Aviation is filled with legends about airplane crashes. One of the more enduring tales out of southern Oregon is the one about a Boeing 40C, loaded with diamonds, that crashed on a mountain.
Allegedly, the wreckage was never found.
The story has been told for generations around campfires, kitchen tables and in tree houses. But the story is only partially accurate. A Boeing 40C did crash in the rugged terrain near Canyonville on Oct. 2, 1928. There were diamonds on board. But the wreckage was found, recovered and the aircraft is now being restored by Addison Pemberton, who lives in Spokane, Wash.
“The Boeing 40 was the first true airliner built by Boeing,” says Pemberton, who proudly notes that he “suffers” from OAD (Old Airplane Disease).
Pemberton, who runs Pemberton and Sons, an aircraft restoration business based at Felts Field (SFF) in Spokane, notes that he actually has two Boeing 40s — one is a C model, the other a B model. The C model is the one undergoing restoration.
“The Boeing 40 was the first aircraft that made aviation commercially viable,” he continued. “It was used at first for airmail.”
In the early 1920s, all airmail was carried by pilots who worked for the post office. They flew government-owned, World War I surplus de Havilland DH-4s that had been modified, according to Pemberton, who noted that a large percentage of them were sent to the Boeing Aircraft Co. and were converted from wooden to metal fuselages. “This laid the mindset and the ground for commercial aviation,” he said. “In 1926 Congress passed an act which began to commission contract airmail routes.”
The routes were bid on by the fledgling airline industry. The two most lucrative routes were the ones that ran from San Francisco to Chicago and from Seattle to San Diego. Boeing won both of those routes.
The company was faced with the task of designing an airplane that could fly the air mail routes economically and safely. Crashes of World War I surplus aircraft occurred at an alarming rate. If someone was brave enough to attempt air travel, he often found himself in an open cockpit aircraft where he was battered by the weather. If commercial aviation was to take hold in America, a better aircraft had to be designed.
The answer was the Boeing 40 model, which first rolled off the line in 1925. One thing that made the Boeing 40 more attractive to the masses intrigued by the idea of air travel was that passengers rode in an enclosed compartment in relative comfort to the pilot, who flew in an open cockpit.
Pemberton’s Boeing 40, which carries the registration number 5339, belonged to the Pacific Air Transport Co. which, eventually, was combined with others into what we know today as United Airlines. The route of the ill-fated airplane was from Portland, Ore., to the San Francisco area. According to Pemberton, this airplane crashed just months after it rolled out of the factory.
THE PLANE FROM THE MOUNTAIN
Fascinated by the story of this particular Boeing 40C, Pemberton started looking for the wreckage in 1982. The first step was to learn what happened — and to separate fact from fiction. Pemberton pulled most of his information from newspaper accounts that, because of the style of the day, had a tendency to be much more flowery than reports of aircraft accidents we read today.
“It was piloted by Grant Donaldson,” says Pemberton. “He was following the road and the river and looking over the side of the airplane scud running because he couldn’t see forward because they have no visibility. The airplane clipped some trees and went for about a quarter of a mile before it crashed into a hillside and burned. The passenger was D.P. Donovan, of Los Angeles. He owned a string of drug stores up and down the West Coast.”
Newspaper accounts indicate that Donovan was killed on impact.
Although badly injured, the pilot was able to make it down the hill to a road where a motorist picked him up.
“He was taken into town by a preacher and his family in their Model A,” says Pemberton.
Once they obtained medical attention for Donaldson, who was unable to speak articulately because of his injuries except to mutter that there had been a crash, they notified the airline of the accident. That’s when they learned about the passenger. A search party was dispatched, but they did not find the plane until the next day. It was found when the search teams spotted several broken trees that formed a path to the impact site.
An airline official came to town to take over the recovery efforts.
“They found the engine and the remains of the passenger and all the diamonds they could,” Pemberton relates. “After that the wreckage was abandoned, for the most part. For the next four years or so townspeople would visit the crash site and sift through the dirt looking for diamonds.”
LOST IN TIME
Over the years, stories about the crash and the diamonds became part of local lore. It seemed like everyone knew someone who knew someone who had sifted through the wreckage and found a diamond that was made into jewelry and passed down as a family heirloom. However, the crash site itself remained hidden for more than 70 years.
Ron Bartley grew up in the area and remembered visiting the crash site as a small boy.
“I was probably about 10 or 11 years old when I went up to see it,” he recalls. “I remember seeing the fuselage there. It was just the steel frame as the wings had been sheared off and the engine had burned up. There wasn’t that much left. There were some parts scattered around.”
Bartley learned to fly as a teenager and later became a geologist. As an adult he moved to Ashland, Ore., but made frequent trips back to Canyonville to visit family. During those trips he would go back to try to find the crash site.
He found it again in 1992. “I remember walking up a canyon when it was very foggy. I looked up the hill and vaguely I could make out the outline of the fuselage. It was like seeing a ghost. I picked up a few pieces of wreckage that had broken off and realized that this aircraft would have to be preserved before it disappeared altogether.”
Bartley contacted the Oregon Aviation Historical Society in nearby Cottage Grove and made inquiries into the recovery of the aircraft.
“We also had to get the permission of the Bureau of Land Management because they supervised that area of forest,” he says.
The wreckage was recovered in 1994.
“And that is when Addison Pemberton came into the picture,” says Bartley. “It’s really wonderful that someone like Addison would be able to rebuild it.”
The wreckage, as pulled off the mountain, consisted of the fuselage from the engine mount ring to just aft of the pilot seat and the wing fittings, wing hardware, the landing gear and about half of the fuselage.
“All of it had been badly burnt in the crash and was corroded and bent up,” says Pemberton.
His crew of nine volunteers have put in approximately 18,000 hours so far to bring the Boeing 40C back to life.
“It takes a long time because of the detail,” he said. “The wings alone consist of 33,000 individual parts when you count every nail, every gusset, every bolt, nut and washer.
“The aircraft is largely constructed around the data plate. We had to scratch build the fuselage. I would estimate we have about 50 components from the original wreck. We did that wherever we could without compromising safety.”
The engine is a Pratt and Whitney R-1340 — “also known as a Wasp,” he says. “The original engine on this airplane was a 420 hp model. This airplane will have a 600 hp model.”
Some of the work on the fuselage and the wings was contracted out. In other instances they were able to use modern technology, including AutoCAD and waterjet, to manufacture parts.
“We have all 800 of the original drawings,” he notes. “This airplane will be built to a standard airworthiness certificate.”
Pemberton estimates that at least $100,000 of personal capital investment has been made in the project so far, adding that figure will grow before the work is done.
He estimates the aircraft will be ready to return to the sky in the fall of this year.
“Currently there are just two Boeing 40s in existence,” he says. “One is in the Henry Ford Museum and one is in the museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Both of those are Boeing 40-B-2s and neither of them will fly again. Ours will be the only flying Boeing 40 in the world and it will be the oldest operational flying Boeing aircraft in the world.”
When the job is completed Pemberton plans to add it to his flying fleet and tour the country with it.
“We have an extended trip planned for 2008,” he notes. “We plan to go to Blakesburg, Iowa, then Broadhead, Wis., and then on to New York and then back to San Francisco, which is the original transcontinental airmail route.”