The Magneto from Flight 421

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Ivy King

Catalog Number: 2014.fic.642

On August 29 1948, the Upper Midwest was going through a heat wave. Weather reports indicated that the day would be nearly clear with a few showers in the La Crosse area. This is the report that Northwest Airlines Flight 421, flying from Chicago to Minneapolis, received. But, later, an unexpected storm was brewing. At around 5:00 pm people in Winona were staring at the sky, watching a growing thunderstorm approach. The thunderstorm grew more intense as it came towards them, with increasing thunder and lightning that was not a part of the initial forecast. It was on this day that Northwest Airlines Flight 421 crashed just outside of Winona.

The airplane was a Martin 2-0-2, and it was a little under a year old. It was a newer, more modern model, and it contained extras such as reading lights and air conditioning. The flight had an experienced pilot and co-pilot: Captain Robert Johnson and David Brenner. The pilot had flown more than five thousand hours, and the copilot, a native of La Crosse, served as a pilot during WWII.

A total of 33 passengers boarded the plane expecting to land in Minneapolis a couple hours later. It departed from Chicago at 3:50 pm. No issues occurred at take-off, and the plane flew to its planned altitude of 8,000 feet as it went over Wisconsin. A little after an hour into the flight the Martin 2-0-2 aircraft reported its position, which was over La Crosse. This would be the airplane’s last check-in, and the pilot’s voice was calm. The plane gained permission to descend a thousand feet.

The plane descended, continued its course, and encountered the unexpected storm. According to eyewitnesses, the plane was spotted below some of the clouds before flying into the edge of the storm clouds. Within seconds the bystanders witnessed the plane falling from the sky. Local farmers claimed the plane barrel-rolled out of the sky even though winds were light.

Winona patrolman Ed Hittner responded to the call of the fallen flight. He waded down into the water himself after finding a wing in a marsh. He met up with a man named Jack Volkel, another pilot, and he recognized the type of plane and understood the possible significance. Immediately, Volkel went to check if any flights were missing.

The plane was mainly torn into four pieces. Parts of the wreckage were found as far as seven miles away from the crash site in a ballpark in Winona. It has been estimated that as many as 20,000 came to the crash scene and offered aid. All of the 33 passengers and four crewmembers on the flight died in the crash.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on August 19, 2017.

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