Western Air Express Flight 7 Crashes, Killing 5

On January 12, 1937, shortly after 11 a.m. in adverse weather, Western Air Express Flight 7 crashed into a ridge below Los Pinetos Peak near the California towns of Saugus and Newhall.

The aircraft, a twin engined Boeing 247B (NC13315) carried a crew of three and ten passengers; there were five fatalities (one crew member and four passengers), including noted international adventurer and filmmaker Martin Johnson, of Martin and Osa Johnson fame.

The off-course Boeing 247B, en route from Salt Lake City, was on approach to the Union Air Terminal at Burbank, California in severely lowered visibility due to heavy rain and fog. On suddenly spotting a ridge looming directly ahead, pilot William L. Lewis cut the engine and "pancaked" onto the hillside to reduce the force of the impact.

The aircraft crashed into Pinetos Peak, 4 miles southeast of Newhall while attempting to land at Burbank Airport in fog and rain. The pilot descended to a dangerously low altitude without positive knowledge of his position. African explorer, Martin Johnson, 52, killed. Johnson suffered a fractured skull in the crash and died the next day in a hospital.

During the drizzling rain Tuesday, John Wood, caretaker at the Dulin ranch three miles east of town, heard an airplane motor begin to sputter, and stop suddenly. This was followed by a loud crash sounding like an explosion. Mr. Wood at once came to Newhall and reported to the Sub-Station, and then the news of the crash of the airliner on top of Stone mountain was flashed to the world.
The crash came at 11:15 as Pilot W.W. Lewis attempted to take the plane to the Burbank airport in fog. He had "lost the beam" when he got to the east side of it, and was flying at some 2,000 feet, having already flashed his signal for the passengers to get ready for landing. The ceiling here was 1,000 feet, which is none too safe anywhere, but would have permitted an emergency landing at the Saugus port. Suddenly the mountain loomed before him, and Lewis with lightning-like thought, shut off the motors and "pancaked" on the side of the mountain, only a short distance from the lockout station. The thirteen occupants of the plane were thrown in a heap, and one, James A. Braden, Cleveland, Ohio was instantly killed.

Presently the weather grew thick. Pilot Lewis radioed ahead for instructions, was told to come in on the Saugus radio beam. Pilot Lewis flew on through a heavy snow storm, gradually "letting down" from 7,000 ft. At 11:05 he radioed: "Coming down to localizer [beam] at field." He was then some ten miles from Burbank and only ten from the spot where a United Airliner smashed fortnight ago with death to twelve (TIME, Jan. 11). At that point he got off the beam, began circling to pick it up. Suddenly, out of the haze loomed a mountain. It was too late to clear it. With quick skill, Pilot Lewis cut his engines, pulled up the Boeing's nose, pancaked.

Inside there had been no warning, but the ten passengers were strapped to their seats ready for the landing at Burbank. As Passenger Arthur Robinson recalled: "Suddenly the plane began to drop—drop. Then there was a terrible crash. My seat belt kept me in my seat. I didn't lose consciousness, but my leg and side hurt. I guess I was about the only one that wasn't knocked out." Passenger Robinson set off alone down the snow-spattered mountain, managed to stagger four miles to the Olive View Sanitarium despite a broken ankle. Inmates there had heard the impact and screams of the victims borne by the wind, had already given the alarm.