Tragedy In The Sky – John Wallace Blair

Originally published in The Rock River Times.

Today the Goodyear blimp is well known, especially to sports fans.  According to their website the airships fly over events like the Daytona 500, PGA Championships, and the College Football Playoff National Championship.

Goodyear built its first balloon in 1912 and started its production in America when the U.S. Navy ordered nine airiships.  SInce the hangar hadn’t been completed in Akron, Ohio, the production took place in a Chicago amusement park building.

After World War I, Goodyear built the airships for its own use. These blimps were mainly used for advertising and marketing for the Goodyear Company and soon the airships were spotted all over the United States.  The first, “Pony” was built in 1919.  The dirigibles traveled from city to city, offering fifteen minute rides for a few dollars per person.

Rockford had several visits from these dirigibles during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.  The Register Star featured a great picture of the airship “Vigilante” that was taken from a plane flown by Fred Machesney. The airship visits were a huge draw for the folks in Rockford and the surrounding area.

In the early 1930’s Goodyear was unveiling a new generation of dirigibles.  The “Vigilante” was one of the first built of these airships.  Unfortunately, the Vigilante crashed in November of 1931.   The gondola car and fins were used in the production of a new airship, the  “Columbia”.  The airship was written about in dozens of newspapers.  One article described the dirigible as 144 foot long and stated that it cost $65,000 to build. It also mentioned that it  had walnut woodwork and leather chairs. It carried six passengers and it flew at an amazing 60 miles per hour.

One of Rockford’s own was hired as the Chief Mechanic for the “Columbia”. John Wallace Blair had only lived in Rockford for a couple of years.  He and his wife Betty married in 1926. John worked as an auto mechanic and a driver for the Blue Line Transfer Company during his time in Rockford.  John’s brother, Roland was hired at the same time as a pilot.

John must have thought it was the chance of a lifetime when he was hired by Good Year.  As Chief Mechanic for the “Columbia” John would be in charge of maintenance for the dirigible. He would also be riding in the airship.  John and Betty left Rockford to begin their new life in New York.

The “Columbia’s” christening ceremony was scheduled for July 14, 1931 at the Goodyear-Zeppelin Airlock near Akron Municipal Airport. The people in Akron welcomed the new airship with a 200 piece band and a huge chorus.  The Vice President of the Goodyear Fred M. Harpham’s wife broke a bottle over the cabin.  The bottle contained liquid air instead of champaign.  Mrs. Harpham was joined by other executive’s wives for the first flight.

In August 1931, the “Columbia” traveled to the home base at the Holmes Airport in the Jackson Heights in Queens, New York.  The airship ran as a sight seeing service.  People paid $3.00 for a 15 minute flight around New York City.

On February 13, 1932, John was with the pilot Prescott Dixon flying over Long Island.  The wind was bad that day with gusts over 40 miles per hour.  The airship was being tossed around and the pilot struggled to keep control.  John and Prescott tried to keep control of the dirigible as the wind pushed it toward the ground. The men’s efforts became frantic when they noticed they were approaching electrical wires and a large gas tank.

John Blair suggested that they should “rip the ship”. This was a defensive measure that called for the mechanic to grab a rip cord and yank it.  The cord was attached to the top of the airship.  When the cord was pulled, it would tear the section open and allow gas to escape.  This move would lower the airship quickly to the ground without (hopefully) putting the men in danger.  The major problem with this maneuver was that the rip cord was just beyond the gondola.

John reached for the rip cord. Just as he touched the rope, the wind surged and the large bag rolled. The rope wrapped around John’s arm and pulled him from the gondola. Time seemed to stand still as the rope caught and held.  A full minute passed then the rope broke and John’s body fell many feet before smashing into the ground.  John never knew that he had been successful in causing the “Columbia” to fall to the earth before it ran into the wires, saving the craft from catching fire and the pilot from certain death.

Thousands of people had gathered to see the “Columbia” in action. Almost all of them watched as the horrible tragedy played out in front of their eyes. The newspapers stated that there was an audible gasp from the crowd when John’s body slipped from the gondola.  John’s body was found 100 feet from the wreckage of the airship.

John’s brother, Roland accompanied John’s wife Betty and John’s body back to Rockford for burial.  Betty returned to Rockford to live and eventually married again.

 

Copyright © 2021 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events