The Last Flight of William F. Smith Jr.

When areas of cold and warm air meet, the water in the air condenses into fog, a wet grey mass of cloud that covers land & sea and can be a navigators worst nightmare.

On the morning of Saturday the 28th of July, 1945 a thick fog hung low over New York City. Struggling through the mist that morning was an army B-25 piloted by Lt. Col. William F. Smith Jr a 27-year-old West Point Graduate. A highly decorated combat pilot Smith had flown over 500 combat hours without loosing a single plane. That day Smith was making a routine journey, he was piloting two soldiers from New Bedford, Massachusetts to Newark, New Jersey. For a pilot who had survived several combat missions in Europe the poor visibility was a minor problem. His flight plan reflected his confidence and ended with the statement, " I'm familiar with the danger areas in my line of flight". In New York City the days dreary weather made little difference to workers who were still on a wartime schedule. Many were putting in weekend overtime. Among them were the staff of the Catholic War Relief Services on the 79th floor of the Empire State Building. Also at work that morning was New York's half American Italian half Jewish mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who was an aviation enthusiast & New York's airport had been named after him. The mayor had long advocated stricter regulations for planes flying over the city fearing that the dearth of air traffic controls would one day end in disaster.

At about 9:45 in the morning Lt. Col. Smith's aircraft approached LaGuardia airfield. The airfield tower gave a clear recommendation about whether or not Smith should fly over Manhattan. He was told to land but refused stating he was on his way to Newark. The war was still on so the military had priority. As Smith approached Manhattan the fog became thicker. The pilot searched for a landmark to make sure he was on the right course. The belief is that when he flew across the East River he mistook it for the Hudson River & thus thought he was over the safety of the New Jersey swamps. He would then turn south and land in Newark. Smith lowered his landing gear & began to descend. Suddenly through the mist he saw a skyscraper directly ahead. The B-25 was not over New Jersey, it was flying over the middle of Manhattan at an altitude of only 500 feet (153 m) forcing Smith to navigate through a maze of buildings. He managed to miss the RCA building & two other skyscrapers. Then a wall of granite& glass appeared directly in front of the Mitchell Bomber, the Empire State Building. The plane hit the 79th floor and a rolling ball of fire filled the offices before most of the employees had a chance to leave their desks. An 18-by-20 foot (5.49- by-6.10 m) hole was gouged by the B-25, and one of the plane's engines plowed through the building, emerging on the 33rd Street side and crashing through the roof of a neighbouring building where it started a fire. Mayor LaGuardia heard the reports & rushed to the scene. Part of the plane was stuck in the building & aviation fuel was streaming down. Rescuers were quickly on the scene, their reflexes sharpened by four years of wartime preparation. Firemen took lifts as far as they could to the 67th floor, loaded with fire axes & hoses they climbed the remaining flights of stairs & began to fight the flames. Unbeknownst to rescuers, when the hoist and governor cables of one of the lifts had been severed, ropes to other lifts had been weakened. Nevertheless, the lifts had to be used to transport those severely injured. The fire was brought under control in 19 minutes but that seemed an eternity to the employees trapped in the Catholic Relief Offices. Bystanders saw them at the window & alerted the firemen who broke in and rescued most of them. Others were sitting at their desks charred beyond recognition. Miraculously only 14 people would perish in this incident, Lt. Col. Smith, his two passengers and 11 people in the Empire State Building. Another 25 would suffer severe wounds and there was slight damage done to the building. A B-25 is a fairly small plane. The aeroplane that struck the building was not equipped with radar to warn the crew of objects in their path. In those days pilots had to rely on visibility, skill & luck.

In the years following the war the use of radar's all seeing eye began to make weather less of a danger to aircraft. But even radar could not always save lives when fog gathered.


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