Tom Ward of Brownsville was an aviator who unexpectedly brought a Douglas DC-2 to Three Rivers during an emergency landing in the 1940s—possibly during World War II.
Ward was forced to land the 14-seat, twin-engined Douglas Aircraft Corporation airliner here because of bad weather that had forced his destination airport in Monterrey to close.
This local adventure remained with the veteran aviator well into his unpublished memoirs. All in all, he piloted for Pan American Airways for nearly four decades. He died in 1981 at age 78.
Now, the pilot’s son, Bob Ward, 77, of Corpus Christi—a retired environmental specialist—is searching for old news articles or photographs of the incident to supplement his father’s unpublished memoirs.
Bob Ward was doing this sleuthing around Three Rivers Monday with his girlfriend, Diane Fissel. (Incidentally, anyone with any information or photographs stemming from this 1940s can contact The Progress at 361-786-3022 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
During that eventful 1940s flight, Tom Ward was heading from Mexico City to Monterrey with the 12 passengers and mail.
A horrible storm blew through, forcing Tom Ward’s destination airport to close. The airplane did not have enough fuel to make it to Tampico or any immediate alternate airport.
But Tom Ward instinctively knew he was flying above the San Antonio area, because that was where he had received his pilot’s training. There were some breaks in the clouds at times, and the rain showers were scattered, but as it turned out, the San Antonio airport was closed as well.
“He happened to drop down in the clouds and saw a nice straight highway,” Bob Ward explained. “He figured out he was in Three Rivers. He checked the highway for traffic and landed on the highway.”
After the landing, a Texas highway patrolman who had been monitoring the descent drove up. Tom Ward explained to him what had happened.
The trooper was extremely helpful, directing the pilot and his passengers to the nearest gas station and hamburger stand, which was roughly a mile down the road.
The trooper radioed for another car. Soon, two highway patrol officers were flanking the taxiing airplane with their vehicles as the aircraft ambled down the road toward the service station—one trooper in front and another behind.
“He fed his passengers hamburgers and beer and got the aviation pump fuel loaded on the aircraft,” Bob Ward said.
After phoning Monterrey and learning the storm was breaking, Tom Ward decided it was time to depart. He ran his engines, made a pre-flight check, paid for his burgers and beer, and thanked the state troopers for their help.
“Then he took off and continued back to Monterrey,” Bob Ward said.
An airplane that made that kind of landing in this day and age might get a different reception—at least initially, Bob Ward said.
“Homeland Security and everybody else might show up,” he said with a laugh.
After the incident, the newly dubbed “Three Rivers Pilot” was asked if he had any concerns about taking off from that highway.
According to his memoirs, Tom Ward just laughed.
“None at all,” the pilot told the questioner. “The roadway was as wide as the runway in Campeche and a helluva lot longer.”