you were in France in 1944? The sense I got from it was, these guys of the Airborne Demonstration Team love the history that much. I also realized that the 1944 fellas were up in the air for several minutes over enemy territory as they floated to earth and impersonated clay pigeons for marksmen on the ground. There’s bravery, and then there’s paratroopers.

You learn things by experiencing history up close that you wouldn’t or couldn’t from reading about it in a book or watching a movie. You know me: I don’t feel I can write about a physical location without being there; this time the physical location was inside a Consolidated B-24 Liberator, a 74-year-old heavy bomber of the type that pulverized Germany from 1943 to 1945. James Stewart and other characters in my new book flew in these growling monsters so I had to too. Thank God I’m not writing about those paratroopers.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The last flying B-24 Liberator, Diamond Lil, and crew wait on the tarmac.

It’s always sobering to fill out a form that asks for “next of kin” before one of these adventures, but the truth is these planes crashed when they were new, and Diamond Lil is the last of her kind, the final flying Liberator in America. I love to fly in vintage bombers. The cabins are unpressurized because of the gun ports, and the engines are louder than you can possibly imagine. It rides like a 20-ton bucket of bolts, just as it did through the war. It is magnificent!

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

For luck.

Which brings me to the topic for today, which is not Diamond Lil but another gal. It’s about a chance encounter, the kind where you glimpse someone and feel a primal rush and think to yourself, I’ve been waiting for you my whole life. Well, it happened right there on the runway during my pre-flight briefing as I stood by the wing of the B-24. I turned around and saw her and thought to myself, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m committed to Diamond Lil, because there she is.” Across the runway, a vintage gleaming silver DC-3 had just landed and taxied to a stop. Right. Over. There.

The conflict raged inside me as the captain of Diamond Lil went on with his safety briefing. Yah, yah, sure, skipper. Whatever you say. I was too busy replaying in my head a DC-3 landing in Las Vegas, weary passengers, a final takeoff and ascent. Eyewitnesses seeing and hearing a plane on an unusual heading…

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Helloooo, beautiful! First glimpse of the Douglas DC-3 that had landed right behind me.

You’d be proud of me, people: I got my head together and wrung every minute out of my flight inside Diamond Lil, from engine run-up through an airborne exploration of the ship, from flight deck to tail gun and then a landing that felt like the worst pothole you ever hit in your car.

An hour later I was inside that DC-3, which was configured as a C-47—the design most used in helping to win World War II. But whether used for passengers or cargo, they were all stamped out the same and so stepping inside this 1945 model was exactly like stepping inside TWA Flight 3.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Looking forward from the tail of the Douglas DC-3/C-47.

Passengers had to be made of sterner stuff back then. Today, I grouse if an infant is on my flight on a 737 or Airbus—and I’m talking if an infant is anywhere inside the roomy cabin so its screaming little voice will bounce off the fuselage and disturb my experience. Well, not a problem in 1942. You’d never hear the little bastard with two 1200-horsepower engines five feet from you, one pressing in from the left, and one pressing in from the right. You wouldn’t hear anything in the unpressurized cabin but an urgent, purposeful growl at somewhere around 110 decibels. It’s not like Carole Lombard could chat with her afraid-to-fly mother during the trip west to offer consolation. Even screams from mouth to ear wouldn’t convey a message, so you sat there in a cabin smaller than your average trolley car, stuffed Kleenex in your ears, and took it.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Inside the DC-3 (here configured as a C-47 for cargo). For passenger travel there were three seats across, two on the left and one on the right, with an aisle between. Not exactly roomy. Folks, this is the entire cabin.

So, I went inside the DC-3, talked to the people, took some pictures, exited, came back again, took some video, walked all around it… I knew my followers would find the experience interesting so I tried to document to give you the best look you may ever have at the plane that hit the mountain. One of the many benefits of time travel.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Landing gear as it’s supposed to look.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Landing gear (right) with other pieces of DC-3 on Mt. Potosi in 2012.

Two for Forty

I just returned from three days at Cinevent, the annual celebration of Golden Age Hollywood in Columbus, Ohio. I got plenty of opportunity to talk about Fireball there, and about my next book, with the likes of author and archivist James V. D’Arc, author and blogger John McElwee, Errol Flynn Slept Here co-author Michael Mazzone, and legendary Warner Bros. archivist Leith Adams, among many others.

While there, John dropped an 8.5×11 sheet of paper in my lap. It was a flyer pertaining to a topic I hold dear, the site of the crash of TWA Flight 3. In a nutshell, a self-dubbed “adventuresome couple” intends to climb to the site and pay for the trip by retrieving crash items and selling them to those who pay $25 in advance for one item; $40 for two.Carole Lombard crash site TWA Flight 3

I’m staring at the flyer now and will scan it for inclusion with this column. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I know I believe in free speech, free choice, free will, and free enterprise. Many aspire to these “free” concepts and today of all days, Memorial Day, they take on special meaning.

I guess I say, more power to you, Adventuresomes! By way of full disclosure, I purchased a piece of crash wreckage somewhere around 1998, back when eBay was new and I was obsessed with the site and anything related to it. In the back of my mind I asked myself, Is this creepy? I asked, but participated in the auction anyway, bidding against others for this item. A week later I held the piece in hand, a rib from the empennage, and yes, I was uneasy having in my possession part of NC 1946, the Douglas DC-3 born in February 1941 in Santa Monica, California, that would live less than a year and end up strewn in a million pieces over the side of Mt. Potosi, Nevada.

A decade later I would finally climb Potosi to visit the site as research for Fireball. Only then did it hit me where I was and what the wreckage represented. Only then, struggling to stand on sheer mountainside at the spot where 22 humans were blown to bits along with that infant of an airplane, did I comprehend the reality that I stood at something akin to a gravesite. I understood because human souls reached out and touched me. The pilot made contact. The co-pilot. The stewardess. Fifteen Army Air Corps guys. I felt them there. My communication with these souls infused life into my writing. Suddenly, the manuscript had a soul of its own.

That’s one of two enduring memories of my day at Potosi: having those people reach out and touch me in a most physical way. The other is the sheer danger, the sheer exhaustion, of the climb up and back. There are two ways into the crash site: One is the way I went, four-wheeling to the embarkation point, then snaking up the mountain, which I felt I had to experience since I would be describing what the first responders faced trying to reach the site. The other way in involves riding the ridges by four-wheeler to a government gate, then hiking a long way and descending from the crest into the crash site—the route used to bring up bodies from the wreck. In the bullet points atop this flyer, the author describes “2.5 miles of hiking up into steep and rocky terrain.” He leaves out words, most appropriate descriptions, like perilous and life threatening. I trust the Adventuresomes are hardbodies who employ a good guide. Thanks to months of training and planning I had both, and it helped and didn’t help. I never would have found the site on my own because it’s a tiny pinpoint on a vast mountain. I had the luxury of following the guide as he used decades of experience in wilderness to lead me up contours of mountainside that could be climbed. But he couldn’t lend me any sure-footedness that day and despite being reasonably coordinated and physically prepared, I tumbled over time and again, smashing on the rocks and bloodying myself as I’ve described to you in the past.

Adventuresomes, and anyone else who takes on Potosi (I met another future climber in Columbus and urged him also), please don’t underestimate this mountain. It’s a killer. I’ve known several people who tried the “easy” way into the site and many didn’t make it for various reasons. Season is a consideration; weather; snakes; equipment; terrain. A normal wilderness hike is great fun, but if you’re struggling for your very life to climb 5,000 vertical feet on 45-degree angles or worse, with footing that gives way unexpectedly, the experience is something else. Even leaving at dawn, we had to hurry to make it back down the mountain before night swallowed us whole, so difficult was the round trip, with less than 90 minutes spent at the site. You can’t move at night on the mountain, believe me. I wouldn’t even underestimate the first and last parts of the journey by four-wheel drive, because the desert path we took, colorfully named Ninety-Nine Mine Road (it passes the old mine entrance), is not for your average driver. I wasn’t behind the wheel the day I went to Potosi—I couldn’t have made it on my own because this is serious off-roading and I don’t have the experience.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Ninety-Nine Mine Road is much worse in most spots than this photo shows. Here I was able to steady the camera, point, and shoot without being too badly knocked around inside the Jeep.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Behind this mound of earth lay the entrance to the old Ninety-Nine Mine in the foothills before Mt. Potosi.

If you are trying to lug anything extra back down the mountain, say, crash debris, if you put it on your back it’s going to a) weigh you down, b) add extra bulk, and c) change your center of gravity as you try to navigate the steep terrain.

It just occurs to me now that maybe Fireball inspired the Adventuresomes to attempt the climb. I’m not going to make any value judgments about the wisdom of selling crash wreckage to offset costs for the trip. I’m disqualified from making them anyway because I am a past purchaser. On all counts I simply advise, be cautious, dear couple. I want you in one piece to buy my next book, and if that book with James Stewart as main subject inspires you to visit places like Tibenham, East Anglia, where the 445th Bomb Group was based, or Hamburg or Frankfurt, which the 445th bombed, be advised: these places will welcome you with no dangerous climbing required.

2D to 3D

I have nothing profound to say today.

Ooh, I just heard about a hundred clicks as people flew off this page.

The time between book releases is quiet, and a lot happens within the confines of an office surrounded by government documents and original photos and published works like biographies and military histories. At the moment there’s a stack of file folders related to the Eighth Air Force a foot high beside my chair, and another pile half that high next to it.

A funny thing happened about three weeks ago. I was researching a bombing mission by Capt. James Stewart’s squadron over Frankfurt, Germany, and all of a sudden the project went from 2D to 3D. From black and white to color. From mono to six-speaker surround. It happened when a character I didn’t know would be in the book jumped out from the shadows of history and said boo to me. A woman I had never heard of but realized would be a friend by the time this book is finished. Granted she’s been dead 71 years, but we’ll be friends just the same, just like I’m friends with Alice Getz and Wayne Williams. They’re real to me, flesh and blood, thoughts and dreams, cologne and perspiration. Now, I have to learn all about this German woman, track her down in a language I don’t speak (sorry Miss Diamond, but your two years of trying to teach me German in high school were for naught … kaput) in places I haven’t yet seen.

I’ve said more than once that a couple years ago I’d be sitting here writing Fireball all alone for months on end thinking, who the heck is going to care about a movie star dead for 70 years? What if nobody cares? But I don’t have any such concerns rattling around in my head this time. I’ve got an epic story to tell, a story as big as Europe and 30,000 feet tall. But just like in Fireball it all comes down to molecules of human beings; who they were, where they were placed, how they acted and reacted in good times, bad times, and the worst times. If I do it right, then you’re riding along in the airplane with engine number 3 on fire or you’re on the ground under 1,000 bombers screaming to yourself, I can’t stand this! I’m going to die!

It’s strange looking at an outcome like that when it’s still two years away, with so much research dead ahead, trips to libraries and interviews of experts. In between each trip and each interview, I’ll be sitting here in the smoke of battle, writing.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

As the final validation that people would care about the movie star dead 70 years, Fireball won the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Gold Award for biography of the year at ceremonies in Austin, Texas, on Friday night. It was agony not being there because of a scheduling conflict, but all was well because my friend of 30 years Carole Sampeck stepped in and represented author and book beautifully, accepted the crystal statuette, expressed my appreciation and my regrets about not being there in person, and stood for photos better than I ever could have. Ms. Sampeck—a leading expert on Carole Lombard and her place in Hollywood history—played a crucial role in the development of Fireball, so it was fitting that she experienced this payoff and heard the heartfelt cheers of those in attendance. I am certain of 22 attendees, my friends from Flight 3 whose stories were told in Fireball. Mary Johnson was there too, the 23rd passenger who left the plane in Albuquerque. They will always be my friends, very close at hand, and I am thrilled to see them get a moment to stand there with Carole Sampeck and enjoy the spotlight of an Austin Friday evening.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Carole Sampeck after accepting the Benjamin Franklin Award in Austin, Texas last Friday evening, April 10.


A group of men climbed a mountain on January 17, 1942. Men had been climbing mountains for thousands of years before that, but these men were special. They were in a rush. They didn’t know exactly where they were going, and they were underequipped, underdressed, and underfed for the climb. History forgot these men, but I had a feeling they had a story worth telling. Brother was I right.

Ron Kantowski, a writer for the Las Vegas Tribune-Review, reminded me this week about these men when he climbed Mt. Potosi to the site of the crash of TWA Flight 3, where Carole Lombard and 21 others died on the evening of January 16, 1942. I hadn’t met Ron when I was researching Fireball in the Vegas area or when I stopped there on the book tour last year. I wish I had, because Ron gets Fireball. He took inspiration from Fireball and decided to make the climb himself.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Mt. Potosi as seen from Ninety-Nine Mine Road. The outcropping at center-right is an hour’s hike/climb away up a boulder-strewn dry wash. Then you cut left along the line of green at the right edge of the photo, which is where the loose shale begins. Then you go UP. The outcropping seems to be the peak but no, it’s just a foothill.

Ron documented his climb in a Review-Journal piece that to me was validation. Mt. Potosi kicked my butt the day I climbed it and left me bruised and bleeding after falling and bouncing off rocks onto other rocks, with enough cactus embedded in my arm to make a hairbrush. I could feel cactus needles in my arm for a year after the climb; there will always be cactus needles in my arm. “Something to remember me by,” I can hear Potosi saying.

Guess what? Kantowski’s experience was similar, like reporting cuts and bruises and torn clothes. Like getting mired on all fours in shale, which doesn’t sound like peril but try it on a 45-degree mountainside with a drop of a couple thousand feet behind you. The oddest thing about the Potosi climb was going up facing the mountain, focused on each branch to hold on to, choosing rock ledges carefully because some were solid and some weren’t. Going up occupied my brain so completely that I didn’t think much about getting back down until I started the descent. Then the realization: holy shit, I can see all the way down. Thousands of feet down.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

After 2.5 hours of climbing, you reach a ridge. Across a valley you can make out the destination, visible through trees at lower-center.

There’s a way to access the crash site along the ridge that calls for driving and then hiking, but it’s the long way and first responders to the plane crash followed a more direct route. The leader of this group was a Clark County deputy sheriff named Jack Moore; the group also contained a former high school football star named Lyle Van Gordon who climbed into the morning sky like a rocket that day and reached the crash scene, in two feet of snow, long before the others.

I’ve been told that the most powerful moment in Fireball is when Van Gordon climbs up to where he can first see gleaming silver aluminum from the plane and believes that it has crash landed; that he can smell wood smoke from a campfire built by survivors. Van Gordon was an uncompromising man, not the friendliest in the world, but in this moment having just made that climb his intentions were pure. He represented the best in all men. Because he did smell a campfire, because the aluminum gleamed silver in the morning sun, he believed in a happy ending. It becomes chilling because of what happens next.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The plane, in a million pieces large and small, ended up in a ravine. This is the lower end of the ravine, where Lyle Van Gordon climbed 73 years ago until he could see gleaming airplane ahead. The first pieces of debris that I saw that day were spotted here, far below the impact point.

Ron alluded to this passage in his column—he and I both understand that moment, having stood where Van Gordon stood in a place that I guess is beautiful for a limitless view toward the north, with Las Vegas spread out 30 miles off like Plasticville. To me Potosi is a harsh place. A savage, unforgiving place. It was harsh prior to the crash, and it was harsh after the crash. It will always be harsh. Brittle, brown desert that goes straight up. Potosi is a killer—that’s the truth of it. Anyone who scales its heights is lucky to come down more or less intact.

The crash site is about to grow a lot less accessible in coming weeks, as the heat takes over, bringing with it all the trappings of a desert summer. Round about October nature will unlock the peaks of Potosi again for the next adventurer. I know I want to go back one of these days to pay my respects to the 22 lost there, and 6 men who scaled a mountain.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

This photo of a random spot of ground at the crash site shows the amount of debris on the mountain. The more you study the photo, the more pieces of airplane you can find.


Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Seventy-six years ago today, March 30, 1939, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable addressed the media at her Bel Air home and announced that they had wed. Newsreel cameras rolled, flashbulbs popped, and a cultural phenomenon was born. Gable then reigned as the hottest thing in Hollywood—the number-one box-office draw in the world and definitive sex symbol of the movies. Lombard was a popular leading lady known as the “screwball queen” for her comedy pictures and madcap Hollywood parties.

Their relationship was more than three years old by this time. Lombard had made herself available on the social scene 16 months after the Labor Day 1934 shooting death of her lover, 26-year-old popular singer Russ Columbo. She emerged from a period of mourning with a vengeance, landing a very married Gable at the end of January 1936 and carrying on a public love affair based from her home right there on Hollywood Boulevard, in full view of the movie colony and the press. But scrutiny proved withering and Lombard left her Hollywood “party house” for a home in secluded, difficult-to-access Bel Air where she continued her activities with Gable.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

I’m not sure that we can imagine today what a sexual playground Hollywood was in the 1930s. We think of the stars of the day as above it all, but nobody was immune and everybody was doing it with everybody. They were beautiful people dressed by professionals and promoted by powerful ad men. They cavorted with other beautiful people, and sex became a sport of who could bag whom. Many stars came from troubled backgrounds and brought emotional baggage with them to a city without morals. This was Clark Gable, certainly, a narcissist by definition because he was an image created by his acting teacher/wife and projected by MGM. Lombard, on the other hand, had bounced westward as a child after her parents’ separation back in Indiana, but she had enjoyed a solid Los Angeles upbringing thanks to her practical, loving mother. Solid, yes; conventional, no. Lombard had grown up a sexual athlete from her teens on and been made wise beyond her years due to a car crash that chopped up her face just shy of her 18th birthday.

The couple that met the press this day 76 years ago had been galvanized by years of couplehood in the glare of the public spotlight. He had been crowned king of Hollywood and she had made some big pictures and now earned more than any other actress in town. Their out-of-wedlock shenanigans had earned scorn in the Bible belt, and the backlash reached the board room at MGM, where Gable was ordered to divorce his wife and make an honest woman of Lombard. Gable didn’t take kindly to orders from anyone about anything, but he had been beaten down from all sides, and so during a day off from production of Gone With the Wind, he sneaked out of town with his girl and got hitched.

Fireball tells the story of the elopement for the first time thanks to an unpublished account by Jill Winkler, whose husband Otto had driven the disguised couple out of Hollywood and clean to Kingman, Arizona, for the ceremony. They didn’t have a proper wedding night, or any sleep at all for that matter. You can see it in their faces in the thousand-and-one photos snapped at the Bel Air press conference. One has to laugh at Lombard’s acting job, playing it demure for the newsreels complete with shy and loving gazes at King Gable.

The press conference on this date proved to be a brilliant move as it established these two, dressed to the nines and appropriately bashful, as the closest thing America had to a royal couple. They wouldn’t enjoy even three years past this date as husband and wife due to the plane crash that removed Carole Lombard from the living in January 1942. As explored in this column recently, the union was in rough waters and possibly heading for the rocks by the end of their second year as an official couple, but her tragic passing erased any trace of negativity and pressed these two into America’s book of memories as one of the perfect couples of all time.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Carole’s mother, known as Tots or Petey, stands with the happy couple at the Bel Air press event. Less than three years later she would ride into history with her daughter aboard TWA Flight 3.0

Electronic Eyewitness

We now know that no alarms sounded in the cockpit of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525. The co-pilot locked the cockpit door from the inside and set the autopilot for an altitude of 100 feet. It was an eight-minute controlled descent from 38,000. There were no automatic warnings because that co-pilot was operating the ship within parameters, and passengers didn’t catch on for several minutes.

No civilized human being outside of a psychiatrist or psychologist can comprehend the murder of 149 innocent people, and I certainly can’t make sense of it here. But the parallels with TWA Flight 3 continue. Earlier this week we all wondered, was the Germanwings crash due to mechanical failure? Terrorism? Sabotage? Investigators ran through the same checklist in January 1942 after Flight 3 went down, with the United States fighting a new world war against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Was the crash of Flight 3 the result of a premeditated act? Another theory had to be examined after the crash of this “giant” DC-3 airliner with 19 passengers and a crew of 3: Did the pilot, Captain Wayne Clark Williams, commit suicide by intentionally crashing the plane? At least one civilian claimed that he did and expressed the opinion in writing to the FBI. The Civil Aeronautics Board and House Committee investigating the crash in 1942 scrutinized Williams’ behavior and mind-set on the day of the disaster, interviewing eyewitnesses that included the TWA station managers in Albuquerque and Las Vegas, the two stops of Flight 3 prior to its crash. Both TWA men stated that Williams was in good spirits and a positive frame of mind, like always. Williams was a cool character, a former barnstormer who had flown in all weather and faced all adverse conditions with a calm demeanor. Wayne Williams could be counted on to bring his ship in safe. More than 14,000 flying miles confirmed this fact.

The “black box” hadn’t been invented in 1942, and answers were uncovered (if they were uncovered) the old-fashioned way—by investigation and scientific measurement. In March 2015 we can usually figure things out by examining those two critical collectors of data: the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder. Already the cockpit voice recorder has revealed truths we can’t fathom but must accept.

Some reviewers of my book on the TWA crash, Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, gave the opinion that there really wasn’t a mystery. Air & Space Smithsonian, while praising the book in general, took that approach. I disagreed then and disagree now. Imagine if the Germanwings plane had gone down without data recorders. Maybe it was tracked on radar but we couldn’t know what went on in the cockpit because there were no witnesses, human or electronic, to tell the story. How could we ever know for sure that one of the pilots had deliberately flown the ship into the ground? We couldn’t. In 1942 the answers were never found because of a lack of conclusive evidence. I think I ultimately did find the reasons for the crash through a synthesis of 70 years of evidence and perspectives that investigators didn’t have in the 1940s. Back then they tossed the “official” cause of the crash into a bucket called “pilot error” because, ultimately, the engines and controls were deemed to be working, so the pilot must have been at fault.

But they didn’t know why back then. Yes there was circumstantial evidence like an erroneous flight plan, but an experienced pilot should have spotted trouble and taken evasive action. In that sense the crash of TWA Flight 3 is a mystery and always will be, specifically because no one lived to answer the question, why?

Today the data recorders “lived” and we learned the what of this past Tuesday. Time will tell if we end up getting an answer to the question we want so desperately to be able to ask that co-pilot: Why?

Too Much

Well, it’s happened again. An airliner has crashed into a mountain, this time in the French Alps. Reports indicate that the A320 flying from Barcelona to Dusseldorf descended from 38,000 feet to the impact point at 6,000 over the span of 8 minutes. There may have been a fire on board that incapacitated the pilots. There may have been a failure of one or both engines, with the descent accompanied by automatic warnings chiming in the cockpit and pilots desperate to restart an engine or engines. I’ve sat in various flight simulator cockpits that are used to train airline pilots. It’s chilling when you’re sitting in a simulator on terra firma and warnings begin to sound—it’s a simulator and utterly realistic. Imagine living the experience six miles up. Better yet, don’t imagine it.

My heart goes out to the crew, the passengers, the families. And my heart goes out to the recovery teams because I was once forced to relive the recovery effort at the crash scene of an airliner—TWA Flight 3 that crashed into Mt. Potosi, Nevada, on January 16, 1942. I undertook this exercise while writing Fireball. Among those lost in that crash was Hollywood actress Carole Lombard. It was “only” a 21-seat, twin-engine DC-3 and there were “only” 22 people on board (19 passengers and a crew of 3) and it hit the mountain at “only” 190 miles per hour versus the 180-seat A320 with 150 that hit at 350 yesterday.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

A plane crashes into a mountain, in this case TWA Flight 3 on January 16, 1942.

The fuselage of a state-of-the-art 1942 DC-3 Sky Club was gleaming aluminum, meaning that when the aircraft struck granite, it exploded and deformed, but large pieces remained. In fact, some of those pieces of twisted aluminum can be seen today on Mt. Potosi. Modern airliners are made of composites that disintegrate on impact, resulting in the bizarre scene in the Alpine landscape, which looks like a litterbug went mad. How many pieces of people and debris are up there? Hundreds of thousands? A million? Each will have to be removed from the site with care because some are human remains and the rest are potential clues to what happened to Germanwings Flight 4U 9525. Perhaps the aircraft’s badly damaged voice recorder and flight data recorder will answer all questions, in which case the jigsaw puzzle of wreckage will still need to be collected and removed. All this will be done by people who are now witnessing sights that are meeting and then far exceeding the human capacity to rationalize and cope.

Previously unpublished and in some cases undiscovered accounts of the recovery effort of TWA Flight 3 were blunt by 1942 standards. A few of the bodies of crash victims were thrown clear of the impact point when the ship blew apart and these remained intact. The rest were put through a literal meat grinder—and then set afire. Imagine being ordered up the mountain on a U.S. Army recovery team or volunteering for the recovery job. Better yet, don’t imagine it. The team of about 30 painstakingly picked up what there was to pick up in the way of human remains for four solid days. In the book I referred to it as a “pudding” composed of flesh, bone, melted snow, and pieces of plane as small as splinters. There were 22 victims, remember. Then the recovery team declared the job finished and departed the scene. An hour later, a TWA man still onsite discovered more human remains and stuffed them into all he had with him—a mail sack. Seventy years later when I visited the site, a human bone turned up. That’s the way it is at such sites.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The recovery team reaches the scene 36 hours after the crash.

Take that scene times six and you’ve got something akin to what’s facing recovery teams in the Alps as we speak. There isn’t any snow, but there is a vast mountainside and a ravine covered in objects foreign to serene Alpine landscapes. As for people living the recovery, let me put it in perspective this way: One of the Flight 3 civilian volunteers was interviewed more than 40 years later as a wheelchair-bound old man and said in something akin to bewilderment, “I still see it in my dreams sometimes.”

More than 300 police officers and a like number of firefighters are up there at present, all of them heroes for doing what they’re doing. Many will get past the task they’re accomplishing right now, but none will forget it. They’ll keep seeing it in their dreams.

Mystery Within the Mystery

News of the death of my friend Kenneth Keene has hit me hard. I mean, come on, I’m not telling tales out of school when I say the man drank liquor a quart a day and knew the word exercise only as a theoretical experience. But he was one of the most extraordinary humans I have ever met, and his passing has left a hole in my heart.

As you will recall from a post dated last October, Ken Keene owned Tuckaway, an Indianapolis National Landmark and a home tied to the death of Carole Lombard. Ken Keene insisted, Ken Keene swore to me, that Carole Lombard stood at the front door of Tuckaway the day before her death and was warned by scientific palmist Nellie Simmons Meier “not to take the plane.” Ken learned this from the lips of Nellie’s niece Ruth, making it more than legend. It was oral history. But the fact of the matter is, I have not been able to find evidence that Lombard managed to sneak off to Tuckaway, located on the north side of Indianapolis, on the hectic day of the bond sale on January 15, 1942. If you followed my Twitter campaign of January 15 and 16 of this year, when I recounted Lombard’s day selling war bonds minute by minute, you know how frantic was her time in Indianapolis.

I would say to Ken that I needed evidence of her Tuckaway visit, and he would respond, “You don’t believe me!” I assured him that yes, I did believe him, but I needed verification to put it in print. But Ken had heard it from Ruth, and Ruth had heard it from Nellie, so it was incomprehensible to Ken that I needed more than that.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The dark and mysterious interior of Tuckaway. Ken is barely visible at center of photo, beside the lamp.

Now, about Ken. He was a dark-haired man with a puppy-dog-sad face. According to the feature obit in the Indianapolis Star, he was 69 or 70. He mentioned that he was the son of Army Air Corps Brigadier General Ken Keene, although the subject only came up because he asked me what I was working on and I told him a book about James Stewart in World War II. He said, “Oh, my father knew him and used to tell stories about the two of them in the war.” It was then he showed me a picture of Gen. Keene and his wife Gigi, the stunning woman who was Ken’s mother. But knowing the unorthodox Ken, I sensed that there was a lot of discontent among parents and child, because he was the last guy to be thought of as a chip off the ol’ block of Gen. Keene. Another sign of problems was the fact that Ken had no interest in recounting his father’s experiences with James Stewart.

Ken was often bombed from all the scotch, but a brilliant conversationalist at all times. He tracked every word that anyone said and had an immediate response, even after a full tumbler of scotch. I mean a big glass of scotch and ice. He might slur a word or two, but the man had his faculties and his brain processed like a NASA supercomputer.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The “other” Lombard autographed portrait that I found on Ken’s wall.

Ken’s passion was Tuckaway, and Carole Lombard was among his favorite Tuckaway topics. He would point out the autographed portrait of her hanging at the bottom of the stairs, which had become famous over the years through newspaper coverage. As Mary and I wandered through the house, I found another Lombard inscribed and framed portrait hanging in the library, which didn’t really look so much like her so it was no wonder it had been overlooked. It was taken off the wall and handed to Ken, who fixed his hazy eyes on it and said, “Oh yes, I had forgotten about this one.”

It turns out that I spoke to Ken by phone within a week of his death on February 18. He had asked me when I would be out for a visit—he always asked that—and I promised to get there in the spring. I was thinking about planning that visit the day I learned about his passing, just hours after thinking about him, this past Tuesday.

I interviewed Ken extensively about his connection to the story in Fireball, this incredible missing piece of the Fireball timeline, so it’s not as if his death has affected the historical record. But I so admired this guy for being gracious, and brilliant, and determined to show visitors to Tuckaway the time of their lives. I admired him for his warmth at all times, whenever I’d call. Above all he was a brilliant individualist who lived life on his own terms and never compromised. He never skimped on the liquor bill and never condescended to see a doctor even when it was obvious he should. What good does it do now to scold the guy? I’d rather celebrate this life brilliantly lived, and pursue the clues he left me about what is potentially a chilling moment in the last days of Carole Lombard’s life when she was warned what was ahead and for some reason ignored the warning and hurried to her doom.


Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Glamour pusses Gable and Lombard share an ‘up’ moment exiting Ciro’s on the Strip in August 1941.

Why do we need there to be a happily ever after? When I was interviewed during the Fireball book tour, I would often hear things like, “Gable and Lombard had the kind of love that would have endured.” There would be such conviction in the voice of the interviewer, and at moments like that I found myself in an awkward place because the interviewer believed what was being said and, in fact, it was and was not true.

During the years that Carole Lombard and Clark Gable were together, she was in love with him in a mature way and he was in love with her in his own way. She was an older soul and possessed a strong altruistic streak. He was a perpetual adolescent and quite selfish the way males can be. Up to the time they became an item, he had relied only on himself, number one, and there was no number two. But suddenly she became number two and worked like hell to maintain that position, which must have been, for her, something like barbequing in a snowstorm. As the premiere sex symbol in the world and therefore a male of unquestionable power, Gable cut a swath through the female population of Hollywood. He slept around and continued to sleep around until the day Lombard died. She approached this fact as practically as she could: This is the price I’m paying to be Mrs. Clark Gable. He can get his rocks off wherever he likes because I know he comes home to me.

But that doesn’t mean she found rationalizing easy, and even a self-confident soul and sexual libertine like Carole Lombard had her limits.

Every indication is that if she had lived, he’d have gone right on as a brigand for as long as the marriage could endure. There were rumors at the time of her death that their union had already hit the rocks. A particular photo that appears in Fireball bears this out. They are sitting together in a restaurant, and she is smiling politely but looking like hell and he looks as miserable as you’ll ever see Clark Gable looking. It’s not the kind of grouchy-miserable that you see when Clark Gable is acting. This is vulnerable-miserable, pained-miserable, as if they are arguing and he’s wrong and he knows he’s wrong.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Three months later, here they are, her smile painted on, his nonexistent. She rests her hand on top of his hand, but she’s not holding his hand and he’s not playing along.

When the host of a Fireball interview would turn the statement into a question, “Gable and Lombard had the kind of love that would have endured, didn’t they?” there was my opening and I would answer with the truth: They loved each other, yes, but there were problems with the marriage that I think would have ended it before too much longer. Probably by 1945 or 1946, had she lived, she would have given up and left Clark Gable. Sometimes, loving someone and giving it your all isn’t enough. Sometimes, unconditional love causes the self to endure too much, give away too much; in this case she would have given away the prime of her life. I could easily see her reaching age 36 or 38 and no longer being willing to serve as consort to a hard-drinking, womanizing sovereign. Or I could see Gable waking up one morning and beholding a Lombard whose looks were beginning to wane from smoking, drinking, stress, and the natural process of aging. You can see the beginnings of it in the photo discussed earlier. At that point Gable might decide to trade his wife in for a newer model, say the sleek, 10-years-younger Lana Turner.

Whether Carole would have ended it or Clark would have, I don’t think this relationship was headed for happily ever after, and it was the shattering event of her death at age 33, after only two-and-a-half years of marriage, that bronzed the timeless, forever love of Gable-Lombard legend, the kind of love this twosome sometimes captured but was beginning to find elusive.

Looking even further down the line, I could see the Gables divorcing and remaining friends like she was friends with her ex William Powell and somewhere around 1955 getting together again for a Gable-Lombard picture or two. Precedent: Lombard made My Man Godfrey with Powell three years after their divorce. Gable made Key to the City with Loretta Young 16 years after she bore their love child—a child he would never acknowledge. Stars set personal feelings aside for the sake of box office. Astaire and Rogers weren’t exactly fond of one another; Abbott and Costello grew so far apart they didn’t speak except in front of the camera.

That’s life is how I look at it. Happy endings don’t come about very often and “for keeps” usually isn’t for keeps, especially in Hollywood. But that doesn’t detract from the story of Lombard and Gable. They were real people, “juicy people,” Loretta Young called them, and they deserve to be remembered for who they really were, not who we wish they would have been.


Here we are on Sunday, January 18, 2015. Seventy-three years ago today, Sunday, January 18, 1942, recovery teams were combing the unforgiving mountainside of Mt. Potosi, Nevada at the site of what one Civil Aeronautics Board investigator called “the most completely destroyed airplane I have ever seen.”

This year of 2015, the events covered in the book Fireball occurred on the same days of the week as they did in 1942, which led me (after the germ of the idea was hatched by Carole Sampeck) to launch a Twitter effort to replay key events in Carole Lombard’s last days in real-time, as they happened, beginning at 1:35 P.M. Central on Thursday, the moment Lombard and her party—including her mother Elizabeth Peters (“Petey”) and press man Otto Winkler–were greeted at Union Station, Indianapolis, by the Indy mayor and other officials. I then followed her progress through the day, which included five big events and interactions with at least 20,000 people, and her sudden decision made on Thursday night to fly home instead of take the train.

This past Friday, two days ago, the Twitter reports transitioned to updates from TWA as Flight 3 progressed across the country.

I learned a couple of things through this Twitter campaign. First, I learned how many people still care. The effort drew many new Twitter followers who were eager to participate. Second, I was struck by how fast events transpired for 19.5 hours, from the moment she stepped off the train to the moment Flight 3 struck the mountain. She was in almost constant motion one way or another. For example, from the train station at 1:35 she was driven to the state capitol for a speech and flag raising at 2:00, a bond sale from 2:30 to 3:30, another flag raising at the Claypool Hotel at 3:45, more driving to the governor’s mansion for a tea and reception from 4:15 to 5:30, private dinner with VIPs back at the Claypool at 6:30, a bond rally in a local civic center before 12,000 at 8:30, and a private reception for her friends and family once more at the Claypool at 10:30. Then did she retire for a long sleep? No, of course not. After midnight, Carole, Petey, and Otto packed up for a trip to the airport to wait for a flight that came in late, and you know how easy it is to catch a few winks in an airport terminal. The travelers didn’t board until 5:00 A.M. and then proceeded through a day of hops from city to city on a DC-3 (an uncomfortable plane to fly in) that ranged from the shortest of 1 hour, 11 minutes to the longest of 2 hours, 56 minutes in duration. During the Lombard portions of Flight 3’s intercontinental progress, the plane took off seven times and landed six. Get off the plane, climb on board. Get off the plane, climb on board. For any of us today, one layover is too many and two is torture. But six?

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Detail of one of Myron Davis’s photos for Life, this one taken at the governor’s mansion, shows Carole Lombard with her guard down for a moment and already exhausted–hours before beginning her cross-country trek. Was she capable of rational decisions by the time she ordered Winkler to book plane reservations?

The first landing out of Indianapolis was into a bad weather situation in St. Louis that caused a two-hour delay in a crowded terminal. Living that in real-time was difficult (because I wanted to get on with the story), but I was sitting at my computer after a good night’s sleep. Imagine those two hours when you’re on Coca Colas, snack bar sandwiches, and upright naps all night and through the morning. Another weather delay followed at the next stop in Kansas City and this one made the local papers because of so many delayed flights and stranded passengers. From there the plane dragged its passengers to Wichita, then Amarillo, then Albuquerque where what was left of Carole Lombard was told she must vacate her seat and wait for another flight.

As I tracked events real-time, I realized that any human—even good-hearted, down-to-earth Carole Lombard—would snap. She must have been seeing polka-dotted koala bears by this time when all she wanted to do was get home.

Many have asked the unanswerable questions: Why was she in such a rush? Why did she drag her companions on a plane when both expressly wished to avoid the dangers of air travel? Was it all about her husband Clark Gable cheating on her? Or was there something more than this? It’s been hypothesized that Carole believed, or had it confirmed in Indianapolis, that she was pregnant and wanted to rush home to tell Gable. This explanation would solve the problem of obtaining the buy in of her companions to get home ASAP. But after at least two miscarriages and a procedure at Johns Hopkins to “clean her out” in efforts to get pregnant, would she put her reproductive system through this particular 19.5 hours of hell? We will never know the answers, assuring that this aspect of the mystery of Flight 3 will remain.

I ended my Twitter effort on Friday night with TWA Control cutting off any further public information about Flight 3 when it was clear that the plane had crashed. Several people confirmed for me later what I already knew: Those last moments are chilling to re-live, no matter how often we do it.

Some people heard of the real-time Twitter feed and signed on after events had transpired, so I have been issuing sporadic updates about goings-on at the scene and thinking about the fact that when Carole Lombard’s marathon ended, Clark Gable’s began. With no warning what was coming or how brutal it would all be, Gable never had a chance.