Iowa Airplane Tragedy

Sunday, June 8, 1941 was a beautiful day for a picnic at the farm rented and occupied by Claude Eldridge a few miles northeast of Waterloo, Iowa. Claude’s wife, Emma (Casbon), was a good cook and people tended to gather at their place on Sundays. This was going to be a special Sunday gathering, as Claude’s oldest brother, Clarence, was getting ready to move to Washington State. Many of Claude and Emma’s siblings were in attendance.

Among the guests were Emma’s sisters, Josephine (“Jo”) and Genevieve (“Gen”). Jo had been married to Christopher Kraft for three years. Their daughter, Dixie, was born in 1939. The young family was living at Claude and Emma’s house while Christopher worked on local farms. Gen was engaged to 28-year-old Walter Fox, who owned a radio repair shop in Waterloo.

Fox was eager to show off the new airplane he had purchased in partnership with another man just one week earlier. The plane was a 1938 Taylorcraft two-seater. Fox had obtained a student pilot’s license two years earlier and had done some solo flying. He flew the plane to a hayfield on the Harry Northey farm, just across from the Eldridge farm.

Detail from map of Black Hawk County, Iowa, with exploded view showing location of the Harry Northey farm in Bennington Township; source: Plat book of Black Hawk County, Iowa (Rockford, Illinois: W.W. Hixcon & Co., 1930); imaged at “Iowa Digital Library,” Iowa University Libraries (https://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/islandora/object/ui%3Ahixson_101) (Click on image to enlarge)

Walter took his fiancée for a ride shortly before noon. About 1:45 p.m., presumably after a picnic lunch, he took Christopher Kraft for a ride. While the families and guests watched, Walter performed loops over the nearby field. He was said to be coming in for a landing when something went wrong about 200 feet above the field. The plane plummeted down, hitting nose first before settling back down into a normal upright position. The Waterloo Daily Courier reported that “the impact broke the engine loose from its mountings; crumbled up the seating compartment, crushing the two occupants fatally.”[1]

The cheerful family gathering instantly became a scene of shock and grief.

Source: Waterloo (Iowa) Daily Courier, 9 Jun 1941, p. 1 (Newspaper Archive) (Click on image to enlarge)

Federal investigators were dispatched to the crash site. Their preliminary findings, reported three days after the crash, were critical of Walter Fox. He was said to have violated nine federal aviation regulations, including: flying without a pilot’s license (his student license had expired one year previously), flying with a passenger without the required license rating, flying acrobatically over an assembly of people, flying acrobatically with a passenger, and flying acrobatically below the minimum altitude.[2]

Eyewitnesses reported that Fox was “looping … at an altitude of less than 500 feet when he apparently lost control of the machine.”[3] Federal regulations prohibited acrobatic maneuvers at an altitude less than 1,500 feet and prohibited stunting with any passenger except a licensed flight instructor. The investigator stated that “not even a highly skilled pilot would have assumed he could loop safely with that type of plane at an altitude of 500 feet.”[4]

The report did not state whether these violations caused the crash. This would be determined later by Civil Aviation Board officials in Washington. (The report can probably be found in the National Archives, but is not available online and I haven’t investigated it further.)

Jo and her daughter Dixie continued to live in the Eldridge home until she bought a house in Waterloo. She got a job with the Rath meat packing plant and continued to work there for 30 years.[5] She married Owen Gray in 1945. They raised Dixie together and had another daughter. Jo died 5 August 2005 at the age of 95.[6] Gen also worked at the Rath packing plant and lived with Jo in Waterloo for some time. She married Robert L. Burman, a local farmer, at Waterloo on 26 August 1951.[7] Gen died on 28 January 2004.[8] She was 86 years old.

Most of the facts for this story were obtained from the articles in the Waterloo Daily Courier of 9–11 June 1941. I’m also indebted to Claudia Vokoun, daughter of Claude and Emma (Casbon) Eldridge, for additional details.


[1] “Plane Crash Probe Delayed: Two Killed as Ship Dives into Ground,” Waterloo (Iowa) Daily Courier, 9 Jun 1941, p. 1, col. 1; online image, Newspaper Archive (accessed through participating libraries: 10 July 2017).
[2] “Two-Death Crash Pilot Declared Breaking 9 Rules,” Waterloo Daily Courier, 11 Jun 1941, p. 6, col. 1; online image, Newspaper Archive (accessed 10 Dec 20).
[3] “Two-Death Crash Pilot Declared Breaking 9 Rules.”
[4] “Two-Death Crash Pilot Declared Breaking 9 Rules.”
[5] “Josephine ‘Jo’ E. Gray (1915-2010),” obituary, The (Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Iowa) Courier, 8 Aug 2010; html edition, (https://wcfcourier.com : accessed 4 May 2019).
[6] “Josephine ‘Jo’ E. Gray (1915-2010).”
[7] “Repeat Vows,” Waterloo Daily Courier, 27 Aug 1951, p. 8, col. 5; image, Newspaper Archive (accessed through participating libraries: 4 May 2019).
[8] “Genevieive [sic] Burman Obituary”, Kaiser Corson Funeral Homes, Inc (http://www.kaisercorson.com/obituary/Genevieve-R.-Burman/Denver-IA/152498 : accessed 17 March 2019).

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