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Crash of the Elizabeth

The April 11, 1922 issue of The Evening World reported the crash of Amundsen’s airplane in a field, “at Miola.” They say dramatically:
“Capt. Roald Amundsen, Arctic explorer, and four flying companions narrowly escaped death at Miola, near here, when the monoplane in which they were going from New York to Cleveland, the first lap of a continental journey, turned over when it was forced down in a field. All occupants were slightly scratched and bruised, but otherwise uninjuried. Those with Capt. Amundsen were H.T. Lewis of Bellefonte, Pa.; H.U. Gade of New York, E. Buhl and J. Ondell.”

The Evening World stated that Amundsen “attributed the accident to an overheated motor.” Confusingly, the picture accompanying the story shows Amundsen together with Oskar Omdal, who is not listed among the party flying on this part of the trip. Omdal was a pilot whom Amundsen frequently employed.

On April 12, 1922, The Pittsburgh Press carried the front page photo of the Elizabeth downed in a field near Clarion, Pennsylvania. This is clearly the same aircraft that we can associate with Ernie through the photographs in his collection. The caption states:

“Capt. Roald Amundsen, forced to land near Clarion Tuesday when his monoplane was partly wrecked, arrived in Pittsburgh late yesterday. The arctic explorer was flying from New York to Seattle, Wash., when Tuesday’s hail storm forced him to land. Leaving Clarion early yesterday the train on which the explorer and his party were traveling was held up by a wreck, preventing them from getting anything to eat. Capt. Amundsen said he was going back to New York and that the accident would not prevent him from carrying out his exploration program.

From Seattle the party had intended to go by boat to Alaska. Lieut. H.U. Gade for New York and J. Ondell accompanied the captain to Pittsburgh. The other members of the party, H.T. Lewis of Bellefonte, and E. Buhl, remained at Clarion. Lewis, who was slightly hurt, will be all right in a day or two, the captain said. One wing of the plane was badly damaged and it will take about 10 days to repair it. A relief airplane from the government field at Bellefonte when to Clarion to render assistance.”

Most accounts of this event state that Oskar Omdal wanted to fly the Elizabeth from New York to Seattle as a way to learn more about handling the aircraft. However, the accounts we have from local eyewitnesses do not list Omdal as a member of the party.

In 1960, The Clarion Republican, page 8, carried a story that commemorated the crash of the Elizabeth. This story provides more detail:

“Thirty-eight years ago this week (April 10, 1922) the all-metal monoplane shown above was damaged on a forced landing on the Cosgrove farm, a short distance east of the Miola church.

It was a Junkers JL-6, owned by the famous Arctic explorer Captain Ronald (sic) Amundsen, and piloted by H.T. “Slim” Lewis of Bellefont. Lewis was slightly hurt, the only occupant to be injured at all.

The exploration party was flying from New York to Seattle, intending to continue by ship to Alaska. The airplane, named “Elizabeth” passed directly over Clarion, headed due north at the time, and encountered hail.

When the pilot landed to escape the storm, the airplane nosed over on to its back. One wing was badly damaged and a relief plane from the government field at Bellefont came to Clarion to assist in repairs.

In addition to Captain Amundsen and the pilot, the other members of the party were Lt. H.U. Ondell, and Ernie Buehl. The latter had just come over from Germany and did not speak English very well. He was called “The Flying Dutchman: and now operates Buehl Field at Eddington in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

This photo, made by Burton Studio, is now in the collection of Paul Deiffenbacher. John Trunk, Jr., who was present at the scene of the accident, provided a print for this newpaper. Trunk is president of the Pennsylvania Wing of the OX5 Club of America, an association of old-time pilots.”

(The Republican ran the same picture that had run in The Pittsburgh Press on April 12, 1922. Ernie had a copy of the same picture, which we reproduce on this page.)

There are many accounts of the reason for the forced landing. Overheated engine or “ran out of gasoline” are commonly offered explanations. However, the local newspapers and detailed reports of people living nearby indicate that Slim Lewis, an experienced and highly skilled pilot, was forced to land because the aircraft got caught in a hail storm. It appears that Lewis had to put the plane down in a soft field, the landing gear caught in the soil of the field, and the airplane flipped over.

Following this crash, Larsen is reported to have “presented” Amundsen with a second JL-6 to use in his expedition. It implies that this was an offer of a gift of another JL-6, but other sources say that Amundsen had to raise more money to pay for this aircraft.

Based on the evidence that we have, the newspaper clippings and photographs, we cannot honestly say what Ernie was doing among this party, other than that he had been working recently on the Elizabeth and was probably brought along as a mechanic. It is possible that Amundsen planned to take Ernie with him to Alaska to prepare the Elizabeth for the trip over the North Pole and perhaps even to personally fly along, or it may be that Ernie was simply along to help with delivery of the Elizabeth to Seattle. Ernie would have been a good choice as mechanic on a polar expedition, certainly. He had as much experience with using the JL-6 in arctic-type conditions as anybody.

Near the end of his life, Ernie wrote some notes in an unused checkbook. These were his written "memoirs" but, unfortunately, these notes contain no specific dates and almost no detail. However, in the context of his association with Amundsen, he wrote that Amundsen purchased a JL-6 and mentioned that he was to accompany Amundsen to the "far North." Ernie adds, without explanation, "engine failed."

Sources

• Wreck of Amundsen Monoplane, Pittsburgh Press, April 12, 1922 -- EBC
• Amundsen Hurt, The Evening World, April 11, 1922 -- EBC
• New Monoplane, source and date unknown -- EBC

Link to polar flight
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