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Diamonds, fog and the Canyonville crash

Grant Donaldson was already 10 minutes behind schedule as his wheels lifted off from Medford’s Newell Barber Airfield. Unsettled weather and a light wind buffeted against his airplane, but he was confident he could make up for lost time.

The open cockpit of his Boeing Model 40-C offered little protection from 1928’s chilly autumn weather, but he was wearing his warmest flight suit and was quite comfortable in the brand new airplane. Just three months earlier, Boeing officials chose Grant to deliver the very first model from their Seattle factory to Portland.

Flying along with Grant, protected from the elements in a two-seat, enclosed cabin, was passenger Daniel Patrick Donovan. Donovan was a Los Angeles broker; some say a diamond broker, who had paid the $125 fare for a flight to Seattle.

Grant Donaldson had been flying with the Pacific Air Transport company almost from its start, in early 1926. He came west from Iowa with his younger brother, Flavis, and, because both were experienced pilots, the company quickly hired them. Flavis flew the LA to San Francisco route, while Grant flew between Seattle and Medford.

The brothers learned to fly during World War I, completing their training just before the war ended. Discharged in December 1918, they returned home and, with their two older brothers and a brother-in-law, formed the Donaldson Brothers Air Circus.

Flying surplus Curtiss Jenny airplanes, the same plane they flew in the Army, Flavis and Grant recreated aerial combat against each other, shooting genuine machine guns that fired blank smoke cartridges. They carried passengers to distant cities and gave $25 rides at county fairs. By late 1921, they claimed to have flown 7,500 passengers without an accident. But the novelty of airplane rides faded and the boys looked elsewhere for employment.

Seventy miles north of Newell Barber Field, on that October 2, 1928 morning, Grant saw thick fog hanging over Canyon Mountain, south of Canyonville.

“I was looking out over the side,” he said, “watching for the highway. I saw the fog ahead, but thought I could get under it. Just then, the fog closed in around us and I don’t remember anything else after that.”

After that, the Boeing struck a tree, and then its propeller mowed downward and through a line of even more trees. Its wings sheared away, gasoline gushed out, and the Boeing exploded in flame.

Severely burned and bloodied, Grant managed to escape, stumbling and falling 1,000 feet downhill until he reached the highway. There, a surprised motorist found him and rushed him to a Roseburg hospital.

Donovan, the passenger, struck his head on impact and died instantly, his body burned beyond recognition. Some say Donovan was carrying diamonds that were recovered at the scene; however, newspaper accounts never mentioned them.

Officials flew an unconscious Grant to a burn center in Portland, and yet, less than two months later, Grant was flying again and deer hunting in the Rogue Valley. He retired from United Airlines and died in 1981.

Almost exactly two years after Grant’s accident, brother Flavis crashed his own Boeing airplane and died in Southern California.

The skeletal remains of Grant’s Boeing aircraft were recovered in 1996, and amazingly, after being rebuilt, she flew again. She is now on display at the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum in Hood River.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,”a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com or WilliamMMiller.com.

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