Down in Deep Water: The ditching of ALM Antillean Airlines flight 980

Admiral Cloudberg
47 min readFeb 28, 2024


A graphic illustration of the egress of the survivors from ALM 980 after the DC-9 ditched in the Caribbean. (Matthew Tesch in Macarthur Job’s “Air Disaster: Volume 1.”)

On the 2nd of May 1970, a DC-9 jet, critically low on fuel and with nowhere to land, ditched into stormy waters off the US Virgin Islands, plunging 63 people into a harrowing fight to survive. Clinging to an emergency escape slide, surrounded by debris and tossed by heaving seas, the survivors held on for 90 indescribable minutes before rescuers arrived by helicopter, dragging the exhausted passengers and crew one by one from the angry Caribbean. But even before the survivors were brought back to shore, it was clear that not all had made it. Of the 63 aboard, only 40 escaped with their lives, leaving the remainder lost forever at sea, dragged to the depths along with the airplane, which — like all but one of the victims — was never located.

Nevertheless, the survival of all three flight crew revealed much about the shifting circumstances and judgment calls that left the DC-9 out of fuel and out of time. The sequence of events started with plans made in company boardrooms months before the crash, which laid the groundwork for a series of in-flight events and decisions, culminating in three failed approaches to the island of St. Maarten before a diversion was finally attempted — only, it was too little, too late. None of the crew could deny that errors were made — not the procedural kind, but the strategic kind, the kind that can’t be prevented by close adherence to a checklist or guidance in the manual. More than 50 years later, those errors still hold lessons about judgment and planning that remain useful for anyone who flies — and for those who don’t, a tragic yet moving story awaits all the same.


A 1970s period advertisement for ONA. (Fun fact: this same image was previously featured in my article on ONA flight 032.) (

The tale of the dramatic ditching in the Caribbean was intimately tied to the expansion of a supplemental air carrier called Overseas National Airways, or ONA. Founded in 1950 and reconstituted under new ownership in 1965 following a bankruptcy, the airline specialized in “supplemental” activities such as passenger charters, military contracts, and on-demand cargo transport using a fleet consisting of various Douglas aircraft types, including the four-engine DC-8 and twin rear-engine DC-9.

The post-1965 iteration of ONA was the brainchild of visionary entrepreneur Steedman Hinckley, who was known for his unorthodox business tactics. Under his leadership, ONA pursued various atypical expansion opportunities, which included commissioning a cruise ship and operating a river boat company and a hotel. ONA was also the only airline to fit its DC-9s with jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) rockets, which helped the planes get airborne with higher payload weights at hot and high western airports while running cargo for the US military.

A 1969 issue of Aviation Week highlighted ONA’s JATO-equipped DC-9s. (Aviation Week)

In 1969, ONA’s ventures put it into contact with another relatively little-known carrier called ALM Antillean Airlines. Known in Dutch as Antilliaanse Luchtvaart Maatschappij — Antillean Aviation Company, or ALM for short — the airline was almost wholly owned by what was then the government of the Netherlands Antilles, which was until 2010 a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, consisting of several scattered Caribbean islands with a history of Dutch colonization. Based on the island of Curaçao, off the coast of Venezuela, the territory also included the islands of Aruba and Bonaire in the southern Caribbean, and Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten in the northeasterly island chain known as the Lesser Antilles. Of these islands, ALM served all except Saba and Sint Eustatius, which were too small to accommodate airliner traffic.

In the late 1960s, ALM became interested in operating a direct flight between New York City and Sint Maarten. The island, also called St. Martin, lies some 140 kilometers southeast of the US Virgin Islands, and despite its small area — only 87 square kilometers — it is split down the middle by an international border, with 44% of the island controlled by the Netherlands, and the other 56% by France.

The Dutch side of the island is served by the infamous Princess Juliana International Airport, which is known globally for its hair-raising approaches. The airport’s single runway is uncomfortably short and is girded on both ends by water, although most approaches are flown from the western, seaward side due to high terrain that rises to 300 meters above sea level less than three kilometers east of the airport. This seaward approach to runway 09 is widely known for overflying Maho Beach, where aviation enthusiasts have long gathered to observe aircraft from extremely close range — sometimes with dramatic consequences, since the beach is well within the jet blast zone of aircraft lining up on the runway.

A KLM Boeing 747 lands over beachgoers at Princess Juliana International Airport. (

For ALM, the biggest problem with Princess Juliana Airport was that the runway — at that time, only 5,249 feet (1,600 m) long — was too short for the airline’s four-engine DC-8s. ALM also operated smaller DC-9–15 regional jets, but these had insufficient range to reach New York without stopping for fuel. As a result, ALM’s president, Octavio “Tawa” Irausquin, decided to reach out to Steedman Hinckley in order to pursue a leasing arrangement that could allow ALM to cover the route using ONA aircraft and crews.

The negotiations between the two companies produced an agreement known as a “wet lease,” in which the lessor — in this case, ONA — supplied both the aircraft and flight crew, while the lessee, ALM, supplied the cabin crew, contracted the support services, advertised the flights, and sold the tickets. To uphold its end of the lease, ONA offered the use of one of its DC-9–33s, a longer range model of the DC-9 that was, in theory, small enough to land at Princess Juliana Airport, but also large enough to fly non-stop to New York. In practice, however, the use of a DC-9–33 on this route was questionable from the very beginning.

One issue that almost scuttled the entire proposal was that the route from New York to St. Maarten stretched far enough over water that it fell afoul of regulations limiting the distance that twin-engine aircraft can fly away from a suitable airport. At that time, twin-engine aircraft were required to remain within one hour single-engine flying time of an airport in the event of an engine failure, but the planned route slightly exceeded this minimum while crossing the stretch of ocean between Bermuda and the Lesser Antilles. ONA sought a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration in order to operate the route anyway, but the request was denied. The DC-9 lacked the range to fly a less direct route that stayed closer to land, so for some time it appeared that the only solution would be to include a stopover in the Bahamas, which would contradict the contract terms specifying a nonstop flight. This issue was resolved just days before the scheduled beginning of the New York-St. Maarten service in January 1970, when McDonnell Douglas published a new single-engine descent procedure that would stretch the DC-9’s one-hour range far enough to close the gap, rendering the matter moot.

A view of Princess Juliana Airport from the nearby hills. The airport is surrounded by water on almost all sides. (

Still, other obstacles remained. Federal regulations require that every commercial flight land with a certain amount of fuel in reserve, and taking this requirement into account, the New York-St. Maarten route lay close to the ragged edge of the DC-9–33’s legal range. ALM pilots were so skeptical of the plan that they called the flights “suicide missions” due to the high risk of fuel exhaustion (although they thought this would occur while holding over New York — a scenario that really did cause the crash of Avianca flight 052 on Long Island two decades later). In fact, the margin was so narrow that if any significant delays occurred en route, the flights would have to stop in Bermuda for fuel, which would alarm passengers and cause ONA’s profit margin to slip into the red.

ONA proposed to solve this problem by fitting the DC-9 with an extra 780-gallon (2,950 L) auxiliary fuel tank. The contract between ONA and ALM required ONA to install the tank before April 1st, 1970, but once scheduled services began, this deadline slipped. ONA learned that it would require two to three weeks of downtime to install the auxiliary tank in its DC-9–33, during which time another aircraft would have to be found, but ONA’s other DC-9s were the slightly smaller -32 model, which couldn’t legally fly to St. Maarten nonstop unless the plane was mostly empty. Considering that winter and spring represented the peak tourist season in the Caribbean, ONA was unwilling to take its -33 out of service to be retrofitted because passenger load factors were too high to switch to the -32 without stopping for fuel, in which case ONA would lose money. As a result, Steedman Hinckley and Octavio Irausquin reached a verbal agreement to delay installation of the auxiliary tank until some unspecified time during the summer. Unfortunately, by May 2nd this still had not occurred — a fact that would contribute directly to the coming tragedy.

N935F, the aircraft involved in the accident. (Bob Polaneczky)

Another unusual feature of the new route was that the DC-9, normally a two-pilot aircraft, would have to fly with a third flight crewmember — not a flight engineer, but a navigator. At that time it was still not unheard of to employ navigators on long overwater flights that might not have access to ground-based navigational aids throughout the route. As a result, ONA had several navigators in its employment, although it was planning to scrap the position in 1971 and replace it with LORAN long-range radio navigation equipment. Nevertheless, ONA’s contract with the Navigators Union required a navigator on any flight that went out of range of traditional radio navigation aids, which would occur briefly between Bermuda and the Antilles, so the third position had to be filled. This was somewhat awkward on the cramped DC-9, which was never intended to fly long overwater routes and had no place for a navigator to sit, except in an uncomfortable fold-down cockpit jump seat designed for occasional use by observers. The navigators dreaded having to sit in this seat for long periods, especially given that there was very little for them to actually do.

This situation caused secondary issues when ONA refused an FAA inspector’s request to conduct a line observation on a St. Maarten flight because the jump seat was already occupied. The inspector responded by threatening to ground the flights, at which point ONA and the Navigators Union hastily modified their contract to allow the flights to proceed without a navigator whenever an FAA inspector was on board.

Reserve fuel requirements according to the FAA in 1970. (NTSB)

In April 1970, a further complication occurred when an ONA flight landed in St. Maarten with less than the FAA mandated fuel reserve, while an FAA inspector was on board the aircraft. The inspector was so concerned by the incident that the agency ended up asking ONA to adhere to stricter minimum fuel requirements on its flights to St. Maarten.

According to FAA regulations at the time, all flights were required to carry not only the fuel needed to travel from gate to gate, but also enough to suffer an en-route delay, make a missed approach at the destination, hold for 30 minutes at 1,500 feet, and fly to an alternate airport. For the St. Maarten route, this came out to 2,100 pounds (950 kg) for en route contingencies; 2,100 lbs to fly to an alternate; and 2,200 lbs (1,000 kg) of holding fuel, for a total of 6,400 lbs (2900 kg). If all goes to plan, the aircraft should land at its destination with at least this much fuel remaining. However, the FAA ultimately asked that ONA use a minimum of 7,000 lbs (3,175 kg) instead.

At the same time, there was some indication that ONA’s DC-9s were burning more fuel than the standard fuel burn tables, provided by the manufacturer, would indicate. In April, McDonnell Douglas conducted a fuel burn study on ONA’s DC-9s, which found that they were indeed burning extra fuel — up to 10.6% more, in fact. The DC-9–33 assigned to the St. Maarten flights, for its part, was burning 4.6% more than expected. This difference would later be put down to aerodynamic drag from the JATO rocket fittings.

As a result of these findings, ONA issued a bulletin specifying that crews needed to plan for an “expected fuel on arrival” of 7,000 lbs or more and to assume a fuel burn rate 10% above the value in the fuel burn charts. This bulletin was distributed on May 1st, the day before the accident.


Captain Balsey DeWitt in the cockpit of a DC-9, taken before the accident. (Emilio Corsetti III, author of “35 Miles from Shore”)

On the morning of the 2nd of May, an ONA crew reported for duty at New York’s JFK International Airport to once again operate flight 980 to St. Maarten, using the DC-9–33, registered N935F. There was nothing that day to suggest that this trip would be different from any of the others — the weather was normal, the winds aloft were favorable, and the load of 57 passengers was relatively light. The plane was in good working order, except for an inoperative public address system.

In command was the larger-than-life Captain Balsey DeWitt, a 37-year-old former Air Force pilot with 12,000 flying hours. A personal friend of company president Hinckley, DeWitt was originally hired to be the chief pilot for ONA’s DC-9 fleet, but he was later demoted to a regular line captain after allegedly allowing several police officers and a random girl off the street to sit in the copilot’s seat during a training flight. DeWitt was also an instructor, who had previously given a negative evaluation to that day’s First Officer, 25-year-old Harry Evans II. Evans had about 3,000 hours including 600 on the DC-9, but he didn’t have a DC-9 type rating — it wasn’t required for First Officers in 1970 — and this was his first flight back after a three month absence. Evans had previously been fired because many ONA captains were unsatisfied with his performance, but he successfully appealed and was reinstated because his probationary period had already ended when the termination was issued. Nevertheless, Evans was said to lack confidence, and in fact he asked to spend several weeks observing flights from the jump seat before getting back behind the yoke himself, until he was told to return to the line on May 1st. He apparently tried to protest his assignment to the St. Maarten flight on the grounds that he had never flown internationally and didn’t know ONA’s international procedures, but his complaints were rebuffed.

Meanwhile, in charge of the cabin were three flight attendants, consisting of 31-year old purser Wilfred Spencer; 20-year-old steward Tobias Cordeiro; and 24-year-old stewardess Margareth Abraham. All three were employees of ALM who lived on Aruba and Curaçao, and although all three spoke English fluently, their preferred conversational language was Papiamento.

The final member of the crew was the navigator, 35-year-old Hugh Hart. Hart was well aware that he was present only to fulfill a contractual obligation — in fact, he hadn’t even been given any training or documentation for the DC-9. His expectation was that he would sit in the tiny jump seat for three and a half hours down and three and a half hours back up, getting paid to do nothing.

From left to right, the three cabin crew: Margareth Abraham, Wilfred Spencer, and Tobias Cordeiro. (Emilio Corsetti III)

As the flight sat on the ramp at JFK, the pilots calculated their projected fuel burn and endurance. Taking into account the 10% penalty imposed in the bulletin, which DeWitt had picked up from his inbox that very morning, they estimated that 21,000 lbs (9,500 kg) of fuel would be required for the flight itself, assuming a cruising altitude of 29,000 feet at a speed of Mach 0.78 for the first half of the flight, followed by a potentially higher altitude and engine power at the “long range cruise” setting thereafter. This calculation took into account favorable winds aloft. In addition, they would need the 7,000-pound minimum contingency fuel specified in the company bulletin, bringing the total to 28,000 lbs. However, it was standard procedure to fill the tanks completely on every St. Maarten flight, so the actual amount of fuel loaded onto the plane was 28,900 lbs (13,100 kg), which was 900 more than required.

Before continuing, it helps to understand some basic rules of fuel burn on jet aircraft. In general, less fuel is required with a tailwind, and more is required with a headwind. Flight at higher altitudes burns less fuel because the engines operate more efficiently and there’s less air resistance; conversely, low altitude flight burns significantly more fuel. This difference is so large that the increased thrust required to climb imposes a smaller penalty than the efficiency gain from being higher up, meaning that the best way to conserve fuel is actually to climb as high as possible, as quickly as possible. Furthermore, when maintaining altitude, a higher speed tends to use less fuel (up to a point).

With this in mind, and assuming a normal altitude profile throughout the flight, the pilots predicted that they would reach St. Maarten after 3 hours and 26 minutes, and that it would take 4 hours and 34 minutes to exhaust their entire fuel supply. This figure would prove remarkably accurate.


This image, illustrated by Matthew Tesch for Macarthur Job’s “Air Disaster: Volume 1,” depicts flight 980’s path from New York to St. Maarten. A close-up view of the inset map will be included later in this article.

At 11:14 a.m., ALM flight 980 took off from JFK Airport’s runway 13R and turned to the south, climbing toward 29,000 feet. On board, all was normal. Fuel was being consumed at the expected rate, and there was no indication that a fuel stop in Bermuda would be necessary, so the flight remained at cruising altitude as it overflew the island, and the crew adjusted their heading to fly direct to St. Maarten.

However, as the half way point passed, the weather started to become a bigger factor than anticipated. Thunderstorms were springing up throughout the Caribbean and the wider Atlantic, which is normal for that time of year, but that day there were more of them than usual. Several of them impinged upon the route of flight 980, forcing Captain DeWitt to slow from Mach 0.78 to Mach 0.76, closer to the recommended turbulence penetration speed. However, the turbulence at that altitude remained unacceptable, and at 13:36 the crew requested a descent to 27,000 feet, followed some time thereafter by a further descent to 25,000, with an accompanying deceleration to Mach 0.74. A course adjustment around some storms was also carried out, extending their ground track and delaying their estimated arrival time by some 15 minutes.

Although these unexpected factors resulted in increased fuel burn, they would have had no effect on the aircraft’s ability to safely reach St. Maarten. In all likelihood, the higher fuel burn during this phase was already accounted for by the 10% penalty baked into the calculations, which were conservative for N935F, considering that this aircraft’s measured fuel burn was only 4.6% more than nominal. This would explain why the predicted time until fuel exhaustion ended up being so accurate. Nevertheless, these delays did promise to use up most of the 2,100-pound (950-kg) en route contingency supply assumed under the FAA regulations — which was of course exactly what this extra fuel was for. Following these events, the crew calculated that they would arrive at St. Maarten with 6,000 pounds (2,720 kg) of fuel remaining.

An overview of the area where the rest of this story takes place. (Own work, map by Google)

However, as flight 980 passed its top of descent point, the radio crackled to life with some unwelcome news from the area control center in San Juan, Puerto Rico. According to the controller, the latest weather report from Princess Juliana International Airport indicated that the visibility had fallen below the minimum required for landing. Upon receipt of this news, Captain DeWitt immediately requested a diversion to San Juan, and the plane began to turn to the west, toward Puerto Rico.

Two minutes later, however, the San Juan controller informed them that Princess Juliana had a new, updated weather report available on the local tower frequency. Tuning in to Juliana Tower, DeWitt said, “I just got a message you were below minimums from San Juan, so I’ve already started my diversion for San Juan. Where did the message come you were below minimums?”

“Roger, that is what we passed to the center, but at the present time there is a slight improvement,” said the Juliana tower controller. “It calls for estimated ceiling one thousand broken, five thousand overcast, visibility four to five nautical miles in continuous rain.”

After repeated requests to say again due to poor readability, DeWitt learned that the rain had moved away from the airport to the west. Although this report placed the precipitation directly over the approach path to runway 09, the weather at the field itself was relatively clear.

At this point flight 980 had spent the past five minutes flying directly away from St. Maarten, burning through fuel. The weather at Princess Juliana was fluctuating both above and below the landing minimums. There was a real possibility that they wouldn’t be able to land there if they tried. Was it worth it to fly all the way to St. Maarten and make an attempt? Fatefully, Captain DeWitt decided that it was, and at 14:51, he turned the plane around, heading back to St. Maarten. By the time this occurred, they had 5,800 lbs (2,630 kg) of fuel remaining — less than they originally believed they would land with. DeWitt thought they could be parked on the ramp by 15:05 with 4,400 lbs (2,000 kg) remaining, which would see them just barely squeak in above the 4,300 lbs reserved for a 30-minute hold and flight to an alternate.

Unfortunately, however, his calculations would turn out to be wildly optimistic. Even if flight 980 had landed on its first attempt, it wouldn’t have been on the ground anywhere near 15:05, and the remaining fuel would probably have been close to the 3,400 lbs reported in the April incident with the FAA inspector. It’s perhaps worth noting that Balsey DeWitt was the captain of that flight as well.


This modern approach chart for the Locator approach to runway 10 at Princess Juliana appears to be the same as the NDB approach used by the crew of flight 980. However, several changes can be noted. Due to magnetic drift, what was then called runway 09 is now runway 10, and the outbound and inbound courses, formerly 285˚ and 105˚, are now 278˚ and 098˚, respectively. Furthermore, the minimum cloud base is now 1,000 feet, not 600. (Jeppesen)

As it turned out, flight 980 didn’t even begin its approach to the airport until 15:15, ten minutes after DeWitt thought they would be on the ground. Furthermore, those extra ten minutes were spent chugging along at only 2,500 feet, burning through some of their holding fuel. With what they had left, they would realistically only get one approach attempt before they would have to divert to their designated alternate in Charlotte Amalie, on St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. If multiple approaches were made, then they might have insufficient fuel to get there, in which case they’d be locked into landing at the very place where multiple attempts had already failed. The crew should have been well aware of this possibility, but it doesn’t appear that they specifically discussed it.

That was a potentially big problem given that they were about to attempt a notoriously difficult non-precision NDB approach. At that time, Princess Juliana International Airport had no radio navigation aids except for a single non-directional beacon located 760 m (2,500 ft) south of the approach end of runway 09. The airport had no VOR beacon and certainly no instrument landing system (ILS) because there was nowhere to put one — an ILS generally must be in line with the runway, but both ends of the runway drop straight into the water. In fact, the airport still doesn’t have an ILS even today. In 2024, traffic approaching Princess Juliana is likely to use a GPS-based RNAV approach, but in 1970 there was no such thing, and the only way to land there was to perform either a visual approach, or a non-precision approach based on the NDB. The procedure for the NDB approach was to overfly the NDB, roll out on a heading of 285 degrees — approximately west-northwest — then reverse course to align with the runway heading of 105 degrees back toward the NDB, as shown above. This approach required a cloud ceiling no lower than 600 feet and visibility of at least 2 nautical miles (3,700 m). Because the NDB is not in line with the runway, pilots must catch sight of the airport early enough to visually maneuver onto the landing course, which is why 2 miles of visibility was required.

The inset map from the previous illustration, showing the approximate flight path during the final minutes of flight 980. (Matthew Tesch in Macarthur Job’s “Air Disaster: Volume 1”)

As flight 980 arrived over the NDB, the latest weather report from the tower indicated scattered clouds at 800 feet, broken at 1,000, and overcast at 5,000, with 2–3 miles visibility. However, heavy precipitation was still falling over the ocean just west of the airport, in the area where the course reversal was to be conducted. This was attested by numerous witnesses, who reported that the actual visibility in this area may have been as low as half a mile. However, the tower was presumably not reporting this restricted visibility because there were no reference points over the water — generally the mountains to the east were used.

As Captain DeWitt maneuvered his aircraft onto the outbound leg, the plane vanished into the torrential rain. On board, Captain DeWitt began the course reversal, attempting to line up with the runway, but it had been lost from view. Rolling out of the turn, he was faced with boiling gray clouds, hovering right on the edge of the 600-foot minimum. The First Officer and Navigator could see patches of water below them, but not the airport. When they finally broke out of the clouds and the runway came into view, it was too late — unable to maneuver onto the landing course early enough, DeWitt had overshot, and they were misaligned. With no way to correct the situation so late in the approach, he was forced to increase power and go around, abandoning the attempt.

Given that visibility was apparently lower than reported by the tower, and the minimums for the approach clearly were not met, this should have been a strong signal to abandon St. Maarten and make an immediate diversion to St. Thomas. But Captain DeWitt didn’t discuss diverting — instead, he brought them right back around for a second attempt, staying low and slow with the landing gear and flaps extended, burning fuel at an astonishing rate. At this point only 29 minutes of fuel remained.

Coming in for the second approach, DeWitt made the course reversal earlier in an attempt to stay within view of the airport, but once again, he lost sight of the runway and was unable to align with it. Breaking out of the clouds, he again concluded that the approach could not be completed, and flight 980 went around a second time.

Still, Captain DeWitt refused to give up. Instead of diverting, he started a third approach attempt — something that’s forbidden by many airlines today, on the principle that if two approaches couldn’t be completed, then the third is also unlikely to succeed. The precipitation hadn’t gone anywhere, so this decision was dubious at best, reckless at worst. In an attempt to solve the problem he had faced on the first two approaches, DeWitt circled even closer to the runway this time, and at a lower airspeed. But while he succeeded in keeping the runway in sight, the circuit was performed so close to the airport that by the time he had straightened out in line with the runway, he was too high to land without a dangerously steep dive to the threshold. Such a rapid descent would result in an excessive landing speed that could cause them to overrun the runway. Realizing once again that he had no chance of success, DeWitt initiated his third go-around within the space of 11 minutes.

Matthew Tesch’s impression of flight 980 flying amid bad weather. Note that Tesch and Macarthur Job depicted the flight with partial “ALM Antillean Airlines” livery, but I found no evidence the airplane was ever repainted for the wet lease.

This time, it was obvious that a decision needed to be made immediately. But the crew found it difficult to tell how much fuel they actually had left, because their fuel quantity totalizer was behaving erratically, cycling through a range of concerningly low numbers. There were several possible reasons for this, including but not limited to errors introduced by pitch attitude with very little fuel in the tank, and/or condensation on the fuel quantity probes. Regardless, it was clear that the fuel situation was dire. Calculations would later show that it would require at least 2,100 lbs (950 kg) to reach St. Thomas from their position, and that the total fuel on board was probably not significantly more than about 2,200 lbs (1,000 kg), leaving some question as to whether they would even have been able to taxi after landing. For his part, First Officer Evans recalled trying to double check their fuel quantity against the fuel burn indicators, which displayed 13,156 lbs (5,967 kg) burned by the right engine and a similar figure on the left, for a total of about 26,300 lbs (11,930 kg) burned, out of 28,900 lbs originally on board. That would have left 2,600 lbs (1,180 kg), but this didn’t including 250 lbs (113 kg) burned by the auxiliary power unit prior to engine start at JFK. As a result, his observation correlated with the later calculations within a margin of error of only about 150 lbs, indicating the pilots indeed understood just how short on fuel they were.

As they climbed, the fuel totalizer remained erratic, displaying values ranging from 850 to 2,000 lbs (360–900kg). Captain DeWitt was certain that they didn’t have less than 2,000 lbs remaining, which was probably accurate, but could hardly be considered vindication — after all, even this amount was barely enough to get them to St. Thomas even if they flew perfectly.

Committing to the last-minute diversion, the crew retracted the flaps and landing gear, and DeWitt informed Juliana Tower that they needed “immediate and direct” clearance to St. Thomas. Permission was granted right away, along with clearance to climb to 4,000 feet and contact San Juan.

After establishing communications, San Juan asked the flight to stay at 4,000 feet due to crossing traffic, but the controller nevertheless asked, “Antillean nine eight zero, request your, ah, altitude you’re requesting.”

“Anything you’ve got higher,” said DeWitt. “I’m a little short on fuel and I gotta get up.” This was a massive understatement, but at this point, even if he had declared a full fuel emergency — which, to be clear, he should have — it would have made no difference. Pilots today are trained to declare a fuel emergency whenever their remaining fuel endurance falls below 45 minutes, which would have occurred around the time flight 980 made its first approach to St. Maarten. But in 1970 there was no single accepted definition of what constituted a fuel emergency, and even if there had been, it would have been immaterial because the limiting factor was weather, not air traffic control. At most, the San Juan controller might have been able to move the crossing traffic out of the way a minute or two earlier, although he would later testify that he couldn’t have expedited flight 980’s ascent any more than he did.

After about a minute, the San Juan controller cleared flight 980 to climb to 12,000 feet, where they would burn less fuel. However, Captain DeWitt used a relaxed power setting and climb rate in an attempt to save fuel, which actually had the opposite effect, resulting in greater fuel burn because of the increased time spent at low altitude. Although it was already unclear whether they had enough fuel to reach any alternate airport, it can’t be ruled out that this error sealed their fate.

Moments later, First Officer Evans came on the radio, asking, “How far from St. Thomas are we?”

“Roger, from St. Thomas you’re nine two miles southeast,” said San Juan.

However, the crew knew that there was one airport that might be closer. “How far are we from St. Croix?” Evans then asked, referring to the southernmost of the US Virgin Islands.

“Nine-eighty, you’re from St. Croix… you’re seventy miles northeast, seven zero miles,” said the controller.

“Okay, how’s the weather in St. Croix?” flight 980 asked.

“The St. Croix weather is two thousand scattered, [unintelligible] thousand overcast, visibility one five,” the controller reported.

“Okay, I’d like to divert to St. Croix,” said Captain DeWitt. In the cockpit, he ordered First Officer Evans to find the approach charts for St. Croix, but they were missing from their expected location. There was no time to search — they would just have to get radar vectors to the landing course instead, if they made it that far. But privately, the pilots knew they were all but out of luck. Climbing through 7,000 feet, the total fuel on board read only 550 lbs (250 kg), which was only enough for five to seven minutes’ flight time, and nowhere near enough to reach St. Croix. In fact, at that time the only airport within range was Princess Juliana, where they had already tried and failed three times to land. It was at that point that the pilots first understood that unless some miracle occurred, they wouldn’t make it to land. And so, with grave demeanor, Captain DeWitt summoned the purser Wilfred Spencer and informed him that they were almost out of fuel and that they “might have to ditch the aircraft.”

This choice of words resulted in a critical miscommunication. What DeWitt meant was that they would almost certainly have to ditch the aircraft within the next ten minutes. Instead, he left open the possibility that they might not ditch, and failed to specify an exact timeframe within which the flight attendants would need to ready the cabin. Furthermore, this exchange left Spencer with the impression that DeWitt would follow up with an announcement if a ditching was deemed imminent. He was unaware that the public address system was inoperative, and thus no such option was available to the flight crew.

Returning to the cabin, Spencer made an announcement to the passengers using the cabin speaker (which was working) to inform them that preparations for a ditching would be undertaken on a “precautionary” basis. This announcement elicited mixed reactions, with some passengers brushing off the “precautions” as mere histrionics. Nevertheless, the flight attendants began demonstrating the location and use of the life vests, at which point many passengers discovered that they were not simple to put on. In many cases, passengers had to undo their seat belts and turn around to reach the vests, which were affixed to their seat bottoms; others experienced difficulty opening the plastic pouches; and many didn’t recognize the need to fasten the waist belts. The cabin crew ultimately expended considerable time and effort helping the passengers with the vests, at the expense of other forms of preparation.

Meanwhile, Captain DeWitt was faced with a tough judgment call. If he continued to climb until running out of fuel, then he would be able to glide farther, reducing their distance from land, and thus the time until rescue. On the other hand, the weather in the area was extremely poor, with dense clouds and rain, presenting difficult conditions in which to perform a power-off glide using only the tiny backup instruments on the center console. Furthermore, given that the cloud base was less than 600 feet, a descent to that level while power was still available would give more time to assess the sea conditions. That was a potentially critical factor because an ocean ditching is best conducted in parallel with the swells. Slamming into a swell head-on can cause the aircraft to break apart and is to be avoided if possible. That requires discerning the swell direction on a potentially turbulent sea surface, which is easier said than done, so the more time available to do so, the better.

Considering these factors, at 15:38 DeWitt told air traffic control, “I’d like to descend now.”

“Okay, descend and maintain five thousand,” San Juan replied.

Less than a minute later, DeWitt asked for his distance from St. Croix, and was given a figure of 57 miles. “Okay, there’s a possibility I may have to ditch this aircraft,” he reported. “I am now descending to the water.”

Watch a CGI animation of the ditching that appeared in the Weather Channel show “Why Planes Crash.”

In San Juan, the controller immediately notified the Coast Guard. At the same time, San Juan remained in contact with Juliana Tower, who at 15:44 asked, “Is he going to make it to St. Croix?”

“We don’t know yet, we’ll keep you advised,” said San Juan.

“Roger, what distance you’re showing?” the tower asked.

“Right now he is fifty five miles east and we don’t know if he’s going to make it in or not,” said San Juan.

“Okay, roger,” said the tower. Then, realizing that the aircraft was still closer to St. Maarten than it was to St. Croix, he added, “Turn around! Turn around!”

“No, he cannot come back to you,” said San Juan. “He’s going to try to make it to St. Croix. He’s running low on fuel.”

On board the plane, however, the crew had already long since concluded that they weren’t going to make it. In fact, Captain DeWitt had ordered Navigator Hart to go to the cabin to help prepare, where he joined forces with Spencer to pre-position one of the aircraft’s 25-person life rafts in the forward galley for rapid deployment. Farther back in the cabin, some passengers were hurriedly preparing for a crash, fastening their seat belts and surrounding themselves with pillows, but even as the plane descended to a few hundred feet above the water, others remained oblivious, believing that they were making an overwater approach to St. Croix.

Up front, Captain DeWitt brought the plane down to about 500 feet above the water, where he could clearly see the swells. The sea state looked dire, with heavy rain, strong wind, and towering waves, presenting the worst possible ditching conditions. Both fuel quantity indicators read essentially zero.

At 15:47, DeWitt made his final transmission: “Nine eighty, roger, ah… we’re ditching.”

Extending the flaps progressively in order to slow down, DeWitt carefully lowered the plane toward the sea in 100-foot increments, repeatedly leveling off to allow his depth perception to adjust. For a few moments, the aircraft continued at a height of 100 feet or less, limping along just above the water, until both engine fuel pressure lights began to flicker, indicating imminent fuel exhaustion. Captain DeWitt switched to emergency electrical power in order to keep his flight instruments once the engines died. At around the same time, realizing that he needed to warn the passengers, he flashed the fasten seat belt and no smoking signs three times — a hasty measure in lieu of a “brace” announcement, which couldn’t be made due to the inoperative PA.

Shortly thereafter, the engines, starved of fuel, began to flame out. At the last moment, DeWitt extended the flaps to their maximum position and pulled the nose up to reduce their airspeed as much as possible, hoping to soften the impact. All lights aboard the aircraft went out as electrical power was lost. And then, at 15:49, with its nose pointed 6 degrees up and at an airspeed of just 90 knots, ALM flight 980 descended into the storm-tossed sea.


The aircraft as it may have appeared shortly after touchdown. (Matthew Tesch in Macarthur Job’s “Air Disaster: Volume 1.”)

In the cabin, Navigator Hart suddenly realized that impact was imminent and shouted for the cabin crew to get down. There was almost no time to react. Hart and the purser, Wilfred Spencer, managed to sit down in the crew jump seats in the forward galley, but there was no seat for the steward Tobias Cordeiro, whose split-second reaction was to sit down on the deflated life raft instead. Farther back, stewardess Margareth Abraham was still standing in the forward aisle assisting passengers with their life vests when she heard the shout. Realizing that not everyone was strapped in, she tried to make her way down the aisle, pushing passengers bodily into their seats, but they were out of time. She had made it only as far as row 4 when the plane hit the water.

The impact was extremely violent — on the order of 8 to 12 G’s, exceeding the structural strength of the passenger seats, which were only rated for a 9G deceleration. Investigators would later estimate that the aircraft came to a stop within a distance shorter than its own length. Such an impact would have been painful even for properly secured passengers, but to make matters worse, not everyone had been able to sit down and strap in. Around five passengers hadn’t fastened their seat belts before impact, and several others were standing, including two men who were out of their seats taking photographs. (One passenger even filmed the last moments of the flight, but the footage later went down with the plane.) Furthermore, the fabric-to-metal seat belts used in the DC-9 had poor clamping ability in comparison with modern metal-to-metal seat belts, and six passengers had their seat belts fail as a result. And on top of that, several seats were entirely dislodged from the floor with passengers still strapped inside them. The collective result was mayhem in the cabin, as people and seats were flung violently forward with devastating results.

Up front, the pilots were thrown forward and down as the nose of the plane dug into the ocean, sending water rushing across captain DeWitt’s windscreen. The plane came to a stop with its nose underwater and in a 45-degree left bank, but after a few seconds it righted itself. Immediately, water began trickling into the cockpit through every gap and crevice — it was clear they wouldn’t have much time.

As soon as the plane came to a halt, Hart and Spencer attempted to open the main forward passenger door, only to find that it was jammed. Fortunately, Cordeiro managed to open the right door instead — but deploying the raft, which weighed more than 50 kilograms, would prove to be another story entirely. The galley area was full of spilled equipment and at least one passenger who had been thrown all the way forward against the cockpit door, and was now writhing about on the floor in a semi-dazed state. Amid the crew’s chaotic attempts to deploy the raft, someone or something inadvertently triggered its inflation mechanism while the package was still inside the aircraft, and the raft expanded to fill the galley within seconds. First Officer Evans was exiting the cockpit when the sudden inflation of the raft pinned him against a wall by his foot; a passenger was likewise trapped. The cabin crew scrambled around in search of something sharp in the galley that could deflate the raft — only to discover that all the cutlery on the airplane was made of plastic.

A graphic illustration of the escape from the sinking airplane. (Matthew Tesch in Macarthur Job’s “Air Disaster: Volume 1”)

Meanwhile in the cabin — which was now cut off from the cockpit and galley by the inflated raft — the passengers were left to fend for themselves. The only crewmember in this area was Margareth Abraham, but she was standing at the moment of impact, and none of the survivors could recall seeing her during the evacuation. In all probability, she was knocked unconscious or even killed as soon as the plane hit the water. With no guidance from her or anyone else, the passengers seated near the right aft overwing exit opened it themselves, despite not having been briefed on its operation, and began a swift but orderly evacuation. Some of the passengers initially crowded onto the wing, but its surface was unstable and awash with seawater, so most people inflated their life vests and entered the ocean directly. Fortunately, despite the bad weather, this was the Caribbean, so short-term risk of hypothermia was minimal.

In the galley, the crew managed to free First Officer Evans, and together with a passenger they exited via the right main door, jumping directly into the water. Floating nearby was one of the emergency escape slides, detached and still in its pack, which they managed to inflate. In the chaos, First Officer Evans had forgotten to put on a life vest, so he clambered atop the slide along with two injured passengers. Numerous additional passengers hung onto the sides, unable to climb atop the slide for fear of sinking it. Belts and ties were quickly strung around the edges to provide additional handholds.

In the cockpit, Captain DeWitt was the last of the pilots to abandon ship, clambering out through the left side window. He then swam back down the left side of the plane, where he attempted to open the forward left overwing exit, only to find that it was jammed. Instead, he tried the aft left overwing exit, which opened normally, allowing him to enter the cabin. He found that most passengers had already left, except for a dazed-looking man and woman, whom he helped escape.

Unfortunately, although DeWitt didn’t see them, more people were still on board. Witness statements could only identify 43 of the 63 people on board having ever left the aircraft — most of the remainder were either knocked unconscious or killed during the impact, or fell into a state of shock and took no action to save themselves. Indeed, Spencer reported seeing people still sitting motionless in their seats as he swam past the plane. Others may have escaped unseen, only to drown.

Probably the last person to escape was a woman who woke up to find not only that she had been thrown from row 16 forward to row 6, but that no one else conscious appeared to be on board. Water was pouring into the aircraft at this point, filling the cabin to neck height, and by the time she reached the overwing exit, it was almost completely submerged. Nevertheless, she escaped.

A Coast Guard Grumman Albatross circled over the crash site until all the survivors were rescued. (Emilio Corsetti III, “35 Miles from Shore”)

Those who did manage to leave the aircraft found themselves in the midst of a watery maelstrom. Waves cresting as high 3–4 meters (10–15 ft) battered the aircraft and the survivors, plunging them wildly up and down as they clung desperately to whatever they could find. Howling winds tore across the frothing whitecaps, gusting as high as 39 knots, carrying sweeping curtains of rain that danced beneath an anvil-gray sky. The sea surface was choked with all manner of flotsam — pieces of honeycomb material; luggage; clothing; oil; uninflated life jackets; even an aircraft tire, liberated from the cargo hold. Within minutes, this was all that would remain, for the aircraft sank with shocking swiftness — survivors estimated that it stayed afloat for no more than ten minutes. After that, it heeled over to the right and pitched steeply nose down; two loud popping sounds were heard, and then, like the Titanic of yore, it slipped nose-first beneath the churning ocean, never to be seen again.

Far above, however, rescue was on its way. The first aircraft to reach the scene was a Pan Am Boeing 727 with a full load of passengers, diverted from its scheduled course by air traffic control to search for the missing DC-9. Despite cloud ceilings of 400 to 500 feet and visibility as low as 600 meters (3/8 mile), the Clipper pilots managed to spot a wide area of floating debris, but no sign of the plane, which sank so quickly that the Pan Am crew assumed it must have broken apart on impact. In the water, they could see the escape slide, surrounded by what they estimated to be 20 people, with more floating solo nearby. As they radioed their discovery to San Juan, the survivors raised a cheer into the gale, overjoyed to have been seen — but their ordeal was far from over.

The next aircraft to reach the scene were a US Coast Guard Grumman Albatross flying boat, and a Short Skyvan cargo plane operated by a St. Croix flight school, normally used to haul laundry. Although the Albatross was capable of landing on water, the conditions were too rough to do so. Instead, both crews attempted to drop life rafts as close to the huddled survivors as possible. In a daring feat of flying, the Skyvan crew flew as low as 30 feet above the water and as slow as 60 knots, while the crew attempted to inflate the rafts and release them upwind of the survivors; but even so, getting them close proved incredibly difficult. The Skyvan ultimately dropped a four-person raft and a 20-person raft, but neither fell closer than 30 meters from the nearest person. Still, with so many people loose in the water, the temptation to reach them was sufficiently great that Captain DeWitt and Navigator Hart decided to swim to one raft each, leaving First Officer Evans in charge at the slide. Both managed to reach their objectives, but neither was able to propel their rafts back toward the main group, leaving them stranded.

Subsequently, the crew of the Albatross attempted to drop two more life rafts, but both fell too far away for any of the survivors to reach, although Wilfred Spencer made a valiant attempt. The flying boat did drop one useful object, however, which was a floating radio beacon to mark the crash site so that arriving helicopters could find it in the midst of the storm.

The actual US Navy Sea King that responded to the crash. (Emilio Corsetti III)

With the aircraft having ditched more than 30 nautical miles (55 km) off St. Croix, there was no chance of a quick rescue. No boats were on track to arrive before nightfall, and although helicopters were considerably faster, it took 90 minutes for the first one — a US Navy Sea King — to arrive at the scene. The first person they spotted was Captain Balsey DeWitt, alone in his life raft; he ended up being the first to be rescued, perhaps contrary to his wishes, although he made use of his good fortune by giving the Sea King crew detailed information about the conditions below. His advice led the crew to the escape slide where dozens of people still clung to life, surrounding the rubber island of salvation amid the heaving swells. Even though they had no trained rescue swimmers, the crew of the Sea King managed to pull no less than 26 people out of the water, dragging the cold and disheveled survivors aboard one after another. Passengers were packed tightly onto the bare floor, many of them suffering from severe injuries, although Captain DeWitt did his best to comfort them. By the time the crew decided they could take no more, the helicopter was grossly overweight, barely able to stay airborne with so many people on board, but it nevertheless managed to limp back to shore.

As soon as the Sea King departed, a Coast Guard helicopter picked up where it left off, beginning with several people who were floating away from the main group, including purser Wilfred Spencer and Navigator Hugh Hart. Two stray passengers were also rescued before the crew made an attempt to reach the main group on the slide using their rescue basket. However, the hoist jammed and could not be freed, forcing the crew to cut the basket loose with two men inside, dropping them from a height of almost three meters. An attempt was subsequently made to descent to the water’s surface and pluck people by hand from the sea, but the pilots were forced to back away due to huge swells that rose as high as the helicopter’s rotor. The crew ultimately made the difficult decision to depart the scene with only four survivors on board.

As soon as they left, a second Coast Guard helicopter moved in, raising more people one by one from the swaying escape slide. But this helicopter could carry far fewer people than the mighty Sea King, and it was forced to leave — also severely overweight — after picking up seven survivors. That left three people still huddled on top of the slide, including First Officer Evans. More helicopters, operated by the US Marines, were en route to their position, but for a few minutes the only company afforded to the stragglers was the circling Albatross.

The group of two Marine helicopters arrived shortly before 18:00, with darkness threatening to fall within thirty minutes. The first of these helicopters spotted two unresponsive people floating in the water and hauled one of them aboard, but the man showed no signs of life. The crew elected to leave immediately to rush him to hospital, performing CPR all the way, but he was pronounced dead on arrival. Of all those who died that day, his would be the only whose body was recovered.

Meanwhile, a second Marine helicopter set about rescuing First Officer Evans and the two passengers who remained alongside him. They wouldn’t have much time to pull it off, because the crew had flown a considerable distance without refueling and were running low themselves. Nevertheless, aware that darkness was falling and that no more helicopters had been launched, the crew risked their own lives to pull the last three survivors aboard. The final person pulled alive from the sea was Harry Evans, more than two and a half hours after the crash.

After that, all that remained was to make a beeline for land. The pilots feared that they might not make it — which would have given their passengers the incredible distinction of having ditched twice in one day — but they ultimately made it to St. Croix with five minutes of fuel remaining.


Although no one could recall seeing any additional survivors waiting for rescue, it was known from the start that quite a few people were missing. The rescuers had collectively brought back 41 people, one of whom was deceased, which left 22 others unaccounted for. Several helicopters and ships continued to scour the area after dark, scanning the sea with flood lights, but no survivors or bodies were found. The next day, another 57 sorties were flown, but these also turned up empty.

On shore, the flight crew were taken to separate rooms, where Captain DeWitt requested to speak to a priest. Seeking absolution, he told the priest that he had “caused some people their untimely deaths.” The following day, his guilt rang forth again when a reporter told him that his passengers had praised his “beautiful” landing. “Not beautiful enough,” he said. “People were lost.”

In the end, of the 63 people on board, 40 survived and 23 perished, of whom only one was recovered. Among the dead was stewardess Margareth Abraham; the rest of the crew was rescued. The exact cause of death of the victims is not known — some may have been mortally wounded on impact, but a large number are thought to have drowned inside the plane. Given that witnesses could account for 43 people leaving the aircraft, while only 41 were recovered, it’s also likely that at least three people (including the recovered victim) drowned outside the plane.

A Tupolev Tu-124 jet is recovered from the Neva River after the only previous ditching of a passenger jet, in Leningrad, USSR, in 1963. (Yuriy Tuysk)

The dramatic water landing in the Caribbean was only the second time anyone had ever attempted to ditch a passenger jet, after Aeroflot flight 366 landed on the Neva River in Leningrad in 1963, and it was the first on open water. Arguably, an open ocean ditching of an airliner has also only happened one time since, when a Fawcett Perú Boeing 727 ran out of fuel several hundred kilometers off Newfoundland in 1990 during a ferry flight. Unfortunately, although the sea conditions were similar to those faced by ALM 980, and some or all of the 16 crew aboard likely survived the ditching, the site was so far from land and its position so uncertain that neither the plane nor its occupants were ever found. Considering this record, the ditching of flight 980 has to be considered relatively successful, and the survivors extraordinarily lucky.


Margareth Abraham, right, went down with the plane and was never found. (Etienne La Cruz, Emilio Corsetti III)

As the passengers and crew made their way home or recovered in hospital, the National Transportation Safety Board was organizing its investigation into the causes of the accident. One of the first questions faced by investigators was a logistical one — whether to recover the aircraft, which sank in about 5,000 feet (1,500 m) of water. In the end, the consensus decision was not to raise it, because the cost of retrieving the black boxes couldn’t be justified when all three flight crew members were still alive. It also must be considered that a retrieval from 5,000 feet was probably near the limits of deep sea recovery technology in 1970. Consequently, the aircraft, its flight recorders, and the remains of the victims are all still down there somewhere, lying in eternal darkness.

Nevertheless, it was clear from the start that flight 980 crashed because it made too many approaches to St. Maarten, leaving the plane with insufficient fuel to reach any alternate airport. This occurred despite the fact that the aircraft had enough fuel to complete the trip safely and legally, and despite the pilots’ correct estimate of their time until fuel exhaustion. The crew had calculated a maximum endurance of 4 hours and 34 minutes, and the plane hit the water exactly 4 hours and 35 minutes after it took off. Although the fuel burn en route was greater than expected due to the lower speeds and altitudes used, this self-evidently had no effect on the outcome, since the crew’s predicted fuel endurance remained accurate. Instead, the causes of the accident lay mostly in the areas of decision-making, strategic thinking, and judgment.

Throughout every flight, pilots have to make strategic decisions and account for contingencies, usually well in advance. Often this means taking on more fuel before departure if there are storms in the vicinity of the destination, but the crew of flight 980 couldn’t take on more than the default 900 extra pounds of fuel — worth only about 10 minutes’ low altitude flying time — because their tanks were already full. This represented a systemic risk associated with operating the DC-9 on the New York to St. Maarten route, and one that was outside the pilots’ control. The airline could have solved this problem by fitting the auxiliary fuel tank on schedule, but they did not. This decision was a classic case of short-term cost-cutting resulting in higher long-term costs — an error of management that has repeated itself since time immemorial.

The crew of the Sea King that rescued 26 survivors. All received commendations. (Emilio Corsetti III)

With this risk factor already present, the somewhat worse-than-usual weather further eroded the flight’s safety margin. When making strategic decisions, pilots have to take worsening weather into account, but they can only use the information they have available, which is not always accurate, and was less likely to be accurate in 1970 than it is today. In this case, the crew didn’t have the full picture, much of which would be established only after the fact. The true extent of the thunderstorm activity over the Antilles that day was not likely known to them. Nevertheless, when San Juan told them visibility was below minimums at Princess Juliana, they didn’t hesitate to begin a diversion. Similarly, when Princess Juliana informed them that conditions had improved, they didn’t hesitate to reverse course. In an ideal world the safest thing to do would have been to continue the diversion to which they had already committed. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and explaining to the company and the passengers why they diverted when conditions at Princess Juliana were above minimums would have been difficult. Furthermore, they would also risk exceeding duty time limits if they didn’t immediately leave San Juan, since they were supposed to fly back to New York that same day. And besides, at the end of the day, every pilot really does want to get their passengers where they want to go, if possible.

What the crew didn’t know, and at that stage could not possibly have known, was that the weather at Princess Juliana wasn’t as good as was being reported. The weather observers at the airport were making their visibility calculations using the mountains to the east and did not report the presence of a large raincloud over the water directly off the approach end of runway 09. This was an unknown variable that the crew couldn’t have specifically anticipated. But on the other hand, from a strategic perspective, the fact that conditions at Princess Juliana were previously below minimums raised the possibility that they could fall below minimums again at any time, which would necessitate a contingency plan. If it turned out they couldn’t land in St. Maarten after all, how many approaches could they make before diverting? In this case there was a correct answer, which was “one.” However, the crew didn’t explicitly make this calculation, an omission that set the trap into which they would eventually fall.

Captain DeWitt may have convinced himself that he need not be limited to one approach in part due to his overly optimistic arrival estimate. However, by the time the flight actually reached the airport, it should have been clear that they only had fuel for one approach before they risked becoming trapped in St. Maarten. And yet even at this eleventh hour, the risk was not discussed. It was clear that the crew employed various tactics to improve their odds of success, but they lacked a strategy. They had no backup plan, no self-imposed limits. And without those limits they succumbed to a sympathetically human overconfidence, a misplaced certainty that “next time, we’ll get it right.” But the conditions were too poor, they couldn’t get it right, and they ran out of time.

ALM president Octavio Irausquin speaks at a press conference with Wilfred Spencer and Tobias Cordeiro after the crash. (Emilio Corsetti III, “35 Miles from Shore”)

By the time flight 980 left for St. Thomas, they still theoretically might have made it, or at least to St. Croix, had the pilots flown in a manner perfectly optimized for fuel efficiency. However, such hypotheticals are really beside the point. Some modern aircraft can get close to optimal fuel efficiency with banks of computers, but this was a DC-9 in 1970. Counting on perfect flying was pointless; the real mistake was allowing themselves to get into a situation where optimum efficiency was required. By that measure, the moment when the accident became all but inevitable was when Captain DeWitt succumbed to the siren song of a second approach.

Another possible factor that comes through in the pilots’ account of the crash is a lack of crew resource management. It appeared that Captain DeWitt made most of the decisions unilaterally, even though it remained unclear whether the other crewmembers were comfortable with the risks he was taking. But First Officer Evans was in no position to speak up — not only was he young and unsure of himself, he also had history with DeWitt, who he likely saw as intimidating. His lack of international experience, recent flying time, and a DC-9 type rating also probably influenced his hesitance to make independent judgments. Similarly, Navigator Hugh Hart was not empowered to participate in the decision-making process due to his lack of DC-9 training. That said, there’s no direct evidence that either man ever doubted DeWitt’s decision-making. Furthermore, in 1970 crew resource management did not yet exist and none of the crew could possibly have been trained in it.

In summary, then, ALM flight 980 ran out of fuel because of a milieu of human and systemic factors that slowly increased the risk of an accident until disaster became unavoidable. The latent risk involved in the flight was already high due to decisions made by Overseas National Airways, exacerbated by weather; and this risk escalated into an accident due to a lack of strategic planning. In its final report, the NTSB articulated this only implicitly, producing a bare-bones document that contained little more than a basic analysis of the facts, which was not uncommon in that era. Nevertheless, the errors made in the hours before the crash resemble those that precipitated many other fuel exhaustion accidents in the decades since. Most of these stories feature inadequate big-picture planning by pilots, leading to unacceptable risks taken without adequate discussion, and culminating in their entrapment within a tightening noose from which escape was possible only if they had been more careful an hour ago. The best way to avoid this trap is for the pilot to keep their brain an hour ahead of the aircraft, anticipating the possibility of complications at every turn, planning for the worst-case scenario. If the crew of flight 980 had thought about the worst-case scenario, it’s doubtful that this accident would have happened.

Another photo of lost stewardess Margareth Abraham. (Etienne La Cruz, Emilio Corsetti III)

Last but not least, the investigation touched on the thorny question of whether it would have been possible to save more of the passengers. Captain DeWitt’s piloting was hardly in question; in fact, the NTSB report praised his skill in bringing the aircraft down in one piece on heavy seas with powerful winds and limited visibility. However, it was evident that the cabin was not ready for the ditching, with potentially fatal consequences for several people, including the stewardess. How that happened became one of the most significant points of contention during the investigation.

The crux of the difficulty was probably the inoperative PA system. This factor didn’t come to investigators’ attention until six months after the crash, but when it did, it explained much of what happened.

The other half of the puzzle was DeWitt’s omission of an estimated time until ditching, or a time to expect follow-up information, when he briefed the purser. This allowed the cabin crew to believe that the ditching was not imminent, and that they would receive an announcement when it was. They were unaware that the PA was inoperative and expected to receive word from the cockpit when it was time to lock down the cabin. Instead, when DeWitt realized that he needed to warn the passengers, there was no time to send someone back to provide verbal notification. Instead, he flashed the “fasten seat belt” and “no smoking” lights three times, which should have been accompanied by a series of three chimes. However, the ALM cabin crew hadn’t been trained to interpret three chimes as an emergency signal, and besides, no one in the cabin recalled hearing them. In all probability, the chimes never sounded because DeWitt had already switched to emergency power seconds earlier, disabling all non-essential electrics.

The cumulative result of these issues was that most of the occupants only had about five seconds’ warning before impact. As a result, many had not strapped in, and only a few assumed the brace position. Failure to brace for impact in turn likely resulted in widespread head injuries that prevented people from escaping before the aircraft filled with water. The number of injuries was further increased by the antiquated and ineffective design of the seat belts.

As a result of these findings, the NTSB recommended that no passenger airliner depart with an inoperative PA system unless an alternate system of communication has been explicitly established; that the item “warn passengers” be inserted near the end of the ditching checklist; and that the FAA mandate modern metal-to-metal seat belts in all US aircraft. All of these have since been implemented.


Following the accident, ONA ceased operating flights to St. Maarten, and the airline later went out of business in 1978. Flight 980 remained its only fatal accident, but the airline’s role in the disaster was undeniably significant, and its reputation never fully recovered.

ONA transferred some of its blame onto the flight crew, who were all terminated and lost their licenses. Balsey DeWitt never flew an airplane again, nor did he ever deny responsibility for what happened. The knowledge that 23 souls were lost on his watch haunted him until his death in January 2024, at the age of 91.

Harry Evans, for his part, appealed to the FAA and had his license reinstated. He continued to work as a pilot, flying Grand Canyon scenic tours before returning to passenger jets.

Official honors were given to many of the military and civilian flight crews who participated in the rescue of the survivors, and posthumously to stewardess Margareth Abraham, who was praised for her selflessness in attempting to ensure all passengers were seated, at the cost of her own safety.

And somewhere down in the fathomless abyss, the battered wreckage of a DC-9 presumably lies, rotting quietly in the stygian darkness, surrounded by the remnants of two and a half terrifying hours spent in battle against the storm. The fate of the airplane after it slipped beneath the waves is known only to the nameless creatures that stand guard over its last resting place. In theory, someone with too much time and money could try to find it, but N935F is no Titanic. No Hollywood blockbusters have been made about its harrowing final flight, although the story is undoubtedly worthy. Most likely, it will remain undisturbed until time has wiped away all memory of the decisions that put it there, the terror of its final moments, and the sacrifice of those who were lost to an angry sea. If one thing must endure, let it be the lessons learned from that sacrifice, so that it may not be repeated.


Special thanks goes to Emilio Corsetti III, whose book “35 Miles from Shore” remains the definitive account of the events of ALM 980. Many of the background and non-technical details in this article were brought to light by his research. If you want to learn more about the story, and hear first-hand accounts from the people involved, I highly recommend checking out his book!


Don’t forget to listen to Controlled Pod Into Terrain, my podcast (with slides!), where I discuss aerospace disasters with my cohosts Ariadne and J! Check out our channel here, and listen to our latest episode, in which we join forces with an Airbus captain to discuss Air France flight 447. A bonus episode for Patreon subscribers is also out now. Alternatively, download audio-only versions via, or look us up on Spotify!


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Note: this accident was previously featured in episode 66 of the plane crash series on December 9th, 2018, prior to the series’ arrival on Medium. This article is written without reference to and supersedes the original.



Admiral Cloudberg

Kyra Dempsey, analyzer of plane crashes. @Admiral_Cloudberg on Reddit, @KyraCloudy on Twitter and Bluesky. Email inquires ->