From Point A to Point B: Photos of a Pickwick Airways Crash, Los Angeles, 7 August 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The early days of commercial aviation were ones of experimentation, intense competition, and a litany of firms that went by the wayside.  One of these was Pickwick Airways, one of five corporations under the name Pickwick, which included hotels in San Francisco, San Diego, Anaheim and Los Angeles, among others, as well as radio stations and motor coach and bus lines.

The formation of the airline, organized under the auspices of Pickwick Stages, was in early 1928 when stock certificates, one of which is in the Homestead’s collection, were issued.  In October, the Delaware corporation received its articles of incorporation in California.  A new stock offering followed in December.  As funds were raised, aircraft ordered and delivered, licenses and permits obtained, and lines of travel developed, it was in March 1929 that the first flights were offered.

This stock certificate from the museum’s collection and dated 14 January 1928 was an early issue of the newly launched Pickwick Airways, Inc., created under the auspices of an umbrella corporation that included hotels, buses, radio stations and others.

On the 29th, a Bach tri-motor craft left the Grand Central Air Terminal at Glendale for a flight to San Diego, this being the first of the regular passenger lines established by the firm.  The inaugural flight was heralded by the press and “girl flyers” Ruth Elder and Bobby Trout were on hand to lend an air of celebrity to a crowd of 500 assembled for the festivities.  Eight passengers, including Elder, were on the first flight.

Flights from both cities to San Francisco and to Texas via a stop in Phoenix were also projected, as the company highlighted the warm weather of the American Southwest as key to the success of its operations, though there was talk of having a fully national schedule.  Grand Central Air Terminal, just north of the Los Angeles River as it bends west on entering the San Fernando Valley, was chosen as the hub of the fledgling firm because “of its excellent flying facilities, favorable atmospheric conditions, and because it is only nineteen minutes from the business part of Los Angeles.”

One of the many ads soliciting investors in Pickwick stock, Los Angeles Times, 18 January 1929.

Notably, in preparation for launching the service from Glendale to San Diego, Pickwick put its new craft “through a series of strenuous tests” to Lindbergh Field and reported fast times of an hour and fifteen minutes.  Obviously, publicizing this was a way to let the public know that the airline was well-prepared and put safety first.  Additionally, it was reported that using spare locations on the plane for stowing luggage created more room for the ten-passenger cabin which featured air-cushioned chairs “and rich interior finish.”

By August, there was a new route, as a plane, originating at Glendale, left San Diego and headed south with two passengers and mail.  There was a stop at Mexico City before the craft reached its final destination at Guatemala City and the goal was to offer tri-weekly service along the route.  This extension into Central America was made possible by Pickwick’s purchase, for $3 million, of Latin-American Air Transport Company of Mexico.  Charles Wren, the president of Pickwick Corporation, including the bus line, also arranged at the time a merger with Greyhound, which was becoming a dominant player in that industry.

Pickwick service was launched with two “girl flyers,” Bobby Trout and Ruth Elder on hand as aviation celebrities, Times, 30 March 1929.

Then, on 7 August, a Pickwick plane took off from Grand Central Air Terminal bound for San Diego and had ascended to an elevation of only 500 feet and a distance of about a mile southeast when two of the three engines failed.  Captain John Wood, an experienced pilot of some dozen years service, managed to steer the craft to the bed of the Los Angeles River, which was bone dry.

As Wood explained it:

I couldn’t swing back to the National Guard airport; it was too far.  I swung over to the Griffith Park golf field, but it was dotted with tree clumps there, so I headed for the flat river bottoms.  I got the ship between the telegraph poles and under the wires and was trying to make either one of two flat narrow strips in the bottoms between high sand banks thrown up by dredging operations.  The wing hit one and up and over we went.

In other words, the wing dipped into one of the banks and flipped over.  Remarkably, no one was killed or seriously injured, with a dislocated shoulder, possible rib fractures, and cuts and bruises reported.  Wood was also said to be “considerably shocked” and his co-pilot E.C. McLeod “somewhat shocked.”

This press photo from the Homestead’s holdings shows the doomed craft lying mangled in the Los Angeles River’s dry bed about a mile from the airport.

The craft’s wing was sundered apart at the center with the nose and middle engine destroyed and the wing engines bent out of position.  The Los Angeles Times, however, stated that “the remainder of the plane was not so badly wrecked” and all of the occupants crawled out of the wreckage under their own power and were transported to the hospital.

The two press photographs here, also from the Homestead’s holdings, show the craft as it landed in the riverbed and it is remarkable in looking at these images that no one was killed or hurt worse than what was reported.

Another press photo from the collection is a similar view, though slightly closer to the plane and with the crop lines on it for publication.

Thomas C. Morgan, the general manager of Pickwick Airways, was quoted as saying that the firm had well over 1,000 flights carrying some 4,500 pages over 100,000 air miles “and we have never had the misfortune of having a single passenger hurt before.”  The operations superintendent, David Mitchell, told the Times that “the ship’s motors tested OK on the block before the plane went out.”

Mrs. H.D. Thompkins, though, informed the paper that “we got away about an hour late” because “they had been working on the engines.”  Immediately after takeoff, “the engines began spitting and spluttering and then they seemed to go dead,” though she said no one appeared frightened as the disabled craft headed for earth, hit the riverbed “and the plane turned clear over and landed on its back.”  She went on to say that “there was some screaming and cries, and then everything got quiet and we began to get out.
That was all there was to it.”

Pickwick went out of commission not long after the accident, though whether it was this, the economy, the competitive nature of the industry, or a combination of the three, is not known.  This ad was for the auction of company material, Times, 22 March 1931.

The Times stated that all the passengers to which it spoke to declared that they were unafraid to fly again, some saying they would do so as soon as possible, though one man allowed that he was going to give the idea some further consideration before taking to the skies again.

Whether it was the specter of the accident, the worsening economy as the Great Depression was unleashed just two-and-a-half months later, or the difficulty of competing in a new field of endeavor, if not all three, Pickwick Airways was grounded not long after.  An auction was held for the company’s material at Grand Central Air Terminal in early spring 1931 and the company has been all but forgotten in the annals of early Los Angeles aviation history.

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