The Jinx Plane Revisited

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – April, 2010 


Jim Taglione of Providence

82 year-old Jim Taglione of Providence believes the ill fated airplane mentioned in the February issue of Your Smithfield Magazine was the same one that once belonged to his uncle, Joseph Taglione, before Ralph Wilkins came into possession of it.   

“My uncle cracked up a few airplanes.” said Jim as we sat sipping coffee in a local restaurant pouring over scrapbooks containing vintage photographs.  One photo in particular showed his smiling uncle sitting atop a wrecked airplane. 

Joseph Taglione was a fairly well known aviator in his time.  Born in Italy, he learned to fly in 1921, and in 1928 was honored by the Sons of Italy as the first Italian American flyer in Rhode Island.  It was during the 1920s that Taglione established Rhode Island Airways with $1,500 he borrowed form Jim’s father. On weekends he would offer plane rides, sometimes making as much as $800.

While reading the article about the jinxed airplane, Jim became convinced that it was the same aircraft once owned by his uncle, particularly when he read about the accident where the landing gear had snagged the roof of an automobile.  “How many of those could have happened?” he asked, for not only had his uncle experienced such an accident, he had done so with the same make of airplane. 

If he didn’t reveal his octogenarian status, Jim could easily be taken for a much younger man. Like his late uncle, he too loves to fly and has been doing so since he was sixteen.  Jim also shares a connection to Smithfield for it was at the old Smithfield Airport where he learned to fly in 1943.  The cost was six dollars for a half hour of instruction.  Each week he would take another lesson with his instructor Butch Boucher, who was also the airport manager.  The rules stated that one had to have a minimum of eight hours of instruction before they could fly solo, but Jim soloed after only four hours and twenty-five minutes. 

“After my solo I bought him (Boucher) a case of beer,’ Jim recalled, ‘and I was only sixteen!”

Butch took a liking to Jim and offered him a job patching holes in the airplanes.  Many aircraft of that era had canvas “skins” tightened by aviation “dope” which allowed for good aerodynamics and lighter aircraft weight. The “dope” was a glue/lacquer mix that shrank as it dried.  The first time he set out to make a repair he learned what a messy job it could be if not done right.  The “dope” was kept in a 55 gallon drum which lay on its side.  Not knowing he was supposed to tilt the drum before removing the plug, the dope came gushing out and quickly over-flowed his five gallon bucket. To make matters worse, he accidentally dropped the plug into the bucket during the process.  With the liquid flowing and no way to stop it, he was forced to put his whole arm into the bucket to fish for the plug. 

On another occasion a man who owned a J2 Cub told Jim that if he would polish his plane he would give him a ride.  Jim brought out a step ladder and began polishing the top of a wing and promptly pushed through the rotted canvas!  Jim repaired the damage, but soon discovered that the rot wasn’t contained to just the wing. “That plane had ripped fabric all over it that the owner just kept patching” Jim recalled.

Smithfield’s airport only had one hangar, built by John Emin, Sr., in 1932.  Jim recalled that in order to fit more aircraft inside, some of the airplanes could be tipped forward letting the nose rest atop a five gallon bucket.  However, this could only be accomplished with certain planes such as Piper Cubs or Aeroncas.   

During World War II, the U.S. Government mandated that the civilian aircraft at Smithfield’s Airport had to be taken inland, so one winter’s day Jim flew with a pilot who needed to take his plane to an airport in Palmer, Massachusetts. They left Smithfield with nothing more than a standard road map to guide them, and not surprisingly they got lost. The pilot set down in a field where he asked a farmer for directions.  The farmer pointed towards a large hill and said Palmer was “that way”.  They eventually reached their destination, and Jim remembers freezing all the way back because he was forced to ride in the rumble seat of the car that had met them there to take them home.

Jim’s mother Margaret Taglione, and his other uncle Gene, ran a small luncheonette at the Smithfield Airport that sold spaghetti and meatballs as well as different types of sandwiches.  The photographs belonging to Jim indicate it was a small establishment, but then how big did it have to be to service the tiny airport?

Although he never knew it at the time, the airplane that had once belonged to his uncle Joseph had crashed at the very airport where Jim learned to fly.  In fact he never even knew of the accident until reading about in the magazine. The only accident Jim remembered hearing about was the time another plane damaged its landing gear when it hit a gofer hole on the field.  

In December 1945, Jim enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but although he was a licensed pilot, he lacked the college credits to be a naval aviator so he was relegated to the ground working around aircraft he would never be able to fly.  

After his stint in the navy, he returned to Rhode Island and resumed flying.  In 1978 he purchased a Cessna 172M, an aircraft he still owns and keeps at North Central Airport.  Since taking his first flying lesson in 1943, Jim has logged over 4,000 hours of air time, some of which he has done with his dog Snickers, a small mixed breed that routinely accompanies him wherever he goes. 

As far as any jinx is concerned, Jim doesn’t believe in them.

The Jinxed Airplane

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – February, 2010

Financial problems and death haunted the owners of a World War I vintage aircraft that once flew – and fell – over northern Rhode Island. Photo courtesy of John F. Emin Jr.

Can an airplane be jinxed? Some would say the one in this story was, for bad luck seemed to follow it everywhere it went.  Others don’t believe in such things.  However, whether one calls it a jinx, a hex, a spell, a curse, or simply bad luck, one thing is certain; the negative energy connected with this aircraft didn’t end with its destruction. 

The ill fated aircraft was a World War I vintage Eaglebrook bi-plane, constructed of a wooden skeleton covered by a “doped” canvas skin; flimsy by today’s standards, and hopelessly obsolete even when it was still relatively new.  It could transport a pilot and one passenger in two open cockpits set in tandem, each with flight controls so it could be flown from either the front or the back.  

The plane originally belonged to a Providence man who had several accidents with it.  On one occasion, he managed to tear the convertible roof off his automobile when he caught the plane’s landing gear on it during what seemed like a perfect take-off.  Some might say it was merely bad piloting skills, while others might say it was a harbinger of what was to come.

The owner eventually put the plane in storage at Montgomery Field, a small airport once located in North Smithfield, where it sat for several years until it was sold in 1933 to a Woonsocket man who repaired and repainted it.  The Department of Commerce certified it as airworthy and issued a registration certificate, #NC5081.  The registration was later suspended after yet another accident.

The new owner then fell into debt, and when he could no longer afford the hangar rent and storage fees, the plane was sold at auction where it was bought by 19 year-old Ralph Wilkins of Slatersville for $150.  Wilkins brought the plane to Woonsocket Airport where he hoped to learn to fly.  After some repairs, the plane’s registration was re-instated.

When the original owner from Providence learned of the auction, he filed a lawsuit and obtained a court order for the plane to be returned to him.  What claim he had to the aircraft is unclear, but after taking possession of it, he flew it to Hillsgrove Airport in Warwick and put it in storage there.  Wilkins counter sued, and after much legal wrangling, eventually won the case, but incurred a certain amount of debt in the process.  When the plane was returned to him, he had it brought to Smithfield Airport, which was located where Bryant University stands today.   

While the lawsuit was working its way through the courts, Wilkins began taking flying lessons from Herman Dolbeck, a Woonsocket businessman who operated his own florist shop, and was part owner of a corporation that sold personal airplanes. 

Dolbeck, a World War I veteran, owned his own airplane and was well known for flying over cemeteries on Memorial and Veteran’s Day dropping flowers.  He loved to fly, but his wife was fearful of his hobby, and begged him to stop on more than one occasion.  He had already survived one plane crash at What Cheer Airport in 1930, when the plane he was in hit some high tension wires on takeoff and went down in a swamp.  Although relatively unhurt from the ordeal, he later commented to a friend that “some day” he expected to be seriously injured or killed in a plane crash.

On the morning of May 28, 1934, Dolbeck met Wilkins at Smithfield Airport for flying lessons.  They took off in Dolbeck’s monoplane and after a few hours they landed at Woonsocket Airport where the monoplane was routinely kept.  They then drove back to Smithfield Airport in Dolbeck’s car and parked in front of the hangar where Wilkins kept his airplane.

It was now late in the afternoon and the men hadn’t planned to do any more flying that day, but just the same, they pulled Wilkins’ plane out and started the engine while they waited for Ralph’s father and brother to arrive to take him back to Slatersville.  When they arrived, it happened Ralph’s father had a camera, and he took several snapshots of the two men with the plane.  After some brief discussion, Wilkins and Dolbeck changed their minds about more flying, and decided to take the plane up for a quick test flight.

A mechanic who had been present would later testify that the engine sounded good to him, but a pilot who witnessed what came next stated that the plane appeared “loggy and heavy” as it gained altitude.  Exactly what happened next was never conclusively determined.  The engine had been warming up for over 20 minutes and there was plenty of fuel in the tank.  All that is known is that the plane managed to make half a circle around the airport before the motor sputtered and quit at an altitude of about 250 feet.  The craft quickly lost altitude and crashed nose-first to the ground.  Herman Dolbeck was killed instantly; Ralph Wilkins succumbed to his injuries a short time later.  Since the plane was equipped with duel controls, it was never established who was flying it at the time of the crash.

Word of the accident spread quickly, and state troopers had to rope off the area to keep the dozens of spectators at bay.  Investigators from the Department of Commerce learned that the plane did not have its original engine, and the replacement was actually older than the aircraft itself.  Therefore, engine failure was cited as the probable cause of the accident. 

Mr. Dolbeck’s funeral was held in Woonsocket with full military honors.  Even though the “jinx” plane had been destroyed, its pall of bad luck continued when a woman standing next to the casket conversing with a member of the honor guard suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack!

On his way to St. Charles Cemetery and eternity, Mr. Dolbeck’s hearse was accompanied by a flower truck adorned with a large airplane made of hundreds of flowers.

The wreckage of the ill fated Eaglebrook was hauled away, the remains of which may still lie buried in some landfill or old dump.  Can an airplane be jinxed?  This particular one had been involved in several accidents, one law suit, caused financial problems for its owners, and connected with three deaths.  You decide.

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