September 14th, 2019 marked the 90th anniversary of a plane crash tragedy that occurred in St. Catharines.
It was supposed to be a day that, in the words of the Toronto Star, “was to put St. Catharines on the airways of the world” – the official opening of the Niagara District Airport. Instead, the day ended in devastation and chaos when a five-passenger plane named Travelair, flown by a First World War veteran pilot, inexplicably crashed only two miles south of where it took off. All six persons on the plane, including a six-year-old child, were killed.
The Grand Opening of the Niagara District Airport
Passenger aviation was a relatively new and exciting phenomenon in 1929, and the official opening of the Niagara District Airport was set to be a three-day celebratory event filled with races, competitions, and novelty passenger flights. Between 25 and 30 airplanes were present for the inauguration, including stunt planes, “Moth” aircraft (a series of light, sports planes designed by Geoffrey de Havilland in the 1920s and 1930s), and commercial planes, including the Travelair.
Given the safety rule that planes participating in racing events could not carry passengers, the day’s schedule set racing for the morning and early afternoon, and passenger flights for after 3:00 p.m. A banquet was planned for the evening. The day’s pilots and spectators were leaving for their hotels to ready for the banquet when the Travelair took off. Only a few watched casually.
A few moments later, Captain Earl Hand, president of the Toronto Flying Club, was about to use the phone to make a hotel reservation when a distraught woman came shrieking that the Travelair had crashed and to call an ambulance.
The cause of the Travelair crash is a mystery. According to the Toronto Star, the plane was known for its powerful engine and its passenger load was well within its carrying limits and had just a little cross-wind as it flew south. However, for an unknown reason, the plane failed to rise and climb to the height required to clear the tree tops and high-tension wires in its path. According to the newspaper report, the Travelair “crossed the Welland [S]hip [C]anal between locks 15 and 16, wallowed across weir number 15, barely got over the further bank that became a sixteen-foot drop on the far side, and sank, hitting the swamp below.
The victims of the tragic leisure flight were Pilot Frank Munro Bradfield, an experienced war-pilot; James McDonald, aged 36, a federal government photographer on the Welland Canal, who left behind a wife and two children; Agnes Bennett, aged 37, a widow and friend of the McDonald family; Louis Bennett, aged 22, who was set to be married the following week; John Bond, manager of the City Dairy, and his six-year-old son, Allen.
The Chain of Circumstance
The circumstances surrounding the plane crash are of unlucky coincidence and odd twists of fate. Originally, the inaugural celebrations were set to begin the day before, on Friday, September 13th. Premonition, as well as poor weather, pushed the start of the grand opening to Saturday.
The pilot, Frank Bradfield, was not originally scheduled to fly the Travelair that afternoon. He was tired after flying in two races, saying to a colleague, “I don’t feel like flying. I’m tired. I’d like to go to the hotel.” In the end, Bradfield did not want to disappoint the eager ticket-holders and reluctantly agreed to fly.
James McDonald and Agnes Bennett were also not originally meant to be on the flight.
Agnes, an aviation enthusiast, was visiting James McDonald and his wife Roberta when she suggested the idea to take a passenger flight during the airport’s grand opening. Bennett purchased a ticket for herself, and, on a whim of fate, after two other passengers cancelled their tickets, James and Roberta were able to board the Travelair flight. However, Roberta was not one of the crash victims. Instead, she was the witness on the ground who called for help after the crash.
After being seated with her husband and friend in the cabin, Roberta, in a last-minute change of heart, gave up her ticket. The pilot had broken glass as he climbed into the cockpit. The incident struck Roberta with the force of premonition, saying to her husband, “I have a feeling I ought not to go on this flight. Give my ticket to someone else.” This was likely the ticket Louis Bennett took.
Roberta’s premonition was so powerful that she kept her eyes on the Travelair flight – while the other spectators seemed unconcerned and paid no attention to the flight, she did not miss one moment until it dipped, sank, and disappeared. Once she saw smoke, she knew something had gone wrong. This was when Roberta alerted authorities.
It was too late.
James McDonald, Agnes Bennett, and Frank Bradfield are each buried in Victoria Lawn Cemetery. John Bond, Allen Bond, and Louis Bennett are buried outside of St. Catharines.
The Travelair tragedy reminds us that our understanding of history is never full or complete. New stories and perspectives from the past continue to be uncovered, and it’s our responsibility here at the St. Catharines Museum to weave these into the fabric of our City’s history. The story of the Travelair plane crash was only dug up by the Museum this past summer, while researching for the annual Guided Spirit Walks.
It was another twist of fate to uncover this story just a few months ahead of its 90th anniversary.
Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre. Research conducted by Amanda Balyk.