While reviewing Earl Woodgard’s history, it struck me how his crash demonstrates how far crash investigation and reporting had come since the beginning of the age of flight. Fundamentally, the question is the same…why did the plane fall out of the sky. However in 1920, pilots had few instruments, and nothing recorded information. So the logical deductions, such as that “Dinty” Moore crashed into a Wyoming mountain in 1923, the best information was that visibility was low and he was focused on the train tracks that he was following.
By 1938, however, much more information was available, both from inside and outside the plane. The full report from the Civil Aeronautics Bureau is available at https://rosap.ntl.bts.gov/view/dot/32997.
Radio communication had become a standard part of transportation by that time, so the investigation was able to track the plane’s progress fairly closely. The cockpit information included the plane’s altitude, so investigators could verify that the plane was flying consistently at 10,000 feet. It also noted that one of the light beacons was not functioning and that radio transmissions were spotty in the mountains. The verdict was that the plane was 15 miles off course and crashed into a mountain.
The report includes information that we are accustomed to seeing today, such as when the pilot had their last physical, and mechanical details of the aircraft. It also notes witness reports and specific radio contact with Cheyenne and Salt Lake City. The weather may have caused some radio static, particularly at the checkpoint shortly before the plane crashed which might have let Woodgard know that he was off course.
There are probably some reports on the crashes of the early air mail pilots in the National Archives in Washington DC. But crash investigations weren’t as comprehensive before the 1930s. Knute Rockne’s plane crash in 1931 helped bring the need for investigations to national prominence.
Comparing information once again demonstrates how the air mail service serves as a link between rudimentary flight practices, and something more sophisticated. Most crash after about 1934 have a report with a detailed analysis of what might have gone wrong. It is just one more sign of the modern age.