TWA Flight 3

Hedge Hopping

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

This postcard, circa 1940, shows TWA airships at the gate of the Allegheny County Airport. On its last voyage, TWA Flight 3 taxied into position here; 18 hours later it crashed in Nevada.

Understanding the nature of commercial aviation as it existed in January 1942 proved to be, for me, one of the eye openers of the Fireball narrative. In Q&A following my lectures, people often assume that the plane on which Carole Lombard died along with her mother Elizabeth Peters and MGM press rep Otto Winkler was a charter, and they’re surprised to learn it was a regular commercial flight, and a transcontinental flight at that.

We think of transcontinental air travel today as five tedious hours spent motionless in a first-class or coach seat, headphones on, dozing the time away, or working on laptops or reading. New York to L.A. in upwards of six hours, depending on headwinds. L.A. to New York in about five. In 1942 the term “transcontinental” was a lot different. Instead of a nonstop or perhaps a stop for a connector, it took 10 or 12 stops to reach one coast from the other. Up and down, up and down endlessly, landing one or two times per state as the plane progressed cross-country with stops to refuel and/or pick up and drop off passengers and all-important airmail.

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

The Allegheny County Airport, unchanged in outward appearance from its 1936 expansion.

The DC-3 itself was a fabulous plane and so dependable that a few still fly today, almost 80 years since they first rolled off the assembly line. Passenger versions seated up to 22 comfortably, with the word “comfortable” being entirely subjective. In an unpressurized cabin, which the DC-3 featured, you were at the mercy of a) the ambient air temperature—except for a cabin heater controlled from the cockpit and b) the roar of two very loud engines just three feet on either side of the fuselage. The glamour and luxury of transcontinental travel in Carole Lombard’s day, in fact, hurt. It hurt your flesh; it hurt your back; it hurt your ears. Cruising altitude would be 9,000 feet above terrain if they could get away with it or 12,000 in mountains. Think of the ear popping in that unpressurized cabin. Think of the climate as you would routinely be subjected to temperatures 30 or 40 degrees colder at altitude than on the ground.

After a couple of hours in the air, you were begging for relief, and you knew it was coming; it was always coming with all the takeoffs and landings. And that’s our story for today, boys and girls, the state-of-the-art airport terminal of 1942. I am lucky enough to live about 20 minutes from just such a building, the one that used to service Pittsburgh until being replaced by a much larger facility in 1952. Because the new Greater Pittsburgh Airport was placed 15 miles west of the city, there was no need to tear down the old terminal located closer to the heart of Pittsburgh. Instead, it became a secondary hub of aviation activity and continues to serve Southwestern Pennsylvania today.

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

Vintage 1930s touches like stainless steel trim remain in place.

I’m no architect, but to me, the Allegheny County Airport terminal is an Art Deco masterpiece, built in 1931 with wings added in 1936. Many original design features remain intact, from intricate tile work to stainless steel accents and art deco lettering for the Waiting Room and Office. The original wooden benches are still in place along with the original compass set into the floor. Can’t you see men in suits and women in furs sitting there waiting to board the next flight out? I wish I could find vintage interior views to glimpse the restaurant, ticket desk, and souvenir stand as they existed in 1942, but I haven’t been able to locate any.

Readers of Fireball may remember that this airport was a stop for Flight 3 on its last voyage. The plane had taken off from LaGuardia and stopped at Newark before landing here and taxiing to the gate. From Pittsburgh the TWA airship headed west to Columbus, Ohio, and after that Indianapolis, where Lombard’s party boarded. At each stop stood a facility just like this one, offering temporary sanctuary from the rigors of air travel.

Upon completion in 1931, Pittsburgh’s airport was the most modern in the world and boasted by far the most paved runway area. Presidents and movie stars roamed this floor and the place buzzed with activity in World War II. Literally. All dignitaries and celebrity traveling from the American heartland to and from New York City stopped and stretched their legs here. It’s a building that’s drawn my eye from earliest memory—every time my parents would drive by, and then every time I would as well. I certainly hope the building is haunted. Then again, how could it not be given all the history it holds?

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

Original lettering for the Waiting Room and Office evoke a bygone era.

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

A single room served passengers for several major airlines. In an alcove to the right was the small restaurant. Original 1930s wooden benches remain in place, including one that looks out on the tarmac.

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

Passengers always knew which was way up–as well as north, south, east, and west, at the Pittsburgh air terminal.

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

Even the planters flanking the building’s entrance tie into the aviation theme. The green tile work matches inlaid tile accents on the building exterior.

The Girl Who Lived

I have done a lot of public speaking in support of Fireball, most recently this past Sunday at Way Public Library in Perrysburg, Ohio, just south of Toledo. I looked out on a large and enthusiastic crowd, especially for a snowy Sunday afternoon in the middle of the worst winter anyone can remember.

In case you don’t know, Fireball is the irresistible story of Carole Lombard’s hurly-burly life and the circumstances that led to her last fatal trip aboard TWA Flight 3 along with 21 other souls, which ended in catastrophe just west of Las Vegas on January 16, 1942. Reviewers are calling Fireball a thriller, a page turner, a heartbreaker, and a book that’ll make you cry. It really is. I didn’t realize it myself until I reviewed the audiobook and heard the story performed by national voice talent Tavia Gilbert.

But there are some smiles in Fireball too. On Sunday in Perrysburg I told the crowd that I had found a survivor of Flight 3, a woman who had flown cross-country with Carole Lombard on January 16 and lived to tell the tale. You should have seen their faces. Mouths hung open. There were even some gasps. I always liken this survivor to hundred-year-old Rose Dawson whose memories form the basis for the plot of Titanic. Mary Johnson is my Rose Dawson, and at age 94 the unknown survivor of a catastrophe.

Mary was, of all things, a young aviation researcher working for the feds and NACA (the precursor to NASA) at Moffett Airfield, California. She had been on assignment in Washington, DC, and was heading for home that fateful day. To show you what a small world we live in, I worked in the same wind tunnel (the 7×11 wind tunnel) at Moffett Field in 2007 and 2008 during my NASA years that Mary had worked in during World War II.

Mary Anna Johnson Savoie 4
Mary was in her seat on Flight 3 when Carole Lombard, Elizabeth Peters (Carole’s mom), and Otto Winkler (Clark Gable’s publicist) boarded in Indianapolis. Mary then flew all the way to Albuquerque sitting two rows behind Carole, enduring stops in St. Louis, Kansas City, Wichita, and Amarillo. These weren’t fun stops either. There were weather and cargo delays for the plane and Miss Carole Lombard was anything but happy.

In Albuquerque a big clot of Army Air Corps personnel needed to fly west and all seven civilians on Flight 3 were ordered off the plane to make room for these priority passengers. Mary Johnson and three others gave up their seats; Carole Lombard refused to surrender her three tickets, so she stayed on the plane, and Mary Johnson’s dream of seeing Clark Gable up ahead in Burbank ended in what was the worst moment of her young life. Then the unthinkable happened and, said Mary Johnson, “Suddenly Clark Gable didn’t seem that important.”

I caught up with Mary Johnson Savoie near the end of the Fireball project. She’s right up there with the most interesting people I’ve ever met—smart, funny, and possessing vivid memories of that winter’s day. Just a couple of weeks prior to seeing Carole, Mary had been at the White House where she laid eyes on FDR and Winston Churchill, and after living through the crash of Flight 3 she went on to a rich full live with a husband and kids and became a world traveler. Hers is one of the central storylines in Fireball and yet another of a hundred layers of irony in its pages.

For me it was the biggest kick in the world to hand deliver a copy of the book to Mary this past December, and it was clear to me by the wonderful people surrounding her that Mary is a wonderful person herself and glows with an attitude that embraces life. She has been known to say, “I’ve always been lucky,” but isn’t luck really about the decisions a person makes that sets the stage for magic to happen?RM-MJS

Right now, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Mary is having some health challenges, and I hope you will take a moment to send some positive energy her way. The world needs Mary Johnson Savoie to be up and around and setting an example for all of us to follow, keeping it positive, showing us how to set the stage for good things to happen, and in general making the most of every single day because we just don’t know how many there’ll be.