Back in the Day

Cranston native's newsreel flight ended in tragedy

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With its catalog of work spanning from 1928 to 1963, Fox Movietone News amassed one of the largest collections of news film reels in the country. Its library contains 75 million feet of footage covering 20th century news from around the globe, which was played in cinemas to keep audiences abreast of current events.

On May 28, 1935, Lewis Sanford Tappan, a native of Cranston, was covering a story for the company aboard an Army bomber.

Thirty-one-year-old Tappan, the son of stocks and bonds broker Lewis Hooper Tappan and his wife, Luella (Barragar), was employed by the Fox Film Corp. as a soundman. A graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tappan was at that time residing in California with his wife of four years, Francis (Meyn), and their two young children.

The bomber Tappan was flying in also contained one of the company’s camera men, Allyn Alexander, as well as the pilot, Lt. Edgar Root of Alabama, and radio operator Pvt. Guy Porter of Missouri. The plane was attached to the 31 Bombardment Squadron from Mather Field, performing practice maneuvers at about 10 o’clock that morning. Flying in formation with five other planes, it soared 14,000 feet above Sequoia National Park in Tulare, California.

Suddenly, the bomber left the formation, and those on the ground below sensed that something was wrong. The plane turned over on its back as it went into a flat spin, dropping about 1,000 feet. It appeared to momentarily right itself but, moments later, it crashed through the branches of a large tree, its nose then slamming into the earth as the machine burst into flames.

Men stringing telephone lines at a nearby Civilian Conservation Corps camp saw the crash and rushed to the site, heroically fighting to quell the flames and extricate the men inside. But despite their efforts, all four men died, including Tappan, who suffered third-degree burns upon his entire body.

The funeral for Tappan was held at Methodist Episcopal Church in Hillsdale, New York. His ashes were interred in Hillsdale Rural Cemetery.

The cause of the crash was said to be unknown though it was speculated that the equipment of the news crew may have become entangled with the plane’s controls.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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