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ERIC WIBERG: Historic plane falls short of ambitious goal in Exuma

The Pilot Radio - a Stinson aircraft with engines made by the Wright Brothers - after a successful flight to Bermuda took a tour of South America and the Caribbean, passing through The Bahamas on the way to complete their journey in Miami, However, their journey came to an end with a crash in mangroves in Exuma.

The Pilot Radio - a Stinson aircraft with engines made by the Wright Brothers - after a successful flight to Bermuda took a tour of South America and the Caribbean, passing through The Bahamas on the way to complete their journey in Miami, However, their journey came to an end with a crash in mangroves in Exuma.

IN 1930, two significant historical aircraft, one with a life-long crippled man as radio operator, the other with a single-handing Australian aviatrix, crashed in The Bahamas, in Andros and Exuma.

Because the woman quickly retrieved her aircraft and the pilot of the Exuma wreck was burned after it flipped and caught fire in a swamp and was abandoned, little attention was paid to either plane. Until 2020, when a radio historian in California wrote to the pre-eminent aviation historian in the Bahamas, my mentor Captain Paul A Aranha. After I put in a year of finding half a dozen aircraft, Paul offered me a chance to find the historic aircraft in Exuma. After two trips and five days in the field, this is where the as-yet-unresolved case stands in early 2023. There are three relevant strands to the story, what the aviators did before the Bahamas, what happened in their brief stay in the Bahamas, and what happened to their aircraft and those seeking it since.

The story begins to make headlined on the early morning of April 2, 1930: an airplane which had set out to fly to Bermuda from the continental United States had recently gone missing. Now a Stinson aircraft with engines made by the Wright Brothers had left New York in an attempt to be the first to make it to Bermuda. According to the logic of limits of endurance and point of no return, the plane could not still be flying. Yet the three men, Pilot Emile Burgin, Navigator Lewis Yancey, and Radioman Zeh Bouck, who could not walk without crutches due to a bout of childhood polio, had in fact landed on the bosom of the ocean in their seaplane named Pilot Radio after the sponsor, Mr Goldberg in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

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Detailed map of Great Exuma Island showing the location of the Pilot Radio’s crash landing near Richmond Hill (Image from Paul Aranha)

Having sailed to or from Bermuda 32 times, I am in awe of the fact that these men slept afloat then in the morning were able to take off from the high seas and make it to inside the large barrier reef to the north of Bermuda. There they ran out of fuel and anchored, radioing for support. The savvy Bermudians brought fuel to them and they took off once more and landed in the harbour. At first they were threatened with fines and arrest, however the marketing and publicity soon dawned on the local officials and the aviators were given a warm(er) welcome and even a large prize purse. Very importantly, since their aircraft was damaged during the flights, they gifted both a propeller and a gyrocompass to Bermudian patrons, and shipped the plane back to New York.

At that time, it was incredibly competitive in the aviation world - hundreds of people were pushing boundaries every day it seemed, and fame could be immediate and lasting: Charles Lindberg, Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham, Antoine St.-Exupery, the Wright Brothers, Jean Batten, Smith from Australia, Francis Chichester and many others were vying for fame, including young Jessie Maude “Chubbie” Miller, the Australian woman aviator. Her flight over The Bahamas in late November 1930 from Cuba to Florida involved such bad weather that she ditched on a beach in Mangrove Cay, Andros, hiked alone many miles, took a ferry to another island, then a fishing boat to Nassau and a flight to Miami before going back to retrieve her plane. In such an intensely competitive milieu the man of Pilot Radio undertook a massively ambitious airborne ‘good will’ tour of all or most of South America. The same year they flew from Mexico counter-clockwise down the Andes, up the East Coast, to the Dominican Republic, then over Cuba and towards Miami via The Bahamas. There the plane has remained.

The New York Times, the District Commissioner Pyfrom, local Justice of the Peace JM Bowe, Jr of The Forest, Great Exuma, and Yancey, Burgin and Bouck (his nom-de-guerre) all detail what happened next, and radio historian Robert (Bob) Rydzewski has skillfully tabulated all the details.

On September 14,1930, in a piece titled “Yancey Describes His Plane Crash” the Times recounts how Pilot Radio (NR 487H), was a Stinson SM-1FS monoplane, 47ft wide, 32ft long, with room for one pilot, and capacity for six passengers. The engine was a Wright J6 nine-cylinder, 300-hp Wright Whirlwind.

Importantly, given events, the frame was wood and the covering was canvas, so in a fire they would go up in smoke. However the engine, struts, and much of the cabin superstructure was made of high-quality steel, particularly the oleo legs and anything associated with the landing gear, the fuel tanks, and support for the heavy engine, as well as piping and communications equipment.

On May 14, the men began their circumnavigation of South America; they were only an hour from completing it in Miami when wrecked. On Thursday, September 11, 1930, at dawn they left San Juan for Miami. At 8am, Pilot Radio with the three men flew over hurricane-ravaged Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. At 1pm, after passing Port au Prince and the Windward Passage, they turned north from Cuba to the southern Bahamas. At 1.30pm, they were passing Raccoon Cay in the Ragged Island or Jumento Cays when their engine mounting broke a bracket, threatening to wobble out of its cradle at even the lowest RPM.

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Left to right: Lewis Yancey, Emile Burgin, Zeh Bouck sit on the pontoon of the sea plane Pilot Radio before seeking to make a monumental flight over the ocean from New York to Bermuda in 1930. They landed half way on the ocean, slept, then resumed the flight to Bermuda were they were not greeted with threats fo fines. Later publicity of their flight afforded them better treatment.

They made for Great Exuma, and passed Georgetown about 3 pm. As the vibrations reached emergency levels the men desperately sought a place to put down. Before 4 pm pilot Yancey espied what he believed was a smooth dry patch of packed sand at the base of gentle hills, and committed to landing on it.

Unfortunately the sand was swept by tidal current and two feet of translucent water greeted the wheels of Pilot Radio on impact. Rather than coast a long distance, the wheels were caught in the mire. The plane carried forward and flipped onto its back. The commissioner cabled to Nassau that the aviators had “ENGINE TROUBLE TRIED LAND BUT COULD NOT LOCATE A SAFE PLACE STOP PLANE MADE A FORCED LANDING NEAR TELFAIR STRUCK MARL IN MANGROVES AND OVERTURNED CREW HAD TO ESCAPE.” Amazingly all the men were alive despite the gear and equipment cascading down upon them and being hung upside down. In the words of the pilot himself:

“An immediate landing was necessary and the only available spot not covered with rocks was a swamp. We glided in and made a still landing, but the ship went over on its back, piling crew, baggage and radio equipment in a heap. No one was injured in this, though all were bruised and shaken badly. The crew got out and managed to save some of the baggage when the ship suddenly burst into flame and was completely destroyed.” They were roughly 14 miles from Georgetown, in an area only visited by shepherds and sustenance or artisanal farmers.

“They clambered out of the wreck, gathered what they could, and were sitting disconsolately watching the shell of their hopes and glory when a farmer ran towards them. He had seen that a spark was setting fire to the craft, and warned them away. Instead, Yancey raced towards Pilot Radio to salvage more materials, only for the plane’s gasoline to explode as he approached, sending him ten feet backwards and burning his right arm quite badly.

From that point, they were at the mercy of the hosts. Justice of the Peace J. M. Bowe, Jr. did an exemplary job of accommodating them. The commissioner was sent for and enlisted a doctor to assist. They did not arrive in The Forest (where artist Amos Ferguson grew up), until midnight and saw to Yancey’s needs. Bouck in crutches could not move quickly or far and they all slept in a crude fisherman’s shack. Bouck says “We spent the night in a native fishing hut and on Friday started by small fishing schooner for Nassau, arriving at 3pm Saturday,” September 13.

The schooner Louise hurried them to Nassau where they were photographed looking disconsolate probably at the Royal Victoria Hotel. They raced to Miami and New York to tell their story. The men never went back.

The assumption was that the aircraft was destroyed, and no one, that we know of, until 2022, went looking for it. The idea was that the wheel struts and engine ought to be visible above the ‘marl’ or ‘mash’ – local words for marsh and mangrove. Indeed Bob informed me that “....towards the end of the journey the landing gear had buckled a couple of times and was repaired at least twice, once by a convicted murderer at Devil’s Island”. The plot thickens! Yet probably 100 hours in five days of very hard hiking, tramping, searching, much of it alone, has not yielded the 92-year-old mother lode... yet.

Many, however, including David Smith and Margaret McKenzie of Stuart Manor, and Ken Simmons, the conch vendor at Pompey House, and teacher Everette Hart and many others remember visiting the site of the plane. Ms McKenzie was 10 at the time and says it was in mud, and clearly was a plane. Ken Simmons says it lay in grass which was tidal, and that over time sea algae and grass has overgrown the site. Fisherman David Smith of The Forest questions what the big deal was – there is a bigger drug plane sunk further out to sea.

Then, in 2020, Bob Rydzewski, who has had a life-long fascination with radios and aviation, and who never lets go of a story until the details are known, wrote to Paul Aranha and Chris Curry that “as far as I know its remains are still there somewhere today... I know that the best information sources are local. So I was trying to reach someone in the Bahamas who might be able to check...” Then in the fall of 2022, over 72 years after the crash, the assignment fell onto my desk. Then with characteristic hubris and overconfidence, and relying too much on technology, I made several mistakes. Determined to find the plane in a month or less, I obtained the commissioner reports, which convinced me that everyone else was wrong and my hunch on crash location was the right one.

Then I corroborated this with grainy satellite images, called Captain Steven Cole and arranged a guide, offroad vehicle and hotel, and in October 2022 spent two days flying from Boston to Exuma thrashing around in the mangroves, achieving almost nothing except nearly blinding my right eye, badly infecting my left thigh with a fungal problem for months, and spending more money than I could part with to simply canvas a broad area and return without spotting a shard of metal.

Not one to give up, I helped organise an expedition with old sailing buddies, and indeed we anchored in Steventon near Rolleville, Great Exuma, in January 2023 and immediately set out for the hamlet of Curtis where Edison Rolle told us he has seen the plane near Richmond Hill.

The reasons why this article will leave readers in suspense is because the airplane has not been found. Only small bits of metal, possibly from a battery or radio, including copper, brass, melted aluminum, and steel, have been sighted and are being tested. Since Pilot Radio is arguably the most historically significant aircraft in Bahamian territory, we will have to wait until a sixth and seventh visit to the site. Volunteers?

Comments

truetruebahamian 9 months ago

Thank you, Eric. Interesting and absorbing article indeed.

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