Clipper America

Clipper America, which crash-landed at Windham Airport in June 1946.

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The Day the Stars Fell From the Sky:

The Story of the Olivier's Unplanned 1946 Visit to Eastern Connecticut
by: Tom Beardsley

Willimantic has been visited by a number of interesting celebrities over the years. For example, President Ulysses S. Grant came in 1880 to look at the Willimantic Linen Company's innovative electric lighting, and Theodore Roosevelt came on a whistle-stop electioneering visit in 1904.

However, no visit to this quiet corner of eastern Connecticut gained as much attention as the unexpected arrival of Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh aboard the London-bound Pan Am Constellation transport, Clipper America, which crash-landed at Windham Airport in June 1946. This is the story of the dramatic events that occurred in Willimantic on a quiet summer's evening shortly after the end of World War Two.

Laurence Olivier after his crash at Windham Airport
A composed, unruffled Laurence Olivier pictured by a Willimantic Chronicle photographer just minutes after the dramatic crash landing at Windham Airport.

Transatlantic air travel was still in its infancy in 1946. The first commercial transatlantic flights began in 1939 but were discontinued during the War. Twenty years earlier, two Englishmen, Alcock & Brown, became the first people to fly across the Atlantic, non-stop from Newfoundland to Ireland. Those 1,930 miles were negotiated in 16 hours 12 minutes, and air travel would soon replace the four-day shipboard journey to Europe and cross-country treks by trains and automobiles.

In the postwar period the United States and Britain vied with each other to provide the most profitable services for the lucrative transatlantic trade. Both countries converted wartime bombers and transports for the peacetime task of transporting people instead of high explosives and war materiel.

Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh need little introduction. Olivier was one of the world's outstanding actors. He starred on stage in London and on Broadway, and won several Oscars for his movie work. He was also a stage and film director and producer and became famous worldwide for masterly interpretations of Shakespeare's classics. American audiences better knew him for his work in film. Olivier played Heathcliff in William Wyler's 1939 film version of Bronte's Wuthering Heights, and Maxim De Winter in David O. Selznick's 1940 classic Rebecca.

Olivier was largely known as the actor responsible for taking Shakespeare back to the masses after he joined London's Old Vic Theatre Company in 1937. This famous British Repertory Company was disbanded during the war, but it reformed in late 1944.

In the spring of 1946 the Old Vic was engaged to play New York City for six weeks, and Olivier was the star attraction. Broadway was inundated with more than 10,000 mail applications for tickets for his performances. Olivier did not disappoint and wowed the critics and audiences with his brilliant portrayals of Hotspur in Shakespeare's Henry IV, of Dr. Astov in Chekov's Uncle Vanya, and of Oedipus in W. B. Yeat's version of Sophocles. He was voted Best Actor by Variety for the 1945/46 Broadway season.