Memories of a life lost too soon
Today marks a sad anniversary—50 years ago today my father was killed in a car accident in Omaha Nebraska. He was 45 years old and on his way to pick up my mother at the hairdresser’s.
There was freezing rain and he hit a tree in Elmwood Park. Workmen in the park thought they saw him try to miss hitting a dog. Maybe he had a heart attack. We’ll never know. I no longer remember how we knew the police officer at the scene, but he was stunned to learn that dad had died on the way to the hospital. He had seemed alert and stable at the scene.
If rescue squads (as they were then called in the US) had been as sophisticated and well equipped as they are now, the outcome might have been different. Essentially dad died of shock and a ruptured pancreas or spleen. Unbelievable that I can’t remember which organ it was.
The hairdresser’s place was only a few blocks from the scene of the accident. When my mother heard the sirens, she said, ‘I hope that’s not why he’s late.’
Dad left behind a wife and four daughters, and whole life ahead.
The day had been full of promise.
It was the first day of his last semester of university to earn a degree in engineering. He’d been studying part-time for seven or eight years, and doing that around his full-time job as the civilian pilot for the US Army Corps of Engineers and later as the private pilot for the Central National Insurance Company of Omaha.
It was also the day he would take delivery of a new plane (a Queen Air 88) for the company—a plane he’d chosen after months of research, testing and deliberation.
While I’ve written this post to mark the half century since his death, I also wanted to share, especially with my sisters who are all younger than me, a bit of history about dad and airplanes.
On the evening of Thursday, 18 December 1952, dad crashed a DC-3 at Stapleton Airport in Denver Colorado.
Not surprisingly, it made front-page news in the next day’s The Denver Post. Here’s the article.
Four in crash of plane here escape safely
Puzzled investigators launched a probe Friday into the crash of a twin-engined transport plane from which four persons escaped just seconds before it caught fire at Stapleton airfield Thursday night.
One of the passengers was Brig. Gen. C.H. Chorpening, assistant chief for civil works in the office of the U.S. corps of engineers in Washington D.C.
Like the other three, he jumped from the plane after it skidded to a jolting stop that ended a 100-mile-an-hour takeoff attempt. None of the four was seriously injured.
The others were civilian employees of the corps of engineers—Pilot J.H. Austin of Omaha, Neb.; Copilot N.H. Hansen, also of Omaha; and George Beard, an engineer from Washington.
Treated for bruises
Chorpening and the two crew members were treated for minor cuts and bruises at Fitzsimons Army hospital and released. Beard did not require medical treatment.
The plane, a DC-3 owned by the corps of engineers, was sent here from Omaha Thursday afternoon to pick up Chorpening, who was on a routine inspection of civil engineer projects.
Chorpening said the craft was only a few feet off the runway when it suddenly went out of control and piled up in a wheat field on airport property. The time was 6:32 p.m.
The plane went up in flames shortly after the four got out.
The pilot could not explain the accident. He said the plane reached a ground speed of about 100 miles an hour when it veered sharply and crashed at the south end of the field.
The investigation was ordered by the civil aeronautics administration. AC Goddard, CAA safety agent, said Friday the cause of the crash was ‘a total mystery.’
‘The pilot doesn’t know, which means that a physical inspection of the wreckage will have to determine what happened,’ he said.
Both engines were torn from the plane and thrown twenty feet in front of the fuselage. The pilot’s compartment was caved in and the entire plane swept by flames.
Six companies of firemen from the Stapleton fire department had the blaze under control in about fifteen minutes.
Less than two hours after the crash. Chorpening and his crew left Denver on a commercial flight to Omaha. The general had come here from the west coast by commercial plane.
The 19 December evening edition of the Omaha World Herald also carried an item, which had additional details.
Plane burns but 4 escape: Army engineer general shaken in crash
Four men, one a high ranking general in Army Engineers, narrowly escaped death Thursday night when a plane from Omaha crashed and burst into flames at the Denver municipal airport.
Brig. Gen. Claude H. Chorpening of Washington, assistant chief of engineers in charge of civil works, escaped with a wrenched left shoulder, bruises and cuts.
George L. Beard of Washington, chief of the planning and development division in the office of the Chief of Army Engineers, came out of the flaming plane almost unscathed. He is a civilian.
On inspection trip
The pilot, Jules Austin, 5118 Leavenworth Street, and the acting co-pilot, Norman Hansen, 1811 North Forty-eighth Avenue, also got out safely. Mr Hansen normally is the plane’s engineer, but as a licensed pilot fills in as co-pilot on occasion.
The plane, a C-47 transport assigned to the Missouri River Division of the Army Engineers here, had gone to Denver to take General Chorpening on an inspection trip of the Army Engineers projects in South Dakota. He had come from the Pacific Northwest, where he had toured projects under construction in that area.
The accident occurred about 7 o’clock just after take-off when the plane was about 10 feet in the air.
Looped on ground
General Chorpening said the plane shuddered violently, then dropped its left wing sharply. The wing tripped on the ground, he said, and the impact flung the plane over to the right side. It looped on the ground and came to rest off the runway.
The outside of the plane started burning, and flames broke out in the compartment that separated the cabin from the pilot’s compartment.
General Chorpening’s seat to which we was bound by his safety belt, was broken from its fastenings and flung the length of the cabin.
General Chorpening and Mr Beard freed themselves and felt their way in the darkness to the rear door, where they jumped to safety.
‘When we hit the ground we started pedaling as fast as we could go,’ he said. ‘The tanks were what we were afraid of. It was a miracle they didn’t explode.’
Mr Austin and Mr Hansen climbed out through escape hatches in the pilot’s compartment.
General Chorpening, who was given emergency treatment at Fitzsimons General Hospital, came to Omaha by commercial airline Friday and left on his inspection trip north by rail. Mr Beard returned to Washington.
Cause of the crash was being studied Friday at Denver.
And a bit more of the story
Norm, the co-pilot on that trip, had more stories about that day and the aftermath.
For starters, he said General Chorpening and Beard actually managed to lower the stairs so managed to walk from the plane rather than jump. I know this is true because in one of the photos, you can see the stairs are down.
Once back to earth, the general asked dad and Norm if they would go back into the then burning plane to retrieve his dress hat which he’d forgotten to grab. They declined.
I can’t find the outcome of the investigation online, but my best recollection from Norm and my mother was that much of the blame was placed on an air traffic controller who had allowed a plane to takeoff across and in front of dad just moments before he took off. The officials surmised that had created a wind squall that hit dad’s plane.
Norm had a different view. He said General Chorpening thought the world of my dad and that Chorpening’s take on the cause of the accident was that ‘the earth swung out of its orbit and hit the plane.’
Not long after, the Army Corps of Engineers bought the shell of another DC-3.
Dad, Norm and Harry Hildeburn, dad’s usual co-pilot, refurbished the interior of that plane to make it an executive aircraft, which seated 21 and had a galley kitchen, sofas, easy chairs, card tables, curtains, pot plants and magazine racks. Oh how, I remember that plane. One day I’ll do a post on it.
Footnote: When the Army Corps of Engineers sold that DC-3 in 1960–61, Harry retired to his home state of Oregon. Norm went on to fly for others, and Dad went to work for Central National. Harry died in 1977, and Norm died in 2011 at age 87. We corresponded for years. What a trio they were. I’ll try to share more stories about them.
Another footnote: Remember I said dad died on the first day of his last semester in university? In a wonderful and heartwarming gesture, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (then called Omaha University) awarded dad’s degree posthumously to my mother.