“Big Bill,” was born in Ireland and served as a pilot in Great Britain’s Royal Flying Corps during World War I. By 1918, William Blanchfield was a pilot with the U.S. Air Mail Service, having immigrated and applied for U.S. citizenship.
In 1921, Blanchfield was assigned the Reno-Elko run. The Nevada State Journal describes one of his flights:
“During the month of November 1922, Blanchfield made his phenomenal run from Elko on the wings of a hurricane. The thermometer registered 16 degrees below zero at Elko and the field manager there told him it was impossible to make the flight. But Blanchfield, with that soldier tradition of generations, demurred. He said that the mail must go. And he won. But the fight he made with the blizzard is still talked about in aviation circles.”
Such exploits made him a national hero. But it was his death that left an indelible mark.
Friday afternoon, August 1st, 1924, Blanchfield flew over the Knights of Pythias Cemetery off Nevada Street in his DeHaviland DH-4 biplane. A group of mourners were gathered below for the funeral of Air Mail Service mechanic Samuel J. Garrans, who had died in an accident three days earlier.
Blanchfield planned to say goodbye his friend by circling the cemetery three times, then dropping a wreath on Garrans’ grave. He had jus’ completed the second circle, something went wrong.
His plane went into a flat spin, crashing into the side of a home on Ralston Street. The impact split open the planes gas tank, setting the craft and the house on fire.
Blanchfield was trapped in the wreckage. When his burned body was removed from the wreckage, his hands were still grasping the controls.
His funeral was at St. Thomas Aquinas Cathedral. He was laid to rest at in veterans plot at Mountain View Cemetery.
Reno Air Mail Field was renamed Blanchfield Air Field (also known as Blanch Field) in his honor. It’s now the site of the Washoe County Golf Course.