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. Not 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.

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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. He brought his diorama of the downed plane, which is usually on loan to the airport at Greenfield.

19 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.

  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.

  3. Joy and Tom , Thank you for the wonderful article about my dad. Thank you for keeping this story around,my dad would have enjoyed seeing the interest in the crash. I hope to meet up with Tom and visit the area sometime in the near future Thanks again for everyones intrest.

    • Yes, incredible! The pilots were seasons and there was snow on the ground, but the cornfields were full of stubble and it bumped across two ditches and tore through fences!

  4. Such a great story! Thank you for sharing it. It reminded me of a piece of my own childhood that I hadn’t thought about in years. A small plane crashed in one of our pastures on our farm in Kansas. Sadly there were no survivors on that one. I remember picking up small pieces of metal and putting them in a bucket–the larger pieces of the plane had been cleared away by the Navy–the plane was from the Naval Air station. We had to clear the smaller pieces so the cattle would be harmed by them. Later someone from the government (that’s what I was told) came to collect all the small pieces. My dad, who had been an aviator in WWII, told me that even the small pieces might help them figure out why the plane crashed.

    • Was it a military plane? My youngest uncle was killed (the day the second atomic bomb was dropped) when the engine of his P-40 threw a rod and exploded in Texas. I’ve got the telegram and clipping that a neighbor sent to his family here in Iowa. He already had two other brothers MIA, one a B-25 pilot (New Guinea), one P-38 (lost in Austria–I was just writing a story about him.) Yes, that why I had to write a book about the family WWII story. What did your dad fly? My dad was the commander of a B-29 with orders for Saipan when the war ended!

      • The plane that crashed in our pasture was a trainer…at least that’s what I remember my dad telling me. He had flown one in his training. He started as a gunner in a B-24 in England but was promoted to Staff Sgt and took the training to become a pilot. On his 2nd or 3rd mission over Belgium his plane got hit and a piece of flack hit him in the head. He came out of it pretty much okay but with occasional spells of vertigo and bad headaches that grounded him. That was the great frustration of his life—all he had ever wanted to do was be a pilot.

  5. I think the plane that crashed in our pasture was a T-34. I remember my dad saying it was a trainer. He had flown a T-6 in his training. He flew out of England in WWII—started as a gunner on a B-24 then made his bars as a Staff Sgt and trained to be a pilot. They were building B-24s faster than they could recruit college grads to be pilots so they started training Staff Sgts to fly. My dad got hit in the head with flack on his 2nd or 3rd flight in the right seat and the subsequent headaches and vertigo grounded him.

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