A United Airlines two-engine Convair made a forced landing January 19, 1955, in a cornfield south of Dexter, Iowa. Although the plane was badly damaged, not one of the 36 passengers and crew of three was seriously injured.
Parts of the plane were strewn over a mile-long skid in Francis Hochstetler’s field, taking out 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 twice before skidding. Its fuselage split apart in front of the wings.
The crew–all from Chicago–were pilot Capt. Earl Andreasen, first officer Tom Boyle, and stewardess Patricia Johnson.
By the time Dexter school bus driver, Jim Herrick, had finished his route (including his own son Paul, who’d also witnessed the airliner 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 Mr. Herrick drove them all into Dexter, to the Dallas County State Bank where Russell Horn, bank manager, and employees served them coffee.
Six passengers had x-rays taken by Dexter’s doctors Chapler and Osborn, then most of them eventually rode to Des Moines in four ambulances.
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 awarded $2500.
United Airlines gave cigarette lighters to Doctors Chapler and Osborn, and compacts to their nurses.
Because the United Convair came to rest in Lenockers’ field, a salvage crew disassembled the plane. Mrs. Lenocker, along with daughters Eleanor and Helen, provided meals for them. The chunks were lifted, piece by piece, by crane into trucks, then hauled to the Dexter railroad station. Loaded on flat cars, the plane parts were shipped to the Convair plant in San Diego for repair. The airliner ultimately became a cargo plane, flying another 34 years.
The Lenocker family not only received a set of dishes from United Airlines for their trouble, and the damage to their field, they were flown to California to visit Disneyland.
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.
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.
Tom Fagen gave a program about the plane crash at Bricker-Price Block in Earlham, November 22, 2019. His poignant diorama of the broken plane in a snowy field of corn stubble is on loan to the Iowa Aviation Museum, based at the Greenfield Municipal Airport.