TWA Flight 599

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TWA 5, Fokker NC999E
Accident summary
Date March 31, 1931
Summary Structural failure
Site Bazaar Township, Chase County, Kansas, United States
38°14′09″N 96°35′12″W / 38.23583°N 96.58667°W / 38.23583; -96.58667Coordinates: 38°14′09″N 96°35′12″W / 38.23583°N 96.58667°W / 38.23583; -96.58667
Passengers 6
Crew 2
Fatalities 8 (all)
Injuries (non-fatal) 0
Survivors 0
Aircraft type Fokker F.10
Operator Transcontinental and Western Air
Registration NC999E
Flight origin Kansas City, Missouri
Stopover Wichita, Kansas
Destination Los Angeles, California
Knute Rockne memorial on the Kansas Turnpike

T&WA NC999E was a scheduled airline flight from Kansas City, Missouri, to Los Angeles, California. On March 31, 1931, the wooden-winged Fokker F.10 tri-motor airliner serving the route crashed in the Kansas prairie, killing popular sports hero Knute Rockne and seven others. The accident brought radical changes to airline regulations, operations and aircraft. The "Rockne Crash" (as it was referred to) stimulated advances in aircraft design and development, and airline industry practices. The result was a pivotal improvement in airline safety, profitability and popularity.[1][2]

The crash[edit]

Transcontinental and Western Air Flight 599 was a Fokker F.10 Trimotor en route from Kansas City, Missouri, to Los Angeles on March 31, 1931. On the first leg of the flight, from Kansas City to Wichita, Kansas, the airplane crashed into an open field[nb 1] a few miles southwest of Bazaar, Kansas; all eight on board died, including famed football coach Knute Rockne, of the University of Notre Dame.[1][2]

It is often claimed that Flight 599 went down in or shortly after a thunderstorm, but meteorological records show that there was no significant convective activity at the time.[citation needed]

The accident was arguably caused by the composition of the aircraft.[citation needed]

The wings of Fokker Trimotors were manufactured out of wood laminate; in this instance, moisture had leaked into the interior of one wing over a period and had weakened the glue bonding the structure. One spar finally failed; the wing developed uncontrolled flutter and separated from the aircraft.[citation needed][3]

Questions have been raised about the exact sequence of events in the crash, and eyewitness accounts raise further questions about the exact sequence of events and the associated technical analysis.[citation needed]

Among the issues speculated is that the craft may have been dealing with turbulence, or icing on the aircraft, or both—which could have resulted in flying conditions that may have led to control difficulty, and an overstressing of the wing. (As evidence, some cite the co-pilot's radio call to Wichita, an hour into the flight, saying, "The weather here is getting tough. We're going to turn around and go back to Kansas City.") [1] Later theories conclude that the pilots thought their difficulty controlling the plane was clear-air turbulence, and the transmission was sent before they were aware of the wing's deficiency, if indeed they ever knew before the wing failed.[citation needed]

In any case, the structural condition of the wooden wing is widely agreed to have been at least a significant contributory factor.[1][2]

Public impact and aviation legacy[edit]

Although the accident is best known for causing the death of Rockne, it also led to major changes in American aviation that radically transformed airline safety worldwide. Other comparable crashes had occurred before, but this one, which killed a popular national hero, brought a national outcry for getting "answers to the mystery" as the public demanded solutions that might prevent such disasters in the future.[1][2][4]

Rockne mourned and questions raised[edit]

The most notable person aboard was Knute Rockne, head football coach at the University of Notre Dame and a national hero. Revered as more than simply the football coach with the most wins to his credit of all time, Rockne—famed for coaching his players towards both victory and morality—was a beloved figure at the start of the Great Depression. Despite his Norwegian immigrant origins, he was regarded as the "All-American" icon of virtuous strength and honorable success.

Rockne was on his way to Los Angeles to participate in the production of the Hollywood motion picture The Spirit of Notre Dame (released October 13, 1931). Shortly before taking off from Kansas City, Rockne stopped to visit his two sons, Bill and Knute, Jr., who were in boarding school there.[1][2][5]

The sudden, dramatic death of Rockne startled the nation, and triggered a national outpouring of grief, comparable to the deaths of presidents. President Herbert Hoover called Rockne's death "a national loss."[6][7] King Haakon VII of Norway (Rockne's birthplace) posthumously knighted Rockne, and sent a personal envoy to Rockne's massive funeral, which was held at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. Tens of thousands of people from around the world gathered at the funeral, which was broadcast around the globe.[8][9]

Driven by the public feeling for Rockne, the crash story played out at length in nearly all of the nation's newspapers and gradually evolved into national demand for a public inquiry into the causes and circumstances of the crash.[2][4][10][11]

Airline regulation and operations[edit]

At first, the accident brought changes to the operations of both TWA and the Aeronautics Branch of the US Department of Commerce, forerunner of today's FAA.

All Fokker Trimotors in U.S. airline service were temporarily grounded, and they were henceforth required to undergo more frequent and rigorous inspections and maintenance.[2][12] The expense of this, compounded with the bad publicity associated with Rockne's death, almost sank TWA, while aircraft manufacturer Fokker suffered a serious blow to its reputation and sales.

The intense public interest in the cause of the accident forced the Department of Commerce to abandon its policy of keeping the results of aircraft accident investigations secret.[1][2][12]

Many references claim that the accident was also the impetus for the formation of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), an independent investigative organization and the predecessor of the National Transportation Safety Board, but the CAB was not formed until 1940, five years after an accident involving US Senator Bronson M. Cutting underlined the department's conflicts of interest with respect to their associations with airlines and their provision and maintenance of navigational aids.[13]

Nevertheless, the Rockne crash created a public expectation for the U.S. government to provide objective reviews of crashes and public release of the findings, beginning the tradition of public air crash investigation reports, which began to pinpoint and publicize blame for accidents, forcing safety improvements by both government and industry.[1][2][12]

Aircraft design and technology[edit]

The Flight 599 disaster discredited wood-framed aircraft, and it effectively forced airlines to adopt all-metal aircraft. The result was a leap forward in aircraft design quality and safety, as manufacturers developed advanced all-metal designs under pressure from the airlines.[1][2][10][12] Various aircraft safety innovations were proposed and promoted, largely in response to the crash.[11] Overall, the success and/or development of three key aircraft in aviation history were driven largely by the Rockne crash:

  • Ford Trimotor
Airlines first turned to the all-metal Ford Trimotor—a slow, boxy three-engined aircraft similar to the Flight 599 Fokker but all-metal and already available and in use at the time. Though slower than the Fokker and far more costly to build, the Ford offered sturdy all-metal construction and (in some cases) greater capacity.[1][14]:106[15]
  • Boeing 247
Boeing developed the first truly modern airliner, the Boeing 247, which ushered in key design features now common in most airliners:[14]:108–110 [16]:46 [17]
  • hollow-shell ("monocoque") all-metal design (aluminum), for light and streamlined aircraft structure,
  • retractable landing gear (significant streamlining, and greater speed/efficiency),
  • NACA engine cowling (significant streamlining, and greater speed/efficiency),
  • supercharged engines, forcing pressurized air into the engines thereby increasing power, and enabling operation in thinner air at higher altitudes, above some weather,
  • sufficient reserve engine power to allow safe takeoff with a full load on only one engine (of multiple engines), in the event of an engine failure at takeoff (time of highest likelihood for engine failure),
  • controllable-pitch propellers (like a continuously-variable transmission on an automobile, allowing a wider range of flying speeds, more thrust for takeoff, and more efficient propulsion, improving performance), on later models, starting with 247D, and
  • de-icing equipment.
  • Douglas DC-2/Douglas DC-3:
The Boeing 247 would soon be utterly eclipsed by another plane designed in response to the Rockne crash,[16]:46 [17] the Douglas DC-2/Douglas DC-3. The most important commercial aircraft of all time,[14]:110 the Douglas DC-3 was developed initially as the Douglas DC-1/Douglas DC-2 to fill TWA's demand for an all-metal replacement for their suddenly-obsolete trimotor aircraft.
United Airlines (under United Aircraft, which was also the parent company of Boeing, at the time) had monopolized all Boeing 247 production, forcing TWA to look elsewhere to modernize their fleet from the wooden Fokkers and clunky Fords; the Douglas DC-2 was the result.[10][18] The DC-2 took all the advances of the Boeing 247 a step further with greater speed, range, and payload which evolved with the rounding of its fuselage into the wider 21-seat DC-3, which became the first airliner to truly make airlines profitable.[2][14]:111 The DC-3 revolutionized the affordability, availability and safety of air travel—triggering an explosion in airline travel to seven times the volume within a few years of the Rockne crash. Most of the world's air travel was in DC-3s by the start of World War II (in which the DC-3 became the most successful military transport). The DC-3 launched regional airlines in the postwar years, and it remained a powerful force in spreading aviation's benefit for the rest of the century, with some still flying today.[2][14]:110–113

Airline safety revolution[edit]

With these superior, safer aircraft matched to greatly increased and more public government inspection and regulation of aviation, crash rates plummeted to a tiny fraction of those of the wooden airliner years.[13]

Today, the legacy of the Flight 599 crash is simply that the most dangerous way to travel in 1931—airlines—radically transformed into what has now become the safest way to travel.[2]

Memorials and commemorations[edit]

  • The Knute Rockne Memorial[nb 2] at the crash site[nb 3] near Bazaar, Kansas, memorializes Rockne and the 7 others who died with him.[nb 4] The tall, engraved-granite marker,[nb 5] a memorial dedicated to the victims and topped with the name "Rockne", stands surrounded by a wire fence with wooden posts; it was maintained for many years by James Easter Heathman (d.2008), who, at age 13 in 1931, was one of the first people to arrive at the site of the tragedy.[7] Now part of the Heathman family estate, the memorial and crash site are on private property, off-road, and accessible only by arrangement[nb 6] with the landowners, or during memorial commemorations.
  • A memorial ceremony is held at the crash site memorial (and at a nearby schoolhouse) every five years since the crash, drawing relatives of the victims, and Rockne / Notre Dame fans, from around the world. In 2011 on the 80th anniversary of the crash, over 150 people gathered, including former Football Hall of Fame director Bernie Kish. Speeches were made, a bagpipe played, and a small plane flew over the crowd at the crash site, on the exact minute of the crash.[2]
  • The Matfield Green rest stop and travel plaza on the Kansas Turnpike near Bazaar (where TWA Flight 599 crashed) has a large, glassed-in exhibit on the west side of its center foyer commemorating Rockne (chiefly), as well as the other crash victims, and the crash. The facility is normally open to the traveling public on the Turnpike 24 hours a day, every day of the year.[2]
  • The passengers and crew of Flight 599 were K. Rockne, H. J. Christansen (Chicago), J. H. Hooper (Chicago), W. B. Miller (Hartford, Conn), F. Goldthwaite (New York), C. A. Lobrech (Chicago), Pilot Robert Fry, and Co-Pilot Jess Mathias.[19]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Friedman, Herbert M. Friedman and Ada Kera Friedman, "The Legacy of the Rockne Crash", Aeroplane Magazine, May 2001, U.K. - (Article provided by the University of Notre Dame Archives, posted on the website "Reflections from the Dome")
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Fans, Family Remember the Crash Heard 'Round the World, 2011, by aviation historian Richard Harris; includes, at article's end, a link to an extensive bibliography, citing and quoting numerous government, academic and major media sources, with web links to them.
  3. ^ Eric Schatzberg, Wings of Wood, Wings of Metal: culture and technical choice in American airplane materials, 1914-1945; Princeton University Press, 1999. 132-4, also see pg 114-34, and 166-72.
  4. ^ a b Johnson, Randy, M.A. (Ph.D. candidate, Ohio Univ., Athens, OH; certified airline transport pilot and flight instructor), "The 'Rock': The Role of the Press in Bringing About Change in Aircraft Accident Policy.", Journal of Air Transportation World Wide, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2000, Aviation Institute, University of Nebraska at Omaha.
  5. ^ The Official Knute Rockne Web Site. URL accessed 03:54, 29 January 2006 (UTC)
  6. ^ Hoover, Herbert, President of the United States, message to Mrs. Knute Rockne, 119 - "Message of Sympathy on the Death of Knute Rockne", April 1, 1931, Washington, D.C., cited on the web site of The American Presidency Project
  7. ^ a b Sudekum Fisher, Maria (2008-02-01). "J. E. Heathman; found crash that killed Rockne". Associated Press. Boston Globe. Retrieved 2008-02-14. 
  8. ^ "The Last Flight of Knute Rockne" web page, in "Moments" section of "125 Football" website, University of Notre Dame: photos of funeral, newspaper clippings, video of Irish coach Ara Parseghian's boyhood reminiscence about the tragedy.
  9. ^ Lindquist, Sherry C.M., "Memorializing Knute Rockne at the University of Notre Dame: Collegiate Gothic Architecture and Institutional Identity", in Winterthur Portfolio, Vol_ 46, No_ 1 (Spring 2012), pp_ 1-24 on
  10. ^ a b c O'Leary, Michael, "The Plane that Changed the World", Part 1., Air Classics, vol.46, no.10, Nov.2010, pp.28-48, including sidebar: "Effects of the Rockne Crash".
  11. ^ a b "Rockne Plane Crash Inspires Safety Inventions",Modern Mechanix, July 1931
  12. ^ a b c d Eckert William G., (former Sedgwick County (KS) Coroner, former instructor in forensic pathology, Wichita State University, author of textbooks Introduction To Forensic Sciences , Forensic Medicine, and several others): "The Rockne crash: American commercial air crash investigation in the early years." American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 1982 Mar;3(1):17-27.
  13. ^ a b History of Aviation Safety Oversight in the United States, DOT/FAA/AR-08/39 , Air Traffic Organization, Operations Planning, Office of Aviation Research and Development, Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington, DC 20591, Final Report July 2008
  14. ^ a b c d e Bryan, C.D.B, The National Air and Space Museum, 5th printing, the Smithsonian Institution—National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC / Harry N. Abrams, Inc., NY - 1985/1979
  15. ^ Schatzberg, Eric, (b.1956) Wings of wood, wings of metal : culture and technical choice in American airplane materials, 1914-1945, (c1999), Chapter 5: "Metal and commercial aviation i: Henry Ford takes flight," pp.96-113, on the History of Science and Technology website of the University of Wisconsin, USA
  16. ^ a b Mansfield, Harold, VISION: The Story of Boeing, Popular Library, NY, 1966
  17. ^ a b Redding, Robert and Bill Yenne, "The Flying Pullmans" in Boeing: Planemaker to the World, Bison/Crescent/Crown, Greenwich, Connecticut, USA, 1983
  18. ^ Allen, Frederick, "The Letter that Changed the Way We Fly", American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Fall 1998, with photos of the post-Rockne-crash letter from TWA president Jack Frye seeking a newer airliner (the letter that would trigger development of the DC-3).
  19. ^ Stu Beitler (November 3, 2007). "Knute Rockne and others Killed in Plane Crash, Mar 1931". Retrieved March 31, 2014. 

External links[edit]