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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Moorhead once site of one of Minnesota’s worst aviation disasters

The Fargo Forum special edition was left at the Fargo-Moorhead residents’ door by a newsboy on Thursday, October 30, 1941, perhaps before they had even finished their first cup of coffee.

“14 KILLED IN FIERY CRASH OF NORTHWEST AIRLINER HERE,” screamed the large, all-caps headline.

The news was upsetting, of course, and was made much more stunning when they discovered that day would finish with another disaster in Ontario, making October 30 the deadliest day in commercial aviation history up to that moment.

A regularly scheduled, multi-stop route operated by Northwest Airlines connected Chicago and Seattle. Minneapolis, Fargo, Billings, and Butte, Montana, as well as Spokane, Washington, served as intermediate stops. The list of passengers was a who’s who.

In 1941, flying was still more expensive than taking the train, according to Clay County Archivist Mark Peihl. “The 12 passengers on Flight 5 mirrored this. Except for two, everyone was on business.

It included three corporate presidents, three sales managers, two well-known business owners, a lawyer, and the political party’s state chairman.

41-year-old Clarence Bates, who had flown more than 7,000 hours, was the plane’s pilot. Before Barnesville, when he started to see some light ice accumulating on the wings, he reported no problems with the Douglas DC-3A-269, although he subsequently indicated there wasn’t enough to worry about.

According to accounts, Bates buzzed over Hector Field at 600 feet to check if he could break through the clouds as the plane was conducting a regular instrument approach to the Fargo airport at 1:54 a.m.

In order to prepare for the landing, he turned around and returned across the Red River into Minnesota. Later, he recalled, “the plane began to act oddly at this point, and I realized something was wrong.”

The jet never returned to the airport.

Reports of what transpired reached witnesses who were present during those early morning hours since the airport was now cut off. They were stunned to see Flight 5 crash at 2 a.m. on the grounds of the Moorhead Rod and Gun Club, which is located 1.5 miles north of Moorhead.

Several of the initial responders to the collision were questioned by reporters.

The first was E.M. Gregory, a Great Northern Railroad executive, who described the terrifying experience of rescuing the pilot who had been knocked unconscious and thrown through the windshield. He had been launched 250 feet away from the aircraft.

Bates was attempting to return to the aircraft to save his passengers and the rest of his crew although he was bleeding profusely.

Ralph Yoder, an ambulance driver who was summoned to transport Bates to the hospital, came to the rescue. It was challenging to transport the agitated and uncooperative pilot to the hospital due to the weather and terrain.

Bates had no idea that everyone on the plane had died when he had been taken to the hospital. The pilot was distraught when they informed him the next day.

His wounds were rather modest given what he had been through. He had fractured vertebrae, injuries on his head and arm, and damage to his right hand and arm.

Authorities questioned him next to his bed at St. John’s Hospital right away about the crash. It’s horrifying to hear him describe how helpless he felt that night and how the jet he knew so well seemed unresponsive to his every movement.

A week later, Bates was discharged from the hospital. Bates was found not to be at blame for the collision following the investigation. His survival turned out to be a gift for those in charge of securing aviation transport. Rarely do pilots survive collisions like this one. He was able to identify what went wrong and how it may be avoided in the future thanks to his account of the flight’s closing minutes.

Investigators concluded that the failure of the aircraft to react with full force was the real cause of the disaster, in addition to ice accumulation on the wings. They also blamed the Northwest dispatcher for failing “to realize the danger of weather conditions in Fargo” and provide Bates with a another landing location.

The pilot would have certainly been easily caught off guard considering that it was 1941 and that meteorological information was accessible at the time, according to meteorologist Daryl Ritchison, head of the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network.

Ritchison noted that between midnight to two in the morning, right before the accident, “the temperature plummeted from just above freezing to below freezing. Additionally, light fog occurred during that time period, and mist/drizzle was observed both soon before and during the crash period. All of these would point to ice as the aircraft descended in altitude.

Sadly, Bates would not have the same luck again. On October 31, 1942, over a year after the Moorhead disaster (and with World War II well in progress), Bates was killed when the B-24 bomber he was test-flying crashed in St. Paul.

Cedric Blackwater
Cedric Blackwater
Cedric is a journalist with over a decade of experience reporting on local US news, and touching on many global topics. He is currently the lead writer for Bulletin News.

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