The Wreck of the Dawn Patrol

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – March, 2014

The sound began as a low hum in the distance, barely audible over the casual conversation in the Dodge family kitchen, but as it grew louder the talking stopped and those around the table cocked their heads to listen.  It was the unmistakable sound of a low flying airplane. The noise grew louder, gradually building to a crescendo as the plane passed directly over the house and trailed away. The family exchanged questioning looks, but before anyone could phrase a question, the sound of the airplane returned as the pilot circled back.

Lloyd Dodge and his two sons, Paul and Robert, hurried outside, but thick ground fog and low lying clouds obscured their view.  Somewhere above, the unseen airplane could be heard circling; its droning engine sounding lost.  As the men craned their necks skyward, the aircraft suddenly appeared out of the scud a mere one-hundred feet above the house and losing altitude!  They instinctively ducked as it zoomed just overhead, and for the brief moment or so that it was visible, they saw the words Dawn Patrol painted on the side.  Just as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone again, swallowed by a vortex of fog.  An instant later they heard the sound of a horrific crash as the flying machine clipped an apple tree and plowed into the hillside several hundred feet away.  The date was March 15, 1931, and the wreck of the Dawn Patrol was to become Smithfield’s first recorded aviation fatality.    

Earlier that morning Walter and Robert Barnes of Greenville had gone to Buttonwoods Airport to rent an airplane. Twenty-two year-old Walter was a student at Brown University studying engineering, and his younger brother Robert was a licensed pilot.

Buttonwoods Airport was once located in the Buttonwoods section of Warwick, overlooking Greenwich Bay.  At one time it was considered for possible expansion to become Rhode Island’s primary state airport, but it never came to pass, and today private homes occupy the site.

In 1931, renting an airplane was a relatively easy thing to do; easier than renting a car today.  The brothers signed out for an Aeromarine-Klemm, a mono-wing two-seater with the name “Dawn Patrol” painted on the side. (Why the aircraft was so named us unclear.) Their flight plan included a trip to Greenville where they intended to circle their house on Putnam Pike before returning to the airport.  They had done this in the past, and friends and family would routinely emerge to wave skyward at the young aviators.  

Weather conditions at the airport were clear, but the airport was located at sea level.  Smithfield on the other hand is about four-hundred-fifty feet above sea level, and conditions there were another story.  When the brothers reached Greenville they found themselves “flying blind” as clouds closed in around them and ground fog prevented them from seeing visual reference points such as buildings and roads.  Aircraft of that era lacked the navigational equipment that is standard today, and as the mist thickened the bothers soon lost their way.  It’s likely that Robert was trying to get below the clouds to spot a recognizable landmark when they flew into the hillside, not realizing just how low to the ground they actually were.  

The crumpled wreckage was strewn along a hillside of the Dodge property.  Miraculously there was no fire.  Walter Barnes had been killed instantly, but the fact there was no fire saved his brother Robert from being burned alive.

The Dodge’s didn’t have a phone, and time was lost while a family member made their way a mile or so down the road to a neighbors house who had one.  In the meantime, the unconscious Robert was carefully lifted from the debris and carried to the house.  He had suffered a severe head laceration, and the family did the best they could to care for him.   

The Dodge farm was located on a steep hillside off Tarklin Road near the Glocester town line, with the only access being a long dirt lane that meandered in from the roadway.   Unfortunately, the melting snows of March had made the road a muddy quagmire, necessitating that police and fire fighters leave their vehicles on Tarklin Road and trek the half-mile or so to the house on foot. 

Doctor Irving S. Cook of Georgiaville arrived to render medical aid.  After stitching Robert’s head wound and setting his broken wrist, arrangements were made to transport the patient to his parent’s home roughly four miles away.  Since no ambulance could be brought up to the house, a horse and wagon were pressed into service to carry Robert to the road.  

State police later transported Walter’s body to the Charles Whipple Funeral Home on Putnam Pike, which at that time was located in the present-day Saint Phillip’s Church rectory.  He was later buried in Greenville Cemetery.

Smithfield’s Chief of Police William Kelley, along with a representative of the Buttonwood’s Airport inspected the wreckage, but found nothing mechanically wrong with the plane.  The airport representative asserted that the plane had been recently inspected, and was mechanically sound when the brothers took off in it.  Mr. Dodge and his sons also attested to the fact that the engine sounded as if it was running smoothly at the time of the accident, with no sputtering or backfires to indicate trouble. It was therefore speculated that the pilot may not have realized that he was as close to the ground as he was due to the fog.  When the investigation was complete, all of the wreckage was removed from the site, and presumably returned to Buttonwoods.   

Ironically, Walter and Robert Barnes had survived another plane crash just six months earlier, on September 14, 1930.  On that day, they took off from a grassy field that once existed where Douglas Circle is located today.  When the plane reached an altitude of roughly 150 feet, it went into a stall, and nose-dived into a tree near Austin Ave and River Road. The plane was completely wrecked, but both brothers walked away with only minor injuries. 

The Dodge farm no longer exists, except as a notation on old maps of the town. The land it once occupied has since been reclaimed by Mother Nature with no indication that a tragedy ever occurred there.

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