Captain Jack Zimmerman: Legendary Pilot of TWA
By Nan Card, Hayes Center
Under the cover of darkness, TWA mystery “Flight No. 7” winged its way north from New Orleans. On board was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover; a “small army of heavily armed G-men; and Alvin Karpis, America’s “ Public Enemy No. 1.” With submachine guns at the ready, the G-men were transporting Karpis to St. Paul, Minnesota to stand trial on kidnapping charges. On that spring night in 1936, TWA’s chief pilot Jack Zimmerman was at the controls of the 14-passenger Douglas. It was the first of many secret charters Zimmerman would fly for the FBI.
Jack Zimmerman was born in Fremont in 1906, the son of cutlery owner Harry L. Zimmerman. After two years of high school, Zimmerman entered Culver Military Academy and then Dartmouth College. In 1928, Zimmerman entered the U. S. Army Air Corps, training at March Field near Riverside, California. The following year, he piloted a Ford Tri-Motor in the first transcontinental air-rail service established by the Transcontinental Air Transport, the forerunner of TWA.
Flying the mail across the country in the early 30s posed a whole host of dangers. Open cockpits, rough weather, primitive runways, poor radio receivers, and approach obstacles could jangle the nerves of the steadiest of pilots. Zimmerman survived several crashes – one in Columbia, Missouri and a second at Pittsburgh airport. Fully loaded with 600 pounds of mail and 160 pounds of fuel, Zimmerman’s plane crashed on take-off. Pittsburgh airport employees climbed onto the wings and pulled Zimmerman from the burning wreckage. Minutes later, the plane’s gas tanks exploded, engulfing the entire scene in a sheet of flames. Zimmerman was fortunate to escape with only cuts and bruises.
As chief pilot, Zimmerman flew the first of TWA’s fleet of DC-3s into New York City’s LaGuardia Field. He and his passengers were greeted by a waiting crowd of several thousand including Mayor LaGuardia himself. According to a TIME magazine article, the 1939 event heralded the move of the “airline capital of the U. S. to the finest and most expensive flying field in the world.”
A year later, Jack Zimmerman flew the last leg of the West-East inaugural record flight of TWA’s first Boeing 307. Known as the Stratoliner, the 307 was the world’s first 4-engine, high-altitude commercial transport. Its pressurized cabin allowed pilots to fly at altitudes of more than 20,000 feet. It was in the 307 that Zimmerman set a coast-to-coast speed record for transport planes.
Despite or perhaps because of his status as chief pilot of TWA’s Eastern and Atlantic Divisions, Zimmerman entered the service in April 1942. That same year, author John Tunis chronicled the career of Captain Jack Zimmerman in a biography titled Million Miler, The Story of an Air Pilot. Even today, pilots consider it a “great read,” telling the story of TWA’s early days and its chief pilot.
Six month later, Zimmerman, as control officer of the North Atlantic Division of the Ferry Command, was aboard a military seaplane when it crashed off the coast of Presque Isle, Maine. Another officer and three enlisted men were reported missing after the crash.
For those who flew with him and those who came after, TWA’s Captain Jack Zimmerman remains legendary. A bold, intelligent, and experienced pilot with an infectious laugh, Zimmerman helped pioneer a single-plane airline into one of America’s greatt commercial aviation industries. Shortly after his death, the citizens of Fremont honored his memory and his service in a military tribute that he so richly deserved.