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PILOT STORIES: Stevens, Walter H. S.

Air Mail Service Began: June 16, 1919
Air Mail Service Ended: September 14, 1920
Assignments: Belmont Park, New York
  December 15, 1919 – Newark, New Jersey
  March 24, 1920 – Cleveland, Ohio

Walter Stevens was one of the reserve pilots whose refusal to fly in horrible fog on July 22, 1919 helped lead to the Air Mail pilots' strike. Unlike the first two pilots who refused to fly, Stevens was not fired, and when the strike ended, he continued to fly the mail.

Like most of his fellow pilots, Stevens hated Heller Field in Newark, New Jersey. It was located next to the Tiffany silver factory. The 80 feet height factory chimneys would prove instrumental in the death of airmail pilot Harry C. Sherlock on March 30, 1920. But the towers were not the only obstacles on that field, which was also framed by a canal and the Erie railroad tracks.

On December 13, 1919, Stevens flew the new Martin twin-engine biplane in for a landing at Heller Field. As he taxied on the field, a group of children ran into his path. Did you know?The Martin, like other aircraft of the period, had no brakes, relying only on a tail skid to slow down and stop the craft. Stevens swerved to avoid the group, his airplane heading to the railroad embankment where some of the kids had run to escape. One young boy in the embankment was hit by the Martin propeller and Gustav Reierson were killed.

As bad as the Martin airplanes proved to be, the Junkers-Larsen JL-6 aircraft were even worse. On September 1, 1920, pilot Max Miller and mechanic Gustav Reierson had been killed when the JL-6 they were in burst into flames while in the air.

Two weeks after Miller's accident, Stevens was flying Junkers-Larsen JL-6 #308 from Cleveland, Ohio to Chicago, Illinois. He carried flying mechanic Russell Thomas with him on the trip. Near Pemberville, Ohio, the airplane was sighted at about 1000 feet in the air, its engine coughing. According to the witness reports, the airplane burst into flames and dove into the ground, exploding on impact. Both Stevens and Thomas were killed.

Airmail officials reexamined the Junkers-Larsen airplanes, and they found and corrected (so they thought) problems in the fuel lines. The craft were sent back into service. On February 9, 1921, a third Junkers-Larsen crash killed airmail pilot Hiram Rowe and his passengers. The Post Office Department then removed the airplanes from active service.

Newspaper clipping of December 13, 1919 forced landing  
Click on the photos to view a larger image.

(top left) Newspaper clipping of December 13, 1919 forced landing
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