A Brief History
On October 10, 1933, a United Airlines Boeing 247 airliner was blown out of the sky over Chesterton, Indiana, the first known instance of an airliner being deliberately taken down by a bomb. On this deadly flight, only 7 people died, the 3 crew members and the 4 passengers. (Not a misprint, there were only 4 passengers on the then state of the art twin engine airliner!) Apparently, terrorists and assassins have also embraced the idea of blowing up airliners to kill their target person or persons or to make their point, because in the years since 1933 numerous planes have fallen to bombs exploding while the airplane was in flight. The number of such incidents is difficult to come by, and the fact that some such bombings may go unreported due to the plane never being found or evidence of a bombing being inconclusive may skew the numbers.
The Boeing 247 airliner at the heart of this bombing was introduced into service only several months before the incident as the first “modern airliner.” Only 75 of the all metal low wing passenger airplanes were made, and along with the 3 person crew, only 10 passengers could be carried. Top speed was a paltry 200 mph, courtesy of the twin 550 horsepower piston engines driving a single propeller each, and range was about 745 miles. Service ceiling was just over 25,000 feet, though the unpressurized cabin would not allow for passengers to travel at that lofty altitude. (Note: The Boeing 307 Stratoliner, introduced in 1940, was the first airliner to offer a pressurized cabin allowing it to fly and carry passengers at high altitudes.) Though the numbers may seem pathetic by today’s airliner standards, the cruising speed of 188 mph was actually pretty good for its time. Empty weight of the Boeing airliner was less than 9000 pounds, and for comparison a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt single engine single seat fighter plane from World War II weighed 10,000 pounds empty!
The airliner was flying from Cleveland to Chicago when the bombing occurred, the flight having originated in Newark with the ultimate destination of Oakland. In those days non-stop transcontinental airliner flights did not exist. Investigators of the incident found that a bomb had detonated in the luggage compartment, basically blowing the tail completely off the plane. No evidence of who had perpetrated the crime or why has ever been discovered, leaving our first incident of the sabotage of an airliner an unsolved crime.
But was this ill-fated Boeing 247 really the first airliner taken down due to sabotage/bombing? Another incident, also having occurred in 1933, involving an Imperial Airways (British airline) Armstrong Whitworth Argosy II airliner may have preceded our United flight as the first victim of aerial sabotage. The Argosy II was a bi-plane powered by 3 radial engines and could carry a crew of 2 along with 20 passengers. (The Argosy II cruised at only 90 mph, so you can see the enormous difference in performance between our featured airliners.) The range of the Imperial Airways plane was a mere 405 miles. On March 28, 1933, the plane named City of Liverpool crashed near the city of Diksmuide, Belgium, killing all 15 people aboard. The low flying Argosy II was easily seen by people on the ground as it caught fire, with the horrified witnesses reporting a person jumped or fell from the plane without a parachute prior to the plane crashing. The person that jumped or fell was identified as Dr. Albert Voss, a German dentist that had moved to England. Investigators found that a fire had started in the rear of the plane, in the cargo/luggage area, and that the rest of the aircraft did not show signs of fire. The doomed airplane broke in 2 pieces just prior to hitting the ground.
The reason investigators believe Voss may have actually generated the fire himself is because his brother told them he suspected Voss of complicity in the downing of the airliner. That estranged brother also accused Voss of being a drug smuggler who used trips to Europe to buy legitimate drugs as cover for drug smuggling. Another factor contributing to the theory that Voss purposely set the fire is that the police were already aware of the possibility of Voss’s drug smuggling and the dentist was under investigation. The conspiracy theory naming Voss as the saboteur makes a nervous Voss fearful of being arrested upon landing and starting the fire to provide cover for his escape when the plane made an emergency landing or even by Voss bailing out of the doomed airliner. (The bailing out part seems far fetched as the subject did not have a parachute and was accompanied by his niece, who was believed to be an accomplice.) The results of the investigation were inconclusive, and we cannot say for sure if the Imperial Airways flight was indeed really the first airliner downed intentionally.
Terrorists have taken down planes by using bombs, and the complex gyrations and procedures we now endure just to get on a passenger flight are a product of that threat. German dictator Adolf Hitler was targeted for death via a bomb placed on his personal airliner, though the plot failed. Others have been believed to be assassinated by the plane they were flying in being blown up by a planted bomb of some sort, including various conspiracy theories involving people such as John F. Kennedy, Jr.! In 1988, the President of Pakistan along with the US Ambassador to Pakistan were killed when the C-130 military transport they were flying in exploded in the air, killing all aboard. Sabotage was suspected, but not proven.
We are often reminded that flying on a commercial airliner is “the safest way to travel,” although many folks still are terrified of air travel, including some who fear being hijacked or blown out of the sky by a saboteur. Insurance companies prey on the fears of airline passengers by offering flight insurance, a ridiculous investment on the part of the consumer! How about you? Are you afraid of flying on an airliner? At least a little apprehensive? Here at History and Headlines we admit to a deep, overwhelming fear of flying, but NOT of crashing! Our fear is more along the lines of being seated next to a screaming baby, a stinky person, or being trapped on the runway for hours at a time!
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you hate most about flying on an airliner? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Garvey, William, David Fisher and Randy Johnson. The Age of Flight: A History of America’s Pioneering Airline. Pace Communications, 2001.
Holden, Henry. The Boeing 247: The First Modern Commercial Airplane. Aero Publishers, 1991.
Reynolds, Robert. The Bombing of United Air Lines Flight 629: Denver, Colorado November 1, 1955. Amazon Digital, 2019.
Stroud, John. The Imperial Airways Fleet. The History Press, 2005.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Asiir at English Wikipedia of a restored Boeing 247 in United Airlines livery, similar to the crashed aircraft, on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.