waco
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Readers familiar with my earlier stories will recall what a profound influence my grandfather was upon me. Inspired by Charles Lindbergh, he began to fly in 1927. Under the regulations current at the time, the Limited Commercial pilot’s license he held, authorized him to instruct when he had roughly 100 hours total time.

The incident I am about to relate happened four years later, on the evening of Wednesday, May 27, 1931. The scene was the Cleveland Municipal Airport. In all the years I knew him he never said a word to me about what happened that day.

My mother, born several years later, told me that he was taxiing an airplane with very poor visibility in a three-point with a man walking at the wingtip to offer guidance. The configuration of the airport involved a line of hangars oriented on a North- South axis. Another airplane emerged from between the hangars at high speed and they collided. In the ensuing wreck, the other pilot was killed, and my grandfather sustained a broken ankle. The truth turned out to be quite different.

A few days ago I visited the Special Collections Department of the Cleveland State University Library. They have a substantial file of newspaper clippings. During a lull in other research, I decided to see if there was anything relating to my grandfather. Soon I held an envelope in my hand titled “George K. Scott, Aviator.” The contents left me taken aback.

On the evening of May 27, 1931, my grandfather was taking a checkride for a Transport License. By that time, he was 23 years old and had logged about 420 hours in the air. The newspaper described him as an experienced pilot. It seems hard to believe, but in that time frame flight tests were often administered by an examiner watching from the ground. That was the case here, and the specific task was to perform three takeoffs and landings.

os-5 engine

George K. Scott runs up the OX – 5 engine of a Swallow, Cole’s Field – Lyndhurst, Ohio, 1928.

He was flying a Curtiss Robin, a nearly new airplane considered advanced for the time. Powered by a Curtiss OX – 5 engine, it was a high wing monoplane with excellent visibility forward and downward. The first landing and takeoff were uneventful. The second sequence was another matter. The Robin made a good landing, taxied forward a short distance, and accelerated to take off. A Fleet biplane, one of a highly regarded line of primary trainers powered by a Kinner radial engine, stood directly in my grandfather’s path facing in the same direction.

Flown by a 30-year-old man named John Ross, a student pilot waiting to take off on his second solo flight, the Fleet created an imminent danger of collision. Faced with overruning the Fleet on the ground, there seemed to be the barest possibility of getting the Robin into the air in time to miss Ross without damage. Staggering into the air at barely 50 mph, the mains on the Robin struck the Fleet’s upper wing. What was far worse, the Robin’s tailskid struck Ross in the head, killing him instantly.

The damaged Robin didn’t get far, coming down a short distance beyond. It would appear that both pilots made the same false assumption:  “The other pilot sees me, and understands what I am about to do.”

Ross saw the Robin land and assumed it was a full stop. My grandfather saw the Fleet and assumed that Ross would hold in position until the Robin was clear. Tragically, they were both mistaken, leading to a misunderstanding that proved fatal. The subsequent investigation found my grandfather blameless. He was flying again as soon as his broken ankle healed. He completed the flight test several weeks later. The Robin was repaired and flew again.

My grandfather flew extensively over the next forty years, logging 20,000 hours in the process, much of that dual given. Although he never spoke of it, the image of the Fleet filling his windscreen must have haunted his dreams for years.

waco

Scott posing with friends and an OX – 5 powered Waco 9, 1929.

A dear friend of mine who died long ago was a Naval Aviator in World War II and told me that his primary instructor drummed several precepts into his head. Among these were a) never trust another pilot, and b) always leave yourself an out—excellent advice that wasn’t heeded on May 27, 1931.

In an eerie postscript to this story, the man who offered this advice was Carl Knoch, a primary student my grandfather taught to fly in 1939. May the spirits of both George K. Scott and John Ross rest in peace, and may the lessons to be drawn from their deadly encounter on that long ago spring evening not be lost on today’s pilots.

Tom Matowitz
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4 replies
  1. Anthony Ambrose
    Anthony Ambrose says:

    I really enjoy Tom’s writing. This story certainly teaches us that being aware of our surroundings and constantly on the lookout for potential dangers are as important now as they were then. Well done!

    Reply
  2. Tom Matowitz
    Tom Matowitz says:

    Thank you Tony.
    I can’t help but reflect on the level of nerve required to get back in an airplane and resume flying after going through such a traumatic experience.
    If he had quit then my grandfather’s life would have been drastically different and so would mine.

    Reply
  3. Steve
    Steve says:

    Thanks for sharing, Tom. When I flew for the Air Force, we’d periodically get the pilots in the squadron together to talk through our recent lessons learned/close calls in an attempt to prevent those same mistakes from happening to others. It was helpful for pilots of all experience levels, not only in terms of lessons learned, but also to see that even the most experienced pilots made mistakes and had the humility to share their experiences in the interest of safety. Sharing your Grandfather’s story candidly serves to offer readers of this journal valuable insight as to how assumptions can have serious consequences in aviation.

    Reply
  4. Tom Matowitz
    Tom Matowitz says:

    Thank you for underscoring the point this story was intended to make. One of my early instructors emphasized that it takes only a moment of inattention to transform the routine into catastrophe.

    Reply

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