• Phil Houk

NON-GROUNDED: The Last Flight of Knute Rockne

By: Jeffrey G. Harrell

On the occasion of Knute Rockne's tragic death in a plane crash 90 years ago Fighting Irish Preview presents this excerpt from Jeff Harrell's fascinating new book on Rockne's life and death Rockne of Ages (Hardcover) and As God 's Witness: The Death of Knute Rockne (paperback and ebook) both 2020 and available here

Three days prior to the crash, Anthony Fokker "personally inspected this plane" and signed off on the air ship's safety, DOC investigators stated in the Aeronautics Branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce's official accident investigation report.

Fokker approval on his product's safety condition was business as usual. The Fokker F-10A Super Trimotor wooden-structured, wooden-winged aircraft operated with a payload of 12 passengers with three 425-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines that could hit 154 miles an hour at top speed. Like all aircraft designed by the famous airship designer, the Fokker F-10A was said to be among the safest planes in the world during the late 1920s.

The military begged to differ.

Three months prior to the Rockne crash, the Fokker F-10 came under intense military scrutiny in the wake of extensive testing at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. U.S. Army and Department of Commerce engineers revealed a suspect wooden wing structure that, when reaching a speed of 80 miles per hour, caused the plane to "fly like a duck."

"The plywood-covering checks in very good shape," wrote Dillard Hamilton, a National Parks Airways inspector, in a letter to Gilbert G. Budwig, director of Air Regulation for the Aeronautics Branch. "But I always worry about the spars and internal bracing. That is covered up where one cannot check."

Hamilton noted that a representative from Fokker's factory suggested adjusting the F-10's "allerons," or control surfaces on the wing, to "relieve tail heaviness." But Hamilton remained concerned that an adjustment – which entailed rigging the angle of alignment – might cause the pilot to lose control during a turn in bad weather.

Budwig replied: "We are not familiar with the factory recommendation... and do not believe that such rigging will correct tail heaviness. In view of the turning characteristics which you describe, it would be advisable to rig the allerons in the normal manner."

Further concerns arose when U.S. Navy officials summarily rejected the Fokker F-10A on two separate occasions during additional military testing in early 1931. The Navy's rejections prompted the Aeronautics Branch to announce intentions to ground the Fokker F-10A after Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, chief of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, made it known that a trial board ruled the F-10 "unstable" following a flight test at the Anacostia naval air station on January 15, 1931.

But the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce took no immediate action. The Fokker F-10 remained in the air.

“Six passengers were manifested, only half filling the 12-place cabin…” retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel Boardman C. Reed wrote in the January 1989 issue of “Vintage Airplane” magazine, “but one had a change of plans at the last minute. Knute Rockne took his place.”

Rockne was traveling on the overnight train to Kansas City when the Transcontinental Western Air Express Fokker F-10AF-1 NC 999E flew into Kansas City from Los Angeles. The plane was scheduled to be turned back to retrace its route to Los Angeles as "Flight 5" the next morning, March 31.

TWA mechanic E.C. "Red" Long thought better of putting the plane in the air on his signature. Long had inspected the plane a few days before and found "... the wing panels were all loose on the wing. They were coming loose and it would take days to fix it, and I said the airplane wasn't fit to fly."

Long refused to sign the log. But an unknown TWA supervisor pulled rank on the mechanic by claiming the company needed the plane in service.

"I don't know who signed the plane off, but they took the airplane," Long told DOC investigators. "Nobody was safe in that aircraft."

That morning, TWA Flight 5 was supposed to depart Kansas City Municipal Airport at 8:30 a.m. The plane remained on the ground for 45 minutes to wait for a late shipment of mail. According to the investigation report, “… the airline removed four seats from the rear of the plane and replaced it by a mail bin." The late-addition mail bin was filled with 28 pouches that weighed 95 pounds.

"Would that have any effect in balancing?" one investigator asked in the DOC official crash investigation report. "If Govt. or private inquiry shows that the airline was negligent, what penalty can the govt. inflict on the airline?"

TWA employees would not have protested if Flight 5 had stayed grounded under mechanic Red Long’s order. In the wake of drastic salary cuts outlined in the DOC investigation, pilots and mechanics were ready to walk off the job with morale among all employees “shot” after the company cut the pay of pilots “about 30%” with “no warning or notice,” lead investigator Leonard Jurden wrote in a letter to Gilbert Budwig.

"Due to this condition and then the accident, morale sagged even lower and nerves ragged," Jurden noted.

Red flags all over Kansas City Municipal Airport that March 31, 1931 morning begged the question: Why was Fokker F-10A Flight 5 allowed to take off?

The TWA flight mechanic had refused to sign off on the plane’s structural safety. A last-minute ticket transfer had put Knute Rockne aboard as a passenger… meaning, the TWA supervisor who overruled Red Long at the last minute knew that one of the most beloved sports figures in the country was potentially in danger of traveling on a plane that had already been determined by the military and TWA to be structurally unsafe.

Then, takeoff was delayed for 45 minutes to await the arrival of a late mail shipment. Four passenger seats were removed to make space for a bin filled with 95 pounds of mail.

Weather conditions were cold, cloudy and iffy. And TWA employees were ready to walk off the job over sudden salary cuts.

Somebody wanted that plane carrying Knute Rockne in the air.

Editor's note: Jeff Harrell's book reads like a crime novel but it is based on years of painstaking research and investigation. For a fascinating and sometimes surprising view of the life and death of the great Knute Rockne, order his book today.

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