Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 – Robert Matzen

lombard Aviation is truly one of the world’s modern marvels.  To say that it has made the world smaller is an understatement.  There is something mystical and surreal about moving through the air at 39,000 feet, at speeds in excess of 500mph.  Every flyer knows that there are inherent dangers when we take to the skies.  Pilots are incredibly skilled and make the experience seem like magic to those of us in the cabin.  And air travel is safer today that at any point in history but there many tragedies over the years that we have learned from in order to make air travel as safe as possible.  Seasoned pilots will tell you that the early days of aviation were quite dangerous and flying literally was like rolling the dice. On January 16, 1942, movie star Carole Lombard (1908-1942) was a passenger on TWA Flight 3, a flight that began in New York and had a final destination of Burbank, California.  Most of the trip was routine, but a sudden change of events in Las Vegas, changed the course of history and resulted in one of the deadliest aviation accidents of the 1940s.  Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed full speed into Mt. Potosi, causing the aircraft to disintegrate upon impact.  There were no survivors.

The official cause of the disaster is still a mystery.  At the time, flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders did not exist in the form that they do now. The pilot, Wayne Clark Williams and co-pilot Stillman-Morgan Atherton Gillette, took what they knew with them to the grave.  For decades, the case remained dormant but author Robert Matzen brings the past back to life in this gripping account of the life of Carole Lombard, her husband and legendary film star William Clark Gable (1901-1960) and the plane crash that shocked a nation.  Matzen has visited the crash site which is still littered with debris and other grisly finds.  He has reviewed thousand of pages of records including FBI files and official investigation records by the Civil Aeronautics Board (1939-1985). And what he has compiled is a thorough investigative report into the accident that rob Hollywood of one of its brightest stars.

Flight 3’s demise of the crux of the book but the author also tells the story of Lombard’s life, from her humble beginnings in Fort Wayne, Indiana to her success in Hollywood during the golden age.  Matzen leaves no stone unearthed, revealing the very private side of Lombard’s life, replete with romances, tragedy and and a near-death experience many years before she met her fate on Flight 3.   The author captures the aura of the golden era in Hollywood, a time unlike anything the world had seen previously.  Some of the greatest names in Hollywood history appear in the story, coming into and going out of Lombard’s life as she moves through Hollywood’s upper echelon.  She eventually crossed paths with Gable and Matzen provides an inside look into their marriage and the changes that took place in their lives after tying the knot.  Hollywood has dark secrets and stars sometimes come with many shortcomings carefully guarded behind a thoughtfully crafted facade.  Matzen looks past that showing the very human side of both.  The result is an honest an intimate portrait of two stars at the height of their careers whose relationship was on borrowed time.

Matzen wrote the book in a slightly different style.  In the first half of the book, the chapters alternate between Lombard’s life story and the reaction to the crash itself.  Towards the middle of the book, the seam is merged and the story moves forward as emergency personnel formulate plans to visit the crash site and recover what they can.  Readers sensitive to graphic descriptions of accidents may find this part of the book difficult to get through.  The accident was nothing short of devastating.  As Matzen explained the violent nature of the collision, I felt a chill go down my spine.  I was also speechless as I read descriptions of the carnage that awaited personnel as they made their way to the crash site.  At the end of the book, there are photographs included which help to give the reader a visual image of the crash site.  Pictures sometimes do speak a thousand words.

Clark Gable remains one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars.  But what the public did not see was the struggle he waged in the wake of his wife’s death.  Matzen discusses Gable’s life after the crash and up until his death in 1960 at the age of fifty-nine.  Apart from the crash, this part of the book is also a tough read.  We witness the emotional and physical descent by Gable as he struggles to move on in life following the loss of Lombard whom he affectionately referred to as “Ma”.  His sorrow is strong and his life was never the same again. The author focuses on his emotional state and his surprising decision to enlist in the military during World War II.  Gable is a man apart and fans of the late star will find this part of the book to be equally heartbreaking.

As the book moves towards its conclusion, the author gives us yet another surprise with regards to the crash of Flight 2793 on November 8, 2007.  The Cessna was a T182t single-engine aircraft piloted by Civil Air Patrol. Col. Ed Lewis and copilot Dion DeCamp.  Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed directly into the same mountain as TWA Flight 3.  The coincidence was beyond creepy but did both flights crash for the same reason?  And why did two planes, piloted by experienced captains slam full speed into a mountain that by all accounts, should have been seen?  Matzen provides a very thorough and likely explanation for Flight 3’s crash and reveals interesting facts about 2793’s final moments. Perhaps the final truth will never be known about each flight but we do have an abundance of information about both crashes.  They each highlight the dangers of flying at night without proper visual aids and pre-flight planning.  May the souls on board of each rest in peace.

Before reading this book, I was not aware of Flight 3 and the sad ending to the life of Carole Lombard.   The book came as a recommendation on Amazon and for some reason the cover pulled me in.  It was truly a fascinating read and the pace of the book never let up.  Matzen has done an outstanding job. Highly recommended.

If you want to learn more about TWA Flight 3, researcher Mike McComb has an informative post on the tragedy titled January 16, 1942: Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA), Douglas DC-3 (NC1946) Potosi Mountain, NV.  The post includes more photographs of Mt. Potosi, the crew and some of the passengers.  If you like this book, you will find the website to be highly informative and just as thought provoking as Matzen’s work.

ASIN: B01NCTWGWK

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