Tuesday, January 17, 2023

In Their Footsteps: New England History - Cape Cod's First Air Disaster

    In the 2020s air travel is the safest form of transportation on the planet. Millions of people climb aboard a plane and make it to their destination without issue. It has become so commonplace that it might seem unbelievable to think it wasn’t always that way.
    In the 1920s air travel was new and relatively untested, especially in the civilian market. Airfields were slowly being constructed throughout the United States as more and more everyday people desired to soar into the clouds for a time.
    On Cape Cod, the very first airfield had a spectacular beginning, a brief run, and a tragic end. All happening within the same month this is the story of Cape Cod’s first airfield.
The world’s first airline opened on January 1, 1914. Located in St. Petersburg, Florida it was known as the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. The very first passenger flight was flown by pilot Tony Jannus. During World War I airplanes began to become more common as ways of fighting battles. Soon after the war ended the race was on to create airfields for passenger flights all across the country.
    Massachusetts began licensing aircraft and pilots in May 1920. It was not very long until the search was on for ideal locations for potential airfields. In the weeks after licensing began a new air travel company was created. Aero Service Company was founded by Charles J. Manuel with its home base being Framingham, Massachusetts.
Manuel planned to begin scheduling passenger flights as well as instruction, aerial photo opportunities, and advertising. He had his airfield in Framingham and Manuel soon found his crew and aircraft.
    Two men were hired as pilots and mechanics. They were George Linwood Hall, 22 years old from Mansfield, Massachusetts, and Carley Gould Weld, 30 years old and originally from Chatham, Massachusetts but now residing in Framingham. A single-engine passenger plane of Canadian make was then purchased by Manuel and Weld together.
    With Cape Cod’s blossoming tourism industry in the early 20th century, it only made sense to develop an airfield on the peninsula. A perfect location was found on South Sea Avenue in West Yarmouth. The new airfield, christened Aero Service Aviation Field, was located on Great Island in the days before it was a private gated community. The first airfield on Cape Cod was created in the final days of June 1920, just as the summer season was kicking off.

    Located just down the road from the legendary Aberdeen Hall on Great Island, and within walking distance of the luxurious Hotel Englewood, the new airfield overlooked Lewis Bay and was seen as being of ample size with an excellent surface and long runway. The Aero Service Company itself was praised upon its opening as having a highly competent crew with substantial experience in the field of aeronautics. This was especially true of the pilot Hall who was an Air Force Lieutenant after training with Canadian Royal Air Force. Weld was equally qualified as he was a mechanical engineer who had received numerous patents in the field of engine improvements.

The legendary Aberdeen Hall on Great Island(Historical Society of Old Yarmouth)

    Opening day for both Aero Service Company, as well as their airfield on Great Island, was July 5, 1920. Hall piloted the airplane with Weld as the mechanic in tow as the craft took off from Framingham and landed in West Yarmouth in 61 minutes. It was headline news at the time and seen as an impressively fast speed. For comparison the highly popular Ford Model T in 1920 had a reported top speed of 28 mph, meaning a drive from Framingham to West Yarmouth in absolutely ideal conditions would take roughly 3 ½ hours.

1920 Article in the Yarmouth Register about the Framingham-West Yarmouth flight.

    Hall, Weld, and their aircraft became instant celebrities on Cape Cod. The pair took up residence at the Hotel Englewood and began immediately taking passengers up into the sky above the Cape several times daily for the cool price of $10($148 in 2023). People lined up to get their chance to climb aboard the airplane, or to just gaze in amazement at the new mode of transportation. At the Great Island airfield, the trips generally consisted of traveling in a square covering much ground from Mashpee to Harwich.
    After their passenger trips were finished daily Hall and Weld would entertain spectators by taking one final flight themselves and performing stunts such as loop-the-loops before calling it a day. Within only a matter of a few weeks, passenger air travel has stormed Cape Cod with numerous reports of the impressive pilots and adoring crowds. The potential dangers never crossed anyone’s mind.
    On the afternoon of July 21, 1920, Mrs. L.F. Jukes of Arlington Heights, Massachusetts took a ride up in the Aero Service plane. She later admitted that she was terrified in the sky. To her, the plane ride felt rocky but she also said she figured that was just the way air travel was and that nothing was likely wrong with the plane. Mrs. Jukes’ was the final successful flight.

A rare photo of the actual Aero Service plane at the field in West Yarmouth in July 1920(Historical Society of Old Yarmouth)

    Around 6 pm with Weld piloting and Hall as the second, a reversal of the typical routine, the men began their typical end-of-the-day demonstration. The plane circled the Great Island runway at a height of roughly 2,000 feet preparing to land as people all around watched. A pair of loop-the-loops were completed and then something went wrong.
    The plane hurdled to the ground with spectators losing sight of it. Some people saw it and headed off to find the crew while others were told about it and joined the search party. The plane went down in a muddy bog near Horse Pond in West Yarmouth. Deep in the woods, it took more than half an hour for the first help to arrive in the form of Romeo Hallett from Hyannis and Eric Sturck from Centerville.
    According to Hallett, the plane turned over ‘nine or ten times, flopping around like a piece of paper.’ Hallett and Sturck found the wreck and waded into the water but the plane was stuck in anywhere from 3-6 feet of water and muck. Weld and Hall, still strapped into their seats, did not survive the crash. Although no immediate cause of the crash was established both wings were broken off and the plane had crashed tail first, likely because the engine had fallen back into the fuselage.

George Hall's death announcement in the Boston Globe

    Lifting the 800-pound aircraft to free the men proved impossible for the growing group of helpers arriving. After midnight as July 21st became the 22nd New England Telephone & Telegraph sent a crew with a truck, ladder, and ropes out to the woods behind Horse Pond. A crowd of over two hundred watched as the bodies of Hall and Weld were carefully removed from the downed plane. The aircraft itself was then hauled from the mud onto solid ground.
    It was a sad and tragic event with no clear-cut answer as to what had happened. Charles Manuel stated that he had personally examined the plane before takeoff with nothing appearing to be wrong. He did however reiterate the fact that Weld had been the pilot rather than Hall who was the registered pilot of the plane. Romeo Hallet theorized that Weld could have believed the bog near Horse Pond to be a clearing and tried to land there not knowing it was soft mud.
    By the mid-morning hours of July 22nd, anything that was not nailed down was being removed from the wreckage. Described in the local newspapers as ‘souvenier hunters’ a guard perimeter had to be established to keep people from stealing parts of the plane. It is unknown to this day whether something that was taken could have better explained those last fateful moments of Weld and Hall.
    For the Aero Service Company, the crash effectively put them out of business. The airplane that crashed was the only one owned by the company. The summer runway at Great Island lasted all of 16 days. It did not dampen the arrival of passenger air travel on Cape Cod though. In March 1921 the Chatham Aviation Field was opened.
    The funerals for both of the lost pilots took place on July 24, 1920. George Hall’s service took place at his parents' home in Mansfield while Carley Weld’s service was at the Forest Hills Cemetery Chapel in Jamaica Plain. It is unknown what happened to Charles Manuel after the crash and subsequent dissolution of his Aero Service Company.
    As for the former Aero Service Aviation Field in West Yarmouth, it, and Great Island as a whole changed dramatically in the following years. The field was absorbed into property owned by Gertrude Behr. She in turn sold it to Nathaniel Springer in January 1924. The summer of 1924 saw the beloved Aberdeen Hall on Great Island destroyed by fire. Soon after Great Island as a whole became the gated private community it remains to this day.
    The Aero Service Company of Framingham and its summer runway in West Yarmouth were both barely a blip in history. Sadly its dizzying highs at the start were tainted by the tragedy that ended the business after only a few short weeks.


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