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Ace of the Pacific Coast mail

Three minutes out from the Medford airport, Robert “Pat” Patterson looked up, hoping to find a break in the clouds. The fog that smothered his plane had turned into a thrashing rain.

Pilot Rock was gone and the Siskiyou Mountains were somewhere ahead. He was cautious but fearless. Fellow pilots called him the ace of the Pacific Coast mail route.

In was 10:33 a.m., Dec. 16, 1926. Patterson’s cargo of airmail was due in Oakland, California, in 3 1/2 hours. Trusting his compass, altimeter and skill, he juiced the throttle, pulled back on the stick, and his Ryan M1 Monoplane wrenched upward, pushing the 23-year-old aviator into his lightly padded seat.

“I knew I was flying low,” he recalled. “I thought I was over the valley, not flying in the foothills.”

Five minutes into his flight, there was a thud, a metal shredding sound, and then the plane pulled fiercely to the left. Another shock, a smashing sound, and the plane brutally jerked to the right.

As his plane hit a muddy butte just west of Ashland, he was thinking of his wife and 6-month-old daughter.

“I’ll be back before Christmas,” he had told them that morning as he left for the airport.

The plane slid through mud and snow. The crystal face of Pat’s wristwatch shattered, its hands frozen at 10:35. Robert Patterson passed out, but miraculously, he was still alive.

He had been too young to serve in World War I, but in the 1920s had enlisted in the Marines. After a brief shipboard assignment, he transferred to the Marine Aviation Corps.

In the fall of 1925, Pat signed on with Pacific Air Transport, a recently formed airline that had just won the airmail contract for the Pacific Coast. He flew the Medford-Oakland segment, known as “the longest hop, over the roughest country of any part of the 1,000-mile system.” His close friend Arthur Starbuck was his partner. Almost daily, while one flew north, the other flew south, passing each other somewhere near Mount Shasta.

Airmail came to the Rogue Valley, Sept. 15, 1926, and almost exactly three months later, Patterson crashed.

Luckily, a group of woodsmen were felling trees near the crash site. Patterson had regained consciousness and his cries for help led rescuers to him. The men fashioned a sled from nearby wood and pulled the injured pilot to the road, where he was rushed to Medford’s Sacred Heart Hospital.

X-rays revealed that Pat had no broken bones and apparently no serious internal injuries. Newspaper headlines were optimistic, noting that “Patterson Escapes Serious Harm In Wreck.”

Two days before Christmas, at 11 a.m., a weakened Robert Patterson welcomed reporters to his bedside for the last time. He told them what he remembered about the crash and said that he still hoped to be home with his wife and daughter by Christmas.

An infection had slowly crept throughout his entire body. There was dirt, deep within a badly lacerated leg, and no way to remove it. By the time it was discovered, it was too late. Six hours after joking with the press, Robert “Pat” Patterson died.

Two months earlier, Pat had told a Mail Tribune reporter that, “Flying over the Siskiyous is a very interesting and beautiful experience.”

On Jan. 2, 1927, following Patterson’s deathbed request, Arthur Starbuck flew his friend’s remains to the mountains west of Ashland and scattered Pat’s ashes over the crash site.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com or WilliamMMiller.com.