The Coastal Post - April, 1996

Plane Down

BY JOAN REUTINGER

There have been many shipwrecks off Point Reyes, starting with the St. Augustine in 1595, but as far as I could tell, not so many plane crashes. Dewey Livingston, historian by the Pt. Reyes National Seashore, told me there were "other plane wrecks, too," but I took most of my information from Jack Mason's graphic description in the Point Reyes Historian, Volumes I and II.

The year was 1938, and the United Airlines flight, Number 6, was supposed to go from Seattle to San Francisco, but it ended up in the Pacific near the Point Reyes lighthouse. The company had logged 35 million miles on this flight without ever having an accident, but this time a severe storm had freaked out the range stations that the flight normally relied on.

Mason wrote, "Tonight one range was drowning out the other. Red Bluff was coming in as strong as Portland, Mount Shasta as strong as Sacramento." The plane was hopelessly lost. Flight 6 radioed the Oakland dispatcher, Van Sciever, "Should be over Oakland. Have 60 gallons of gas left. There is something wrong with the course." That was an understatement. The flight was over the Pacific near the Point Reyes lighthouse.

The passengers on the flight were Sydney Shonts, a mining engineer who had suffered a stroke which left one arm paralyzed; Philip Hart, president of the Pacific Bridge Company, which had just built the piers and decks of the Golden Gate Bridge (opened in 1937), and the company was later to build the ill-fated Narrows Bridge, which collapsed into the wind-swept Puget Sound; Ivan Heflebower, 33, a partner in the Leland M. Kaiser bond firm; and a huge, burly, convicted burglar and safecracker, Isadore Edelstein, who had been released by the Governor of Washington on the condition that he get out of the United States at once. So he was going to Hawaii and from there to parts unknown. Very few people traveled by plane at that time. There were just four passengers.

As for the crew, there was just one stewardess (they called them that in those days, when all stewardesses had to be registered nurses) Frona "Bobby" Clay; first officer Lloyd Jones; and the pilot Captain Charles Stead, who had logged 8,649 flying hours with United Airlines, and had previously been in the Army Aviation Corps in World War I.

The plane stopped once more after Portland at Medford where it had a weather briefing. It should have refueled because of the rough weather ahead, but unfortunately didn't.

After first circling the Point Reyes Lighthouse, the plane then landed in the not-so-blue Pacific about a mile and a quarter from the lighthouse.

According to Dewey Livingston in his History and Architecture of the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station, the lighthouse keeper, Herman J. Pfleghaai, "who had witnessed the sea landing, notified the Coast Guard Station, although the surfman on watch had also observed the landing, and had already alerted the lifesaving crew. John N. Buckley, officer-in-charge of the lifeboat station, brought a small crew in the 36-foot motor lifeboat and also sent a crew overland to the site [which was] practically inaccessible due to steep and dangerous cliffs. The lifeboat spotted the aircraft at daybreak but failed to reach it because of heavy surf and rocks on the shoreline."

Meanwhile, on the plane the captain entered the cabin and thanked everyone for remaining calm. "Shore was less than a mile off," he said. "A ship was nearby and the Coast Guard had been alerted." He then ordered everyone out to the top of the plane, as it seemed the safest place. Little did anybody know that only the Captain and the convict would make it to shore safely.

For Livingston tells us, "Against the judgement of the plane's veteran pilot, three of the passengers and two crew members attempted to swim to shore." Bobby Clay, the stewardess, reached a rock and climbed to safety, but suddenly a wing of the plane, caught in an undertow, came towards her, and to avoid being hit by it, she fell back into the sea. This was the last time anyone saw her. Everyone who first attempted to swim ashore was drowned.

The Captain and the convict finally decided their best course was to swim ashore, and they made it safely, although Edelstein tore his knee on a rock and had to be brought up the cliff on a stretcher. The Captain looked in vain for his crew members, Bobby and Lloyd Jones. Bobby's body was never found, but the body of Lloyd Jones was.

When he arrived on the shore, the Captain was amazed to see that the plane, shorn of its wings, had come to rest a few feet from him. The plane was completely dry. Mason reported that, "The morning newspapers were to make much of what they called the sheer irony of it. Had the pilot not ordered everybody onto the top of the plane, all would have stepped ashore unscathed."

Bobby's relations came back to the lighthouse several days later and threw flowers into the ocean.

But John Omundson, a Point Reyes Station boat builder, had an arresting experience when he took a flight from Portland in 1963. As Mason tells it, "An elderly man in the seat next to him tapped his shoulder and pointed to the ocean off to the west. 'Twenty-seven years ago tomorrow,' he said, 'a plane just like this one wound up down there.' He paused obviously wanting to say more. Finally it came out, ever so gently, 'The stewardess,' he said, 'was my daughter'."