Way We Were | ParkRecord.com

Way We Were

The makings of a perfect storm

David Nicholas
Park City Museum Researcher

Those of us fortunate enough to live full-time in Park City are accustomed to severe and abrupt weather changes. Storms can also involve economic and political disturbances. In this ensuing "Way We Were" series we'll learn how economic, political and climatological events coincided to create a "Perfect Storm" culminating in the only fatal plane crash in Park City's history.

On Nov. 15, 1941, residents of Park City were enjoying unseasonably mild temperatures, though few complained. To most, snow was an inconvenience. Harnessing the economic value of the "Greatest Snow on Earth" was 25 years in the future. That November Sunday began clear, calm and warm. It, however, ended in a raging blizzard with deadly consequences: the crash of a military bomber on Iron Mountain. The crash occurred just after midnight on Monday, Nov. 16, but the "Perfect Storm" began in the depths of the Great Depression.

The Depression was not discriminatory. Park City coped as best it could, though layoffs occurred. Miners fortunate enough to work did so with a combination of reduced wages and hours. The most productive new mine in the town's recent history — the Park Con — delivered significant amounts of high-quality ore during this era, unfortunately a time when metal prices were at historic lows.

Even the U.S. military was not immune. America's worldview at the time was decidedly isolationist, eroding support for a strong military. In this economic and political environment, weapons programs were curtailed or forced to operate with severe budget cuts. Under these circumstances, in 1934, the U.S. Army Air Corps announced its intention to develop a new bomber. Three companies responded to the request: Boeing, Douglas Aircraft and the G.L. Martin Company.

Boeing submitted its Model 299. Though a prototype, this four-engine, heavily armed bomber was revolutionary. The plane was designed for long-range naval reconnaissance and combat. Martin submitted its Model 146, a modernized version of its existing B-10 twin-engine medium-range bomber. Douglas submitted its Model DB-1, a low-cost, twin-engine, lightly armed and under-powered bomber.

The Boeing and Martin aircrafts were superior to the Douglas DB-1 by every measure except price. Boeing's plane was the best of the three — able to fly higher, faster, farther and carry the heaviest payload. But it didn't come cheap. The most expensive of the models, it was approximately three times the price of the DB-1. Boeing had another problem: during a demonstration, its one and only prototype crashed due to pilot error. The aircraft was a total loss. Boeing was officially removed from consideration.

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Given the economic and political climate, military procurement officers awarded the contract to the lowest-cost bidder. Douglas Aircraft was selected to build 133 of its twin-engine "peacetime" bombers, which became known as B-18s. During the decision-making process, minimal consideration was given to either airworthiness or combat readiness. Why worry? The U.S. was isolationist, far removed from the gathering war clouds in Europe and Asia. The end result: a bomber that was obsolete before it rolled off the assembly line.

Next week's Way We Were will further explore the deadly airplane crash in Park City.