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History Snoopin’: To save his passengers

Timing, they say, is everything. If so, it was timing that took Ray Boudreaux’s life.

In March of 1931, Pacific Air Transport, a West Coast aviation company that had brought the first air mail to Medford in 1926, announced purchase of West Coast Air Transport along with the company’s eight tri-motor airplanes.

P.A.T. passenger service had started in open cockpits. Brave passengers, a maximum of two at a time, flew with the pilot while literally “riding on the mail.”

In late 1927, the Boeing Air Transport Company acquired P.A.T and equipped it with the Boeing 40-passenger aircraft. The airplane was capable of carrying up to four passengers who rode in relative comfort in an enclosed cabin, while the pilot remained in an open cockpit toward the back of the plane.

Ray Boudreaux’s fateful decision seems to have been made just as the eight tri-motor airplanes were acquired. By February 1931, he had resigned his commission as a volunteer officer with the Army Air Reserve, a forerunner of the Air National Guard, and applied for a pilot position with P.A.T.

Born in the Central Valley of California, the only son of a jeweler and his wife, Ray followed his parents and two sisters from one California town to another. His high school years found him a star track athlete and a popular actor in school plays. After graduation, he entered Stanford University.

In February 1918, a month after his 21st birthday, he quit Stanford and enlisted in the Army. His assignment was to the Aviation Detachment, where he trained as an aviator at the University of California’s ground school in Berkeley. By the time he was qualified and promoted to 2nd Lieutenant, WWI was over, and on July 2, 1919, the Army discharged him.

To continue his flying, he volunteered for a paid position with the Army Reserve, quit for a while, and returned to college briefly to study mining engineering. He also tried ranching, but ultimately reenlisted in the regular Army for a year, and then transferred again to the Air Reserve.

A skilled pilot position with P.A.T. must have seemed attractive to Ray in 1931. The Great Depression was entering its second year, and receiving more money in a job he loved, with the eventual chance to fly larger airplanes, was just too good to pass up.

After a brief orientation, Ray was assigned to Medford’s brand new airport. He would share the large company bungalow with airport supervisor Phil Sharp, and fly back and forth on the company’s Medford-Oakland route.

Early in the morning, Sept. 16, 1931, three weeks after his mother had visited him in Medford, Ray took off from the Oakland airport with three passengers for the three-hour flight back to Medford.

At 3:45 a.m., in the air with three passengers and 400 pounds of mail, Ray turned north over San Francisco Bay. Fog was down to 400 feet — visibility less than 12 miles. A few minutes after takeoff, Ray radioed the control tower, “Over Berkeley …” and immediately the radio went dead.

A policeman saw the plane racing back toward the airport, but Ray made no effort to land. Another witness heard the engine suddenly whine as the plane headed back over the bay, flames beginning to streak from the engine.

Two vegetable farmers said the plane barely missed their barn just before the fireball crashed. “There was a flash and a loud explosion,” one of them said, “as the ship dove into the bay.”

Authorities had to wait until low tide that morning to recover the bodies.

Ray received a military funeral at San Francisco’s Presidio chapel, accented with a honor flyover by his former Army comrades.

“Ray was never afraid for himself,” his mother said. “I am sure my boy died bravely trying to save his passengers. … To me he still lives. Only his mortal body is gone.”

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