before December 9, 1930

by E.M. Allison
(From "Wings Over Asia Volume 1")

It happened early one morning in clear and cold weather with a load of three Chinese passengers and about 400 pounds of mail. It was my second fire in the air and by far the worst.

About one minute after take-off from Hankow raw gasoline started spraying into the cockpit and also into the mail compartment, which was in the hull below the cockpit level. I signalled the co-pilot immediately to close the gasoline valve. Then there was a tremendous explosion and fire enveloped us. The co-pilot lowered the landing gear. While the propeller kept turning and pumping more gasoline into the raging fire, I signalled to the co-pilot to get out on the wing to escape being burned to death. By this time, we were only a few feet above the ground. As the co-pilot crawled out on the wing, I managed to land the plane in a cotton field.

I remembered that years before a friend had crashed in Woodward Pass, Pennsylvania, and his plane had caught on fire. He was taken to a hospital, apparently with only minor burns, but four days later, he began to hemorrhage from his lungs and died soon after. Evidently, he had swallowed flame, and hot gasses had irreparably damaged the tender lung tissue.

This tragedy had made a tremendous impression on me and I had resolved to do everything possible to avoid that sort of death if my plane caught fire. I held my breath for the few moments it took to land the plane. I believe it was this action which saved my life.

Once out of the aircraft, I put out the fire blazing on my outer clothing. Since my coat had been partly open at the throat, flaming gasoline had ignited some of the fleece lining and I had to extinguish the fire inside my coat. Next, I grabbed the fire extinguisher and put out the blaze inside the mail compartment.

Paul Baer, the co-pilot, was unhurt, and I had only a few blisters. Neither of us subsiquently developed lung hemorrhaging. Ray Ott, our station manager at Hankow, had seen the fire and emergency landing and realized something was seriously wrong. He drove across the cotton field and together we checked the plane. The main damage was to the engine ignition system most of the insulation having burned off the sparkplug leads. After taping this as best we could, I flew the plane back to the Hankow field. Examination of the plane there showed that a rupture in the gasoline return line had caused the spray of fuel and consequent fire. Later that day, I dropped the passengers and flew the aircraft to Shanghai with mail only.

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