American Airlines NC-12363 was a Curtiss-Wright T-32 Condor II that crashed in a snowstorm in the Adirondacks in 1934. Aviation artist Ted Williams drew this rendition of it for the cover of Skyways: The Journal of the Airplane 1920-1940 #83 July 2007.
The Curtiss-Wright T-32 Condor II was first built in 1933 and introduced several firsts to commercial air transportation. These included retractible landing gear, and passenger cabin soundproofing. Some variants had passenger sleeping compartments and one dubbed New York, was modified with a wheelchair ramp and other amenities to be accessible to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
N-12363 is the only known survivor of the 45 Condor IIs that were built. Some parts were picked up by passersby and the remains moved and stored by a Richard Newman of Moab, Utah, who hoped some day to restore it. The colors for the illustration were taken from fabric found at the crash site.
Perhaps the most famous Condor II was NR-12384, used by Admiral Richard Byrd in his second Antarctic Expedition from 1933-1935.
These drawings are from that airplane.
“N-12363 was dellivered to American Airways in March of 1933 as a T-32 day plane with 15 passenger seats. It was designated Number 166 and assigned to the Boston – Chicago and Newark – Boston service of the Eastern Division of American Airways. Its crew that day, December 28, 1934, were Newark based brothers Ernie and Dale Dryer, former barnstormers who had performed throughout the Midwest on the air show circuit. They were friends and contemporaries of Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and others of that era.
The afternoon of December 28th, Condor Number 166 left Boston for Cleveland and Chicago with stops at Albany and Syracuse. The lower baggage compartment was full of mail sacks and Air Express packages. Ernie Dryer was the captain and Dale flew as his co-pilot. There was a single revenue passenger, Mr Ralph Hambrook of Washington, DC, and a dead-heading company pilot, John Brown. Ernie Dryer landed Flight 166 at Syracuse around 5:45 in lightly blowing snow. Talking by phone to AA’s Dispatch at Albany, Dryer was informed the weather was reported to be blizzard conditions to the west over Lake Erie and Cleveland. Dispatch cleared them to return east to Albany and then Boston so they departed Syracuse at 6:30 pm. The crew and dispatch didn’t know the storm they were avoiding had passed to the north and its fury was directed in front of them, they were flying into it.
Some 35 minutes into the flight from Syracuse the crew became lost as the radio antenna iced up and cut off their ground contact. The right engine started missing due to carburetor ice accumulation in the throat. The wings started collecting ice also as the aircraft had no wing deicers. Propeller alcohol was hand pumped and caused ice particles sliding off the propellers to slap into the fuselage. They were now in the middle of a massive major snow storm, losing power with zero visibility, just snow and blackness. Captain Dryer circled with his side window open looking for any sign of habitation but there were none. No sight of anything due to the heavy snow. The ship radio crackled static and noisy whines. Now both engines were losing power. Dryer continually shut off the magnetos momentarily and then back on to backfire the engines and clear the ice in the carburetors. Now 40 minutes had passed and their altitude was slipping away due to the loss of power. Then the right engine sputtered and at the same time Dyer suddenly felt, heard and saw tree branches hitting and sliding by the cockpit windshield and lower wing. Instinctively, Ernie pulled back hard on the control yoke, stalled the aircraft and flipped the magneto switches “Off” while yelling at his brother, Dale, to “Hang On!”
Old 166 was traveling at an estimated 70 mph when it was pulled up into the stall. She was descending at about 100 feet per minute in a tail down attitude when the tail wheel snagged the top of a 130 foot Beechwood tree, which was in a grove of 100 foot high hardwood trees. The tree top snagged and partially sheared but held the crippled airliner’s tail wheel. It acted like a carrier’s arresting gear, abruptly halting her forward travel in less than 40 feet. The Condor cam to rest in a horizontal attitude on a four foot blanket of snow. They were down, but where?
Sitting on the snow, shaken, the pilots saw the light from the nose mounted passing and landing lights, also the cockpit and passenger cabin lights remained on. Dryer killed the lights to save the battery. The aircraft remained completely intact with only the outer wing panels folded back and tips broken but Dryer ordered the aircraft immediately evacuated for fear of fire! Later, when it beam apparent that the plane would not catch fire they returned and scrounged for anything that could be used to protect against the snow and the cold. There was a half sandwich which belonged to Brown and water jugs were in the rear of the cabin. But there were no blankets so they used seat cushions to sit on and for warmth. A large section of cabin fabric was cut off to build a shelter for the passenger, Mr. Hambrook. The heavy snow continued throughout the night dropping over an additional foot on the wrecked aircraft and survivors. At early daylight the snow ceased but the temperature dropped to almost zero. Being inside, the wind was not a big problem but they could hear it howling among the high tree tops.
As the day progressed the survivors found they were in a heavily forested area with nothing but snow, trees and gloom! They had no indication that they were on a mountain side. Dale Dryer tried the radio without success, however John Brown finally managed to get it to work. They were able to talk to Albany and inform them that they were down, safe but freezing. In 1934 radio direction finding was a soon-to-be discovered art so unavailable to help them in their predicament. Pressed for an approximate location after flying blind nearly 45 minutes after leaving Syracuse, their estimate was 200 miles south of their actual location. But there was a massive mobilization and rescue under way. New York Governor Lehman ordered ground and air troops to mobilize and start searching. New York State Troopers were call out to assist and local police and volunteers were asked to help with ground searches. 25 airline aircraft were diverted to help with the search along with as many Air National Guard aircraft as could be readied.
Local search teams headed out into the weather to search for the Condor and its survivors but the first day came and went with no sign of NC-12363 or its survivors. In the town of Poland, New York, where NC-12363 was thought to be within a 50 mile radius, over a thousand newspaper/radio reporters, State Troopers and National Guard searchers concentrated their efforts, virtually taking over every spare inch of space while stringing in miles of telephone wires, massing trucks, cars and generally just over burdening the town’s resources, as part of the rescue effort.
To the north, in Morehouseville, New York, a village of small houses, one man claimed he heard the engines of a large airplane close by around 7:30 the night before. He was sure of the direction and it was his intention to trek through the snow into the mountain area south of the town. Being woodsmen and foresters he and his neighbors formed a party of five (two brothers and three neighbors) then departed on snow shoes carrying hunting equipment and axes. They planned to travel light and as fast as they could across the frozen landscape. Meanwhile the search efforts to the south had not turned up a trace of the downed airliner and the brief landscape description given before the Condor’s batteries quit suggested that the accident site was further north, way up in the Adirondack Mountains.
In late afternoon search planes were working north of Poland when an Air National Guard pilot spotted a plume of black smoke off in the snowy distance. He flew toward it and in the fading light saw the outline of the large airliner with four people standing close by and waving. He circled over the crash site and slowed his open cockpit plane down as much as possible so as to drop a small chute which held blankets, sandwiches and a quart of rye whiskey. But the chute became entangled very high up in the trees. Another American Airways Condor in the search saw the National Guard plane and then the parachute. Flying closer the pilot spotted the Condor. This was Chief Pilot Dean Smith of American’s Eastern division, who had flown the Condor II for Admiral Byrd in Antarctica that summer. He immediately contacted Albany on the radio and gave the location, reporting that the survivors seemed to be in good shape.
The ground search party of five men, from Morehouseville, heard the aircraft circling and headed in that direction. But at the crash site the survivors were looking up at the parachute with dismay, as they had no way to get it down. Then they heard the ground party a short distance away, who were shouting and firing guns to draw other searchers to the spot. It was getting dark but the five new arrivals set to work with their axes to cut down the tree which had hung up the chute and supplies. They had brought some extra clothes, whiskey and sausages which were immediately consumed by the survivors. The first tree fell hung up on another and so it too was chopped down. As it turned out four trees had to be cut down before they reached the chute. It was getting dark so the rescuers determined it was too dangerous and risky to move the survivors out in the dark. They set about making a large lean-to and built a larger fire. The next morning many more searchers arrived with sleds and supplies so Mr. Hambrook, the passenger, was carried out on a sled while the three pilots walked out with their rescuers. The three pilots all suffered minor frost bite and were hospitalized briefly at Utica, New York for a few days. Dale Dryer suffered a fractured jaw which required more medical attention later.
American’s mechanics, using horse drawn sleds, removed the engines, props, flight instruments and landing gear then carried them back to a hangar at Utica. The carburetors were found to have almost solid ice in the throat with an opening diameter of less than a quarter of an inch. It indicated the Curtiss Wright Engineering Department’s claim that they had solved the problem of carburetor icing on the Wright R1820 radial engine was not so. This had major consequences as the Wright R1820 had been selected to power the new Douglas DC-2 and subsequently the Douglas DC-3. As a result anyone who has flown a Wright engined DC-3 will remember that the carburetor heat levers were right by the throttles on the top of the throttle pedestal. Mixture lever were down almost to the floor!”
NC-12363 was a local magnet and a souvenir hunter’s major delight even though it was more than eighteen miles up in the mountains, over rugged terrain. Eventually though, everything possible was carried off including the cockpit and cabin seats, insulation, fabric, floor sections and metal flooring from the cockpit. One woman was even seen staggering down the trail carrying the cabin entry door. Everything that could be stripped away was! The cables, control yoke, cockpit panels, nacelle cowling, metal skin off the center wing, the wing struts, all were gone! Parts and pieces were now scattered for a 75 mile radius of the Herkimer County Seat in New York.
Years later I had the pleasure of meeting Ernie Dryer. We became good friends and would meet all over the country, as he and his wife did a lot of traveling in his pickup camper. Ernie did quite well in life and should laugh because he had “only” a 6th grade education. I told him a 6th grade education in the 1917 pre WW I era was better than a Doctorate in the 1970’s.
Ernie became quite senior at American and when the first underpowered B-707 was introduced he was number one or two on the seniority list. As I recall he flew Flights 1 and 2 on the New York/Los Angeles route and had an interesting story about one of his very early flights. That particular winter evening he had a fully loaded plane bound for LAX out of Idlewild. It had snowed earlier that day but had turned into a light rain. Upon receiving takeoff clearance he put the pedal to the metal however the airspeed came up slower than normal. Very soon all the runway was behind them and they were about to go through the blast fence when he demanded “Gear Up! ” The copilot looked like he was going to argue so Earnie said “Gear Up Dammit! The co-pilot’s hesitation was such that as the gear came up it took out part of the blast fence, with enough noise to scare the hell out of the passengers sitting over the wing. Ernie said to the copilot, “Now look what you’ve went and done! “He did three fly-bys, none of which revealed any damage. Still though Flight Operations wanted him to go out over the water, dump fuel and return to Idlewild. Ernie had no indication of anything wrong so we told them he was going to LAX. His reasoning was that it was too cold in New York and if he had a hung gear LAX was more prepared to handle the new 707 than Idlewild, plus he would burn off the fuel without having to screw around over New York for another hour. Upon reaching LAX the normal landing was made after which an investigation did not show a single scratch on the aircraft.
Seems neither Boeing nor American’s engineering and safety committee had done enough research on the effects of snow or slush on the early, and very underpowered, B-707’s takeoff roll. Boeing engineers, after some serious study, found the snow, slush and water should not have allowed the 707 to get past V1, much less reach V2. They concluded that Dryer and the 707 should have ended up in Jamaica Bay. But because he did not Boeing asked him to come up to Seattle to show and tell them what he had done! Ernie said Boeing sent him a letter about four months later; he would chuckle about it but never let me see the letter. He passed away in Hemet, California in 1985.
by Dick Newman, as published in REPArtee – The Retired Eastern Pilots Association Magazine, Winter 2008