A dark and stormy night over Portsmouth

Drifting the weedbeds on Rondeau Bay

G. Sam Piatt

There was a dark and stormy night more than 75 years ago, when the seldom-used Raven Rock Airport near Portsmouth became a lighted field, and by so doing, saved a soon-to-be presidential candidate and four other men from injury, possibly death.

Wendell L. Willkie was the Republican candidate for President of the United States in 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for a third term. He polled 22 million votes, but it was not enough to defeat the popular Roosevelt.

The late Justin R. Whiting told the story of the twin-engine Douglas passenger plane being lost in the night skies over Portsmouth in his 48-page booklet, “Wendell L. Wilkie: Courageous Pioneer of the Utility Industry.”

Willkie had become legal advisor for the Commonwealth and Southern Electric Utilities Company in 1929, and became its president in 1933. He fought a long legal battle against the Tennessee Valley Authority. He eventually lost, and in 1939, sold the properties of the Tennessee Electric Power Co. to the TVA for $78 million.

“I came to know Mr. Willkie well in my many contacts with him,” Whiting wrote. “One morning in 1938, during the TVA litigation, he said to me, ‘How would you like to go to Nashville with me to hear the argument on the motion for a temporary injunction tomorrow morning?’ I replied I would like to go.

“We decided to fly to Cincinnati and take the train to Nashville. We were unable to get seats on a commercial plane, so we arranged with a friend to fly us to Cincinnati in his private plane. We took off from the Newark Airport about 2:30 p.m. on an October afternoon.”

About 5 p.m., just before dusk, the plane came out of cloud cover and the five occupants of the plane — Willkie, Whiting, two pilots and an unnamed “observer” — could see red earth.

“Wendell turned to me and said, ‘This doesn’t look like southern Ohio.’ Just then, one of the pilots came back and said we were about to cross the Ohio River and would be in Cincinnati in 40 minutes.

“Presently we did cross the Ohio and approached a lighted city which we assumed was Cincinnati. (But) after flying all around it we could find no airport.”

Then one of the pilots came back and told them they were lost, that they had been off the radio beam all afternoon, and that they had flown south over West Virginia to avoid a thunderstorm.

“Just then a wind and rain storm set in,” Whiting wrote. “It was planned to follow the river until we should come to a city, perhaps Louisville. After following the river for a while the storm became so intense, we had to turn back. We came back to the same town we had left.”

Willkie made a trip to the cockpit, and the pilots gave him some bad news. They had been flying back and forth and around and over the city below so long that they estimated they had no more than 15 minutes worth of gas left. They also told him there were no parachutes on board.

Upon hearing that, Whiting said he shook hands with Willkie and told him he had been glad to know him.

Having spotted a lighted athletic field in the town below, the pilot flew low over it twice.

Whiting said the radio suddenly beamed back into service, and through the earphone one of the pilots picked up the TWA office in Columbus. He told the man in the office they were lost and running out of fuel.

“The Columbus man asked for some identification of the town we were over,” Whiting wrote. “To which our man replied, ‘There is a lighted athletic field here.’ ‘Why,’ said the other fellow, ‘that’s Portsmouth. They’re playing football with Fremont tonight, and there’s an abandoned airport just out of town. I’ll call them up and see if they can’t light it up in some way’.”

Portsmouth Fire Chief Roger R. Leodom, realizing the circling plane was in trouble, already had help on the way. A line of cars followed the flashing lights of the fire trucks in a rush for Raven Rock, located four miles west of downtown. They positioned themselves on either side of the field with their headlights illuminating the 2,800-foot-long grass runway.

“Seeing the lights, we all shouted for joy!” Whiting said. “We circled the field two or three times. We tightened up the life belts, took off our glasses and the pilot made a safe, easy landing.”

“Wendell turned to me and said, ‘What do you say we have these boys fly us down to Nashville in the morning?’ I said, ‘No, thank you’.”

Drifting the weedbeds on Rondeau Bay

G. Sam Piatt

Reach G. Sam Piatt at gsamwriter@twc.com or 606-932-3619.

Reach G. Sam Piatt at gsamwriter@twc.com or 606-932-3619.