Plane, Will Travel…
George E. Batchelor,
originally from Oklahoma, loved all things aviation. His first job as a mechanic
was at North American Aviation (NAA), making 30 cents an hour.
While with NAA, he assisted in the design for the P-51. At the age of 16,
he learned to fly, and flew DC-4s in Europe with the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War
II, rising to the rank of Major.
the war was over, Batchelor brought a surplus airplane, a DC-3, from the U.S.
government. However, the plane was located in Hawaii, he was in California, and
a stock DC-3 did not have the range to make the long flight across the Pacific.
Batchelor flew to Hawaii, and modified the plane’s fuel system such to make the
eighteen-hour flight a reality. Once the plane arrived in Santa Monica, he sold
the plane for $25,000.
with that, ‘Arrow Air’ was born. Operated out of an office constructed from an
engine crate at the Lomita Airstrip (today known as the
Torrance Municipal Airport), Batchelor grew the
budding airline with several non-scheduled air carriers, willing to fly
One of these ‘non-sked’
carriers was California Arrow Airways. Established on August 12, 1949, as an
intrastate air carrier, it began providing scheduled service flying a triangle
between Burbank, Oakland, and Sacramento. Although the airline held no
certificate or license for this type of operation from the Civil Aeronautics
Administration, the airline functioned unhindered.
One of the earliest tenets
taught to most aviators. A relatively sound principle to safe flight, with only
one exception: When your instruments are wrong.
On the afternoon of
Wednesday, December 7, 1949, DC-3 #N60256 flew from the Burbank Airport, where
California Arrow Airline’s home office was, north to Oakland Airport. The
flight crew that day consisted of pilot James Stanley Garnett, 33, of Redondo
Beach; co-pilot Joseph Meade Dillon, 38, of Los Angeles; and stewardess
Thelma Susan Devore, 24, of Los
at 2:20 in the afternoon, the flight arrived in Oakland without incident, ten
passengers disembarked, and preparations were made for its next leg of the
flight, northeast to Sacramento. However, prior to their departure from
Oakland, the crew was advised that poor weather had set in, precluding a normal
flight, and that a flight under “instrument flight rules” (IFR) would be
Six passengers were now
aboard the plane, bound for Sacramento and Burbank. Mrs. Frances Marian
Kimball. 23, of Pasadena, and her two children, Leland Cummings Kimball III,
aged 18 months, & John Wesley Kimball, aged 8 months. Mrs. Kimball was going to
visit relatives in Sacramento, and had expected her husband, Lt. Leland C.
Kimball Jr, home from Europe, where he served in the Air Force, the day before
bound for Sacramento was Vincent N. Figley, 37, of Laguna Beach, a waiter at the
Victor Hugo Inn. He was headed to Sacramento to visit his parents whom lived in
Lastly, Lorraine B.
Batchelor, 26, and her 2-year-old son, George “Patrick” Batchelor, 2, were also
aboard, bound for their home in Burbank. Mrs. Batchelor was the wife of George
Batchelor, the airline’s president and founder.
The flight crew filed for
an IFR flight plan, and took off at 4:46 PM. Seven minutes into the flight,
they received their flight clearance to Sacramento under IFR, at a flight
altitude of 4,000 feet, well clear of any terrain or obstacles that would impede
a safe flight.
Continuing along its route,
the DC-3 reported its location at the Richmond radio intersection at 5:08.
The crew predicted that they would arrive at their next checkpoint, the
Fairfield radio navigation station, in 15 minutes. The air traffic
controllers queried the DC-3 as to its altitude. When the reply of “4,000 feet” was received, the
controllers then awaited their next call over Fairfield. The call never came.
It was due in Sacramento at 5:33 PM and would have been out of gas at 7:33.
The Search is On…
The flight was reported
overdue in Sacramento an hour later, and immediately an air & ground search
began for the missing airliner. Focused in the area between Sacramento and
Richmond, the search was hampered that night by rain and clouds, the very bad
weather that forced the DC-3’s crew to file an IFR flight plan. Searchers from
Hamilton Field, as well as Coast Guard seaplanes and helicopters, investigated
several reports of the downed plane in Franklin Canyon, near Martinez, as well
as reports around Napa and Fairfield.
However, the next morning,
Lt. Jerry Rea, flying a Coast Guard search plane, spotted the burning wreckage
of the DC-3 in the hills north of Benicia. At nearly the same moment, Clifford
H DeCius, an Army guard stationed at the Benicia Arsenal, spotted smoke from the
wreck. A search helicopter from Hamilton Field was dispatched, and landed near
the crash site. A grim task fell before the helicopter’s crew, making the
report of no survivors being found alive.
George Batchelor arrived at
the crash site to see the remains of his wife and child removed from the
still-smoldering wreckage. According to witness reports of the time, only the
tail and right wing were recognizable in the wreckage of the plane.
Enter the Feds...
Investigators from the
Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), the predecessor of today’s National
Transportation Safety Board, arrived from Los Angeles to search for clues into
why 9 people had died in the Benicia hills. Focusing on the weather as a key
factor in the accident, the investigators noted that the aircraft’s engines were
operating at maximum power, and not at the cruise settings that would be
expected. According to investigators, the aircraft was in a steep climb, as if
to avoid the terrain, when the crash occurred. So powerful and unexpected was
the crash, that upon impact, both engines were ripped from their mountings, as
the aircraft continued to skid 150 feet up the slope of the hills, where it
burst into flames.
The CAB also noted that the
impact occurred nearly 3,200 feet below the aircraft’s reported altitude from
only minutes before the crash. In the time before radar tracking, black boxes,
and altitude-encoding transponders, the only way to tell what altitude the
aircraft had been flying at was with its altimeter. Unfortunately, the altimeter of
the DC-3 was destroyed in the crash, so the answer as to what the pilot thought
his altitude was could not be determined.
The CAB investigation also
discovered that both Garnett and Dillon had both exceeded rules limiting the
number of flight hours they worked. The regulations allowed for only 8 hours of
flight within a 24-hour period, and 100 hours within a 30-day period. Garnett
had flown nearly 110 hours in the month of October, despite the airlines’
records showing having worked only 97.5 hours
(The pilot's personal records for November were destroyed in the crash). Similar errors in record keeping
were found for Dillon as well.
However, since there was no
indication that the plane’s altimeter was malfunctioning, the CAB investigation
concluded that the only reasonable explanation for the accident was that the
pilot either did not attain the prescribed altitude of 4,000 feet for his
flight, or failed to maintain it during the flight, and was attempting to fly by
visual reference to the ground at a much lower altitude than the one specified
in his flight clearance, in a practice known among pilots as “scud-running”.
Down, But Not Out…
George Batchelor, despite the loss of his family, pressed on in the world of
commercial aviation, and although his airlines stopped scheduled operations in
1953 due to what Batchelor saw as an anti-competitive regulatory environment,
Batchelor continued leasing aircraft, often with crews, to other small airlines.
In 1964, he formed International Air Leases (IAL), which became one of the most
famous aircraft trading names in the aviation industry. Batchelor would amass a
considerable fortune and donate much of it to homeless and children's causes
before dying in July 2002, as one of the greatest aircraft-trading
One of the obtuse legacies
of the accident is in legal circles. After the accident, the widow and mother
of Vincent Figley sued California Arrow for damages for his death that they
alleged had been negligently caused by the airline. As the crash occurred in
Solano County, that was where the Figleys, living in Sacramento, filed their
lawsuit. However, after answering the tort, the lawyers for California Arrow
asked that the trial be moved from Solano County to Los Angeles County on the
grounds of convenience of 8 of their material witnesses. As the bulk of 8
witnesses from Los Angeles’ testimony were deemed as relatively immaterial to
the case of California Arrow, versus the testimony of Figley’s mother, an
elderly mother who counted on support from her now-deceased son, the motion for
change of venue was denied. The decision was appealed at the state appellate
level, where Presiding Justice Annette Abbott Adams, and the Third Appellate
District of the California Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision.
The decision is referred frequently among those in California legal circles.
Click Here to View the Text of Figley
vs. California Arrow Airlines.