As a stunt pilot, John Lohr probably thrilled spectators with a variety of aerobatic maneuvers, from dizzying loops, rolls and spins to breathtaking vertical climbs and terrifying freefalls. It’s possible he even flew his plane upside-down.
But the High Point man’s most amazing trick may have been the time his small plane was hit by a speeding passenger train … and he lived to tell the tale.
The year was 1931, and Lohr was a 23-year-old aviator who performed with a small barnstorming operation called the Carolina Flying Circus. On this particular day, though — Sept. 19, 1931 — Lohr wasn’t showing off for a crowd of spectators. He was just trying to get home in one piece.
Piloting an Eaglerock, a three-seat biplane owned by his brother, Lohr was flying from Tennessee to Charlotte when engine trouble forced him to make an emergency landing. After repairing the engine, he flew on to Charlotte and inspected the engine again before the final leg of his journey home to High Point that afternoon, which he would make with a passenger he picked up in Charlotte. All seemed well.
When Lohr reached an altitude of about 3,500 feet, the engine faltered again. The small plane went into a violent tailspin over Harrisburg, about 16 miles north of Charlotte.
At that moment, a piece of the right wing snapped, essentially guaranteeing the young pilot had no shot at coming out of the tailspin. The plane plummeted at full speed, nose first, “hitting the ground so forcibly that the motor was buried about 18 inches deep in the hard earth,” The Charlotte Observer reported.
In the frantic, blurry seconds before impact, Lohr remembers catching a fleeting glimpse of the railroad track the plane was about to slam into.
“When the plane struck the ground,” he would say later, “I immediately lost consciousness.”
Good thing, too, because if he’d been conscious, Lohr would’ve seen Southern Railway passenger train No. 34 — no more than a hundred yards down the track — barreling toward him.
The only saving grace was that the plane had come to rest primarily on the southbound track, and the train was on the northbound track, about 10 feet away. Still, the locomotive slammed into the tail of the plane, breaking it in two and throwing it about 50 yards. Meanwhile, the train never stopped — newspaper accounts indicate the engineer didn’t even know he’d hit anything.
Talk about a hit-and-run.
Of course, as The Observer reported, things could’ve been much worse: “If the ship had landed 10 feet from where it did, the northbound train would have torn the plane to shreds and mangled the bodies of its occupants.”
Both men said they had expected to die from the plane crash alone — never mind getting slammed by a train, too — so they considered themselves lucky to be alive.
Lohr’s passenger, a Mount Tabor man, got the worst of it, suffering a spinal injury, a severe gash in his forehead, and a fractured left arm. The spinal injury was expected to keep him hospitalized for several weeks. Meanwhile, Lohr suffered only a few bruised ribs and a host of cuts and bruises, and he was only hospitalized a few days.
“When my time comes, then I must go,” Lohr told a reporter. “But fortunately, the Lord spared me.”
Because of the unusual nature of the crash — a plane being hit by a train — the story made newspapers across the country, including prominent papers such as the New York Daily News, which published a photo of the wreckage with the headline, “Something Brand New In Wrecks — Train Hits An Airplane!”
Ironically, Lohr’s crash didn’t damage his enthusiasm for flying at all. Only two weeks later, the Carolina Flying Circus had a show scheduled in Asheboro, and he was expected to participate. Nearly 50 years after that, when Lohr died in 1979, his family had a drawing of an airplane engraved on his tombstone.
And confidentially, if you’re wondering how Lohr got to heaven, we’d be willing to bet God sent a plane for him.
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