On this day 65 years ago, Time Magazine, one of the biggest magazines in the country at the time, released their latest issue. Carl Jung, the noted Swiss Psychiatrist, was on the cover. Deep inside the issue is a small article titled “Aviation: For Distinguished Flying.” It was about a United Airlines flight from the month prior that had mechanical issues and crashed into a cornfield in Iowa. Every person from the crash managed to walk away without injury. The pilot of that flight was my grandfather.
I have tried to write this story numerous times over the years, and I was never quite sure how. I’d always start, and then never finish because I never thought it was good enough. I mean, how do you properly tell the story of a person who died when I was 7 years old and I only have just the most faded memories of? How do you find the proper words to talk about a guy who literally used his quick thinking and pure skill and will to save the lives of dozens of people? Or the most important thing that has always rattled around my brain: how different would my life have been if he had lived an extra few years?
It’s an incredibly selfish question out of context, I suppose. Everyone has that question, what if someone in your life had been around for an extra few years? It’s selfish to think of it only in your terms, and not in the wider scope of how much that person meant to everyone else as well. My mom has told me that my grandpa was one of the best men she had ever met in her life. My dad said that he wished that he and my grandpa hadn’t fought as much when he was growing up because he felt like he lost out on moments with his dad. The stories of my grandpa are extensive and wide spread, carving out a much more complex identity than that which I knew, if only briefly.
What I do know through pictures and stories is that, as his first grandchild, he doted upon me and loved nothing more than when the snow would melt on the ground and spring would come around, meaning he could get his airplanes out, so he could fly me around. Two of my earliest memories are of being in that airplane. The first was flying over Plainfield after the tornado of 1990, and looking down on the destruction and damage and where the high school used to be. Another didn’t hit me until much later on. Last spring in fact. On one of the first nice Fridays of the year last year, myself and a few friends drove out to Grundy County Raceway to watch the night racing. Just off the back stretch is an old airport. Suddenly, it hit me, staring at it. I got caught in a memory. It was a bright summer day. We flew in his old white and green Grumman plane to the airport to eat lunch at the tiny diner there. For some reason, I specifically remember him buying me a tiny airplane they had behind a glass case because it looked kind of like his. And just like that, the memory ended. I was back at the race track.
To tell the rest of this story, it’s best to tell the story of the first paragraph. My grandfather had been flying for United Airlines for three years, mostly doing Midwestern routes. On this one specifically, he was flying a Convair 340 out of Chicago with an end destination of Omaha, Nebraska. There were stops in Moline and Iowa City that were without issue. They then landed to pick up passengers in Des Moines, Iowa. As they took off for their final destination of Omaha, a vibration started throughout the plane. Around 5000 feet, the shake intensified, and then all of a sudden, the steering system failed them. They could no longer control the plane going up and down. The plane went into a sudden rise and would eventually stall out and fall from the sky without fast thinking.
My grandpa cut power to the engines to slow the rise and the plane nosed downward and started plunging towards the earth. He relaunched the engines to full power and started angling the plane as best he could, looking for a flat piece of earth to try to land. Even with the plane shaking violently, he was able to lower the plane by throttling the engines up and down. He knew the plane was going to crash. All he could do is try to crash it as flatly as possible. He didn’t even put the wheels down because he knew that the only way to save the plane and the passengers was going to be to land flat and hope he could slide the plane to a stop.
When he made initial contact with the ground, the plane started to skip across a frozen cornfield. After first contact the plane jumped a barbed wire fence, made more contact, bounced over another barbed wire fence, before landing belly first into the ground again and sliding the distance of nearly five football fields until it stopped. The plane was banged up. The propellers for the engines had broken off. But the plane, along with everyone in it, were able to walk off of the plane in the middle of a cornfield in Dexter, Iowa.
I don’t mean this facetiously, either. The plane literally was rebuilt and put back into service. It acted as a private plane in the United States for many years before being sold again. It met its final fate when it crashed into Manukau Harbor in Auckland, New Zealand on, get this, July 31, 1989. My grandpa only outsurvived the damn plane by a year and a half! In the meantime, the jet was owned by famous pilot Tex Johnston. It was at one point owned by Aero Spacelines, which had plans to convert it into a Guppy jet to haul space exploration equipment. It was also owned by a cork company and a broadcasting company before finding its way halfway across the world.
When the NTSB investigated the plane, they found the issue was a bolt in the idler system that had become worn out and broke. That caused a chain reaction in the elevator system of the plane, which allows the pilot to make the plane go up and down. A 29 cent part nearly cost the lives of 39 people. Beyond that, just days before, the plane had been inspected and that exact bolt had been removed by a mechanic in New Jersey because of how worn down it was. His lead mechanic then told him to put the bolt back on, because they didn’t want to take the plane out of service and the part was not readily available at that hangar.
That story I told you didn’t come from Time Magazine. It didn’t even come from family stories that might have overstated the whole thing and made it seem bigger than it was. That information came directly from the investigation report after the accident. My favorite part of the report? In the final sentence of the Analysis portion of the report, it states “The Board believes the crew was confronted with an extremely hazardous situation and that it was only by employing the utmost judgement and skill that a disaster was avoided.”
My grandfather was actually named Pilot of the Year by United Airlines that year. The award is still sitting at my grandma’s house. I used to play with the bronze plane on it when I was little. Thank god I didn’t break it! My grandpa would eventually end up getting the Chicago to Maui flight in the 70’s. He flew that route until he retired in 1980. Not a bad way to spend the twilight of your professional flying career. By all accounts, he was incredibly well liked. In fact, my wife had a patient some time ago, and during small talk he mentioned that he was a retired United Airlines pilot. My wife asked if he had heard of my grandpa, and the guy lit up and started talking about him. This was easily 30-35 years after they had last crossed paths. It takes a larger than life person to make that kind of impression on someone.
He retired to a relaxed life with his family. If you drew out the 70’s/80’s suburban dream, you would get his life. Financially comfortable, wife and two kids, big ranch style house with a pool to entertain. His wife and daughter started a travel agency that is still in business today (ANDREASEN TRAVEL AND TOURS, FOR ALL OF YOUR VACATION, CRUISE, AND TRAVEL NEEDS!). His son would eventually join the same airline as a mechanic.
I was seven years old when he passed away from a heart attack in 1991. Before he died, he would tell people that I had spent more time in an airplane by my age than most people would their entire lives. He wasn’t wrong either. Hell, him and my grandma put me on my first commercial flight at just around 5 months old, and then a few months later, flew me out to Hawaii, as well. I was going to be the next link in the flight family. The person that would someday take over the lineage of flying. There was no reason to believe I wouldn’t. I loved being around him and I loved being in airplanes. My earliest memories all revolve around him and airplanes. To this day, it is something I think about.
I can’t help but wonder how different things would be if he had lived a few more years. I can’t help but wonder if my dad or I will be able to escape his fate. Neither of us take care of ourselves as well as we should, and heart problems are probably that thing walking in our shadows, waiting for its moment to hit. Mostly though, I wonder if he had lived a few years more, would my love of flying had stuck to the point where that would have been the dream I chased forever. It’s not fair of me to look back at my seven year old self and want him to clutch onto the flying dream.
It’s also not fair that I dream of a different life. I have a wonderful life. I have a great family and large group of friends. I have a beautiful wife whom I love unconditionally. My grandmother became the matriarch of the family and has been the steadying influence in all of our lives. Even at 87, she still goes in to work every day. In fact, this is one of my favorite stories about her: A couple years ago, I announced that I would throw my parent’s 35th anniversary party at mine and my wife’s house. Because I have absolutely zero sense of what I can and cannot accomplish, I decide to cook 80% of the food for around 50 people. As people started to arrive, I’m in the kitchen, sweating through all of my clothes, trying to cook five things at once in my tiny kitchen.
Just then, my grandma walks into the kitchen, surveys the landscape, and says “Where do you need me?” She then proceeded to work as my sous chef for the next hour as I dizzyingly bounced from dish to dish, making sure everything was right. That is my grandma to me in a nutshell: always there when I absolutely need someone.
I wouldn’t trade my family for anyone. I have a good life with a great support system. Maybe I never become a pilot regardless of whether my grandpa lives longer. Maybe none of that matters. What if I do become a pilot but deal with the crippling anxiety of having to live up to his career? What if I just wouldn’t have been good enough of a pilot and would have let him down?
There are so many questions left unanswered, and that is life. There is no single person that goes through life without questions left unanswered. Nobody makes it through life alive, and nobody gets out without leaving stones unturned. In the end, there is nothing anyone could have done to change history. It was sealed in the stars. I found happiness. Many people whose life my grandfather touched have found happiness as well. We should all remember the hero that he was. In a moment that no person could ever expect to have to react to, his courage and valor shone through, and he saved the lives of dozens of people. He created a legacy for himself and his family in that cornfield in Iowa in 1955.
I just wonder if we would have gotten along as much as I got older. I wonder if I would have ended up piloting his airplanes. I wonder if I’d focused more in school. I wonder if I’d found happiness with myself. I wonder if him and I would have continued flying to get lunch at little airports. But mostly, I wonder if he would have been proud of the man I became.