Airplanes have long been a bold Pacific Northwest theme. The Boeing Company, United Air Lines, an impressive selection of large and small airfields, and an active General Aviation industry have characterized our land. This colorful legacy has caused accidents, near misses, confusion, and Tall Tales over generations. I offer a special story told to me years ago by Ellen Zander Olsen, photographer, gadfly, historian, story-teller, and Ballard High School alum. The tale occurred on Sunday morning, 17 November, 1929.
In the 1920s, veteran pilot Robert Wark carried passengers aloft in his bi-plane for Northwest Air Service at Seattle’s Boeing Field, offering the thrill of a lifetime. Boy Scouts had come to Seattle for an annual convention the weekend of 16-17 November, 1929. Four Port Angeles scouts wanted to see the rooftops of the Big City before returning home. Flying was then in its infancy, and national hero Charles Lindbergh had made his trans-Atlantic flight just two years before.
The first two lads boarded the plane, Wark warmed the engine, and up and away they went. It was supposed to be a short air adventure over the hills and waters of the Queen City (later named Emerald City by the local Chamber of Commerce). Wark, his youthful passengers, and the bi-plane never returned to Boeing Field.
Wark made a low pass over Seattle’s Capitol Hill as he eased his plane toward shimmering Elliott Bay. According to Wark’s later description, the plane’s gauges indicated the engine was heating up. Within a minute or two the engine “missed” several times and then seemed to freeze. Seeing that it was impossible to return to Boeing Field, Wark scanned the territory below. The smoothest, nearest flat area was the roof the Bon Marche, Seattle’s premier downtown department store (later Macy’s).
Wark drifted to the Bon roof. As the landing gear touched, he purposely flipped the plane on its back to avoid rolling into the roof wall. The Monday morning Seattle Post-Intelligencer’ s lead front page headline shouted: “Plane Crashes on Roof of Bon Marche.” The story noted that pilot Wark and his wide-eyed passengers were safe, although the Boy Scouts were being treated for “nervous shock.” A witness said the plane “dove” toward the ground in a “zig zag” fashion. The roof of the Bon was damaged, setting off a sprinkler system.
Not to be outdone, The Seattle Times avoided sensational front page headlines but printed an editorial entitled: “A Lucky Landing.” The text noted that “Sunday’s achievement (the airplane crash) is unique,” and suggested that the new roof of the Bon be cleared of “penthouses and ventilator shafts” in anticipation of future emergency landings. It also recommended better maintenance of airplanes.
Pilot Wark was no stranger to unexpected aircraft landings. Several weeks prior to the Bon crash he was forced to land his plane on the Broadmoor Golf Course – but that’s another story.