Wilmer Stultz, Aviator

Grave of aviator Wilmer Stultz

I had never been in Williamsburg before, much to the surprise of my parents who were accompanying me on this trip. Over the years we had made countless trips on Route 22 between Huntingdon and Altoona, but had never made the detour to the south to visit the community of Williamsburg. Located on the banks of the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River, Williamsburg was founded in 1790. The community was originally called Akestown after town founder Jacob Ake, but would be changed to Williamsburg to honor William Ake, Jacob’s son.

I entered town on Route 866, also known as Juniata River Road and then turned right onto High Street. At the edge of town, I turned left onto Union Street and I could see the Presbyterian Cemetery ahead of me.

Entering the cemetery, I drove to the place where the roadway turned sharply to the left and parked. From where I sat, I could see the family name on a large monument on my left. Getting out of the vehicle, I walked the short distance up the gently sloping hillside to the Stultz family marker. Next to the larger family marker, sat a smaller stone with a plaque covering its top. Reading the plaque, I noted this was the resting place of a famed aviator and the plaque listed some of the honors that marked the life of Wilmer Stultz.

Wilmer Lower “Bill” Stultz was born April 11, 1900 south of Williamsburg on his parent’s farm. One of Norman and Clara Stultz’s four children, Wilmer grew up on the family farm until the age of fourteen, when the family moved to a home in Williamsburg.

Stultz would join the US Army Air Force in August 1917 and was assigned to the roster of the 634th Aero Supply Squadron. He would reach the rank of sergeant before his honorable discharge in March 1919. He returned temporarily to Pennsylvania, where he married Mildred Botts in August.

In December 1919, he would join the US Naval Air Service and would head to Florida for training where he graduated seventh in his class of one hundred. Stultz would be assigned to Hampton Roads, Virginia where he served until he was honorably discharged in December 1922.

In 1928, Stultz would make national headlines for a number of reasons. The first time was on March 5, 1928, when Stultz, Oliver Colin LeBoutillier, and Mabel Boll made the first non-stop flight from New York City to Havana, Cuba.

Despite the successful trip, it would be the events of June 17-18, 1928 that would make Stultz a household name. Stultz had been selected by George Palmer Putnam to fly the airplane Friendship across the Atlantic.

On June 17, Stultz took off from Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland and headed eastward towards Burry, Wales. Onboard was mechanic Louis “Lou” Gordon and one passenger – Amelia Earhart. This trip made Earhart the first female to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. The trio then boarded a ship and sailed back to the United States.

Note: In an interesting turn of events, many places would later claim that Earhart was the pilot of this journey and Stultz served as her co-pilot. Earhart referred to Stultz as the pilot of this trip across the Atlantic in future interviews and consistently stated she was just the passenger. Earhart would later become the first female to pilot an airplane over the Atlantic on May 21, 1932. Also of interest is that it was this trip – with her being the passenger and not the pilot – which earned her the nickname “Lady Lindy” in the newspapers.

On July 18, 1928, the community of Williamsburg would celebrate the achievement of their native son as Stultz returned home to mark the flight over the Atlantic. With him, he brought Earhart and Gordon to his hometown for the homecoming event. After the parade to honor the trio in Williamsburg, the group then went to Tipton, where the Altoona Aircraft corporation’s landing strip was officially dedicated as “Stultz Field.” Note: Stultz Field would be renamed Peterson Field in 1951 in honor of Paul Peterson, Jr, who was killed in an accident at the site.

Just over a year after Stultz made his flight across the Atlantic, his life would come to a tragic end. On July 1, 1929, Stultz was on Long Island to act as a pall bearer for Jack Ashcroft, who had died in an airplane crash a couple days before. Stultz took off from Roosevelt Field in Mineola, New York piloting a Waco biplane. With him were two passengers – Edward Harwood, who was a supervisor at the Roosevelt Airfield, and Pasquale “Pat” Castelluccio. Note: Harwood’s name is consistent throughout the newspapers. The second passenger commonly referred to as Pat Castelluccio, but is identified by a number of slightly differing names.

The biplane traveled about a quarter of a mile when it went into a tailspin and crashed. The first to arrive at the wreck pulled Stultz from the wreck that had killed his passengers. Stultz was taken to a nearby hospital where he died on the operating table. Stultz was just twenty-nine at the time of his death.

The cause of the wreck was officially listed as a result of Stultz “stunting.” However, he had done these before and nothing bad had happened. While the July 2, 1929 edition of the Olean Times (Olean, New York) places the blame of the crash on Stultz’s “stunting,” the article goes on to report that there may be other factors involved in the deadly crash.

These other factors were divided into two categories. In the July 5, 1929 edition of The Daily Messenger (Canandaigua, New York) it is stated the crash was due to Stultz being drunk at the time. However, the July 17, 1929 edition of The New York Times, noted the coroner’s report which stated that – after interviewing those who talked to Stultz before he took off from Roosevelt Field – there was no evidence that alcohol was the main cause of the accident.

The opposing theory to the cause of the crash was reported in the July 2, 1929 edition of The Daily Messenger (Canandaigua, New York) places the cause of the crash on the passengers. It was believed that they had braced themselves against the rudder bar. This caused the rudder to be “frozen” in place, causing Stultz to lose control of the plane.

The one theory that was never looked into – at least I cannot find it – was if the cause of the crash was mechanical in nature. The plane had just had its propeller replaced and it could be possible something within the mechanics of the airplane had accidentally been damaged, which may have led to the fatal crash.

Note: The airplane crash that killed Stultz and his companions was the fourth crash near Roosevelt Field in less than a week. Francis Phillips, Henry Goldsmith, Jack Ashcraft, and Corporal Elmer Barry were killed while Viola Gentry and Lt. M.W. Balfour were injured.

Pushing aside the negative thoughts about his death, I stood remembering the things Wilmer Stultz had accomplished during his life. The first non-stop flight from New York City to Cuba and the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean – taking with him Amelia Earhart, the first female passenger to fly over the ocean – is what he should be remembered for. I finished paying my respects to a life cut short. I left him to rest in the cemetery at the outskirts of his hometown.

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