US Stamps

Aircraft accidents, crash covers and resources to understand what happened

Aug 23, 2023, 10 AM
Water-soaked as this 1932 plane crash cover is, it is no surprise to read the auxiliary marking that says it was damaged when the plane crashed in the Willamette River. But there is much more to the story.

U.S. Stamp Notes by John M. Hotchner

It’s rare these days to hear of plane crashes, but that was not so in the earlier days of aviation. The aggressive investigation of crashes, first mandated by the Air Commerce Act passed by Congress in 1926 and now carried out by the National Transportation Safety Board, has resulted in radical improvements over time.

Each accident is thoroughly investigated to determine not just the primary cause but every contributing cause, too. The lessons learned are then incorporated into aircraft design, airport design, pilot selection and training, air traffic control and weather forecasting capabilities.

For collectors of crash covers, the classic period is 1918 into the 1950s. Since then, despite the geometrically increasing number of flights, the number of crashes of planes carrying mail has decreased precipitously.

My source is the American Air Mail Society’s American Air Mail Catalogue Volume I, 6th Edition (1998), which shows that there are 80 crash listings where surviving mail is known for the years 1918 through 1929, 100 for the 1930s, 46 for the 1940s, 48 for the 1950s, 26 in the 1960s, 24 in the 1970s, and only five from 1980 through 1998.

The earlier plane crash covers are often made more interesting by the explanation handstamped or handwritten on them. But these markings are not the only resource for determining what happened and the results.

The airmail catalog provides the basic facts about each crash, but it also takes contemporary newspaper accounts (and sometimes Wikipedia can help) to make them come to life.

On the May 1932 crash cover shown here, the return address and part of the mailing address have been water-damaged, and the stamps have washed off. This accords with the “Damaged by plane crash in Willamette River” handstamp.

The catalog tells us that this was a United Airlines Contract Air Mail (CAM-5) flight from Salt Lake City to Seattle and says: “Pilot Richard F. Gleason glided his plane into the Willamette River after the motor exploded and was wrenched from plane as the plane was leaving Portland at 8am on May 30. All mail, 175 lbs, was salvaged badly water-soaked, and forwarded to Tacoma for reconditioning and forwarding to addressees.”

Fortunately, this cover came to me with a Portland newspaper United Press article headlined, “Runaway Wife Dies in Crash: Mrs. W.W. Smith Dies in Portland Accident After Quarrel With Mate; Pilot Dick Gleason injured.”

A bit more of the story follows: “An engine fell out of an airmail plane a few moments after it took off from Swan Island airport here today and the plane crashed into the Willamette River, killing Mrs. Ann Smith, 28 years old, its passenger. …

“The plane, bound for Seattle, took off in a southerly direction and banked slightly toward the east, preparatory to turning west and then north. As it attempted to gain altitude a tremendous explosion shook it and the noise was heard by persons a mile or more away.

“The engine then catapulted out of the ship immediately after the explosion and crashed to earth. The plane then burst into flames, and Gleason banked it toward the river.”

It fell into about 15 feet of water. Gleason was able to get out, but Smith was pinned in the cabin and drowned.

Another curious crash cover is shown in ...

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