Every aviator's nightmare.

It wasn't until I was about to publish this that I recalled my own experience in a burning aircraft.  As an employee at what was then Columbia Aircraft Manufacturing, I frequently acted as a flight recorder during certification.  One flight we found the engine particularly rough-running during our preflight checks.  We taxied to a spot not far from the hangar.  I remember being intent on my checklist, but vaguely hearing the word "fire" being yelled.  When I looked up, all I could see in front of me were bright orange flames.  The pilot shut down the engine, yelling "Get out! Get out! Get out!"  He really only needed to say it once.  Even though the fire did minor damage, and was quickly extinguished, it was pretty terrifying.

I want to make it clear that I'm not able to tie these photos directly to the death of Steve Mac Gordon, but I believe they are photos of his crash.  My speculation is based on three items.  1) That Steve was an instructor at the school during my grandfather's instruction there.  2) That the collection contains a series of eight photos of this crash, which is unusual. 3) That historical accounts of Steve Mac Gordon's death all mention a crash involving a fire.

There are no other photos in this scrapbook which involve a burned plane.  There are many, many other crashed JNs in the collection, and if memory serves me, some of them burned.  For Ivan to have pasted so many photos of one event makes it significant.

Wrecked Curtiss JN 4 at the Curtiss School in 1916.

None of the three accounts of Mac Gordon's crash agrees on any point except that they all agree that Steve died as a result of his burns.  Edith Dodd's book "Tailspins" says that there was a crash resulting in a fire.  I was unable to obtain a full transcript, but a portion of the text from Frank Ellis's book "Canada's Flying Heritage", seems to indicate that his plane caught fire first, then crashed.  A fuller account from "Aerial Age Weekly" was the most complete account I was able to find.

Is it possible that they were doing a "touch and go" when they broke the prop?  How else would they nose over enough to strike the prop?  If they applied full throttle, then broke the prop, the engine would certainly shake.  You'll notice in the first photo that there is one blade fairly untouched, while the other is split.  A split like that could happen in a prop strike, taking off only the trailing half of the prop.  If they had struck the prop tip with just enough speed to take off, they would have quickly put the plane on the ground in an attempt to escape the fire, resulting in the broken fuselage.

Right-side view of a burned wreck at the Curtiss School in 1916.

In many of the crash photos I've seen in the collection, students and bystanders are smirking or laughing.  None of that is seen in these photos.  Everyone appears to be quite solemn.

Burned remains of a Curtiss JN 4 at the Curtiss School in 1916.

A pair of aviators discover something of interest in the wreckage of a Curtiss JN 4 at the Curtiss School in 1916.

There are still a large number of photos left to share from this particular scrapbook, and two or three other scrapbooks remain.  We're nearing the end of the first scrapbook, and I'm looking at some photos of an aircraft I've never seen, and can find no references to, which will be interesting, for sure.  I've promised photos of people and some more of the R-4, so look for those photos soon.

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