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Army Pilot John W. Benton

01/25/2017 11:00AM ● By Al Rocca

Pioneer Aviator

February 2017
By Al Rocca
Photo courtesy of Shasta Historical Society

Benton Airfield, Redding’s historic westside airport, is named for Army aviator John W. Benton. Born on November 27, 1896 in Manton, Benton enjoyed the outdoor life. As an adolescent and a young man, Benton was fascinated with the adventures of Wilbur and Orville Wright and other early aviators. He left Shasta County to attend the University of California and graduated from the School of Military Aeronautics. From here, the young flier trained at Rockwell Field in San Diego, receiving his “wings” and his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Army. Like most adventurous young pilots of the time, Benton hoped to see action in World War I. However, America, a late entry into the war, had many more pilots than available airplanes in France. Instead, he moved from one Army aviation training center to another, serving as flight instructor. His main assignment was to teach new pilots how to fly Thomas Morse scout planes, and later, how to successfully pursue enemy aircraft.

The war ended before Benton received his orders to go overseas. Disappointed, he requested a discharge in early 1919. Back in Shasta County briefly, Benton worked in his father’s successful lumber business. However, he still dreamed of an exciting flying career, so he re-enlisted the following year. This time he went to March Field, near Riverside. With a promotion to first lieutenant, Benton wanted to be closer to family and he did receive new orders to report to Kelly
Field (San Antonio, Texas), and finally, Crissy Field at the Presidio in San Francisco. 

In December 1926, Benton served as a pilot on the U. S. Army Pan-American Goodwill Flight. The mission included presenting “messages of friendship” from President Calvin Coolidge to the foreign governments south of the United States. One set of flyers, including Benton, began from San Antonio and flew south, stopping at airports in Mexico, Central America, Columbia, Peru and Chile. The other crew headed south from the east coast, visiting the Caribbean, Venezuela and Brazil. The crews timed their flight to arrive in Buenos Aires, Argentina close to the same time. Everything went fine until they met. 

On February 26, 1927, Benton and colleague Clinton Woolsey, flying together in the Detroit, came too close to another plane. The details of what happened next are ambiguous, as accounts differ on some details of the disaster. The New York Times stated that three Argentine planes came up from an airport serving Buenos Aires to greet the two American planes, the Detroit and the New York. Crowds below watched in delight as the Argentine pilots maneuvered their planes in basic stunt formations. The American pilots then mimicked these moves. As the planes neared the airport, the Detroit and New York descended together at what appeared to be “a prudent distance.” However, all at once the two planes drifted together, locking their wings. 

Observers on the ground gasped as a burst of smoke followed the initial noise of the crash. The planes fell as one mangled heap. Within seconds, two parachutes appeared and drifted downward and apart from the falling debris. These parachutes belonged to the crew of the New York. Later, one version of the story reported that Benton “had put on a parachute but it failed to open,” while Woolsey “was burned to death.”

The two pilots of the New York landed safely,  ran to the wreckage of the Detroit and tried to help: “Such was their excitement and desperation that it was necessary to restrain them by force from throwing themselves into the flaming planes in an effort to get the bodies of their companions.”

Benton’s wife, Zelma Carrol Benton, received the news from her home at the Presidio in San Francisco. Reports stated that she was “prostrated by the news of her husband’s death” and she remained in seclusion with her two children, Jack 8, and Thomas, 4. The commander of Crissy Field, Major Delos Emmons, consoled Mrs. Benton with these words: “Lieutenant Benton was one of the finest products of the Air Corps. He was loyal and enthusiastic, and I believe no man on the Pacific Coast had more friends than did the Lieutenant. The Air Corps has lost one of its finest.” 

Full military honors included a ceremony headed by Secretary of War F. Trubee Davison and an Army flyover. Woolsey’s body was sent on for burial at his home in Northport, Mich., while Benton came home to San Francisco. He is buried at the National Cemetery at the Presidio. Later in the year, John W. Benton received, posthumously, from President Calvin Coolidge, the Distinguished Flying Cross for his years as an Army aviator displaying “initiative, resourcefulness and a high degree of skill under the many trying conditions encountered.”