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by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers

The Crash of the City of San Francisco

The First Overland Domestic Airliner Crash in U. S. History

In 1929, for one wishing to get from New York to California in the shortest time, he or she could make the trip in about two days by way of a very circuitous route that involved both airplane and railroad travel, including an air jaunt across New Mexico.

One first took the overnight train from New York City to Columbus, Ohio. The next leg the next morning was by air, to Waynoka, Oklahoma, with stops along the way in Indianapolis, Indiana, St. Louis, Missouri, and Wichita, Kansas. From there one took another overnight train, this time to Clovis, New Mexico. In Clovis, the second morning of the trip, one boarded a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft for a flight to Albuquerque, then on to Winslow and Kingman, Arizona, before arrival in Los Angeles on the evening of the second day. This system took about two days less than just train travel. The night train rides were necessary because airplanes at the time did not fly at night.

It was along the leg of the trip between Albuquerque and Winslow that an event occurred which became significant in United States aviation history. A Transcontinental Air Transport (T.A.T.) Ford Tri-Motor airliner called “The City of San Francisco” disappeared. It was the first civil airliner to be lost while flying overland. Earlier planes had been lost at sea.

At 10:20 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, September 3, 1929, the City of San Francisco, piloted by Captain J. B. Stowe, took off from Albuquerque west-bound with five passengers and three crew members. It was scheduled to land in Winslow, Arizona at about 1:15 p.m. The Tri-Motor never made it.

Throughout the next few days, there were several news reports concerning the whereabouts of the plane including numerous false sightings. One headline on Wednesday, September 4, read, “8 killed When Air Liner Hit By Lightening, Falls in New Mexico Wilds; Wreck of Transcontinental Craft Found 26 Miles South of Gallup, N. M.” The problem was that almost nothing in the report was correct. The plane had not been found, so no location or cause could be reported.

The search was extensive. T. A. T. sent every available plane in the fleet to assist in the search; civilian planes and pilots arrived from all over the southwest; Army and Navy commanders assigned all available planes to the search. The aviators became an “aerial armada,” according to one source. More than 500 Pueblo and Navajo people along with peace officers and cowboys participated on horseback and in pickup trucks. Even so, the search was futile, with false reports and false sightings continuing to pour in. Rewards totaling $10,000 didn’t help, and neither did reports that Charles Lindbergh was on his way. Lindbergh was an officer in

T. A. T., Inc. and took a personal interest in the plane’s disappearance.

On Saturday morning, September 7, George K. Rice, a pilot for the Western Air Express, while making a run between California and Albuquerque, flew low over the south side of Mt. Taylor, northeast of Grants, New Mexico. Near the peak he found The City of San Francisco; that is, he saw what remained of a wing, with a number which identified it. Then he saw the entire debris field. He took aerial photos and headed for Albuquerque where he spread the word.

Even though there were no roads or trails to the area around the wreck, ground parties started up the mountain later that day, but nightfall and cold weather slowed them down and they didn’t reach the scene until the next day. By 9:00 a.m. on Sunday, though, there were seventy-five men at the horrible scene. All eight of the plane’s passengers remained in their seats, burned beyond recognition. An official inquest was held before the bodies were removed from Mt. Taylor by horseback.

Since commercial aviation was in its early stages, there were no such things as black-boxes or other flight records, and no radio communications. The pilot had a radio, but he could only receive communications, not send them. Several theories were advanced concerning the cause of the accident, however. One was that Captain Stowe observed a fast-approaching storm and determined to return to Albuquerque rather than try to go through it or around it. The storm caught him, however, and he crashed while flying blind. This notion was supported by the fact that the crash site was some distance north of the route he should have been following. Another was that the storm so quickly overwhelmed the aircraft that Capt. Stowe was flying blind when he flew into the mountain.

No one will ever know for sure.

Selected sources:

Don E. Alberts, Balloons to Bombers: Aviation in Albuquerque 1882-1945
Albuquerque Journal, September 6, 7, 8, 9 & 10, 1929
Richard Melzer, “La Historia del Rio Abajo,” Valencia County News Bulletin, April 1, 2006
Mark Thompson, 1929 Airliner Crash on Mt. Taylor
. . . New Mexico Office of the State Historian