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(Please see pictures at the bottom on this page.)
My grandfather's name is Pete Thompson. You may not know of him but then you may not be familiar with the excitement around Covell, Illinois on November 3, 1926. The following is a story of how Charles Lindbergh and Pete Thompson crossed paths and made history.
Robertson Aircraft Corporation:
The government had introduced sketchy airmail service in 1918 and had extended it coast to coast by 1920. By 1925 the service had added a number of feeder routes. A total of nine such routes crisscrossed the country. Brothers William and Frank Robertson (World War I pilots) from St.Louis operated C.A.M. #2, a government contract airmail route between St Louis (STL) and Chicago by way of Springfield (SPI) and Peoria (PIA). (278 mile route, five round trips a week, beginning on April 15,1926). The government paid by the pounds of mail carried, often the sacks weighed more than the mail inside. Robertson was one of a few aircraft companies to carry mail only. Most also carried passengers to offset costs.
The Robertson's purchased four (#109/110/111/112) De Havilland D.H.4s, a fabric wing, plywood fuselage biplane with a 12 Cylinder, 400hp, water-cooled Liberty engine. (Top speed 124mph, range 250 miles, normal cruise speed of 90mph) Designed in England in 1916, the D.H.4 was a famous single engine bomber in World War I. In 1923 in its civilian incarnation (5000 built under U.S.license), the completely overhauled plane proved to be an adaptable mailplane. Landing lights and extended exhaust pipes that shielded the pilot's vision from the glowing exhaust made the plane a good night flying mailplane. In wartime the pilot flew from the front cockpit with an observer in the back. For civilian use however, the pilot swapped seats putting the mail in the forward cockpit. The open cockpit planes were acquired from Army surplus for $100.00 each, then rebuilt in the Robertson's company maintenance shop. Lindy had serious misgivings when the four D.H.4s arrived at Lambert Field in STL. The planes had been declared unfit for any kind of military use. To make sure the planes would not fly again, an ax had been applied to the fuselage. The airplanes required almost a complete overhaul in the Robertson maintenance shop.
Contract Air Mail Route #2, (C.A.M.#2):
The route between STL and Chicago (Maywood, Illinois) operated on a schedule that saved one business day over train service to New York. A letter mailed in STL before 3:30pm was rushed to Lambert Field by a fast mail truck, transferred to a plane which was waiting with the engine running and flown to Chicago by 7:15pm. In Chicago, the mail would connect with mail coming in from California, Minnesota, Michigan and Texas. A Chicago to New York overnight plane (with a stop in CLE) would depart Chicago immediately upon the arrival of all of the inbound planes. The mail was in the post office in New York in time for the first delivery of the day. During the first five months of operations, 98% of the flights made their connections. Winter was a different story. Only two conditions would delay airmail, ice and fog. Ice comes from visible moisture that forms from freezing raindrops or partially melted snowflakes that fall through a below-freezing layer of air. Ice formation on the wing and/or propeller greatly affects the performance of the plane. Aerodynamics of the wing change when ice forms thus increasing the speed at which the aircraft may stall. A reduction in lift and thrust with a corresponding increase in drag and weight results. If no corrective action is taken to get out of this icing condition, there comes a point when the aircraft loses its ability to fly. The pilot has three options: 1) climb to a colder altitude where ice won't stick, 2) descend to a warmer altitude where ice will melt or 3) turn back and go home. Fog is a cloud at or near the earth's surface. Flight visibility above a fog layer is usually good. Depending on the thickness of the fog, you can usually look straight down through it and see objects quite clearly below. To the surprise of many pilots, the runway seen just seconds earlier has completely disappeared. Slant or forward visibility in fog is usually near zero. Pilots had to rely on visual references on the ground to land as there were no navigational aids.
September 16,1926 (Aircraft #112)
Lindbergh departed STL at 4:25pm arriving in Springfield at 5:10pm. After picking up additional mail, Lindy departed for PIA landing at 5:55pm. At 6:10pm Lindy started the PIA to Chicago leg. There was a light ground haze with partly cloudy skies. Darkness came at approximately 25 miles northeast of PIA. A low fog rolled in a few miles northeast of Marseilles, Illinois at the Illinois River. Fog extended upward to 600 feet and Lindy was unable to fly under it. Flying northeast until 7:15pm, a glow on top of the fog indicated a town below near Chicago (Maywood). After circling for thirty-five minutes with no luck in finding the field, Lindbergh headed west to clear Lake Michigan. Flying westerly for fifteen minutes then turning southwest, Lindbergh was hoping to find the edge of the fog bank at the Illinois River. To Lindy's surprise, the engine started to sputter. "I thought the carburetor jets were clogged. There should be plenty of fuel remaining in my main fuel tank. I followed my emergency procedure and switched to my reserve tank." The engine came back to life immediately. " The main tank must be dry." At 8:20pm the main fuel tank was indeed dry and Lindbergh was left with only the reserve fuel. Unable to find a break in the fog, Lindbergh was forced to make his third emergency parachute jump. (From an altitude of 5000 feet) When the engine sputtered and died, Lindbergh jumped out of the right side pulling his ripcord after falling about 100 feet. The Irving Parachute (seat type) functioned perfectly. While descending gently to earth, Lindbergh heard a dreadful sound. The plane's engine (in a nose down attitude) roared to life as the residual fuel in the lines reached the carburetor. Lindbergh had neglected to turn off the engine's ignition switch. It seemed as if the plane was chasing Lindy as he tried to steer his chute away from the plane as it spiraled to earth. The plane was in a left spiral of about a mile in diameter passing approximately three hundred yards away from Lindy, leaving him just outside the circle. Their rate of descent was about the same. The plane made several passes at Lindbergh before he landed in tall corn stalks. Lindy walked in the heavy fog to a farmyard where a carload of farmers had gathered to look for the downed airplane. Lindy had to show the farmers his parachute in order for the men to believe that he was the pilot. After a short search, a neighbor found the crashed plane about two miles away from where Lindy had landed. The plane had skidded along the ground for about eighty yards, gone through a fence and came to rest on the edge of a corn field about a hundred yards short of a barn. The mail was on the ground intact. "The Sheriff from Ottawa arrived and we took the mail to the Ottawa Post Office to be placed on the train to Chicago at 3:00am."
After an investigation into the cause of the crash, it was found that a mechanic had removed the 110-gallon fuel tank for repairs and had replaced it with an 80-gallon tank , failing to inform anyone of the change. Instead of being able to return to Peoria and clear skies, Lindbergh ran out of gas while over the fog bank searching for an airstrip.
November 3, 1926 (Aircraft #109):
C.A.M. #2 (Contract Air Mail Route #2) Lindbergh departed STL at 4:20pm and arrived in SPI at 5:15pm. Weather at SPI was 500 feet overcast. After a five-minute stop for mail, Lindbergh headed for PIA. Twenty minutes north of SPI, Lindbergh ran out of sunlight. Light snow had started with the ceiling at 400 feet. Due in PIA at 6:00pm, Lindy was flying into an ice storm that blotted out the lights below. Visibility in Pekin (south of PIA) had dropped to a half mile. Lindy flew on towards PIA at 600 feet where visibility was less than a half mile with a heavy mist and fog. Twice Lindy could see the lights below at 200 feet, but was unable to land. Circling PIA for thirty minutes, Lindy headed northeast towards the Chicago area. Weather earlier that day for a previous flight had shown the ceiling and visibility better in the Chicago area. Having enough fuel for about 1:10 minutes and :20 minutes of reserve, Lindbergh knew going back to STL was impossible even if he could navigate directly. The only lights Lindy saw were on the field at PIA but the fog was just too thick. He flew northeast for thirty minutes at 2000 feet then dropped down to 600 feet. There were numerous breaks in the clouds and occasionally ground lights could be seen at 500 feet. Lindbergh passed over the lights of a small town and a few minutes later came upon a fairly clear area in the clouds. Climbing to 600 feet, he released his only flare, but the parachute connected to the flare caught the plane's tailskid. The flare, torn away from the parachute, plummeted to earth like a rock. For the second time in six weeks, Lindy was left with only one piece of emergency equipment, his parachute. Running low on gasoline (:10 minutes of fuel in the pressure tank) Lindy began climbing heading south towards the less populated areas out in the country. Lindy decided to leave his ship rather than attempt to land blindly. Lindbergh thought if he could see the stars, he would not mind leaping into the storm. The main tank went dry at 7:51pm and the reserve tank dry at 14,000 feet 19 minutes later. At 8:10pm Lindy reported; " I rolled the stabilizer at 14,000 feet and cut the switches."(Remembering the previous jump when he had neglected to turn off the ignition.) Pulling the plane into a stall and just about to go out over the right wing, when it suddenly dropped. Fearing that the plane might strike his parachute, Lindbergh returned to the flight controls. "After righting the plane, I got over on the left side of the cockpit. The airspeed read 70 miles per hour with an altitude of 13,000 feet" (Set Night Jump Record) Lindbergh jumped yanking the ripcord immediately after clearing the stabilizer. The parachute functioned perfectly. "The last I saw or heard of the plane was when it disappeared into the clouds just after my chute opened." Lindbergh floated gently down through snow then rain before coming to earth. Unfortunately the fog was so thick Lindy was unable to see the ground in time to avoid landing on a barbed wire fence on the Robert Runge farm near Covell, Illinois. His borrowed, heavy khaki aviation suit saved him from serious injury. Seeing lights from a small town less than a mile away, Lindbergh with his parachute underarm, walked towards Covell. Lindy entered the Joe Williams General Store to find four men playing cards. "Anyone hear a plane crash?" No one recognized the slim aviator.
B.K. (Pete) Thompson:
B.K. (Pete) Thompson, a 22-year-old farmer, offered his help. Having the only transportation available that night, Pete and Lindbergh climbed into Pete's father's Model T Ford to search the countryside. Unable to find the crashed plane, Pete took Lindbergh to his family's farm (Charles and Lillie Thompson) just south o f Covell. Lindbergh decided to spend the night at the Thompsons but then felt that getting back to Chicago to get another plane was a better plan. He feared locating the downed plane from a country road even in daylight would be very difficult and hoped to have better luck searching from the air. Leaving his parachute at the Thompson house, Pete and Lindbergh piled into the Model T and started for the train station in Bloomington, Illinois about ten miles away. Pete drove towards town over the bumpy, mud soaked roads. He recalled of Lindy: "For a man that had just ditched from 13,000 feet, he sure held on for dear life to whatever he could grab onto for the bumpy trip to town." Lindbergh and Pete, about the same age talked most of the way to Bloomington. Pete remembered Lindbergh had talked about an Atlantic crossing: "It can be done and I'm thinking of trying it." As they arrived at the train station Lindbergh asked Pete to search for the plane and guard the mail until he could return the next morning. Lindbergh told Pete: "You will find a 38 caliber revolver in the cockpit to protect the mail."
November 4, 1926:
His mother awakened Pete the next morning. While making breakfast, Lillie Thompson looked out her kitchen window to find the fallen airplane less than 500 feet south of the house. The plane's main gear and nose made contact with the ground at approximately the same time. The 12-cylinder Liberty motor had torn a big hole in the ground. One side of the main landing gear had torn off on initial impact, bounced over a hedge fence and into an old hog house some distance away. The plane flipped over after the second impact and came to rest on its back. The wings were completely destroyed. The metal frame of the fuselage and tail was intact except for the motor frame. Had Lindbergh remained in the plane there is a remote possibility he might have escaped injury. The tin seat had been thrown out of the wreckage and was found several feet away. The safety straps were in place and the fuselage was practically intact behind the mail compartment. The parachute from the failed flare was found hanging on the tailskid. Pete ran out to the crashed plane to find the revolver Lindbergh had told him about the night before. "I found the 38 caliber revolver, stuck it in my belt and really thought I was somebody." There were three mail bags on board. One from STL was split open and oil soaked evidently from the lubricating oil tank being cracked open at the same time that the mailbags were thrown from their compartment. A small amount of mail had scattered in the pasture. Lindbergh arrived around mid morning to find Pete and his neighbors picking up the stray envelopes. Lindbergh was not having a good couple of days. Enroute back to Covell from Chicago, Lindy was forced to land about 15 miles north of Bloomington due to an engine problem. After a quick fix, he continued on his way to the Covell area to search for his crashed plane. Flying over the Thompson farm, Lindy found the wreckage just yards from where he had stopped the night before. Cars lined the country road (now called Stringtown) in both directions. Lindbergh landed his reserve plane in the field next to the crashed plane. After Lindbergh had retrieved the mail, the small crowd of people that had gathered began to literally tear the plane apart for souvenirs. Lindy and Pete put the mail into the other plane. Then Pete recalled: "Lindy and I went up to the house to eat dinner." Pete's mother Lillie had prepared a fried chicken dinner with all the trimmings. After a short visit and lunch, Lindy had to get the mail, now twenty-four hours late, back to Chicago. But Lindbergh's problems were not over. His replacement plane that he had just flown in would not start. "We spent about two hours trying to get the new plane started. Lindbergh and I kept pulling the propeller like you did in those days, trying to start it. But it must have been too cold. The motor wouldn't turn over. Finally we went back to the house and boiled about 20 gallons of water to heat the radiator. Then the engine kicked right over." Pete recalled. Lindbergh gave a final wave good-bye and was on his way back to Chicago. That was the last time Pete and Lindbergh met face to face. However, Lindy would buzz over the farm from time to time and rock the wings and wave.
About a week later a maintenance crew from Robertson Aircraft arrived from St.Louis to pick up the rest of the wreckage. Pete recalled in a conversation with one of the men: "That Lindbergh is a good pilot but he sure is hard on equipment." The Thompsons received a check a few days later for services rendered.
Bill Frank of the Bloomington Daily Pantagraph was on the job with a camera on November 4th, 1926, when Lindbergh's airplane was found on the Thompson farm. His pictures appeared in the Bloomington paper the next day. A short time later, Lindbergh sent a letter to Mr. Bill requesting a copy of the photographs.
History Making Dates:
In 1919 Raymond Orteig issued a challenge to the aeronautical world by offering $25,000.00 to the first successful entrant to fly Trans-Atlantic Non-Stop between New York and Paris. Lindbergh stated: "I first considered the possibility of the New York to Paris flight while flying the mail one night in the fall of 1926." He talked to Pete Thompson of just that on November 3rd, 1926. December of 1926: Lindbergh talked to some men in STL who were interested in financing the trip and went to New York to get information about planes, motors and details about it. February 28,1927: Lindbergh placed an order with Ryan Airlines of San Diego, CA for a plane with a Wright Whirlwind J.5.C. 200 horsepower radial, air-cooled motor. May20, 1927: At 7:52am, Lindbergh departed Roosevelt Field on Long Island. He arrived at La Bourget Airport Paris at 10:22pm (French time) on May 21, 1927. Lindbergh had flown 3600 miles in 33 ˝ hours.
By the time Lindbergh was preparing for his New York to Paris trip he had become a four-time member of the Caterpillar Club. Any flyer who jumps from an airplane to save his life becomes a member of this select group. Parachutes are made of silk and silk comes from caterpillars, hence the name Caterpillar Club. Lindbergh's first parachute jump was as a cadet in the Army Air Service after a mid air crash near Kelly Field (San Antonio, Texas). This marked the first time anyone had ever survived a collision of two planes in the air. The second jump occurred while spin testing a commercial plane at Lambert Field (STL). Lindbergh dislocated his shoulder in that jump. The third occurred over Ottawa, Illinois because a mechanic had removed a fuel tank and replaced it with another smaller one, failing to inform anyone of the change. Lindbergh's fourth jump was over Covell, Illinois at 13,000 feet. No other man in the country had made so many forced jumps. As a result, Lindy almost got grounded by then head of the Commerce Department, Aeronautics Branch, William P. MacCracken, Jr.. "I was thinking of grounding you so you wouldn't be taking so many chances." MacCracken told Lindbergh. Mr. MacCracken did not ground Lindbergh only because Bill Robertson went to MacCracken's office persuading him to keep Lindbergh flying. They were so close to getting the last $2000.00 to $3000.00 to build the plane for the Atlantic crossing. If Lindy lost his license, they would lose their funding.
Robertson Aircraft: Shortly after the November 3, 1926, crash in Covell, Lindbergh left Robertson Aircraft to devote full attention to preparations for his transatlantic flight. Robertson Aircraft finished its first year with a performance record of ninety-eight percent of flights completed. However the operation was losing money, and the Robertsons eventually sold their route to another company that later became part of American Airlines.
B.K. Thompson: Son of Charles and Lillie Thompson. Pete married Sybil Cooke, had two children, one of whom was Myra, my mother, a son Von, and eight grandchildren. Pete retired after thirty-two years with Standard Oil as a bulk dealer. Pete died Nov.13, 1982.
The Thompson Farm: For many years the crash sight was marked by a tower built by Charles Thompson. After years of farming around it, however, the tower was finally torn down.
Historical Marker: An Illinois Historical Marker was placed at the sight of the Covell crash. It reads as follows: "ON A REGULAR MAIL FLIGHT NOVEMBER3,1926, CHARLES A. LINDBERGH PARACHUTED NEAR COVEL, IL.. HIS PLANE LANDED ON THE CHARLES THOMPSON FARM 500' SOUTH OF THIS MARKER." Dedicated September 25, 1977 by the Corn Belt Philatelic Society.
Lindbergh History Pictures:
Click on the following thumbnail images to view larger images.
6416 Quailwood Drive
Floyds Knobs, IN 47119