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Des Moines Forgotten

The 1961 plane crash on Country Club Boulevard


1st Lt. Harlan Quamme and Capt. Richard Ervin. Dec. 17, 1961, issue of The Des Moines Register

This story developed because I received a speeding ticket in Nebraska this past March. It was one of those deals when I was going 10 mph over the speed limit, the cop slowed down in front me, so I rode right up on him. Anyway, I had the option of either paying the $75 fine or taking an online traffic safety class and keeping it off my driving record. So, I did the online class and, in one of the sessions, there was mention of an airplane making an emergency landing on a car. The photo example was just as insane as the headline.

From what I have read, there have been two reported plane crashes in the city of Des Moines. In 1985, a tragic crash killed seven people including members of the ISU Women’s Track Team on Country Club Boulevard. Another crash happened on Grand Avenue in December of 1961, not far from the Country Club Boulevard crash that would happen 24 years later. 

The two pilots were Iowa State University students and members of the Iowa National Guard. Lt. Harlan J. Quamme, 24, and Capt. Richard E. Ervin, 27, both of Ames. They were flying two National Guard F-86L Sabres and were running out of fuel while attempting to land their jets at an airport. They were trying to head toward an open field before bailing out. One plane landed in a farm field successfully (just 2.5 miles from the airport they were trying to reach). The pilot ejected, and no one was harmed. The other pilot also bailed out, but his plane flew into the kitchen of Henry A. Sandahl, who happened to be getting his lunch in that very room. He ran out to escape a terrible fate.

The planes were conducting a routine interception mission and were carrying 24 live rockets. The firefighters were concerned that live rockets were scattered over such a wide area between 57th Street and Grand Avenue. The weather had started out clear, but conditions worsened when the cloud ceiling dropped and ice and drizzle formed.

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Dec. 17, 1961, issue of The Des Moines Register. Photo by David Penney

Surprisingly, no humans were hurt. Mr. Sandahl had run out of his kitchen to the yard, and Mrs. Sandahl ran out soon after the flames broke out. There was one casualty — the Sandahls’ pet parakeet. In the Dec. 17, 1961, issue of The Des Moines Register, Mr. Sandahl was quoted saying, “My parakeet burned up, Pee Wee was burned.” Airplane debris, kitchen equipment and shattered wood were scattered everywhere. A 5-foot by 8-foot section of the plane was also resting in their living room. When looking in from the outside, onlookers could see where the plane had touched down and plowed through the snow and dirt.

One last note about the Traffic Safety Class. It cost me more $300 with the fees and two days to complete. I could have just paid the $75 and been done. But my mother can rest easy knowing that I don’t have this on my driving record. ♦

Kristian Day is a filmmaker and writer based in Des Moines. He also hosts the syndicated Iowa Basement Tapes radio program on 98.9 FM KFMG. Instagram: @kristianday Twitter: @kristianmday

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