1955 United Plane Crash near Dexter, Iowa

A United Air Lines two-engine Convair made a forced landing January 19, 1955, in a cornfield south of Dexter, Iowa. No one of the 36 passengers and crew of three was seriously injured, although the plane was badly damaged.

Parts of the plane were strewn over the mile-long skid in Francis Hochstetler’s field, through a fence, across a road, and through another fence, coming to rest in a field of corn stubble of Fred Lenocker’s.

The plane was over Earlham, enroute from Des Moines to Omaha, when the pilot radioed Des Moines that they were having difficulty controlling the plane and would try to return. Unable to keep the plane high enough, the pilot and copilot made an emergency landing about forty miles from Des Moines. The plane bounced, then another bounce before skidding. Its fuselage split apart at the front of the wings.

The crew–all from Chicago-were pilot Capt. Earl Andreasen, first officer was Tom Boyle, and stewardess Patricia Johnson.  

By the time Dexter school bus driver, John Herrick, had finished his route (including his own son Paul, who’d also witnessed the plane going down), he returned to the plane to see if he could help. The passengers (35 men and one woman) and crew were shaken up but okay, so he drove them all into Dexter, to the Dallas County State Bank where Russell Horn, bank manager, and employees served the coffee.

Six passengers had x-rays taken Dexter’s doctors Chapler and Osborn, then most of the were later taken to Des Moines in four ambulances.

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Winterset Madisonian, Jan. 26, 1955
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Winterset Madisonian, Jan. 26, 1955

How amazing that all 39 people aboard that plane survived the crash landing. Capt. Andreasen and First Officer Boyle were both given $10,000 bonuses for the successful handling of the crippled plane. Stewardess Johnson was given $2500.

Several local people who helped got gifts: cigarette lighters to Doctors Chapler and Osborn, compacts to their nurses, a set of dishes to Lenockers (who served meals to the salvagers), etc.

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Des Moines Tribune, Jan. 31, 1955

The United Convair was disassembled, lifted by crane in pieces into trucks, and hauled to the Dexter train station. There they were loaded on flat cars to ship to the Convair plant in San Diego, for repair. The airliner became a cargo plane, flying another 34 years.

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Winterset Madisonian, Feb. 16, 1955

Decades later, Brandon Andreasen was looking for information about a crash by a plane his grandfather had piloted in January 1955, and he wanted to visit the site. Tom Fagen, a farm implement dealer in the area, was recommended to Andreasen because Tom is a pilot. He also grew up half a mile from where the plane came to rest, and now lives half a mile in the other direction.

Tom’s wife had even grown up on the farm where the plane hit first, before tearing through fences and across the road to come to a stop in Fred Lenocker’s field. Tom’s inlaws, Hochstetlers, had some old newspaper clippings but hadn’t talked much about it.

Tom loves the history of aircraft and also makes scale models of them. After showing the pilot’s grandson the area of the United Airline Convair crash, he went to work learning as much about the plane and the accident as he could. Besides making a 1/72 scale model of the broken plane in a snowy corn-stubbled field, he has made a 15-minute video about the entire history of the plane, what happened the day of the crash, and even the people involved with it.

Tom Fagen’s inlaws, the Hochstetlers, got a United Airlines check for $25 for the three fences the plane tore out. They still have the uncashed check as a souvenir, plus part of a propeller found in the field that spring.

What caused the plane to crash that winter day? Human error. A Civil Aeronautics Board Investigation found that a fastener on the elevator linkage had been removed the night before during a scheduled airframe inspection, and not reinstalled.

———–

Using today’s rural road names, this happened just southwest of the corner of Cottonwood Avenue and 150th Street in Penn Township, Madison County, Iowa.

Note from Tom Fagen:  Andreasen was trained in the Army Air Force and flew the mighty B-29 bomber in WW II. Boyle was younger and graduated from Purdue with an Aeronautical degree before entering his commercial pilot career with United.

9 comments

  1. What an incredible story! I read the findings of the Aeronautics Board. The pilots’ skill in landing the plane on its belly was truly remarkable. I wonder if they’d trained first as military pilots.

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  2. Liz, Tom Fagen said: Yes, Andreasen was trained in the Army Air Force and flew the mighty B-29 bomber in WW II. Boyle was younger and graduated from Purdue with an Aeronautical degree before entering his commercial pilot career with United.

    Liked by 1 person

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