Come Josephine in my flying machine
By James Waller
THE WESTERN STAR
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People who travel to and from Bessemer and Hueytown along Brooklane Drive, seldom notice a large marble monument which stands near the Brooklane Community Center in Bud Newell Park. The monument was erected in the memory of Dennis 0. Gabbert, an early barn storming commercial airplane pilot, who fell to earth in a flaming airplane. Gabbert, 25, of Fairfield, and George Byess, 29, of Bessemer were burned to death at 5:20 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in 1926. Aeronautics was in its infancy then and the use of parachutes was unheard of.
Catching fire in midair, the flaming airplane fell from a height of 2,500 feet and crashed into a field 250 feet from the AB and A Railroad.
Both men were burned almost beyond recognition. Gabbert’s skull was crushed, and Byess was so horribly burned that his body was a mass of cinders. Gabbert was operating the machine at the time it caught fire.
F. T. Downey of Gem Tire Service of Bessemer, an airplane pilot himself, said the flying machine was owned by 0. W. McDaniel of Bessemer. Gabbert, Byess and Downey were planning to boy the machine for passenger and advertising service out of Bessemer. The plane was a new one. Gabbert and Byess were making their third flight in it and were loosening it up in preparation for commercial use.
Mrs. 0. C. Osterland, of Minnesota, in a letter to this writer in 1975, vividly described the tragedy. "It was a Sunday afternoon, May 23, 1926, and I was twelve years old. My parents, Mr. and Mrs. C. W. James, my brother Fred and I, were returning from a brief visit to the Warrior River."
"As we neared our home on the outskirts of Bessemer, where my parents ran a small grocery store located on the comer of 15th Street and 15th Avenue. We saw ahead beside the road on which we were traveling a great cloud of smoke from a fire around which were gathered scores of apparently fascinated onlookers." My father stopped the Ford he was driving, and we all got out to see what had happened. The" flames had died down somewhat by the time we got there, but the wreckage was still smoldering. We could see quite clearly the charred bodies of the two men lying face up, side by side in what was left of the almost totally destroyed airplane."
"I heard a voice saying ‘Somebody just said one of them was a fellow named Bice.’ On hearing this, my mother exclaimed, pointing toward one of the bodies, That’s Bice there! I know it is!. He stopped by the store this morning, bought some smoking tobacco and said he was going to take an airplane ride today.’ She kept insisting that she recognized his charred features.
"As we continued to watch in stunned silence, I heard someone else say, ‘The other one is Gabbert.’ To me that was the ultimate tragedy. Gabbert - the young aviator who had been using an old field only a few blocks from our home as a landing strip where, for a small
charge, he gave people a ride in his airplane. To me he was a brave and romantic figure."
"Later we heard that Gabbert’s mother had erected a monument in his honor on the very Spot where his plane had crashed and burned. My family and I often visited the monument and pointed it out to visitors who were unfamiliar with the story."
The late Hester Smith told me that he was a member of the 106th Observation Squadron, Alabama National Guard, and that he knew Sgt. Gabbert. He crashed on a Sunday afternoon, and taking off from old Roberts Field, we flew over the scene. At that time they did not have parachutes for they hadn’t been invented then. I was also at the unveiling of the monument. It was placed on the spot where he fell. The memorial service was on a Sunday afternoon and that was one of the main highways between Birmingham and Bessemer"
During the dedication of the monument five planes from Robert’s Field circled the spot and dropped flowers during the unveiling exercises. The Birmingham Police Band played and Major Sumpter Smith and Mrs. Sue Musgrove Long unveiled the six foot marble shaft with a medallion photograph of the flier seated in his plane. The Rev. J. A. Higgins of Jasper offered the opening prayer.
Captain North Duncan and Major V. M. Robertson of Roberts Field spoke. Other ministers who offered prayers were the Rev. Theo Harris, J. A. Holcomb, Byron Head and John A. Bryan; L. B. Musgrove Jr., friend of the dead aviator spoke. A song written by Gabbert’s mother was sung by the McDonald Quartet. The Pike Avenue Church choir closed the services.
Over seventy years have passed since die monument was erected, and long ago vandals tore the medallion from the stone. Today, it stands hidden by metal guard railings, as thousands of people each day travel along Brooklane Drive. People’s fascination with the wonderful, marvelous flying machine has been replaced by more modem technology, as man reaches deeper and deeper into space.
Perhaps die Gabbert monument is more important than we think, for it also stands as a lasting monument to all of the people, who in less than a hundred years. have sacrificed so much to venture into space. Gabbert and his little "Flying Machine" will always remain a special story among my things remembered.
If you have special memories you wish to share with our readers, please send them to James Walker, P.O. Box 243, McCalla, Al 35111.