Hard delivery: Air mail pilots braved the Sierra | SierraSun.com

Hard delivery: Air mail pilots braved the Sierra

Gordon Richards
Echoes from the Past
courtesy of Truckee Donner Historical Society
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In the 1920s the U.S. Air Mail service flew twice daily over the Sierra Nevada. Summer or winter the brave pilots risked their lives to deliver the nation’s mail. One such pilot was Eugene Johnson. On Feb. 4, 1927, Johnson took off on a routine flight from San Francisco, bound for Reno.

After refueling at Mather Field in Sacramento under clear sunny weather, Johnson took off again. Looking up to the west slope of the Sierra he could clearly see the tops of the mountains, and expected an easy flight to Reno.

By the time he climbed to Blue Canyon, he could see clouds forming over him, but he figured the strong westerly winds would push his de Havilland biplane over the crest with no problems. It was mid-morning when he hit what he thought was just a flurry, but soon discovered that he was flying into a blizzard. The storm, rather than coming in from the west, had dropped in from the north, so weather reporters along the route were unaware of the incoming storm.

When Johnson reached the skies over Cisco he encountered the worst weather he had ever seen in his years of flying the Sierra. The storm settled on him like a black shroud. He couldn’t see the tips of his wings most of the time.

As usual, he was following the Southern Pacific Railroad route up the mountain. The black streak of plowed rail line in the white snow pack were the pilots’ guideposts when low clouds forced the planes closer to the ground. It also was the only safe area to set a plane down, so search crews could find a stranded pilot sooner.

He tried to go around, over, and through the clouds, but his plane was beaten back by the turbulent wind and snow. He tried to turn around and go back to Sacramento, but the westerly winds prevented that action. His fear and adrenaline levels rose, and loneliness set in.

He had nowhere to go and finally had to start down. All he could see was dense forest with a few openings, and snow-covered rock piles. He figured he had a 10,000-to-1 chance of a successful crash landing, or washout, as the pilots called it. He caught glimpses of open snow fields, and he hoped he could hit one.

He couldn’t find a good spot, and saw mountains dead ahead. He was stuck in the canyon of the South Fork of the Yuba River. But he wasn’t sure exactly where he was and snow covered the familiar landmarks. He got as close to the railroad as he could, cut the motor and hoped for the best of luck.

The plane crashed into a grove of trees, ripping the wings off and tossing around the fuselage. Johnson was badly shaken, half buried by snow, but he was alive and not seriously injured. The tail of the plane stuck straight up in the air, the nose resting on snow covered stumps, but the cockpit was intact. The deep snow had cushioned the final impact enough to save his life.

There was more than three feet of fresh snow on the ground, and more powder was falling. Johnson was stuck in a gulch, in deep snow, disoriented, and starting to freeze.

The U.S. Air Mail service had trained pilots and equipped planes for just such an incident. Johnson worked slowly, but he managed to unload the webbed snowshoes that had been packed away. He recovered his extra jacket, his hat, a bag of rations and his compass. As he walked around his plane, he fell into the snow chin deep, but worked his way out after a few minutes of struggling.

It took over an hour for the exhausted pilot to get ready to leave the plane. He felt sad as much as scared, as he knew that his favorite airship, number 424, was at its final resting spot. The damage was so bad, it was not going to be worth recovering and rebuilding. He thought about taking the mail sacks, but decided to leave them with the plane.

Donning the snowshoes, Johnson headed out into the blinding storm. Taking a compass and heading south, he very slowly moved to what he thought was the safety of the railroad, a trip that he knew would take a long time.

The Air Mail schedules were pretty tight and routine. When Johnson didn’t make it to Blanch Field Reno at the expected time, field manager Frank O’Leary began to get worried. He saw the storm settle over the mountain and no sign of Johnson’s plane. When he failed to hear any reports from ground spotters along the route he began to make wireless and telephone calls.

As mid-afternoon dragged along, O’Leary ordered planes from the Bay Area out on search runs. Veteran pilots Claire Vance and Burr Winslow took off, but could only get up into the foothills due to the rain and wind. Rex Levisee flew out of Reno, and reached Donner Lake before he was forced back. Otherwise he might have suffered the same fate he thought Johnson had come to.

By then the Southern Pacific Railroad had alerted all stations to search for the missing flyer. Men, skis, and snowshoes were loaded onto a special train and sent toward Donner Summit. Reports soon came in from the signal telegraph operators at Crystal Lake and Troy that the plane had been seen and heard circling around in the storm.

In the meantime, two Bell Telephone lineman, doing repairs on the trans-Sierra wires, heard the motor cut out and knew that the Air Mail plane had crashed. They cut into the line, called the nearest operator and reported the crash. The special train was sent on to wait at Troy.

Back on the snow, Johnson struggled to break a trail up the steep slopes. He pushed himself to his limits, then rested under trees. The wind blew and snow continued to fall, and dark was on its way. Johnson wasn’t sure he would make it. Occasionally he fired a pistol to signal help, but the storm took the sound and crushed it.

When it was almost dark, he sighted a glimpse of the berm in the snow that was his safe haven. He climbed the steep slopes the rotaries had blown from the railroad tracks. Just as he reached the top of the snow bank, the snow gave way and he tumbled back down the slope. He couldn’t give up now, so he climbed back up the hill, and joyously jumped onto the railroad tracks.

He wasn’t out of danger yet. He wasn’t sure which way to go to get to the closest station. Rather than wait, he pushed off west. He couldn’t walk on the tracks themselves. Speeding snow plows or rotaries could crush him in a second if he stayed in the railroad cuts. Instead, he walked on top of the bank.

As exhaustion set in, he reached Tamarack section house, but the track walker couldn’t speak English, and the house didn’t have a telephone. After warming up a bit, he went back out into the dark and the storm, heading west again. After being brushed by a passing freight train, he came to Troy, two miles down the tracks.

At last Eugene Johnson was safe. He reported in to O’Leary, waiting anxiously in Reno. He warmed up, ate dinner, and soon the special search train showed up to take him to Reno. Johnson gave directions to the railroad telegraph linemen, and they skied out in the dark, found the plane and brought the mail back to the station. Soon the mail was back on its way across the country.

When the storm broke the next day, Air Mail mechanics from Reno were guided back to the plane. They removed the instruments and a few key parts, then burned the wooden fuselage where it lay.

Johnson rested a day in Reno then went back to work flying another plane over the Sierra, two days after having so close a call that most men would have given up and stayed on the ground. But not Johnson, in fact he flew the rest of the winter over the Sierra.

When Boeing took over the U.S. Air Mail contract on July 1, 1927, Johnson was the first pilot heading east from Reno. This marked the inaugural commercial passenger service for the U.S., and the end of the pioneer Sierra aviation period for those daring young men in their flying machines.

When Air Mail pilots talked about who survived the closest call over the Sierra, they always thought of Eugene Johnson and his heroic struggle for life in the Sierra.