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This month marks the 75th anniversary of a famous and tragic incident.
The world, was shocked by the death of Hollywood actress, Carole Lombard. On January 16th, 1942 an airplane carrying Lombard crashed into Mount Potosi killing all 22 people on-board.
Robert Matzen is the author of “Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3.” His 2013 book has been reissued
Who was she?
She was known as the screwball queen of the movies. She was a comedian. She had done a lot of dramatic work especially in the early 1930s. That didn’t really catch on. Personally, I think she was a pretty mediocre dramatic actress, but in comedy. She was a very funny person in real life. So she hit her stride in comedy.
She made something called “My Man Godfrey,” which is her claim to fame. The picture she’s really remembered for. She was Academy Award nominated for that role.
She is also known for her relationship with another big star:
She falls in love with Clark Gable. The king of the movies… one of the most rampantly male actors and sort of a predator in Hollywood. She gets stuck with Clark Gable. She falls in love with him.
They made one movie together called “No Man of Her Own” in 1932:
That’s a pre-code picture, which means before there was a censorship code in Hollywood. It’s a very racy picture. And at that time, Gable was playing scoundrels. That was his claim to fame.
Why was Lombard traveling at night?
She was engaged that week in the first war bonds sale after Pearl Harbor had been bombed. This was a national event in Indianapolis, Indiana. She had traveled there by train with her mother and with Clark Gable’s press agent Otto Winkler, who also happened to be Gable’s best friend.
On January 15, 1942, Carole Lombard had the best, biggest day of her life selling bonds in Indianapolis. She drew tens of thousands of people. She was on national radio twice that day, giving speeches. She raised flags. She attended a formal dinner with the governor and the mayor and other dignitaries. She was the big draw at an event that drew 12,000 people in downtown Indianapolis.
At that point, she was supposed to get back on the train the next day to head back to Hollywood. But she said, ‘I have to get back home.’ She was not willing to take the train. She wanted to fly home, which was extremely controversial because the government wanted her nowhere near a plane for two reasons. One: there could be sabotage. Because there were fifth columnists in America. German spies. German saboteurs. They were known to be around New York City, but the FBI didn’t know exactly where they were or how big the network at this time.
What was the urgency?
The rampantly male Clark Gable, her husband, was having an affair with a Hollywood movie star named Lana Turner, who was just starting her career. A good 10 years younger than Carole, but another petite blond just like Carole.
The airfield that is now where Nellis Air Force Base is located played a part in her death. How?
When you think about transcontinental air transportation today, you get on a plane in New York City you can get to Los Angeles in about five hours. But in 1942, it was a very different experience. TWA and other airlines boasted: ‘Coast to Coast in 17 hours!’ which meant you stopped every few hundred miles.
So the flight she got on in Indianapolis had originated at La Guardia and then it flew to Newark and then it flew to Pittsburgh then Columbus, Dayton and then finally it went to Indianapolis, where it picked up Carole and then it flew to St. Louis and Kansas City and Wichita and Amarillo. It just hopped its way across the country.
And finally, it got to Albuquerque, and that point there was great consternation because the U.S. Army Air Corp had priority seating. If it had active duty soldiers, it could bump passengers off commercial airline. All of the commercial airline passengers were bumped off this TWA Flight 3 in Albuquerque so that Army Air Corp guys could get on, except Carole Lombard said, ‘No, you can’t bump me. I’m a star.’ She refused to get off.
Lombard’s party of three stayed on the plane with these Army Air Corp flyers. The plane took off late. It was already late because there was fog in St. Louis and weather trouble in Kansas City. So the plane was late and then later because of this melee in Albuquerque.
It takes off and flies three more hours. It was supposed to fly into Boulder City for refueling… but then it got dark and there were not lights at Boulder City. They were diverted to McCarran Airfield [which is now Nellis Air Force Base], which had runway lights. It was a Western Air terminal at that time. It refueled. It took off at about 7:07 p.m. for Burbank.
It was a clear night but it was moonless. It struck Potosi 15 minutes after takeoff.
The search crews took a long time to get to the crash site:
Fourteen hours after the crash the first people got to the site. They started at dawn. So for them it was about five hours of climbing. I made that climb, following their route to get up to the crash site and boy is it tough.
Part of the story of “Fireball” is the first responders' story. These Las Vegas men who climbed this mountain because maybe there are survivors up there, ‘maybe I can be known as the one who rescued Carole Lombard.’
How many people were on board and how many people died?
Twenty-two people were onboard. Twenty-two people died.
The plane was climbing to altitude at about 185 miles an hour, full of gas, just fueled up at McCarran. It hit the cliffs of Potosi about 200 feet below the crest. Full on. Direct hit with both engine spinning. The physics of it were horrible.
The FBI investigated the crash. Why?
Because of the thought of sabotage. The German fifth columnists. Were they active? Had they somehow brought down the plane? They got a number of anonymous tips that a bomb had been placed on the plane. They had to follow that up and look at the wreckage.
Because it hit the mountain and left such an impression on the mountain, it really didn’t blow up before impact. So, it didn’t seem to be sabotage. So what caused it? And that’s why the subtitle of the book is “The Mystery of Flight 3.”
Did you solve the mystery?
I have a hypothesis that it was a thousand little things that added up to disaster. Something as simple as: on the DC 3, if the interior lights are on in the cockpit they reflect on the windscreen and you can’t see objects outside.
Common practice at the time was when the pilot filled out his log - wheels up 7:07 p.m. – he has a little pen flashlight and he would shine this little light on his paper in his lap in the cockpit. Because they wanted to be able to see out the window. The only thing that makes sense is that he didn’t follow the standard practice and he had the lights too bright and he couldn’t see the mountain coming.
But on the other hand, this was TWA’s most experienced pilot, 15,000 hours of air time logged in commercial flight. Made no sense whatsoever.
Maybe I solved it maybe I didn’t. It is just a very tough thing.
But it was labeled ‘pilot error.’
What did the crash do to Clark Gable?
He never recovered. He loved this woman has much as a Clark Gable could love anyone. But he was a selfish, very selfish human. He was used to having his way. He was used to be spoiled. He was used to living by his own standards. When she died, he realized what he had lost and he realized why she was rushing home. So he had both grief and guilt to deal with. To his credit, I will say that the crash changed him fundamentally. He became a much more compassionate person.
Robert Matzen, author, "Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3"