This Was Then: Air tales

Including a wild goose chase — literally!

A seaplane ties up at Union Wharf. Regularly scheduled commercial flights provided service from both Edgartown and Vineyard Haven harbors to off-Island destinations during the 1930s. Courtesy Chris Baer.

New York City holdup man Lewis “Bum Dogs” Miller was on the run in the spring of 1929 after committing a series of armed robberies with his partner, Landers “Pork Chops” Samuels, in Queens. Samuels was captured, but Miller fled to Oak Bluffs, where he took refuge in a bungalow. He couldn’t hide long from the law, however. When Queens police detectives got word of Miller’s whereabouts, they initially balked at the long drive and off-season ferry schedule; instead they decided to hire an airplane pilot to fly them to the Island. It was evidently the first time a plane had been used for this purpose, at least in this area, and their trip made the papers as far away as Indiana. Miller was soon captured and returned to Queens.

Seaplanes had been a regular sight on the Vineyard ever since the first “hydroplanes” arrived in Oak Bluffs in 1919. In 1926, two naval airmen fell to their deaths into Vineyard Haven Harbor after their seaplane nosedived and broke in two shortly after takeoff.

In 1932, aviator Charles Lindbergh used a seaplane to search the Vineyard’s north shore for a yacht where he would purportedly find his kidnapped son, according to a ransom note. While the mysterious circling plane attracted much local attention, Lindbergh’s search failed.

(Twenty-month-old Charles Jr. would later be found dead near their New Jersey home.)

By the early 1930s, a regularly scheduled commercial summer flight service was established with a 12-passenger seaplane, connecting Vineyard Haven Harbor by air with New York and Nantucket. A pontoon leak in 1934 resulted in a delay in Vineyard Haven on one flight; the Fitchburg Sentinel reported, “It was the first time locally that an airship has been hauled out of the water in a ship’s cradle to be repaired in a shipyard.”

Regular seaplane service operated in Edgartown as well. In 1937 a Cape Cod Airlines flight full of New Yorkers crashed broadside into a laundry truck on the Chappy ferry while landing. Ferry captain Foster Silvia and truck driver Malcolm Keniston leaped from the moving ferry into the water to safety, but Charles Johnson of Edgartown suffered a serious head injury from the truck. The plane went down in 12 feet of water with all four passengers, but quick-thinking Coast Guardsmen on a nearby cutter came to their rescue. Miraculously, the air passengers were only shaken up, and none was seriously injured. Keniston is said to have kept a large piece of fabric from the fuselage rolled up in his attic until his death in 2004.

An elderly couple from New York making their first flight in 1940 weren’t so lucky. Their seaplane hit a submerged object in Vineyard Haven Harbor upon landing, and overturned. The couple were killed. The pilot and a 6-year-old passenger survived.

In 1944, a Navy pilot crash-landed a torpedo bomber in the scrub oak “two miles northeast of the Martha’s Vineyard Naval Airport” following an engine fire, and overturned. While two enlisted men jumped clear, the pilot was trapped under the burning wreck. Two crash crews from the Naval Air Base soon arrived on the scene, and after an hour managed to extinguish the fire and free the trapped pilot. The three airmen suffered only cuts and bruises.

In 1947, two Barnstable men were charged with hunting wild Canadian geese from a seaplane in Edgartown. The hunters would allegedly shoot the geese from the air, and then land on the water to pick them up. State Conservation Officer J. Edward Bannister used a rented amphibious plane in his investigation, culminating on one occasion in an air chase in which the wily hunters outmaneuvered him and escaped. Nevertheless, the men were soon identified and charged.
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.