The day the plane crash-landed in the pasture
By BOB SALLEE
The daring young man revved his engine and gently eased the stick toward his lap. His magnificent flying machine lifted into a blue sky over St. Louis like an oversize white crane soaring in the wind. A silk scarf flapped beneath the pilot'’ goggles in the churning backwash of the propeller. An urgently needed cargo headed southward as the crow flies toward Little Rock, where an anxious driver waited.
The great flood of 1927 had taken its toll on bridges, railroad tracks and waterfronts along rivers and streams in Arkansas. Floodwaters had washed out sections of the main line on the Missouri-Pacific railroad near Corning. A line of boxcars full of freight couldn’t get through – including a shipment of yeast bound for a thriving busy bakery in Little Rock. No yeast, no bread. In desperation, the bakery had chartered a plane to get the yeast to the capital city as quickly as possible.
Another daring young man – one Charles Augustus Lindbergh – had just electrified the world on his nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris. His audacious feat had lured many other young men into the skies.
As the pilot from St. Louis gazed down at the patchwork quilt of countryside below, two farm boys whiled away that spring afternoon – doing what boys do after school near the rural community of Pangburn in White County. Leon Van Patten was only 9. He and 16-year-old Lawrence Dumas vividly remember that eventful day.
So does Lois Adcock Edwards Cain, who was 12 at that time – a stalwart young athlete. She played side-center on the junior high championship basketball team and had stayed after school that day to practice her shots.
In excellent physical condition, Lois had to take over her older brother’s chores. She harrowed, plowed and planted on the family farm after Aubrey got killed while picking cotton on the Anderson farm up near Dripping Springs one Saturday morning.
"They came and woke him up that Saturday morning to go pick cotton," Lois sighed. An electrical storm on Thursday night had blown down some high-voltage lines. One of them dangled across a section of the cotton patch to the ground. The live end of the wire spewed fire on the wet foliage, she said.
Some of the women out in the field had crawled under the drooping wire so they could continue picking. They didn’t know much about electricity back then, Lois recalled.
"Aubrey and two other boys were picking real close to the spewing end of that wire," she said, "when a bird lit on the cable." The other boys heard Aubrey say: "If touching electricity will kill a man, why isn’t that bird dead?" They said he had pointed to the bird with his outstretched left arm, and his sleeve was wet with the morning dew. "The fire jumped out and shot up Aubrey’s arm," she said. "Aubrey spoke only two words – ‘Oh, me’ – and fell dead."
A wagon pulled up in the yard with Aubrey’s body in the back, she continued, and one of the men told her that Aubrey had been killed.
Their mother, Etta, was at an aunt’s house in Searcy. She had an appointment with the doctor that afternoon. On the way to Searcy that morning, Lois said, her mother saw an ill omen as she passed the cotton field.
Aubrey and some of the other boys were kicking at the air, Lois recalls. "She yelled to him: ‘Aubrey, be careful or one of those mules might kick you and kill you!’"
After word of Aubrey’s death reached Searcy, a relative at the aunt’s house broke the bad news: "Sit down, Etta, I have something to tell you." Instantly seized with grief, Etta knew in her heart that Aubrey was dead. She exclaimed: "Oh, no, a mule kicked Aubrey and killed him!"
Meanwhile, as the pilot winged his way over the wooded mountainside into Arkansas, Lois left the basketball court and headed toward home. Her mother was probably worried because she hadn’t milked the cows.
Rather than take the long way home along the road past I.B. Van Patten’s pasture and up a long steep hill, Lois took a shortcut across Van Patten’s pasture and up a hill through the woods on the other side of the pasture.
Just as she started across the pasture, Leon and Lawrence gazed skyward, their eyes riveted on a white airplane gliding downward without a sound through the sky.
Miles back, the plane’s engine had sputtered several times and conked out. The pilot hadn’t panicked. Looking for a place to land, he spotted a clearing ahead – Van Patten’s pasture – and turned the plane’s nose down for a dead-stick landing.
The two boys stared in wide-eyed disbelief as the plane silently dropped lower and lower toward the pasture. Lois was oblivious to the pilot’s emergency, and too far away to notice that Leon and Lawrence were yelling at her.
The plane’s approach seemed picture perfect – until the pilot saw the young girl directly in the plane’s path. Instinctively, he jerked back on the stick and the plane hopped over the girl, crashed through a barbed wire fence and skidded into a freshly plowed field.
The pilot climbed out none the worse for his untimely landing. Lois didn’t know that she had nearly been hit by the plane in the pasture.
"I saw the plane circling around up there," Lois recalled the other day from her home in Rosewell, NM, "but I didn’t know the pilot was in trouble. Once in a while a plane would land in a field around there, so I didn’t think much about it. When I reached the woods beyond the field, I looked back and saw that the plane had hit that fence. I sure didn’t realize that I had caused the crash till Leon Van Patten told me later what had happened."
The pilot pulled his goggles up onto his leather cap, unsnapped the chin strap and climbed out of the cockpit. "What county is this?" he asked the two boys, who were admiring his flying cap, his silk scarf and his leather boots.
"He talked real fast," Leon recalls. "He was a Yankee, a Northern man from way up in St. Louis. And needed to find a telephone." The plane wouldn’t fly again without a new engine and repairs to one of the wings that struck a fence post.
After hearing about the crash-landing, the bakery in Little Rock sent a car to pick up the yeast.
Meanwhile, the pilot checked into a little hotel downtown – the Castleberry – and got the airport in St. Louis to send a mechanic and a new engine.
Obliging farmers used a team of mules to pull the plane out of the field. They tied it to nearby trees so the wind wouldn’t blow it over.
Repairs to the plane were completed after nearly a week, and the pilot took off – heading back to St. Louis.
At the class reunion a couple of years ago, Lois said that Leon came up to her and said, "The last I remember of you is when you nearly got hit by that airplane out in our field – and just kept on going."
She’s 82 now, Leon will turn 80 in July, and Lawrence is 87. They’ve never forgotten the day that plane came down in the pasture.
Lois may have been the only farm girl in Arkansas who can say she nearly got run over by an airplane while taking a shortcut home through the pasture.