It was just another day for James Clarity.
He and his wife, Georgia, lived in Chicago, Illinois, with their five children. Born in Minnesota, Clarity had served in the Navy during the Second World War. After he left the service, he had become an advertising sales representative with Wallace’s Farmer, a prestigious agriculture magazine based out of Des Moines, Iowa.
After three years, Clarity had been transferred to another magazine owned by Wallace’s Farmer, the Wisconsin Agriculturist. It required a move to Chicago, but Clarity and his young family were up to the challenge.
By 1956, Clarity was a sales manager at a Chicago-based company called the Midwest Farm Paper Unit, Inc. The job required him to travel sometimes, but he didn’t mind. It was just what he had to do.
On Wednesday, May 22, 1962, Clarity went to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and waited to board Continental Airlines Boeing 707 Flight 11. After a brief stop in Kansas City, Flight 11 would take him to Los Angeles.
Many of the other passengers aboard the plane that night were also travelling for work. Some were going all the way to the west coast, while several others were going home to Kansas City.
John Hamm, an employee of the Vendo company, was a process engineer. He had been staying in Chicago for almost a week, and he was more than ready to come home. Hamm had finished everything the day before, and his bosses told him to take a flight back to Kansas City. He was more than happy to oblige.
Clyde Fritz was a 33-year-old executive for the Burstein-Applebee company, an electronics supplier. At the end of April, he had been promoted to being the manager of one of their branch stores in Kansas City.
One of the new responsibilities of his new position was that he was required to attend a trade show in Chicago. Fritz had flown in the previous day, and had promised his wife, Ollie, that he would try to get a return flight back as soon as the show was over.
Takehiko Nakano was only 27-years-old. He was an engineer with homes in both Chicago and Los Angeles. He was one of those headed out to the west coast.
Most of the other people on board had similar stories. They were managers, executives, and businessman, all travelling for work. Some were trying to get to the next job, while others just wanted to get home to their families or their own beds.
By 1962, airplane travel had become increasingly faster and more common. Starting around 1955, the number of passengers utilizing air travel had, accordingly, begun to drastically increase.
Aircraft technology had made drastic leaps forward since the propeller-driven planes of the previous generation. As engineers developed jet engines, they found that they were more reliable, cheaper, and, overall, safer to use.
Jet engines were also capable of producing more power, allowing bigger and faster airplanes to be manufactured. A new generation of jet planes began to soar across the skies, including the Douglas Super DC-8 60 and the Boeing 707.
The cheaper costs of operating these planes combined with faster travel times and an increased capacity for carrying passengers made air travel more convenient and affordable than ever before.
It was an especially great way to travel for men like James Clarity, who knew they had to go on long trips but didn’t necessarily want to spend any more time away from home than they needed to.
Shortly before 8:35 p.m., 37 passengers boarded Flight 11. Manning the craft were eight crew members, led by Captain Fred R. Gray, an experienced pilot with 23 years of experience.
He had a reputation of being able to get a plane anywhere safely, regardless of the weather. When drawing out the flight plan for Flight 11 that evening, Gray took account of potentially severe weather that was taking place in the area west of Chicago, right where he had to fly.
Regardless of the fact that this was a routine flight, Gray took no chances. He decided to fly the 707 at an altitude of 39,000 feet, 11,000 feet above the altitude recommended to him by the air traffic controllers.
As the plane roared down the runway, it gradually began to climb into the night sky. As it did, Captain Gray and his co-pilot communicated with the airport below as the plane began to be tracked by radar.
Civic air traffic controllers had first started using radar equipment in 1945. During World War II, military controllers had begun to use Ground Controlled Approach equipment, or GCA, to help guide pilots to safe landings in extremely poor visibility. It was extremely successful, and the equipment was put into use by civil controllers at New York’s LaGuardia Airport with equal results, tripling their rate of successful plane landings. Over the next seven years, several airports across the United States had adopted the technology as well.
By the mid-1950’s, the original GCA system had been replaced with a better landing aid called the Instrument Landing System, or ILS. ILS relayed information regarding course deviations directly to the aircraft pilots in the cockpit.
Another improvement that went into effect around this time were more powerful radar scanners capable of scanning larger areas faster. As air travel became increasingly more common, it became more and more important for air traffic controllers to be able to track planes and prevent possible midair collisions with other flights.
At about 9:01 p.m., Gray requested an update on the weather that he was about to fly into. He was told severe thunderstorms were occurring in the area he had planned to fly over in northeastern Missouri. The storms were powerful, and Gray was warned that they were capable of producing high wind gusts or even tornados.
A flight control operator in Waverly, Iowa, radioed Gray and made the suggestion that he change his path and move south of the storm system. Gray disagreed, and said that he was going to go around the north edge instead.
Gray flew around without incident, and contacted Waverly to request permission to begin his turn toward Kansas City. Permission was granted, and the operator in Waverly connected Flight 11 with another controller in Kansas City at 9:14 p.m.
A minute later, radar in Kansas City detected Flight 11 about 35 miles northeast of the town of Kirksville, Missouri. All seemed to be going well as the controllers on the ground tracked the familiar blip across their screen.
And then, Flight 11 vanished.
It could have been that Flight 11, while trying to avoid the storm, had moved into a pocket where there was no radar coverage between stations. It also could mean that the transponder on the plane that allowed it to be tracked had either been turned off or it had been damaged.
It could also mean that Flight 11 had lost all power, or that it had flown below its cruising altitude and wasn’t being picked up anymore.
While the air controllers worked to find it on their radar screen and monitored their radios for communication from Captain Gray, time passed slowly. With every minute that ticked by, the concern grew. They needed to find that plane.
Three hours away from Kansas City, Leo Carver and Jack Morris were driving on Highway 60 about five miles south of Centerville, Iowa. Both men lived in the area and had no doubt travelled this road before. But they had never seen the large piece of curved metal that appeared in their headlights.
Stopping their car, Carver and Morris went out and examined it. It didn’t look like anything that they had ever seen before, and it definitely wasn’t from any car or truck that they knew of. Curious, the men picked it up and drove it to the local police station.
The policemen on duty hadn’t ever seen anything like it before, either. They decided to call the Iowa Highway Patrol to see if they might have heard anything.
The Highway Patrol had been notified about Flight 11, just in case anyone had spotted it. They told the Centerville Police that a plane had just disappeared from radar, and that they were supposed to keep a lookout for it. It seemed as if Carver and Morris had potentially just found a part of Flight 11.
A group of volunteers and police officers were formed to search for any sign of the plane on the ground. Armed with radios and flashlights, the search parties began to scour the area for any sign of debris.
Thunderstorms, part of the exact same storm system that Captain Gray had flown around, had been hitting the area off and on all day. The ground was muddy from the rain and made the hiking more difficult for the searchers as they made their way through the dark.
Slowly, the search parties began to follow the debris trail southwest, starting from the Centerville area. As they walked, they found pieces of the wings and the exterior and interior parts of the fuselage. A door was found, bearing the Continental Airlines logo.
The searchers followed the debris across the Missouri state line, and kept going.
At about 3 a.m., locals who were involved in the search knocked on the door of Ronnie Cook and his family. Ronnie and his dad quickly got dressed and then came out to join in the search.
Earlier that night, Ronnie had thought he had heard a crash coming from somewhere in the area of his family farm. He went outside, scanning the darkness to determine the cause, his ears straining for any additional sounds.
After a few minutes of quiet, Ronnie didn’t see anything and had decided that it must have been thunder. But now, knowing that there was a missing plane that had apparently crashed, he began to wonder.
Curious, they called one of their closest neighbors, Emerson Tyson. Living only about a mile away, the Cooks asked him if he had heard anything earlier that evening, like a large crash. Tyson said that he had, and told them that it sounded like it had come from east of his house.
They speculated that something that made such a loud sound must be big. Could it have been the plane? Ronnie and his father couldn’t be certain, but they were going to try their best to find out.
A short time later, Ronnie and his father found what remained of the main fuselage lying in an alfalfa field. With their suspicions confirmed, the two walked nearly a mile until running into one of the search parties following the debris field.
Soon, several volunteers and first responders were making their way through a muddy, plowed field to reach the wreckage in the alfalfa field. Several reporters from various areas from around Iowa and Missouri also braved their way to the site, eager to report the story.
While many of the crowd converged on the plane, others began searching the surrounding area, keeping a hopeful eye out for any possible survivors. As their flashlight beams cut through the night, they finally began to find bodies. They had fallen out of the aircraft several thousand feet above, soon gaining such high velocity that they were half buried in the soft mud.
Inside what remained of the fuselage, bodies lay entwined in the wreckage, broken and battered.
Dr. Eugene Ritter, a local doctor, had been out with the search party. When word got out that the fuselage had been found, a sheriff’s car had taken him to the directly to the scene as fast as they could.
He went from mangled body to mangled body, feeling for a pulse as his eyes looked for any signs of life. Over and over again, he found nothing. These individuals had most likely died on impact, far past his ability to help or heal.
Still, he continued on with his grim task, climbing over the scattered luggage, equipment, and seating.
Finally, Ritter caught a glimpse of movement. Moving quickly, he saw a young Asian man, stretched over three seats. It was Takehiko Nakano, who had almost miraculously survived the crash. He had lain in the wreckage of Flight 11 for over six hours, surrounded by no one but the dead.
Ritter checked his vital signs. Nakano was unconscious and gravely injured, but he was alive. Compared to the rest of the carnage that Ritter had waded through the past several minutes, it was a much-needed ray of hope.
As gently as they could, Dr. Ritter and the firemen removed the young engineer and loaded him into an ambulance. As soon as the door was closed, the driver took the car carefully across the fields until they hit hard top road. Once there, they put the pedal to the floor, rushing eighteen miles northeast to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Centerville.
At St. Joseph’s, doctors tried their best to treat Nakano’s wounds, but the damage was too extensive. An hour after he arrived, Nakano died. He never regained consciousness.
By the end of the day, all but one of the passengers and crew of Flight 11 had been found. There were no survivors. The bodies were taken to Unionville, Missouri, and stored in a used car-garage until autopsies could be performed.
As daylight broke over the northern Missouri fields, investigators from various agencies began to arrive. In addition to the law enforcement agencies already involved, FBI agents from the Kansas City field office began to arrive. This included the FBI Disaster Squad, highly-trained forensic specialists who dealt with the aftermath of events such as plane crashes.
Other individuals were with the Federal Aviation Agency or were employees of Continental Airlines. Continental Airlines had a special investigation team of their own to investigate situations like this one. All of them had the same goal: to find out what had happened to Flight 11.
Dewey E. Ballard, an air carrier operations inspector for the FAA, stated that it seemed as if the plane had been struck by what he called some kind of overwhelming force. He speculated that the storms the night before might have generated ultra-high turbulence or maybe even a tornado.
George Van Epps, the chief investigator in charge of Ballard and the fourteen other FAA agents at the crash site, directed his people to begin gathering every piece of wreckage that they could find. After that, they, working alongside the other agencies, would begin the painstaking process of reconstructing Flight 11.
Although the exact cause of the crash was uncertain, most of the investigators were of the opinion that it had happened in midair. The way the wreckage had scattered indicated that it had fallen from a great height, meaning that the plane had probably was in flight.
Investigators thought that it was unlikely that Flight 11 had collided with another plane. Because it was flying at such a high altitude to avoid the storm, the only other aircraft that it could have hit would be a jet. However, all of the other jets that had been in the area were accounted for.
As the various agencies went through the debris, someone was able to find the in-flight recorder from Flight 11. It would contain information that would be able to help investigators answer their questions. It measured speed, the direction the plane was travelling, and the altitude it was flying at. It was taken to Kansas City for further examination.
Investigators were starting to believe that whatever had happened occurred inside the plane. There was no evidence of a fire, but some items recovered from inside the plane had clearly been scorched. A bloody pillow and towel had been found, as well as a door with bloodstains on it.
The airline hostesses they found were wearing gold aprons. The only time that they normally wore these was when they were serving the passengers coffee or food. This indicated that they were in the middle of doing this when the event leading to the crash occurred.
Also lending weight to this theory was the fact that most of the bodies recovered from Flight 11 were still wearing their seat belts. Investigators speculated that the ones that had gotten free must have slipped out of their seat belts when the bolts holding their seats down had ripped free from the floor.
An autopsy was performed on both Captain Gray and his co-pilot. This was a routine procedure in all plane crashes to rule out any medical condition on their part that might have contributed to the crash. Both of them were found to be normal and were found seat-belted into their positions.
The last body, one of the hostesses, was also found. She had been thrown free of the aircraft and had landed some distance away from the fuselage.
A study of the wind levels on the night of May 22nd revealed that they would not have had enough force to cause the kind of damage that had been done to Flight 11.
On the third day of the investigation, the Civil Aeronautics Board made an announcement that Flight 11 had crashed due to some kind of explosive force.
While flying at 39,000 feet, the plane had been perfectly stable. As it descended to a lower altitude, something happened that caused the plane to break up. There was no indication that anything had been wrong with the aircraft itself.
Instead, all of their evidence began to point to something much more nefarious.
A strong odor of sulfur clung to some of the wreckage, and there was explosive residue found covering some of the passengers, seats, and other items from the interior of the plane.
Several metal fragments were found in the body of Joyce Rush, one of the flight hostesses. These pieces had acted like shrapnel, slamming into her at high speeds due to the force of the explosion. She had been seated toward the rear of the plane, and her body had been found still seat-belted in place.
All evidence pointed toward the explosion being deliberate. By all indications, someone had smuggled a bomb onto the plane, and then had detonated it in the right rear restroom during the flight. The resulting explosion had blown off the tail section of Flight 11 and had led to the crash.
Now that they were positive of how the plane had crashed, the FBI began to investigate the backgrounds of the 45 passengers. Soon, one name in particular caught their interest.
His name was Thomas G. Doty, a 34-year-old native of Kansas City. He had been married for twelve years, with one child and another on the way.
Doty had graduated with honors from the University of Missouri in 1952. After that, he had worked for companies in Oklahoma and Kansas City before starting his own business manufacturing and selling fiberglass burial vaults. Unfortunately, the manufacturing plant had burnt down, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Soon after, he went to work for Luzier, Inc., a cosmetics firm, as a divisional sales manager. There he met Geneva Fraley, who had at that time been the Kansas City district sales manager for the company.
After nine months, Doty left to start his own company on March 20, 1962. A short time later, Fraley tendered her resignation with the intention of being a partner in his new business. Her last day would be that June.
On April 22nd, a little over a month after leaving Luzier, Doty got into a car stopped at traffic light. Turning to the driver, a woman named Ava Lee Peake, he told her to drive forward and turn around the corner. Peake refused.
Doty then punched the woman in the face, but Peake simply hit him back. Enraged, he began striking her over and over again. Peake screamed, but he wouldn’t stop. When he finally did, Doty grabbed Peake’s purse and left the car.
Nearby, two men had heard Peake screaming, and then saw Doty run away from the car holding the purse. Concerned, they went to the car to check on the driver. Peake was battered and shaken, but she told the men that she was okay.
The men weren’t about to let all of this stand. They began looking for Doty and found him a short time later.
As they approached him, Doty reached for his waistband. He grabbed the grip of a pistol and tried to pull the weapon free, but it wouldn’t come out. Before Doty could succeed, the men rushed him and quickly subdued him. Once he stopped struggling, one held him fast while the other called the police.
When they arrived, Doty told them that he had found the purse while walking around. Shortly after, the men had attacked him. When asked about the gun, revealed to be a .22 revolver, Doty said that he kept it in his car for protection. However, one of the door locks was broken and he was afraid the gun would be stolen if he left it there unsecured.
Regardless, the police arrested Doty for carrying a concealed weapon and robbery. He had a preliminary hearing regarding these charges set for May 25, 1962.
Investigators learned that Doty and Fraley had made a trip to Chicago recently in connection with their start-up business. Before he had left, Doty had taken out $150,000 in flight insurance. Upon his death in a plane crash, the policy would pay out another $150,000. His wife was the sole beneficiary. While the amount wasn’t necessarily large, it did strike the insurance agent as strange. Authorities thought it was stranger still that he did it right before the flight he was on blew up in midair.
While looking into the insurance claims, the FBI also found that Geneva Fraley had taken out a similar insurance policy to Doty’s for $75,000. However, the insurance agent told them that it was quite possible that someone had taken out the policy in her name and then had signed on her behalf. She may have never known that it had taken place.
While the various agencies began wrapping up their operations in Unionville and the plane wreckage was removed, the FBI began to focus their inquiries more and more on Thomas Doty.
They discovered that Doty had checked out books about explosives and how to use them from the Kansas City Library. They also found that he had bought dynamite from a hardware store in the Kansas City area just before taking Flight 11 from Chicago.
In June 1962, the FBI submitted a report detailing their findings on Thomas Doty to the Civil Aeronautics Board. While it was the FBI’s job to investigate all of the possible criminal aspects of the case, it was the Board’s job to officially determine the most probable cause for the plane crash.
Ultimately, it was determined that the cause of the crash was an explosion, caused by a bomb made from dynamite. All of their evidence pointed to Thomas Doty as the bomber.
Facing possible jail time for the assault and robbery of Ava Lee Peake, Doty must have been desperate. He had a wife and daughter at home, with a baby due in just a few short months. Investigators were told that Doty had been obsessed about keeping his good image to his wife.
Those charges could very easily land him in jail, and the new business that he had just begun with Geneva Fraley would be ruined.
At some point, Doty must have come up with the plan to blow up the plane he was on so that his family would benefit from the life insurance. If he was going to be torn away from them, it would be better to do it in a way that they would be taken care of instead of leaving them with nothing.
While Geneva Fraley, his friend and business partner, had also had a life insurance policy taken out before the flight, the FBI found no evidence that connected her to the crime. Perhaps Doty felt guilty about the fact that he was about to kill her and took out the policy so that her family would benefit.
As he had sat there, surrounded by innocent people who were just going about their lives, Doty knew every second that what he was about to do would more than likely kill them all. Regardless, he casually got out of his seat and went to the bathroom, where he placed his homemade bomb in a used towel bin. Then he returned to his seat and waited to die.
The FAA, the FBI, and the Civil Aeronautics Board had determined the cause of Flight 11’s crash to the best of their ability. All of the passengers and crew had died, including the alleged bomber. There was no one to punish, no one to bring to justice.
Today, sixty years later, the land where Flight 11 fell is still scarred from that night so long ago. They’re grown over now, and many are so faint that only those who know how to look for them can see. Like the land, the families also have scars that have healed.
They were victims of the bombing as much as their family members on board Flight 11 were but have long-since moved on. Like the land between Centerville and Unionville, they have scars that have healed, but are still there. Perhaps one day, they might disappear altogether.
Missouri Office of the Secretary of State; Jefferson City, Missouri; Missouri Death Certificates, 1910-1969
The Jet Age: 1958 – Now. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. http://www.airandspace.si.edu.
45 Die When Jetliner Breaks Up Over Iowa. Des Moines Tribune, 5/23/1962.
Former D.M. Man on Plane. Des Moines Tribune, 5/23/1962
All Dead in Jet Airliner’s Crash. The Kansas City Star, 5/23/1962
Hints of Explosion in Airliner Crash. The Des Moines Register, 5/24/1962
Plan Mock-Up of Jet Remains. The Kansas City Times, 5/25/1962
Blast As Cause of Crash. The Kansas City Star, 5/26/1962
Locate Point of Explosion in Airliner. The Des Moines Register, 5/28/1962
CAB Head Discuses Jet Crash. The Des Moines Tribune, 5/29/1962
Check Crash Victims. The Kansas City Star, 5/30/1962
Thomas G. Doty: Investigating Jet Passenger. The Des Moines Tribune, 5/30/1962
Task at Crash Site Near End. The Kansas City Star, 5/31/1962
$275,000 in Risk Policies on Man in Plane Blast. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 5/31/1962
Meticulous Work, Long Hours Reveal Bomb Wrecked Airliner. The Kansas City Star, 6/3/1962
Explosives Sold to Victim of Air Crash, It is Said. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 6/16/1962
Explosives Sold to Missouri Air Crash Victim, FBI Discloses. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 6/17/1962
A Magazine Called Wallaces’ Farmer. Iowa Pathways. http://www.iowapbs.org.
Aviation Safety Network. http://www.aviation-safety.net
Bender, Jonathan. Fifty years ago this week, Continental Flight 11 fell out of the sky over Unionville. The Pitch. 5/23/2012. http://www.thepitchkc.com
Air Traffic Control and Radar. http://www.ethw.org