Raven Rock 2
Portsmouth Daily Times
Emergency Lighting Of Raven Rock Saved Willkie’s Plane From Crashing
By G. SAM PIATT
Portsmouth Daily Times Staff Writer
There was a dark and stormy night, back 70 years ago, when the Raven Rock Airport became a lighted field, and by so doing saved a soon-to-be presidential candidate from injury, possibly death.
Also contributing to the rescue of Wendell L. Willkie that October night in 1938 was a high school football game the Portsmouth Trojans were playing under the lights at Spartan Stadium.
Justin R. Whiting told the story of the three-engine Douglas passenger plane being lost in the night skies over Portsmouth in his 48-page booklet, “Wendell L. Willkie: Courageous Pioneer of the Utility Industry,” which was published by Kessinger Publishing in 2006.
Willkie had become legal advisor for the Commonwealth and Southern Electric Utilities Company in 1929 and became its president in 1933. He fought a long legal battle against the Tennessee Valley Authority. He eventually lost and in 1939 sold the properties of the Tennessee Electric Power Co. to the TVA for $78 million.
Willkie, who had been a Democrat until the mid-1930s, was the Republican candidate for President of the United States in 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for a third term. He opposed Roosevelt on some of his “New Deal” programs, especially those that imposed regulations against business. He polled 22 million votes, but it was not enough to defeat the popular Roosevelt.
“I came to know Mr. Willkie well in my many contacts with him,” Whiting wrote. “One morning in 1938, during the TVA litigation, he said to me, ‘How would you like to go to Nashville with me to hear the argument on the motion for a temporary injunction tomorrow morning?’ I replied I would like to go. We decided to fly to Cincinnati and take the sleeper to Nashville. We were unable to get seats on a commercial plane, so we arranged with a friend to fly us to Cincinnati in his private plane. We took off from the Newark (New York) Airport about 2:30 p.m. on an October afternoon.”
About 5 p.m., just before dusk, the plane came out of cloud cover and the five occupants of the plane -- Willkie, Whiting, two pilots and an unnamed “observer” -- could see red earth.
“Wendell turned to me and said, ‘This doesn’t look like southern Ohio.’ Just then one of the pilots came back and said we were about to cross the Ohio River and would be in Cincinnati in 40 minutes.
“Presently we did cross the Ohio and approached a lighted city which we assumed was Cincinnati. (But) after flying all around it we could find no airport.”
Then one of the pilots came back and told them they were lost; that they had been off the radio beam all afternoon, and that they had flown south over West Virginia to avoid a thunder storm.
“Just then a wind and rain storm set in,” Whiting wrote. “It was planned to follow the river until we should come to a city, perhaps Louisville. After following the river for a while the storm became so intense we had to turn back. We came back to the same town we had left.
“Mr. Willkie and I took turns going to the pilot’s part of the ship to discuss the situation with the two pilots and one observer we had aboard. Once when he returned to our cabin he told me that they had no parachutes aboard. I said to him, ‘What would you do if they did have?’ He replied, ‘I would bail out.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t.’ He said, ‘I have done it twice in the Army.’”
Whiting said Willkie made another trip to the cockpit and came back and told him, “We are all through. We are going to crack up,” and shook hands with him and told him he had been glad to have known him.
“My reply was that we would get out of it. He said, ‘How?’ I said I didn’t know but I had been in tight pinches in sailboats and had always gotten out. I then went up to the pilots. We spotted a lighted athletic field in the town below. I said, ‘Fly down over that lighted field and blow your horn.’ The plane was a large three-motored Douglas plane.’ They blew the horn.”
Whiting said the radio suddenly beamed back into service and through the earphone one of the pilots picked up the TWA office in Columbus and told them they were lost.
“The Columbus man asked for some identification of the town we were over,” Whiting wrote. “To which our man replied, ‘There is a lighted athletic field here.’ ‘Why,’ said the other fellow, ‘that’s Portsmouth. They’re playing football with Fremont tonight, and there’s an abandoned airport just out of town. I’ll call them up and see if they can’t light it up in some way.’”
Whiting said they looked to the west and saw flares burning on the ground outside the town.
“Our man radioed back, ‘I guess they’ve already done it.’”
Portsmouth fire and police department officials had already noticed the plane was in trouble and headed immediately for Raven Rock Airport with automobiles following.
The man on the phone in Columbus was wrong about Raven Rock being “abandoned.” On Oct. 2, a Sunday, as part of the kickoff for Portsmouth’s week-long celebration of its Sesquicentennial, the Portsmouth Daily Times reported a crowd estimated at 8,000 showed up at the airport for the Air Classic, which featured “three hours of daredevil stunting, Navy plane maneuvering, and comedy skits staged by an array of famous aviators.”
Whiting reported the airport was marked with flares burning at its boundaries and automobiles parked with headlights beaming across the field.
“We circled the field two or three times,” Whiting said. “We tightened up the life belts, took off our glasses, and the pilot made a safe, easy landing.”
John Walter, 88, of Portsmouth, said he remembers the fire truck parked at the field had a searchlight mounted and sent its beam into the sky to let the circling plane know immediately which way to head for the airport.
“That’s the way I remember it -- remember hearing about it at that time, anyway. In addition to the automobile lights and flares, the big sealed spotlight sending its beam straight up in the air into the night,” Walter said. “I wasn’t actually at the field that night. I just heard the talk of it later. I’m really surprised that there was no article about it in the Portsmouth Times.”
Whiting wrote that they had circled over and around Portsmouth for two and one-half hours. He said when Willkie had come out of the cockpit to tell him goodbye, the pilots had told him they had only 15 minutes more gas left, and no way in the dark to find a safe place to put the plane down.
After landing at the Raven Rock field, he said, “We could find no way to get to Cincinnati that night or Nashville the next morning.
“Wendell turned to me and said, ‘What do you say we have these boys fly us down to Nashville in the morning? I said, ‘No, thank you.’”
Whiting returned to New York by train and Willkie, a Hoosier, found transportation to his farm in Indiana.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.