“Some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England.”
“The Soldier,” Rupert Brooke (1914)
The starched and pressed cadets fidgeted in the stifling chapel of the Episcopal Church of Bradenton, surreptitiously scratching, swiping at sweat and loosening chafing uniform collars. They had not been in Florida long enough to adjust to 80-degree days in January. Back in the United Kingdom, the temperature hovered in the 40s. As Royal Air Force cadets, they signed up to put themselves in harm’s way, but they were expecting Messerschmitts, not the risks posed by heatstroke, water moccasins and each other.
In addition to the 26 trainees, instructors from Embry-Riddle Flight School had also made the hour-long trip from Arcadia, including their boss, John Paul Riddle. Today, he did not look like the distinguished aviator in press photos, posing with Lindbergh or the U.S. Army Air Corp’s top brass, General Hap Arnold. Today, he looked like a grieving father. For the young cadet soon to be buried more than 4,000 miles from home, he was standing in for the family.
The men from Carlstrom Field gathered to pay their last respects to Alfred T. Lloyd of Randor, Wales. For many, it was the first funeral they had ever attended, though the war would change that. Some would die as heroes themselves.
As a pilot-in-training, Lloyd was in Riddle’s care, a responsibility that “The Boss” embraced. Aviation had dominated his life since his late teens. He was an Army Air Corps lieutenant, airplane mechanic and barnstormer who established one of the first flight schools in the United States in 1926. A serial entrepreneur, he soon branched out to airmail and cargo delivery and new services such as “aero-based” tourism and aerial photography. In less than twenty years, he had reached the height of his power and prestige as the man the U.S. Army turned to for expedited pilot training to aid the United Kingdom. The Brits emerged victorious after the almost four-month-long Battle of Britain, but at the cost of more than five hundred pilots.
America was not “in it” in early 1941, but the country’s neutrality was showing widening cracks. In March, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, allowing the United States to provide war materiel to Great Britain. The Lend-Lease arrangement also opened the door to thousands of British RAF trainees. They arrived for intensive training at eighteen contractor-operated flying schools, including two Riddle established in Florida swamps and citrus groves.
Carlstrom Field was a World War I air-training field where Riddle learned to fly twenty years before. It was based in Arcadia, Florida, a cow town looking to revive a cash cow. By 1940, the abandoned field belonged to snakes and weeds. However, Arcadia had the support of local politicians, flat topography and temperate weather in its favor. The goal was ambitious: create training installations that could turn out 1000 primary-trained fliers every ten weeks.
Riddle monitored the revival of Carlstrom Field, watching the installation of power and telephone lines, water and sewerage systems, roads and landing fields. He became a familiar visitor, a man in a seersucker suit, launching his lanky frame over piles of displaced dirt and navigating around bins of greasy plumbing fittings. “The quicker we get this job done, the faster we can train those British kids to fly,” he would announce to no one in particular. Maybe he was reassuring himself. He came to the job site often. Workers scurried out of view, leaving his questions to McSheehan, the project manager. Eventually, everyone got used to seeing him, poking through materials and walking along the artificial lake. One morning, a worker on the roof of a barracks called down him, “My crew is working at top speed. I keep telling them that the quicker they get the job done, the quicker we get those RAF kids in the air.”
Riddle laughed. Fifty student-pilots would arrive in two months. What would they make of Arcadia, a town known for its annual rodeo? What would Arcadia make of these young men from Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh? He mounted a charm offensive with the locals, keeping them apprised of the progress of the Air College. It was fast-tracked construction, with barracks and housing, a dining hall, classrooms, recreation center and administrative buildings designed by an architect from Miami Beach. Two steel hangars accommodated 20 Stearman PT-17s. Despite some budgetary balking, Riddle won the battle to include six tennis courts and a swimming pool.
After 60 days of nearly round-the-clock work, the town’s rodeo queen wielded a bottle of orange juice to christen the new flight school. When Arthur Lloyd died, Carlstrom was approaching its first anniversary. The 19-year-old was one of the first buried in the British Plot in Oak Ridge Cemetery, near the school.
Lloyd died a day after the proudest moment of his life. On January 4, 1942, he guided his Stearman to a perfect landing, successfully completing his first solo. That night, four classmates snuck into his room, carried him out and tossed him in the swimming pool. Lloyd himself had helped carry out a traditional “dunking” ceremony the previous week. However, when Lloyd went under, he did not surface. The cadets tried to resuscitate him, but Lloyd was declared dead that night. The local coroner speculated that the cold water caused a cramp that led to accidental drowning. Riddle told the press the death was a “regrettable accident” and such hazing was against school rules. Embry-Riddle cooperated with civilian and military investigations, and the state attorney issued a statement that the death was accidental.
Lloyd’s marker reads: Alfred T. Lloyd, 1418101 ~ L-A-C ~ R-A-F, January 5, 1942. The inscription: “Be ye also ready; For in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.”
In 1989, Riddle’s own plain stone marker was set among the 23 in the British Plot at Oak Ridge Cemetery. It bears a simple inscription and beneath his name, the initials MBE – Member of the British Empire. From a hardscrabble youth in Pikeville, Kentucky, his obsession with aviation lifted him to unimagined heights, including a knighthood.
“Shine through the gloom and point me toward the skies.” - Abide With Me
October 31, 1939, was cool and clear in Brookfield, Missouri. The crisp and cloudless skies made it perfect flying weather. The chill that hung over the town had nothing to do with Halloween. Friends and neighbors were burying one of their own, the victim of a headline-grabbing murder. They filled all 600 seats of First Presbyterian on North Lexington, and the pews creaked as people shifted uncomfortably, waiting for the 11 a.m. service to begin. Those who couldn’t find seats or felt shy about intruding clustered in the back of the chapel. Many mourners had only recently unpacked their winter wear and a distinct bottom note of mothballs made the cloying scent of the white roses and lilies even more oppressive.
Uniformed police and patrolmen came to pay their respects, but surprisingly, given the notoriety of recent events, the sole reporter was from the Brookfield Argus, Linn County’s only daily newspaper. The Bivens story was big news for a paper that ran stories on the addition of a new book to the local library. Carl Bivens’s name made it into just a handful of national headlines. More familiar was the name Earnest Pletch, his murderer, who sat in the Macon County jail, a four-hour drive from the church.
At the front of the chapel, providing an alternative focal point to the casket, sat a large, white centerpiece arrangement of a broken airplane wheel. The “broken spoke” design dated back to wagon trains of the 1800s, but the symbolism remained. Carl Bivens was their missing connection, taken from the community and the journey of his life ended. An organist signaled the start of the ceremony and a male quartet harmonized through two hymns, Does Jesus Care? and Abide With Me.
Reverend I.D. Borders stepped to the pulpit and hesitated for a moment as if expecting applause. He was a popular speaker and a great favorite on the Rotarian and American Legion circuit. He gave a small nod to the bereaved, Marietta (Etta) Bivens and her 17-year-old son, Russell. Etta looked drawn and pale in her simple navy day dress. She had no time to buy proper mourning clothes. She pushed her dark hair behind her ears, making her features seem sharper. Russell hovered, blocking any well-intentioned but unwelcome encounters. Today would be hard on her, though not as excruciating as the 24 hours they waited together, wondering what had become of his father.
Older son Orville was working for Pan American Airways and could not make it home for his father’s funeral. At just 21, he was newly married and working as a radio operator for clipper ships flying between Miami and Trinidad. The close-knit family shared a passion for aviation that went back a decade. Carl Bivens taught his wife and both sons to fly. (Russell was so small that he had to use extenders to reach the pedals.) The family owned three planes over the years and they were currently flying a bright yellow Taylor monocoupe. This is the plane that Carl died in, 5000 feet over Missouri farmland. (Three counties grappled over the precise scene of the crime, each claiming jurisdiction in the country’s first “mid-air murder.”)
The service was not one of those awkward affairs with an unfamiliar minister stumbling over names and relationships. The minister considered Carl a friend. He also patronized Bivens Garage on Main Street. Reverend Borders described the man the town respected: quiet, conscientious, generous and a devoted husband and father. However, Reverend Borders deviated from his script of comfort and consolation to deliver an unexpected message from an even more unexpected source, Guy Pletch. Borders sat with two men in his study the night before. They entreated him to arrange a meeting with Etta Bivens. The killer’s father, accompanied by his brother Scott, had traveled from Indiana to plead for his Earnest’s life. Etta agreed to meet them.
Guy Pletch was in his fifties, but like Etta, his face showed the strain of the past few days. He looked ill himself and leaned heavily on his brother. He explained to Etta that his wife Bertha was under a doctor’s care at home. He expressed his family’s deep sorrow and shame over their son’s incomprehensibly evil act. Earnest, he insisted, was insane. After he developed an obsession with flying in his early teens, his son wanted no part of the straight and narrow. As they sat together in her small living room, Etta could see her visitors were powerful men, used to being in control, and yet both seemed humbled before her.
Reverend Borders told his congregation that Pletch’s parents promised they would make any sacrifice if they could undo such a terrible wrong, even if that meant accepting the execution of their only son. Guy Pletch told the minister and the widow that during a brief jail visit with his son, he and his mother had urged Earnest to “make his peace with God.” (Their particular God was affiliated with First Christian Church in Frankfort, Indiana. Earnest’s mother and sisters sang in the choir.)
In an extraordinary act of compassion, Etta wrote to Bertha Pletch, as one mother to another, assuring her that she had no vengeance in her heart. Etta had already demonstrated that grief did not turn her vindictive upon Earnest’s arrest. She told a neighbor that she believed some situations merited swift justice, delivered without the delays of legal intervention. However, as rumors of a lynching reached her, she asked the police chief to issue a statement to the newspaper, which he did. Her message to would-be vigilantes was, “Take good care of that fellow. I want him handled by the law so he can never do any harm to anyone else. But I do not want a mob to get him or any lynching.” The Bloomington paper reported her plea had “a quieting effect,” but also noted anger ran high in the community. The jail stationed a special detail of officers to guard Earnest.
There was no question of Earnest Pletch’s guilt. The mystery was his motive. After a few flimsy stories, he confessed to shooting his flight instructor in the head. This brought an immediate announcement – the day of the funeral – that prosecutor Vincent Moody intended to convict him of first-degree murder and dispatch him to the gas chamber at Missouri State Penitentiary. Missouri introduced the gas chamber the previous year as a humane alternative to the public hangings practiced until 1936. Hangings shielded from public view continued into the next year.
How was Etta Bivens able to temper any impulse toward retribution? She lost her husband of 22 years and the father of her two sons. Just weeks from her 42nd birthday, she faced an uncertain future in a rented house on Clayton Street. Her husband had established his small airport a few years before and it was growing, but could she operate it on her own? She had an eighth-grade education and no business experience. Few people knew it, but a week before his murder, Carl sold his garage. One of the early reports of Carl’s murder hinted that he was killed for the cash from that sale, but Etta knew that money was safe in Southern Bank. She didn’t know how long that money would tide them over. Her husband intended to make aviation, the industry of the future according to the newspapers, their sole livelihood. In 1920, Albert Bond Lambert turned a tract of St. Louis farmland into a major airport and Carl Bivens believed he could do the same in Brookfield. In the meantime, he had 28 students eager to learn to fly from one of the few accredited (and affordable) flight instructors in the area. Both Etta and Russell were licensed pilots, but not licensed as instructors.
Etta had little cause to worry during her marriage. Even though Carl was only 17 when they married, she knew he was a hard worker who already had a marketable skill as a mechanic. Just a few years into their marriage, they were able to move out of her in-laws’ house into a rented home thanks to his steady work at a Ford garage, where he built and repaired Model As. By 1928, he owned a garage on Brookfield’s Main Street. He became “air-minded” in 1930 when he purchased a used Curtis Standard biplane. He did not know how to fly, but he took lessons from a local pilot who went on to fly for American Airlines. After a few years, Carl traded the Curtis in for a Waco three-place biplane. As she worked in the home, an attentive mother to Orville, followed four years later by Russell, airplanes seduced her husband. He flew every chance he got. When he received his license from the Department of Commerce, he was literally a changed man. The government misspelled his name – turning Bevins to Bivens – and Carl decided it was easier to adopt the new spelling. They were henceforth the Bivens family. By 1936, Carl was qualified as a transport pilot, eligible to carry mail or passengers, with more than 400 hours of flight time to his credit, well over the 200 required by the government. He also earned an instructor rating.
In the 1930s, aviation matured from the death-defying stunts of barnstormers and air circuses to a regulated, safety-oriented business. As is true today, it took a celebrity death to focus the country on safeguards. The death of a sports icon in a plane crash galvanized Americans and focused national attention on the need for reliable design and operation. Beloved Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne was en route to California to film the biopic The Spirit of Notre Dame. On March 31, 1931, the 43-year old coach was one of eight passengers on a Fokker Trimotor operated by Trans-Continental & Western Air. The plane crashed in a wheat field in Kansas, killing all on board.
The crash occurred an hour after take-off from Kansas City when a wing broke up in flight. The plane’s plywood skin separated from its ribs and spars when water-based glue that bonded the section deteriorated in the rain. When a spar failed, the wing developed uncontrolled flutter that caused it to break away from the aircraft. A radio call from the co-pilot suggests icing may have over-stressed the weakened wing. It is also possible that clear-air turbulence was a factor in the crash.
Souvenir scavengers thwarted the work of accident investigators, who found only the engine, propeller and wings at the crash site. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) did not yet exist. The Aeronautics Branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce was responsible for the investigation. Until this crash, the Department of Commerce kept results of aircraft accident investigations sealed.
Rockne’s death sparked a public outcry about aviation safety. Ultimately, public demand led to changes in aircraft design, inspection, maintenance and operation and advanced crash investigation. The U.S. government grounded Fokker Trimotors and required inspections and new maintenance standards. Thirty-five planes built in 1929 were banned from carrying passengers but could carry freight. Aircraft sales shifted to all-metal designs: The Ford Trimotor, the Boeing 257, and the Douglas DC-2 and DC-3.
More than 100,000 people lined Rockne’s funeral procession and the funeral was broadcast live on radio. Tributes poured in from around the world for more than a week and profiles of Rockne dominated the front pages of papers across the country. His legacy as a football great is matched by the contribution he made to aviation safety.
Safety culture came naturally to Carl as a pilot and instructor. He was a
modest man but justifiably proud of his impeccable record. As a top mechanic, he kept his plane in perfect condition and did not fly at night or in threatening weather. He had no reported accidents or near-misses except a standoff on his airstrip with a territorial prairie chicken that the press related in a humorous column. (Both survived the encounter.)
After the service, some people went to Joe’s Café, passing the garage on Main Street that still had its Biven’s Garage sign. The lunch crowd seemed unusually focused on the meatloaf special. Etta and Russell drove to Rose Hill Cemetery to say final, private goodbyes as Carl was buried next to his father.
A friend down the block hastily organized a Trick or Treat open house for neighborhood children to spare the Bivens from ghosts or devils appearing on their doorstep that night. The peace and privacy were welcome. Etta Bivens had a life-or-death decision to make on behalf of a young man who changed her life. He was a stranger – and yet he shared the passion for flight she recognized in her husband and sons and even in herself. Would she ask for the death penalty for America’s first skyjacker?