Deadliest Air Disaster in Fargo-Moorhead History Had a Sole Survivor

The early morning hours of October 30th, 1941 were cold and misty in Fargo-Moorhead, with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark. 

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Hector Field in the 1940s

Northwest Airlines flight 5 was traveling from Minneapolis to Hector Field in Fargo with 12 passengers and 3 crew members, aboard a Douglas DC3, a twin-prop plane common in passenger aviation at the time.

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Northwest Airlines Douglas DC3

Captain Clarence Bates was flying in awful conditions, with the air full of moisture and the visibility ceiling at about 500 feet. As he approached Fargo-Moorhead, he struggled with his aircraft. The wings were icing-up, and ice on his airspeed indicator caused erratic readings in the cockpit.

At 1:54 AM, Bates radioed that the atmosphere was “thick” and freezing. Residents north of the metro heard the plane circle the airport, flying at about 2,700 feet. Captain Bates was making an instrument approach to Hector Field, and was expected to make a radio call when the ground was in sight. The radio call never came.

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The wreckage of Northwest Flight 5

Captain Bates had once been Northwest Airlines’ Operations Manager at Hector Field, so he was well-aware of the potentially precarious weather conditions, but circumstances conspired against him. The air traffic controller failed to instruct him to abort his attempted landing and proceed to an alternate site, and his aircraft fell victim to the freezing, icing conditions. Right around 2:00 AM, likely as the result of a stall, the DC3 plummeted through the clouds and hit the ground north of Moorhead. The aircraft skipped the length of a football field and came to rest violently in a field.

There were no known witnesses to the actual crash, but Charles Bailey, a visitor from Columbus, Ohio, and Eveline Berg, an operator of a Fargo beauty parlor, saw the fire on their way home from a night at the club. The force of the impact had thrown Captain Bates through the cockpit window and Bailey and Berg told AP reporters that he was found wandering in the field, dazed. Bates was reportedly desperate to rescue the passengers, but dutifully admonished bystanders to stay away from the plane which was still loaded with fuel.

Area residents rode in the ambulance with Captain Bates, and the distraught pilot explained that his controls had failed to respond in the final moments before the crash.

Investigators would later discover that the DC3’s landing gear were still retracted when the plane contacted the ground, and the propellers were still turning. Captain Bates had not been trying to land, but was still trying to fly his crippled plane when the accident occurred. 12 passengers and 2 crew members died in the crash, and Clarence Bates was the only survivor.

The Associated Press Reported a list of crash victims:

  • Mrs. Jay Packard, 50, Atlantic City.
  • F.R. Lowell, Springfield, OH, sales manager of the Superior Engine division of the National Supply company.
  • R.W. Ramsey, 47, North Canton, OH, president and general manager of Ramsey Lumber company.
  • W.A. Metzger, 39, New York, sales manager, portable division, Royal Typewriter company.
  • L.C. Carr, Highland Park, IL, employee, Northwest Airlines Chicago office.
  • A.F. Simonson, 45, Grand Forks, lumberyard operator and farm machinery dealer.
  • C.W. Farup, 45, Grafton, ND, automobile dealer and real estate man.
  • Ned Wells, 41, Fargo, ND, sales manager, Dakota Tractor & Equipment company.
  • E.A. King, 45, Fargo, ND, president Dakota Tractor & Equipment company.
  • Miss Helen Ford, 33, Fargo, ND.
  • Henry G. Klopp, Spokane, WA, president of the White Pine Sash Co.
  • A.H. Brown, Billings, MT, chairman, Montana state Republican central committee and supreme counsel for the Imperial Order of the Shrine.
  • Co-Pilot Alden Onsgard, 25, Minneapolis.
  • Stewardess Bernice Blowers, Welcome, MN.

The accident took place just over a month prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and pilots like Captain Bates would soon be in strong demand. After recovering from his injuries, he would go back to work for Northwest Airlines and moonlight for the US Military. In an eerie coincidence, Captain Bates reached his final destination one year and one day later, on Halloween, 1942, when the B-24 he was testing for the government crashed in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 5 is the deadliest air disaster in Fargo-Moorhead history, and October 30th, 2016 was the 75th anniversary of the accident.

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