By Diane Mettler
Many are familiar with the Stratoliner crash of 1939. Stanley Scurlock and his young son Rod were putting in horses when they noticed a large plane flying over Alder. Large planes weren’t common back then, so they stopped to look up.
Rod describes what came next. “The plane started climbing and making more noise. Suddenly, it turned downward and started spinning, and then the air became filled with material, wing tips and motors fell off, and the plane disappeared behind the ridge on the north end of our property.”
The plane was found and none of the seven aboard had survived.
Fast-forward 75 years. I posted information about the story on the history site eatonvilletorainier.com and was surprised when I was emailed from Ronald Dijkstra from Holland. His grandfather, Albert von Baumhauer, a Dutch aeronautical engineer was one of the passengers killed in the crash.
Over the next months I learned that Albert, born 1891, had been extremely intelligent and showed an early interest in airplanes. He gave he first presentation on planes at 18.
Holland was neutral during WWI (1914-1918) and during that time Albert studied mechanical engineering and spent a year at a famous technical university in Zurich, Switzerland.
Albert went back to Holland where he got involved in building airplanes for the infant Dutch air force. “They copied foreign planes who had made an emergency landing in neutral Holland. The pilots got interned and the planes seized. Albert’s job was to measure the planes and make drawings,” says Ron.
Albert was by all accounts a plane fanatic. He and his new bride spent their honeymoon in England visiting aircraft factories. Over the next couple decades he became deeply involved in aeronautics, designing a seaplane and working with governments new test and research institute (RSL).
March 1939. Ron describes what happened immediately before the accident: “The 16th of March [Albert's team] visits the Douglas plant in Santa Monica where Albert gets a telegram from Guilonard, technical director of KLM. Can Albert join him at the Hotel Olympic? Boeing has given KLM an option of the new Boeing 307 Stratoliner for two days. There are three planes available because a client has cancelled their order. So Albert goes with haste to Hotel Olympic.
“That evening is a meeting with flight engineers of Boeing who work on the new Stratoliner. They make up a test scheme for the next day to do some standard tests, which are also planned for the DC-4 in Santa Monica.
“The next day they start the engines at 12.45 hrs and at 12.57 the Boeing 307 gets into the air. At 13.12 hr they have radio contact to inform them that they are at 11,000 feet and halfway between Tacoma and Mt. Rainier. According to the flight plan, they should start soon with the sideslips.”
The next report will be from the Scurlocks, who see the plane fall violently from the sky.
Albert left a wife, son and two daughters, who never forgot him. This June, 75 years after the accident, seven grandchildren, researchers and other relatives visited Alder and Seattle to commemorate the tragic event.
They were even able to connect with Rod, who retold the story of that day.
“As all the relatives were seated on the picnic seats, Rod told the story he had seen more than 75 years ago,” says Ron. “Waving his arms as the flying plane and with his hands making the movements he had seen. While this was going on it was dead silence.”
The family took pictures near the crash site and planted flowers.
A relative said, “Rod, you have to be with us in the picture, that is as close as we can come to our grandfather!”
If you would like to read more about the crash, the plane and Albert, just visit eatonvilletorainier.com, and search Stratoliner.
Diane Mettler writes about the history of the Eatonville area and is a regular contributor to The Dispatch with her Remember When column.