Now and Then

Now & Then: What’s All That Racket and Uproar?

By Loretta (Stevens) Bailey

Then:  It’s November 6, 1954 and all is peaceful and quiet in the “City Beautiful,” Cañon City, Colorado. The leaves have changed with gorgeous fall colors. The sky is azure and cloudless. The sun is bright; it’s warm in the sun and cool in the shade.

The residents are going about their usual business: housewives busy cooking and cleaning, children attending school, and workers at work.

All Hades broke out! 

Here is what the Cañon City Daily Record reported. The story made it to The Denver Post Special and national news.

Air Force Action Faces Flyers of Three Planes Which Dived Gorge Bridge

Saturday 11/6/1954

Cañon City Daily Record

The crews of three Air Force planes, who braved death Saturday morning to fly under the World’s Highest Bridge at the Royal Gorge, face official action.

The three, described as “probably training planes,” zoomed under the bridge at mid-morning after earlier circling the structure and Royal Gorge Park.

The maneuver, while calling for skill and daring, is described as “highly dangerous” because of treacherous air currents and the presence of heavy steel wind cables, which anchor the bridge.

The bridge itself is nearly 1,500 feet long, but the cables, which drop down to the walls of the canon, reduce the flying distance materially.

Capt. Arthur D. Latimer, assistant to Lieut. Gen. Benjamin W. Chidlaw, commanding officer of the Strategic Air Command at Colorado Springs, promised an “immediate investigation.”

Capt. Latimer sought full particulars from Ralph J. Wann, bridge company president. The fliers responsible may face federal action. The Air Force officer told Wann that “I don’t know at this moment where the planes are from or who comprise the crew, but we’ll find out.”

In the late 1920’s, a Canon City flyer, Phil Reed, was grounded for one year after he flew his bi-plane under the bridge carrying a passenger.[1]

Only one other plane, it is believed, has ever gone under the bridge, a DC-3 during World war II.  It was buffeted by air currents, narrowly avoided crashing into the wind cables, but was able to pull out.

Employes [sic] of the bridge company said the three planes Saturday circled low over the bridge, swung wide, then approached in single-file formation.  They, too, narrowly missed certain death from the strands of cables.

3 JETS ZIP UNDER GORGE BRIDGE

November 1954

Denver Post Special

CANON CITY, Nov. 6. – Three jet fighter planes Saturday flew under the 1,053-foot high bridge spanning the Arkansas Royal Gorge and roared off before anyone could get their number or find out what unit they were from.

The stunt was an unexpected thrill for several hundred passengers who had just alighted from a Denver & Rio Grande Western train at the bottom of the gorge to take in the view.

But Ralph J. Wann, president of the Royal Gorge Co., was angry and called the air defense command at Colorado Springs to demand an immediate investigation.  Wann said while flying under the bridge calls for skill and daring, it is highly dangerous because of erratic air currents in the gorge and a network of cables below the bridge.

Attendants said the three planes circled the bridge once, peeled off and whooshed under the span in single file.  The bridge is about 1,200 feet from tower to tower.

Saturday’s stunt doubled the number of pilots who have tried it since the bridge was built in 1924.[2]  In 1926, a Canon City flier named Phil Reed flew a biplane under the span to dubious fame and a year’s suspension by the civil aeronautics authority.[3]

A. Putnam Humphreys, Denver playboy, became the second – in the years just before the war. A B-25 flew under the bridge in 1942.

Three Carson Pilots Grounded for Flight Under Gorge Bridge

Monday 11/8/1954

Cañon City Daily Record

Three young army second lieutenants were grounded Monday while a general deliberated what action should be taken against them for a daring flight beneath the 1,054-foot Royal Gorge bridge near Canon City Saturday.

The pilots of the Army liaison aircraft, single-engined, propeller-driven Cssna L-19’s, were identified as 2nd Lt. Arthur Wichman, 40th Field Artillery group, 2nd Lt. Charles M. Thompson, 68th Engineer Group, and 2nd Lt. William C. French, Headquarters company, 8th Infantry Division.

Their light and relatively slow planes roared up the tortuous Royal Gorge and beneath the bridge, a famous and spectacular scenic attraction, as sightseers grabbed for handholds on the structure.

Recent Grads

Army spokesman said the three pilots, who had only recently graduated from the artillery spotting school at Ft. Sill, Okla., were on a routine training mission, but their flight between the towering and rugged canyon walls of the Royal Gorge was anything but that.

The startled tourists and bridge company officials at first reported the planes as “jet” fighters.

Fort Carson spokesmen said the three pilots gave no reasons for their flight beneath the bridge.  But Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Sherbourne, commanding general at the military post, ordered them grounded pending a review of their case.

Army Sends ‘Regrets’

Meanwhile, the Army prepared letters expressing “deep regrets” to the Royal Gorge Bridge company and to the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad for the incident.

Earlier, the railroad has asked the Continental Air Defense Command at Colorado Springs to take steps to prevent a recurrence of such an incident. But the Air Force denied any connection with the flight.            

The bridge, highest suspension span in the world, had been flown under by planes only twice before. Phil Reed, a Canon City pilot flew under the bridge in 1929 and was promptly grounded by the CAA for one year.[4]  The other time was during World War II and involved a military plane stationed at Lowry Air Force base in Denver.

Now: I remember what my mother would always say.  She raised five teenagers and during those years we were all asked the same question.  “What on God’s green earth that could have possessed you to do such a stupid brainless trick?” And we all gave the same answer – “I don’t know.”

Then:  Three bright healthy young men were undoubtedly reinvigorated with a blast of adrenalin that was laced with hormones as they circled the mighty gorge, catching a glimpse of a gap over 1,000 feet between the suspension bridge and the Arkansas River.

One of them with more nerve then brain may have come up with idea to dive under the bridge. The thought of losing their lives or killing others (or both) never crossed their minds at that moment in time. The answer, “I don’t know,” won’t fly with a general – no pun intended.

The pilots are identified, along with the type of aircraft, and where they are stationed.  No way of out the cavernous jam they find themselves in. They could make a run for it, but there is still a plaguing question. Where would they go to hide?  Instead, the young men stay and face the investigating team.

Army Investigating Team Probes Recent Flight Under Royal Gorge Bridge

12/2/1954

Cañon City Daily Record

An Army investigating team from Fort Riley, Kans., Thursday launched an official inquiry into the November 6flight of three Fort Carson training planes under the World’s Highest Bridge at the Royal Gorge.

The probe was cloaked in a veil of secrecy and the five-member team refused to discuss the matter.

A Major McKantz, who even declined to give his first name or spelling of his last name, referred a Daily Record reporter to the Public Information office at Fort Carson.

“Official information will come from them,” he said.

The five officers – Major McKantz, three captains and a lieutenant – spent Thursday morning at the Royal Gorge questioning eye witnesses to the daring flight.

On the morning of November 6, the three Army liaison aircraft Cessna L-19s, circled the Royal Gorge at low altitude, then peeled off in single-file formation and dove under the bridge.  The story made national headlines and two days later, Fort Carson identified the three pilots and announced they had been grounded.  They are Lieutenants Arthur Wichman, Charles Thompson and William C. French.

The Fort Riley investigators were accompanied to Canon City Thursday by two officers from Fort Carson, a medical department lieutenant and Major H.E. Woolf.

Major Woolf also referred all inquiries to the Fort Carson Public Information Office.

The team said it will file its report with 5th Army Headquarters in Chicago.  Whether it will mean court-martial for the pilots or a less-serious reprimand, the officers declined to say.

“We can’t speculate at this time,” Major McKantz said.

Then:  With a report going all the way to 5th Army Headquarters in Chicago, the three young pilots were potentially facing court-marital but were likely hoping for a less-serious reprimand.

Gorge Flight Inquiry Moves to Ft. Carson

12/3/1954

Cañon City Daily Record

A special five-man board investigating the case of three Army lieutenants who flew their planes under the scenic Royal Gorge bridge near Canon City continued its probe at Fort Carson.

The stunt-flying actions of the three rookie Army pilots drew protest from the Rio Grande railroad…

…A five -man board of investigation was named by Lt. Gen. Hobart R. Gay, Fifth Army Commander, Chicago, and Major Lester McCants was designated board president. The board was instructed to investigate whether the pilots violated regulations by their dare-devil actions which occurred on November 6.

The three pilots were identified as 2nd Lt. Arthur R. Wichman, 25, Fargo N.D.; 2nd Lt. Charles E. Thompson, 22, Grand Rapids, Mich.; and 2nd Lt. William C. French, 25, Denver.  All are stationed here.

The board Thursday went to the Royal Gorge to talk with bridge officials and other possible witnesses to the incident.

Fort Carson officials emphasized that the special board was empowered only to make recommendations which will be forwarded to General Gay and said the outcome of the inquiry and recommendations made will not be known until reviewed by General Gay.

Then: The reports end after the previous article. Were the pilots allowed to fly again? Unfortunately, we don’t know without more articles.

Now: While the museum does not have images relating to the 1954 incident, two images of the stunt conducted in May 1930 are shown below. While the above articles state that Phil Reid was the pilot, it was actually Foster Burns who flew under the bridge with Frank Singer as his passenger. Reid was the photographer of the stunt from his own plane. 

Image of Phil Reid and Foster Burns overlaid on image of a plane over the Royal Gorge Bridge, ca. 1930. Object ID: 2008.026.004; Courtesy Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center
Image of a plane over the Royal Gorge Bridge, 1930. Object ID: 2008.026.024; Courtesy Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

[1] The person noted was actually Foster Burns and the event took place in 1930.

[2] The bridge was constructed in 1929.

[3] The person noted was actually Foster Burns and the event took place in 1930.

[4] The person noted was actually Foster Burns and the event took place in 1930.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *