Eighty-five thousand spectators at the National Air Show in Culver City, California, craned their necks for a better view of the action above. It was Sept. 10, 1928, and most people hadn’t become accustomed to seeing airplanes in flight, much less machines engaged in the aerobatics displayed at the air show.
The stars of that year’s show were “The Three Musketeers”: John Jacob Williams, Irvin A. Woodring, and William L. Cornelius, all members of the U.S. Army’s first aerial demonstration group. The Musketeers were not the first such service group, however – their unit had been formed partly to salvage Army pride after the U.S. Navy had announced its aerial unit, the Seahawks.
All three young pilots were skilled and daring men with extraordinary records. Most experienced, with the longest Army service, was its leader, Lt. Williams.
Williams was born in Moab, Utah. His mother Annie was the daughter of Danish Mormon immigrants of Sanpete County. His father, John Washington Williams, was as adventurous as his aviator son would be: Before arriving in Moab in 1896, the senior Williams had bounced around the West from Missouri to Colorado working as a cowboy, picking up enough law to serve as a justice of the peace and as Lincoln County, Colorado’s first judge, and learning enough medicine to be invited by the people of Moab to move to their town and serve as their first doctor. He learned to love the twisting, barren beauty of that corner of Utah, and years later he was one of the moving forces behind the establishment and expansion of Arches National Park.
Dr. Williams and Annie were married in 1900, and their first son, the future aviator, came along early in 1901. The boy graduated from Moab’s district school and began his high school studies there, then completed his prep school work at the Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri.
Utah’s Democratic congressman Milton H. Welling appointed Williams to the military academy at West Point in 1920 where, in addition to excelling academically, Williams graduated with honors in sharpshooting. Williams joined the air service immediately after his 1924 graduation, serving at air fields in Texas, Michigan, and California. It was while he was stationed at Coronado, Calif., in the spring of 1928 that he was matched with Lts. Irving and Cornelius, and the trio began rehearsing and performing their complicated aerial stunts for amazed audiences.
The Musketeers took to the skies late on the afternoon of Sept. 10, the third day of that year’s National Air Show, to thrill another audience. They performed some low-altitude loops and dives past the grandstands, including one pass where all three pilots flew upside down.
The plan then called for them to execute outside loops. The outside loop, first successfully performed one year before by legendary pilot James H. Doolittle, requires a pilot to climb to altitude, then dive at high speed, level off, and pull up again, completing a 360-deg. loop with his cockpit on the outside of the circle, a maneuver that puts unusual strain on both man and machine.
Woodring and Cornelius pulled into the sharp climbs that would put them in position for their loops.
Williams, however, was having trouble with his machine. Instead of climbing, he roared across the air field, upside down, at an altitude of barely 200 feet. Spectators could hear his motor popping and stalling. Righting his plane, Williams lost altitude. His machine hit the ground on both wheels, bounced, tilted so that one wing hit the ground, bounced again, and collapsed as it came down on its other wing.
Williams, still alive despite massive injuries, was taken to the Culver City hospital. He died the next day.
The air races went on as scheduled, though, with an army reservist – Charles A. Lindbergh – volunteering to take Williams’ place.
John Jacob Williams, one of Utah’s first and most daring aeronauts, was buried near where he fell to earth, in Culver City, California.