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Hard Landing

by Col. Bill Sweeley, Founder #6566

Another unusual “incident” that happened to an old Daedalian these many years agone, forty-five years ago, in fact. The old members whole learned to fly in 1917 (or before – I started in 1916) will understand this rather unusual, forced landing.

I was acting as escort to the “Round The World Fliers” in Douglas-built cruisers. I was flying an old D.H.4 B., a Dehavilland biplane with a 400 H.P. Liberty engine. My “passenger” was a photographer from the Los Angeles Examiner. He had a rather large Graphlex camera mounted on a large tripod projecting from the turret of the rear seat.

The entire flight took off from Santa Monica March 16th, 1924, first stop was Sacramento, next day to Eugene, Oregon. The following day for Seattle where the Cruisers’ landing gears were to be changed to floats for the Trans-Pacific flight. Out of Eugene we were flying at about 8,000 feet over a large, forested area. I was slightly above the Cruisers who were off to my right.

I noticed the oil pressure gauge registered zero!!! An oil line had broken. I turned around and told the photographer to bail out – JUMP. He refused, I released my belt, turned around and tried to get hold of him – he fought me off. I tried to tear off the damn large tripod that held his camera. I failed. (By the by, this was the first time I had ever worn a parachute – or anyone else in the Army Air Service at that time. Parachutes came into being in March 1924).  

Mountains and dense forest; from my latitude the latter looked like a lawn. I noticed two trees tollers than others in the immediate vicinity. They were very close together. I had long since cut the switches. I glided the plane between these two trees, hoping the wings would be shorn off. They were. The fuselage bounced from limb to limb until the last limbs that were forty feet above ground. From there it was a free fall and disaster. We hit partially nose down; the engine tore loose and came back into me. I eventually crawled free from the wreck.

I was seriously injured and spent months in Letterman Army Hospital, Presidio, San Francisco. My right eye was partially out of its socket and hanging on my cheek. (The photographer received a broken ankle.) Two local hunters in a one-horse buck board saw the descent and heard the crash. They were my saviors indeed!

They took us to the small town of Peel, Oregon, not far from Medford. The local doctor of this village did the best he could, bless his heart. The crack Southern Pacific’s Shasta Limited was hailed down by building a small fire in the center of the tracks. I was placed in a drawing room. The doctor, again, bless his heart, accompanied me as far as Eugene where a doctor and nurse stayed with me until arrival in San Francisco when an ambulance took over.

Such a forced landing never took place before, and one similar to it will in all probability never take place again. Then, landing fields were many miles apart. Frequently, hundreds of miles, and of course, no radio. I was damned lucky to have survived. The scars, the limp, and the memories will always remain.