Bill Gerson (right) and Glenn King: Sherut Ha’avir’s first casualties A Sherut Ha’avir Curtiss Commando crashes in Mexico city
April of 1948 marked an acceleration in the rate at which the transport planes which had been purchased in the US for Sherut Ha’avir were made serviceable and flown to Jewish Palestine. Four of the Commandos that had been bought were in Millville Airbase in New Jersey. They were painted with Panamanian colors and given Panamanian registration numbers, so as to make it easier to take them out of the US. The flight plan called for the planes – with crews recruited especially for that mission – to fly southward along the US’s eastern coastline until reaching Charleston, NC, then turn west and fly over the Atlantic towards Jamaica, where they would refuel and continue towards Panama. On April 10th the planes started out on their journey, but fuel ran out sooner than was expected for most of them, and they had to refuel in various airports in the southern US before going on towards Panama.
After landing in Panama, some of the pilots were recalled to the US, to take out five additional planes that were waiting in Burbank, CA. On April 14th these five planes took off for Los Angeles, and went onward from there, crossing the Mexican border to Tijuana and then Mexico City, where they would stop over for several days before the last leg of the journey to Tocumen Airport, Panama.
On April 21st, the pilots prepared for takeoff. The plane was very heavy, and this meant that it had to make use of the entire length of the runway (2,200 meters) before it could take off. The first and second planes did just that, taking off on the last few meters of the runway. he third plane was flown by William (Bill) Gerson and Glenn King. It went down the runway like the others had, climbed to 30 meters – and nosedived.
The Commando’s performance when overloaded was poor to begin with. In addition, it was midday and there was no wind. The engines were simply not strong enough for the job they had to perform, and the plane crashed instead of taking off.
The pilots of the planes which had not yet taken off ran towards the crushed Commando. They found King dead, and Gerson still fighting for his life. He was evacuated in an ambulance which then had to wind its way through Mexico City’s traffic jams to the hospital. Bill Gerson died of his injuries six hours after the crash.
Gerson and King were Sherut Ha’avir’s first casualties. Following the tragic accident, the excess cargo was taken off the remaining planes, and they took off for Panama.