Sunday, August 19, 2012

Picture of Robert Spence

The picture at left is--clearly--a plane crash. It wasn't staged. It was taken at the opening of the Glendale Airport in 1923, and the pilot walked away to fly again and again. He was Joseph B. "Burt" Hill, and in the picture he's standing under the plane's tale, wearing a cap. Click on the picture to make it larger if you can't see him.

Here's how the crash happened, according Hill's son, Joe:

"As my dad was about to land, a little boy ran onto the runway followed by his father, apparently trying to save him. Dad's engine didn't have enough power then for him to pull back up, so he did the next best thing: He shoved the stick forward to hit the runway hard, and bounced over the two people. With not enough runway left after that maneuver, he went into the fence at the end of the runway. I still have the I. D. plate and altimeter from that plane !!"

Joe Hill sent these pictures and told me that story by email. His Dad, Burt Hill, flew for Robert Spence, the aerial photographer whose thousands and thousands of photographs are now housed at UCLA. The collection spans decades, from just after WWI through the 1960s.

Spence and Hill met in the Army Air Corps, at Ellington Field, Texas, according to Joe. This plane, a Curtiss Jenny, was probably the first plane to fly for "Spence Air Photography."

And yes, it was Bob Spence who took that picture.

Robert Spence's stepson told me that he never flew and didn't know how, so I wonder what his role was in the Army Air Corps.

When I wrote an article about Spence Air Photography for Air & Space magazine, I didn't know about Burt Hill's role--and I never would have, if Joe Hill hadn't contacted me. Finding out anything about the person(s) behind Spence Air Photography, a name that shows up on old pictures in textbooks and Chamber of Commerce brochures, was quite a feat. These two adventurers obviously weren't in it for the fame!

As for the second photo, as far as I know that's the only one floating around of Robert Spence, taken around 1938. His wife Daisy is the third from the left. The little boy is Joe Hill himself, and I thank him for letting me share these photos.

Joe says that his father was the pilot for Spence Air Photography in the 1920s, so there's still some mystery left--what other pilots flew with Bob and his camera?


Rob Bolvin said...

Thanks for the picture of my paternal grandmother Ruth's brother, Robert Spence. I met him once at my grandmother's funeral. He got his start doing aerial photography during World War I. I hope someday to visit UCLA and see his work. Does the UCLA collection have any of his wartime photos?

Vickey Kall said...

Thanks for leaving this note!
I did not see any wartime photos at UCLA, so I don't think so. They would have belonged to the army, so my guess is they weren't included in all the negatives he donated to UCLA.
Your comment the first I've heard about WWI connection, though it doesn't come as a complete surprise. I'm guessing you already have the book on the Spence family published by Kurt?