When the phrase “Cal Poly plane crash” comes up most recall the 1960 football team. That airplane crashed on takeoff from a Toledo, Ohio airport killing 22.
A less remembered tragedy occurred on the Cal Poly campus a little over 8 years later.
The 36th annual Poly Royal would be marred when a biplane, carrying four men, crashed after it appeared to lose power as hundreds attending the event watched. There were no survivors.
Cal Poly, then a college, had a 2,500 foot airstrip next to the aeronautical unit hanger and for at least 20 years fly in traffic had been allowed. One local pilot told me that fight charts warned pilots that wandering livestock may be present at the airfield. Our files hold many photos of past Poly Royal Queens and rodeos but the negative and print of this air accident are not where they should be.
Judging from what can be seen from the microfilm, the crash site was near the railroad tracks where the telegraph poles run.
There are file photos of airplanes at the field at the following 1969 Poly Royal but by late May 1974 Cal Poly informed the Federal Aviation Administration they wanted to close the airstrip. The campus was growing up and the risk was deemed too high as expansion encroached on the 8 acres that used to be at the edge of campus. The area was converted to a horse track and athletic fields. The state legislature changed the Cal Poly’s status from college to university in 1972.
A special thank you to Don Melin who suggested researching the topic.
The story ran two days after the accident since at the time there was no Sunday paper.
Cal Poly officials huddle
campus air crash aftermath
Hundreds watch four men killed
by Walt Beesley
Top level officials at Cal Poly were meeting today to probe all facets of a plane crash which snuffed out the lives of four persons Saturday afternoon during a series of aeronautical exhibitions at the college airfield.
Whether the pilot of the ill-fated craft was at the air show officially or had permission to use the airport had not been determined, nor could it be explained by some college officials whether the school would inherit any degree of responsibility for the tragedy.
The airfield is classified as private property and normally is not used by outside planes because there are no services available to any planes other than those used by students or instructors.
Dr. Robert E. Kennedy, college president, summoned his top aids early today for a closed-door conference to determine what, if any, action may be taken.
The crash was the first of a serious nature in the more than 20-year existence of the airport, although hundreds of visiting planes have flown from it during the many Poly Royal celebrations, a feature of which is a series of exhibitions by many dated and unusual craft.
As hundreds of spectators attending the aerial exhibitions watched, the Waco biplane stalled in the air about a quarter-mile from the north end of the runway. Having lost its power, it dived nose first into a grassy field behind a knoll and out of view of the stunned crowd.
Seconds later, it burst into flames sending a cloud of black smoke into the blue sky.
—Leo Francis Philbin, 48, of 1190 San Carlos St., San Luis Obispo, a professor in the Cal Poly aeronautical engineering department for more than 20 years.
—Charles Eugene Johnson, 46, of Los Osos, a psychiatric technician at Atascadero State Hospital.
—Charles Edward Lassiter, 39, of San Francisco, pilot and owner of the plane.
—Airman Steven Vincent Caruso, 20, of Aneheim, stationed at Travis AFB near Sacramento.
The 1934 vintage plane, the type of which has gained fame through the years as a stunting craft and crop dusting airplane was one of about 20 visiting craft which came to San Luis Obispo to participate in a variety of exhibitions at the college airfield.
Lassiter had made numerous flights earlier in the day, hanger attendants said, and had taken friends along.
It was presumed that Philbin and Johnson, himself a pilot and airplane buff, had known Lassiter through previous air shows. The fatal ride was the second Philbin had taken in the same plane.
Officials said Lassiter had been performing a touch and go operation —touching the ground in a simulated landing, then taking off without stopping. He reportedly was on his second turn around the field when his plane lost power.
Charles P. Davis, head of the aeronautical engineering department, said he was in another plane above and a short distance from the Lassiter craft when he saw it stall.
“It went straight down and crashed,” he said.
The bodies were jammed into the forward portion of the four-seater aircraft and were burned beyond recognition.
The plane was variously estimated to have been 200-400 feet above the ground when it stalled. Watches found on the victims were stopped at 1:15 p.m.
The area was roped off by deputies and Cal Poly security guards until an investigation could be completed by a Federal Aviation Authority official who was summoned from Los Angeles.
In addition to the airport throng, hundreds of persons attending a nearby rodeo saw the plane fall. But the majority of the more than 40,000 guests visiting the campus were unaware of the tragedy.
Airman Caruso reportedly was an avid airplane enthusiast who attended air shows whenever he had the opportunity.
Jake L. Dameron, a special investigator from the state Department of Justice, made a preliminary investigation of the crash scene Saturday and will return later this week with a member of the attorney general’s staff in an effort to determine legal responsibility.
State law requires that in any fatal accident occurring on state property, other than in an automobile, the accident must be reported to the attorney general’s office.
Rosary will be recited for Mr. Philbin at 7:30 o’clock tonight in the Old Mission. Requim Mass will be said there at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday and interment will be in the Catholic Cemetery under direction of Reis Colonial Chapel.
Mr. Philbin was born on Jan. 22, 1920, in Schuyler, Neb., and resided there until he entered the Navy. Following his discharge at San Diego, he entered Cal Poly as a student and later served as registrar and instructor. He also taught in the Salinas school system. He was active in Boy Scout and Camp Fire Girls activities and Little League baseball.
Survivors include the widow, Mrs. Vera Philbin; five sons, Morgan Francis Philbin with the Army in Washington, D.C., and Terence David, Denis Neville, Donald Kevin and Philip Leo all of San Luis Obispo; three daughters, Mrs. Sheila Saenz and Teresa Eileen and Kellie Marie all of San Luis Obispo; three brothers, Joseph of Reseda, Philip of Washington D.C. and Robert of Huntington Beach, and two sisters, Mrs. W.R. Campbell of Anaheim and Mrs. J.W. McMullan of Seattle, and a grandson.
The family requests that contributions be made to the Leo F. Philbin Scholarship Fund to be set up at Cal Poly.
A funeral service for Mr. Johnson will be conducted at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Zion Lutheran Church with the Rev. Stanley O. Quebe officiating. Interment will be in the Los Osos Valley Memorial Park under the direction of Reis Colonial Chapel.
Mr. Johnson was born in Iola, Wis., on Aug 2, 1921. After graduation from high school, he entered the Army. He later came to California and settled in the San Luis Obispo area nine years ago.
He was an automobile body and fender man most of his life but for the past two years had been employed at the Atascadero Hospital. He was a member of the San Luis Obispo Flying Club and the Ford Model A Club. He owned a plane.
Survivors include the widow, Mrs. Ellen Johnson of Los Osos; two daughters, Mrs Sandra Ellan Funk of San Luis Obispo and Mrs. Joanne Marie Keyser of Los Osos; a son, Charles E. Johnson Jr. of Los Osos; his mother, Mrs. Emma Bergseth of Morro Bay; a brother, Russell Norman Johnson of Shingle town, and a sister, Mrs. Dell Heath of Waupaca, Wis.