Where Did Max Miller Die?

In 1920, the first civil­ian air­mail pi­lot crashed in a New Jersey field, but vis­it­ing the site to­day, you’d never know it hap­pened.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY JOHN FLEISCHMAN

I CAN TELL YOU gen­er­ally where it hap­pened. An Air Mail Ser­vice pi­lot sent to in­ves­ti­gate the crash tele­graphed the as­sis­tant post­mas­ter gen­eral: “Ac­ci­dent was on farm two miles south­west of Mor­ris­town, New Jersey.” News­pa­pers re­ported that on Septem­ber 1, 1920, Max Miller, U.S. Air Mail Ser­vice Pi­lot #1, and his me­chanic, Gus­tav Reier­son, died “on the R.H. Thomas es­tate on the New Ver­non Road.” The mail was gath­ered up, the crash site cleared, and Miller’s body buried in a Washington, D.C. ceme­tery less than two miles from where the Na­tional Postal Mu­seum stands to­day, be­neath a head­stone carved with a U.S. air­mail pi­lot’s wings.

But the ghost of Max Miller has brought me many hun­dreds of miles to a small hay­field near Mor­ris­town in leafy north­west New Jersey on an im­pos­si­bly glo­ri­ous Easter Satur­day morn­ing. Over­head are fluffy clouds, a deep blue sky, and an end­less pro­ces­sion of air­craft, big and small, buzzing around air­ports in Ne­wark and New York City to the east. This is ru­ral New Jersey—horse coun­try, old money, and big es­tates—but it must be one of the most con­tin­u­ally over­flown ar­eas on Earth. Even in 1920, only two years af­ter the Post Of­fice started fly­ing mail on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, lo­cals had got­ten used to con­stant over­flights. Re­port­ing the crash, the New York Times sur­mised, “So many planes have flown over Mor­ris­town

since the route was es­tab­lished two years ago that the pow­er­ful me­tal ship would have at­tracted no at­ten­tion had not its mo­tor been back­fir­ing with an omi­nous thun­der­ing noise.”

What caught the at­ten­tion of the lo­cals that Septem­ber 1920 was the fiery plunge of what was then the most ad­vanced civil­ian air­craft in the world. The Junkers-Larsen 6 was an all-me­tal mono­plane de­signed in Ger­many un­der the care­ful di­rec­tion of Hugo Junkers and as­sem­bled in the United States by in­dus­tri­al­ist John Larsen. Its can­tilevered low wing and en­closed cabin fuse­lage, all sheathed in cor­ru­gated alu­minum, were Junkers hall­marks. The JL-6 over Mor­ris­town was on fire, ac­cord­ing to wit­nesses, los­ing al­ti­tude and shed­ding mail­bags. The Times saw the dropped bags as proof of the Post Of­fice pi­lot’s ded­i­ca­tion: “Ap­par­ently see­ing that he would be un­able to bring his blaz­ing plane out of its dan­ger­ous nose dive safely, Miller ev­i­dently had or­dered his me­chani­cian to re­lease the stays that held the nine bags of reg­is­tered mail so that the mail ser­vice might not suf­fer loss by their de­struc­tion.” The bags sailed free from the JL-6; the two men were in it when it hit.

I’m here in this sunny field this morn­ing in what is now Hard­ing Town­ship, with a crew of un­der­grads from Pro­fes­sor Lee Slater’s Ap­plied En­vi­ron­men­tal Geo­physics class at the Ne­wark cam­pus of Rut­gers Univer­sity. With two grad­u­ate stu­dents, Gor­don Oster­man and Neil Terry, in charge, we are scan­ning this small field for the im­pact crater or any other dis­tinc­tive soil dis­tur­bance that would mark the pre­cise spot where the JL-6 went in—and where Miller and Reier­son be­came num­bers 15 and 16 of 43 U.S. Air Mail Ser­vice pilots, me­chan­ics, and helpers who died de­liv­er­ing the mail be­tween May 1918 and Au­gust 1927. Seven were killed in JL-6 crashes in­volv­ing midair en­gine fires.

Stand­ing with Oster­man, I am watch­ing un­der­grad­u­ate An­drew Le­sende march down­field, tightly grip­ping a long white plas­tic pipe like a pole vaulter in slow mo­tion. In­side the pipe is a sen­sor that cap­tures small elec­tro­mag­netic changes in soil com­po­si­tion, soil struc-

ture, and ground­wa­ter con­tent. Le­sende has to keep the pole par­al­lel to the turf while stay­ing on a grid line. Be­hind comes another un­der­grad, Car­los Fernán­dez, push­ing what seems to be a lawn­mower but is in fact a heavy ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar unit. Another group is across Sand Spring Lane, a road that ends on James Street—once known as the New Ver­non Road. There, Terry is or­ga­niz­ing the other stu­dents to un­ravel the third tech­nol­ogy of the day, an eight-chan­nel “Su­per Sting” ERM, or elec­tri­cal re­sis­tiv­ity me­ter, which looks like a bright yel­low clothes­line of con­sid­er­able length with large stain­less steel clothes­pins to be driven into the ground at one-me­ter in­ter­vals. The clothes­line will cap­ture minute dif­fer­ences in re­sis­tiv­ity (or its in­verse, con­duc­tiv­ity). To­gether, all three in­stru­ments may tell us what’s be­neath our feet.

We are all here be­cause of Robert Ever­est John­son, a highly en­er­getic elec­tri­cal engi­neer who has worked in aerospace and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions. John­son be­came in­ter­ested in Max Miller be­cause of an ear­lier fas­ci­na­tion with Hard­ing Town­ship. He doesn’t live here— he cheer­fully ad­mits he can’t af­ford it—but in Ran­dolph, far­ther north in Mor­ris County. But af­ter John­son and his wife joined a church in Hard­ing Town­ship, he be­gan to soak up some of the area lore, in­clud­ing an episode in the history of avi­a­tion that, among air­plane fans at least, put Hard­ing Town­ship on the map.

In the sum­mer of 1966, two broth­ers from this town, Rinker and Ker­na­han Buck, 15 and 17, flew all the way across the coun­try and back in a woe­fully un­der­pow­ered and ra­dio-less Piper Cub. Thirty-one years later, Rinker pub­lished a memoir of that sum­mer: Flight of Pas­sage. In it, he de­scribes his dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther, a self-made pub­lish­ing ex­ec­u­tive and one-time aerial barn­stormer. (Peo­ple who en­joy find­ing con­nec­tions in the seem­ingly un­con­nected will ap­pre­ci­ate the co­in­ci­dence that this char­ac­ter, liv­ing un­der the flight path of the early air­mail ser­vice, ex­hibits traits of both the dare­devil pilots and the cal­lous taskmas­ters who or­dered them into the air re­gard­less of weather.) To­day Flight is some­thing of a cult book, a se­cret hand­shake among those who like true sto­ries, es­pe­cially com­ing-of-age sto­ries, about fly­ing.

John­son was so smit­ten with it that he wrote a screen treat­ment, which did not in­ter­est Rinker Buck, who had other fish to fry. But John­son did man­age to meet up online with Rinker’s older brother Ker­na­han, now a crim­i­nal de­fense at­tor­ney in the Bos­ton area. When John­son ex­plained his in­ter­est in both Flight and Hard­ing Town­ship, Kern shot back with a chal­lenge. “You live down there,” he said. “You might check this out.” What Kern wanted checked out was a mem­ory from his high school years. It hap­pens in the months be­fore his cross-coun­try ad­ven­ture. He’s tak­ing an older neigh­bor home—a fel­low avi­a­tor—and just be­fore they reach the in­ter­sec­tion with James Street, the neigh­bor points out a field where a fa­mous air­mail pi­lot had crashed long ago.

That mem­ory came back to Kern Buck from another book, Mav­er­icks of the Sky, a history of the early days of the air­mail. Flip­ping through the in­dex, he spot­ted Mor­ris­town, New Jersey, and was star­tled to find the Mor­ris­town Daily Record’s 1920 ac­count of the death of Max Miller. Buck tracked down the orig­i­nal Record story, “Two Air­men Burned to Death When Mail Plane Fell on Thomas Es­tate.” The

crash, the pa­per re­ported, took place, “on the R.H. Thomas es­tate on James Street.”

Was Max Miller the air­mail pi­lot his neigh­bor had told him about?

The name, R.H. Thomas, was un­fa­mil­iar to Buck, who had known that area as the Frel­inghuy­sen es­tate. “For 40 years, I had that mem­ory that some­one had told me that an air­mail plane had crashed in the mid­dle of the Frel­inghuy­sens’ field on Sand Spring Lane,” he says. Con­gress­man Rod­ney Frel­inghuy­sen has rep­re­sented New Jersey’s 11th Dis­trict since 1995, but his fam­ily’s grip on New Jersey pol­i­tics can be traced through a long line of “greats” to Fred­er­ick Frel­inghuy­sen, who fought in the Revo­lu­tion, served in the U.S. Se­nate, and helped draft the New Jersey state con­sti­tu­tion. Was the 1920 Thomas es­tate the mod­ern Frel­inghuy­sen es­tate? Kern Buck asked Robert John­son to find out.

With char­ac­ter­is­tic zeal, John­son was soon turn­ing up news­pa­per clip­pings, maps, and books about the Air Mail Ser­vice and its “fire proof” JL-6. On a 1939 plat map, he found the un­dated trans­fer of two large es­tate parcels from “Susie R.H. Thomas to Peter H.B. Frel­inghuy­sen.” Sand Spring Lane had been named three years ear­lier, and it hasn’t changed. It’s a nar­row, idyl­lic coun­try road run­ning be­tween grand houses, woods, pas­tures, and fields. The hay­field Buck’s neigh­bor pointed to, with woods on two sides, was clearly shown. Peter H.B. Frel­inghuy­sen was the fa­ther of cur­rent Con­gress­man Frel­inghuy­sen.

In the mean­time, Kern Buck searched the In­ter­net for “R. H. Thomas, New Ver­non, NJ.” Up popped two photos from the Mor­ris­town Li­brary of an air­plane crash on Septem­ber 1, 1920, taken by Fred­er­ick Ven­ton Cur­tiss, a lo­cal free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher who cap­tured the wreck­age and the crowds of cu­rios­ity (and sou­venir) seek­ers. It is a warm sunny Wed­nes­day. The men are in neck­ties and straw skim­mers, the boys in knicker­bocker breeches, and the women in an­kle-length dresses and sun hats.

The tes­ti­mony of Kern Buck’s neigh­bor com­bined with the prop­erty records and the pho­to­graphs all point to the same hay­field on Sand Spring Lane. But when the neigh­bor was re­port­ing the event to Buck, he was remembering some­thing from al­most 50 years ear­lier, and the photos of the field are close-ups nearly 100 years old. Don Jones, the au­thor of the Max Miller bi­og­ra­phy Max, told me that he be­lieves the air­plane could well have come down on the other side of Sand Spring Lane.

John­son thinks it’s im­por­tant to find phys­i­cal ev­i­dence. To re­search the farm­ing history of the meadow, he tracked down the Frel­inghuy­sen land man­ager, who told him that as far as he knew, the field in ques­tion was never plowed in the 20th cen­tury; it was left for hay. John­son walked the field, dis­cov­er­ing what he be­lieved was a de­pres­sion that ex­actly matched the up­side-down ra­di­a­tor of a nose-div­ing JL-6. Read­ing about Rut­gers Univer­sity stu­dents who per­formed a geo­physics sur­vey for an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig, John­son en­listed the vol­un­teer ser­vices of the Rut­gers So­ci­ety of Ex­plo­ration Geo­physics, Stu­dent Chap­ter. When he called the Frel­inghuy­sen es­tate of­fice to ask per­mis­sion for the sur­vey­ors to en­ter the field, he was told that the fam­ily had just do­nated it to a con­ser­va­tion trust con­trolled by Hard­ing Town­ship it­self.

When John­son started this quest, he did it, he says, be­cause “it was fas­ci­nat­ing to be in­volved with a pro­ject for no good rea­son.” Now, he says, “it has tremen­dously en­riched my life,” and he’d like to see the story of Max Miller told to the widest pos­si­ble au­di­ence, per­haps in the form of a his­toric marker, erected by the field, once the lo­ca­tion is con­firmed, as a fit­ting me­mo­rial to a pi­lot who had made an im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the progress of U.S. avi­a­tion.

THE MAX MILLER STORY is older than Hard­ing Town­ship, which was cre­ated in 1922 and named, by the town­ship’s staunchly Repub­li­can vot­ers, in honor of Pres­i­dent War­ren G. Hard­ing. This might seem triv­ial ex­cept that Hard­ing’s elec­tion in Novem­ber 1920 may have been a fac­tor in Miller’s fa­tal de­ci­sion to press on with his flight to Chicago in a clearly faulty air­craft. Here’s how this part goes.

East­bound from Cleve­land in a JL-6 on Au­gust 25, 1920, Miller had made an emer­gency land­ing at Belle­fonte, the Air Mail Ser­vice base in western Penn­syl­va­nia,

with en­gine trou­ble caused by a “bro­ken gas line be­tween [fuel] pump and car­bu­re­tor,” ac­cord­ing to Miller’s hand­writ­ten re­port. Af­ter re­pairs were made, he took off but was forced down again at Lam­bertville in eastern New Jersey. Once again, Miller re­ported that the JL had a bro­ken fuel line.

On Septem­ber 1, Miller and his me­chanic left Hazel­hurst Field near Mi­ne­ola, Long Is­land, at 5:30 a.m. in a JL-6. They came down in flames around 7:30 a.m. in New Ver­non, a dis­tance of roughly 40 miles by air. Where had they been for most of two hours? The most likely ex­pla­na­tion was another forced land­ing and on-the-spot re­pair. And the most likely prob­lem was the fuel line. It was the ap­par­ent cause of the two fa­tal crashes in JL-6S that fol­lowed Miller’s. Both of those air­craft ex­pe­ri­enced en­gine fires. So why would an ex­pe­ri­enced and level-headed flier like Miller press on in an air­craft that had al­ready nearly killed him three times in four days? Pol­i­tics.

The U.S. Air Mail Ser­vice was a crea­ture of par­ti­san pol­i­tics. Sec­ond As­sis­tant Post­mas­ter Otto Praeger was a one-time Dal­las news­pa­per­man, a yel­low dog Demo­crat, and an old Texas hunt­ing buddy of Woodrow Wil­son’s post­mas­ter gen­eral, Al­bert Burleson. Given au­thor­ity by Burleson to ex­plore air de­liv­ery, Praeger got the Air Mail Ser­vice off the ground on May 15, 1918, us­ing Army pilots and Army air­craft fly­ing Washington-to-New York routes. But the ser­vice was er­ratic, non-com­pet­i­tive, and, ac­cord­ing to Con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans, fu­eled by pa­tron­age. They were right. For the rul­ing party, the Post Of­fice was a foun­tain of pa­tron­age—think of all those post­mas­ters to ap­point. The foun­tain still be­longed to the Democrats in 1918, but with the up­com­ing 1920 elec­tions, the Repub­li­cans hoped to sweep into the White House, take con­trol of the House, and dras­ti­cally shrink the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. Stop me if this sounds fa­mil­iar.

Praeger quickly switched the air­mail ser­vice to an all-civil­ian fly­ing corps in June 1918, but he knew that the ser­vice was in a race against time and the Repub­li­cans. To hold off the bud­get cut- ters, Praeger had to es­tab­lish a prof­itable, pre­dictable, and rapid east-west ser­vice. New York to Chicago was his first goal. Then he would ex­tend air­mail, coast to coast. To do that, he needed pilots who would fly in all weather and in all kinds of ma­chines. And Praeger and his deputies would not take no for an an­swer.

This was prob­a­bly one rea­son Praeger hired Max Miller as the first civil­ian air­mail pi­lot. Be­sides claim­ing 1,000 hours of fly­ing time, Miller de­clared, “I have care­fully con­sid­ered the risks in­volved caused by bad weather con­di­tions and I would be will­ing to do my best un­der those cir­cum­stances and would be ready to go out at any time re­quired.” Praeger would test that will­ing­ness.

Max Miller comes with his own mys­ter­ies. He is am­ply doc­u­mented in dozens of neatly typed Air Mail Ser­vice doc­u­ments archived to­day at the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Postal Mu­seum and nearby at the Col­lege Park Avi­a­tion Mu­seum in Mary­land. But his early life wasn’t re­ally known un­til 2004 when A. D. “Don” Jones, a re­tired aerospace engi­neer and a lead­ing air­mail phi­lat­e­list (stamp col­lec­tor to you) pub­lished a bi­og­ra­phy of Miller for the Amer­i­can Air Mail So­ci­ety. As a judge for in­ter­na­tional phi­lately com­pe­ti­tions, Jones was in Oslo, Nor­way, where he tracked down Miller’s niece and through her tapped into fam­ily doc­u­ments and the Nor­we­gian cen­sus.

He learned that Max Ulf Moeller was born in Chris­tiana (now Oslo) in 1893 (and not 1890 as he later told the Post Of­fice), the son of a car­pen­ter (and not a sea cap­tain as he told his wife years later). The 1912 cen­sus re­ported that Max and his younger brother Ulf Moeller had mi­grated to the United States, prob­a­bly in 1911. Max Moeller turned up as Max Miller in Novem­ber, wear­ing the uni­form of a U.S. Calvary trooper and as­signed to Troop 6, 7th Cav­alry in Luzon, the Philip­pines. He next turned up in photos as a ma­chin­ist as­signed to a U.S. Army avi­a­tion unit fly­ing re­con­nais­sance along the Mex­i­can bor­der in Fe­bru­ary 1913.

There are no records of Miller go­ing to flight school, but some­how he learned to fly. When his sec­ond Army en­list­ment ended in 1918, two of­fi­cers sta­tioned at the Rock­well Field, San Diego, tes­ti­fied to his good con­duct and his ex­pe­ri­ence as a “Fly­ing In­struc­tor at this school” with 725 hours and 56 min­utes of fly­ing time, all done dur­ing his Army ca­reer.

As a will­ing all-weather flier and an ex­pe­ri­enced me­chanic, Miller be­came a pil­lar of the civil­ian Air Mail Ser­vice, fly­ing reg­u­lar routes in mar­ginal con­di­tions with un­re­li­able air­craft guided by rudi­men­tary in­stru­ments. The first pi­lot hired, Miller helped pi­o­neer the “Woodrow Wil­son Air­way” from New York to Chicago, tak­ing part in the hair-rais­ing and highly pub­li­cized in­au­gu­ra­tion flight on Septem­ber 5 to 6, 1918. Trapped above heavy clouds, Miller got lost re­peat­edly, de­vel­oped a ra­di­a­tor leak, and was forced to land six times be­fore reach­ing Cleve­land. When Max fi­nally landed at Grant Park in Chicago, he was nearly a day late. But he was greeted by a mob of postal of­fi­cials, avi­a­tion dig­ni­taries, and, of course, the press.

Miller, a tall, blond Scan­di­na­vian who was al­most the pro­to­type for Charles Lind­bergh, was the ser­vice’s golden boy. Clad head to toe in leather fly­ing gear, the hand­some Miller looked like a movie star. Praeger cer­tainly knew the value of good pub­lic­ity; he sent Miller to a com­mer­cial stu­dio for glam­our por­traits. When Miller mar­ried Praeger’s young and pretty sec­re­tary, Daisy Marie Thomas, the cou­ple was pho­tographed in the cock­pit of an Air Mail Ser­vice air­plane wear­ing match­ing hel­mets.

But Praeger rode Miller and all the ser­vice pilots hard, push­ing them to fly even in du­bi­ous weather and comb­ing through their ac­ci­dent, break­down, and ex­pense re­ports for ev­i­dence of shirk­ing. On Au­gust 11, 1920, Miller got into a dis­pute with the su­per­in­ten­dent of the New York to Chicago Di­vi­sion: He re­fused an or­der to fly one of the JL-6S just pur­chased by the ser­vice, and was ter­mi­nated on the spot. Praeger re­luc­tantly in­ter­vened by tele­gram. “The Dept. de­sires to re­tain Miller if pos­si­ble, and con­sis­tent with dis­ci­pline.”

Praeger’s iron-handed man­age­ment style dis­cour­aged pilots from speak­ing freely about prob­lems. You have to read closely be­tween the lines of Miller’s Au­gust 16–20, 1920 re­port to Praeger to re­al­ize that the new JLS were dan­ger­ously slow and, if pushed hard, sub­ject

to vi­o­lent vi­bra­tion. Five days later, the fuel line trou­bles started. Seven days af­ter that, Max Miller was dead. Two weeks later, on Septem­ber 14, another Air Mail Ser­vice pi­lot and me­chanic were killed in another JL-6 fiery crash. In the days be­fore the Civil Aero­nau­tics Act of 1938, the ser­vice did its own in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The en­gi­neer­ing sec­tion con­cluded that the fuel line fit­tings were faulty. Mod­i­fi­ca­tions were made. The Air Mail Ser­vice de­clared the JL-6S air­wor­thy.

On Fe­bru­ary 9, 1921, a JL-6 caught fire midair near Lacrosse, Wis­con­sin, and two ser­vice pilots and a me­chanic were killed. The ser­vice fi­nally had enough, and sold off its re­main­ing Junkers mono­planes. (Iron­i­cally, the orig­i­nal Junkers de­sign, the J-13, gained a rep­u­ta­tion in Europe as the stur­di­est of the early small civil­ian air­lin­ers. The J-13 was the found­ing air­craft of a num­ber of Euro­pean air­lines and air routes; it stayed in pro­duc­tion—with up­grades—un­til 1931. Pro­fes­sor Junkers al­ways blamed his Amer­i­can im­porter, John Larsen, for unau­tho­rized mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the JL-6S.)

Back in Washington in early 1921, Hard­ing was pre­par­ing for his in­au­gu­ra­tion and the Repub­li­cans for their takeover of the House. The Air Mail Ser­vice seemed doomed. Then on Fe­bru­ary 22, 1921, a lame duck Praeger pulled off his Hail Mary play—a San Fran­cisco-to-new York Air Mail transit of 33 hours and 21 min­utes, 75 hours bet­ter than the fastest train record. A three-day jump on stan­dard mail sud­denly made air­mail in­dis­pens­able to West Coast banks and big busi­nesses. When the Hard­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion ar­rived in March, they made a clean sweep of Demo­cratic ap­pointees at the Post Of­fice, but their Repub­li­can re­place­ments kept the Air Mail Ser­vice go­ing while Congress fum­bled to­ward a tran­si­tion to pri­vate con­tract car­ri­ers and the start of com­mer­cial air­mail in 1925.

AS AIR­LIN­ERS and the oc­ca­sional prop plane sail over­head, I am stand­ing in the hay­field with Gor­don Oster­man, lis­ten­ing to him de­scribe his con­cern about the ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar. It doesn’t do well on soils with high clay con­tent, which cre­ates an elec­tronic “ring­ing” that can blot out all other data. Un­for­tu­nately, says Oster­man, this part of cen­tral New Jersey is un­der­lain by the thick, high clay re­mains of a pre­his­toric gla­cial lake, known to ge­ol­o­gists as Lake Pas­saic.

The other two tech­nolo­gies might have a bet­ter chance, he thinks. They might pick up traces of highly con­duc­tive met­als driven into the ground or of dis­tur­bance pat­terns in tree roots. “Near-sur­face” geo­physics, Oster­man says, is con­cerned only with the top few me­ters of the earth. These tech­niques are used for plot­ting chem­i­cal spills, ground­wa­ter prob­lems, lost graves, un­der­ground util­i­ties, and ar­chae­ol­ogy sites. An air­plane crash from al­most 100 years ago is a dif­fer­ent kind of prob­lem.

To find phys­i­cal ev­i­dence, the pole vaulter and the lawn­mower keep pac­ing, but it’s soon clear that un­rolling the yel­low ERM line, driv­ing the stakes, tak­ing the mea­sure­ments, and then up­root­ing the whole thing and re­set­ting it five me­ters to the north is go­ing to take far longer and wear out more peo­ple than ex­pected. The un­der­grads all vol­un­teered to per­form this near-sur­face geo­phys­i­cal sur­vey pro­ject and an­a­lyze the data for a

group re­port in­stead of tak­ing the fi­nal exam. At the start of the day, they were jok­ing about find­ing an air­plane wing. Many long hours later, they are de­bat­ing whether the fi­nal exam might not have been the smarter choice.

The re­sult of their hard work, the geo­phys­i­cal re­port, ap­peared weeks later and set­tled lit­tle. As Oster­man and Terry feared, the ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar was a washout, the heavy clay soils turn­ing the GPR sig­nal from the lawn­mower into mean­ing­less ring­ing. The pole vaulter and the yel­low clothes line did bet­ter. Be­tween them, they mapped low-con­duc­tiv­ity ar­eas in the north­west cor­ner of the field that sug­gest the air­craft crashed here, the force of the im­pact and the sub­se­quent ga­so­line ex­plo­sion leav­ing a com­pacted layer in the sub­sur­face. In the end, though, the Rut­gers team strad­dled the fence. “Ul­ti­mately,” wrote Oster­man and Terry, “the data can­not be used to con­firm the ex­is­tence of a crash site, how­ever it does not dis­prove such as­ser­tions ei­ther.”

John­son’s doc­u­ments and Buck’s vin- tage pic­tures make a com­pelling case that this field is where the air­plane went down. The cause? The de­fec­tive Junkers-larsen fuel sys­tem, whether Amer­i­can-made or Ger­man mis-en­gi­neered. Pre­ventable? Yes, Miller should have re­fused to fly a de­fec­tive air­plane, but for Air Mail Ser­vice pilots, the pres­sure to fly, no mat­ter what, was re­lent­less. Was the Air Mail Ser­vice worth it? Yes, although the last­ing achieve­ment was not the air­mail it­self but the in­ven­tion of com­mer­cial avi­a­tion. From the early Air Mail Ser­vice came the begin­nings of a sus­tain­able trans­porta­tion sys­tem that de­vel­oped reg­u­lated main­te­nance, night fly­ing, real-time weather re­port­ing, bet­ter ma­chines and bet­ter in­s­tu­ments, and even crash in­ves­ti­ga­tions. That list is a good start for any text that might go on a his­toric marker.

The Hard­ing Town­ship hay­field con­tin­ues to hold mys­ter­ies. Robert John­son would like to know where Miller and his me­chanic went dur­ing the nearly two hours be­tween take­off from Long Is­land and the crash in New Jersey. Kern Buck won­ders if Max Miller was try­ing to put out the en­gine fire by div­ing, an old-time pi­lot’s trick that Miller once em­ployed to save him­self over Penn­syl­va­nia. I want to know how so many sto­ries could land in one meadow—dar­ing Air Mail pilots, par­ti­san pol­i­tics, dif­fi­cult fathers, se­ri­ous geo­physi­cists, a Nor­we­gian cav­al­ry­man, and a “fire-proof” me­tal mono­plane that fell burn­ing from the sky.

Inset: For the first New York-to-chicago mail flight, in 1918, Max Miller ac­cepts a mail­bag from New York City Post­mas­ter Thomas Pat­ten. Two years later, Miller died in a crash in a New Jersey field near where Sand Spring Lane now runs (the hor­i­zon­tal...

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