Survival of the Bravest: The story of the 1965 Carmel Mid-air Collision
On the 4th of December 1965, an incredible drama unfolded in the skies above New York when an Eastern Airlines Super Constellation collided in midair with a TWA Boeing 707 at 11,000 feet. Both planes, severely crippled, hurtled onward, their crews working furiously to save the lives of their passengers. The 707, missing 25 feet off of its left wing, managed to turn around and make a harrowing emergency landing at New York’s JFK International Airport, narrowly avoiding disaster. The Constellation lost all of its pitch controls, and despite their best efforts, the pilots could not reach any airport. In a mind-blowing feat of airmanship, they made a forced landing on the side of a hill, where the plane slid to a halt relatively intact, but surrounded by fire. While others fled the raging inferno, Captain Charles White went back into the burning aircraft to save a man he knew was trapped inside. He never returned, perishing in the flames alongside three of his passengers. It was a story destined to become legend — and legend it has become. This is the story of the Carmel Mid-air Collision and the heroes who rose to meet its challenge.
Note: All intra-cockpit conversations reproduced in this article are based on the recollections of witnesses. The exact words were not recorded.
In 1965, the skies above our heads were still very much the wild west. Radar coverage was spotty, planes didn’t automatically broadcast their altitude to air traffic control, and traffic collision avoidance systems were still 25 years away. The law of the land was “see and avoid,” the obligation of every pilot to scan their surroundings and avoid other traffic. Near major airports, pilots could count on procedural separation for a certain margin of safety — that is, that air traffic controllers would always assign planes flying in certain directions to certain altitudes. But if the controller made a mistake or another crew failed to comply with an ATC order, it was the responsibility of the pilots and only the pilots to recognize the risk of a collision and take evasive action if necessary.
By the mid-1960s air safety experts already knew that the principle of “see and avoid” was fatally flawed. There were in fact plenty of reasons, other than inattention, why pilots might not be able to see each other in time to avoid a collision. In 1956, 128 people were killed when two airliners collided in uncontrolled airspace over Arizona’s Grand Canyon, a disaster that was the deadliest in aviation history at the time. Investigators found that the two planes had most likely been obscured by clouds until just seconds before the collision, leaving the crew of the overtaking aircraft without enough time to change course. Four years later in 1960, 134 died in another midair collision at 5,000 feet over New York City when one of the airplanes overshot its designated holding point. The collision occurred in dense clouds, and the two crews probably never even saw each other. These were but two of the countless midair collisions that occurred in the United States during this period, an epidemic that only continued to worsen as air traffic increased with every passing year.
However, despite the understanding that “see and avoid” was not going to be enough to guarantee separation in the dawning age of crowded airways, the technology to systematically prevent collisions simply wasn’t there yet. And until that technology began to arrive in the early 1970s, US airliners continued to catastrophically swap paint around once every 18 months.
On the afternoon of the 4th of December 1965, 49 passengers and five crew boarded Eastern Air Lines flight 853 from Boston, Massachusetts to Newark, New Jersey. In command were Captain Charles J. White, 42; First Officer Roger Holt, 34; and Flight Engineer Emile Greenway, 27. Captain White had a solid 11,500 flight hours and an even more robust reputation: after hearing about an Air Force pilot who had parachuted out of his crippled plane, leaving the rest of his crew to die, White was quoted as saying, “If a plane of mine ever goes down, even the dead men are going out on parachutes before I do.”
The plane they would be flying was a Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation, an iconic four-engine turbo-compound propeller airliner produced in the 1950s. Known for its unusual swooping profile and unique triple tail, the Constellation, or “Connie” for short, was sometimes compared to a flying fish. Not only was the plane pretty to look at, its design was also revolutionary for its time. It was the first large airliner to feature a pressurized cabin and hydraulically assisted flight controls, along with a number of cutting edge luxuries, such as air conditioning, reclining seats, extra lavatories, and sleeper bunks. The Constellation could fly higher and faster than any civilian airliner that came before it, and it quickly started setting speed records on routes across the United States both before and after its commercial introduction in 1945. But by 1965, the Constellation was on its way out, having been supplanted by something even more revolutionary.
By the second half of the 1950s, jet airliners had gone from an engineering pipe dream to an impending reality. In 1958, the Boeing 707 entered service with Pan Am, becoming the first American-built passenger jet to take to the skies. Just seven years later, the number of jet aircraft had multiplied to such an extent that the big propeller airliners of the previous era had become a dying breed. By December 1965, the jet was king, and only two years remained before the retirement of the Constellation from passenger service in the United States.
On the same day that Eastern Airlines flight 853 departed Boston, 51 passengers and seven crew boarded a Boeing 707 for a non-stop transcontinental flight from San Francisco, California to New York’s newly renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport. Under the command of 45-year-old Captain Thomas Carroll, 42-year-old First Officer Leo Smith, and 41-year-old Flight Engineer Ernest Hall, TWA flight 42 departed San Francisco at 9:05 a.m. local time (12:05 Eastern time). Now, a little over four hours later, it was dropping toward 11,000 feet on descent into New York. For pilots Carroll and Smith, who had a combined 31,000 flight hours, it was an approach just like any of the thousands they had flown before. Little did they know that it was about to take a turn for the terrifying.
By quarter past four in the afternoon, both Eastern Air Lines flight 853 and TWA flight 42 were converging on the Carmel VORTAC, a radionavigational aid located near Carmel, New York, about 75 kilometers north of New York City. TWA flight 42, the Boeing 707, had been cleared down to 11,000 feet in preparation for its approach, while the Eastern Constellation was cruising at 10,000 feet, still en route to Newark. Much of the northeastern United States was covered in a solid overcast layer with ragged cloud tops stretching to between 10,000 and 11,000 feet, and rising toward 16,000 feet in the northwest, near Syracuse. Flying along at 10,000 feet, the Constellation periodically moved in and out of the clouds as it passed through “fluffy” cumulus buildups rising above the main cloud deck.
At the New York air traffic control center, controllers could see the two planes approaching the Carmel VORTAC, both scheduled to cross it at 4:18 p.m. But just moments earlier, both crews had radioed that they were at their assigned altitudes of 11,000 and 10,000 feet respectively, so controllers did not believe there was any risk of a collision.
At precisely 4:18, the Eastern Air Lines Constellation emerged from a cloud and was greeted with the astonishing sight of a Boeing 707 coming at it from its 2 o’clock position. First Officer Holt, fearing that they were on a collision course shouted, “Look out!”
In fact, the two planes, separated by 1,000 feet vertically, were in no danger of colliding. But from the cockpit of the Constellation, it looked like they were, due to an insidious optical illusion. Pilots are able to instinctively judge the risk of colliding with another airplane by determining its position relative to a visible horizon. If the other plane is level with the horizon and not moving appreciably across the field of view, pilots (and indeed anyone who can see it) will almost instantly determine it to be on a collision course. When Holt shouted “look out,” he was seeing the 707 in line with the horizon and apparently stationary in the windscreen. However, what appeared at first glance to be the horizon was actually the top of the higher clouds located northwest of their position. Against the background of this higher false horizon, the 707, which was actually 1,000 feet above them, looked like it was at the same altitude.
Upon hearing his first officer’s shout and seeing the 707 apparently coming right at them, Captain White immediately pulled back hard on his controls and steered to the left to try to dodge the jet. In the cabin, a passenger with a camera spotted the 707 and attempted to take a picture of it, but before he could do so he was thrown aside by the violent escape maneuver. Shouts of surprise and shock erupted in the cabin as the plane zoomed into a climb of at least 6,000 feet per minute.
On the TWA 707, the pilots suddenly caught sight of the blue and white Connie, pitched up in a steep climb and headed straight for them. Captain Carroll banked hard to the right and pulled the nose up in an attempt to avoid the oncoming plane, but within seconds it was clear they were still on a collision course. In the cabin, several passengers caught sight of the Constellation and braced themselves for impact, as the sudden maneuver pushed them hard into their seats and sent clothing and luggage flying from the overhead bins. As the Connie rocketed toward him, Captain Carroll reversed his inputs, pitching down and to the left in an attempt to slip below and behind the other plane, but it was too late: before the inputs could take effect, the planes collided. Crossing each other’s paths at a 70-degree angle and climbing steeply, the tip of the 707’s left wing sliced across the Constellation’s distinctive triple tail, sending debris flying in all directions. Pieces of the two airplanes blossomed out into the sky, ricocheting past the windows of the stunned passengers on the 707.
The collision severely damaged both aircraft, but not quite so severely as to cause an immediate, irrecoverable loss of control. The 707 had lost 7.6 meters (25 feet) off of its left wing, and flying debris had scored deep gouges in the no. 1 engine nacelle and the fuselage. But with all four engines and all the flight controls still intact, it was just possible to maintain control of the airplane. Immediately following the collision, the 707 rolled hard to the left and plunged into a dive, but with both pilots pitching in, the crew was able to drag the plane back from the brink and return it to level flight, despite the damage to the left wing constantly trying to pull them into a spiral descent. Upon regaining control, one of the pilots got on the radio and declared an emergency, informing air traffic control that they had been involved in a midair collision and needed to make an emergency landing at JFK. At 4:39 p.m., 21 minutes after the collision, the crew of TWA flight 42 successfully brought their crippled jet in for a safe landing in New York City.
For three minutes after the 707’s radio call, nobody heard anything from the Eastern Air Lines Constellation. In fact, the crew had much bigger things to worry about than declaring an emergency. The collision ripped off the rightmost of the Constellation’s three vertical stabilizers, taking with it part of the right elevator and a number of important hydraulic components. Most likely the damage led to a loss of pressure in the hydraulic system, because when the pilots tried to arrest their climb and level off, they found that none of the pitch controls had any effect. Completely out of control, the plane continued climbing for several seconds before rolling left and entering a dive. Captain White and First Officer Holt fought with all their might to pull up, but the elevators weren’t responding. The plane dived through the cloud bank and emerged below it, where passengers and crew alike could see the ground rushing up at them with terrifying speed. Realizing that his controls were useless and he had to take drastic action, Captain White decided to use the one thing he still had: the engines.
Accelerating all four engines to full power caused the plane to pitch up until it pulled out of the dive. The Constellation turned away from the ground and, like a rollercoaster, climbed straight back up into the clouds. Now Captain White pulled the throttles back again, and the nose started to drop. Little by little, he and the rest of his crew managed to regain the barest semblance of control: when descending, they could accelerate the engines to pitch up, and when they started to climb, they could decelerate to pitch down. Only now, after three terrifying minutes, did Flight Engineer Greenway get on the radio to declare an emergency. “Mayday, mayday, mayday!” he said. “This is Eastern 853, we have had a midair collision and are.. ah… in trouble. We’re out of control. We’re in a dive now, climbing now, we’re descending, we’re at 7,000 feet!”
Indeed, at that moment the Constellation had embarked on a dizzying phugoid trajectory, climbing and descending out of the clouds over and over again, many times per minute. And yet, slowly but surely, they were going down.
At 4:24, New York controllers attempted to give the flight a heading to the nearest airport in Danbury, Connecticut, but their chances of making it were doubtful. “We’ll just do the best we can, keep an eye on us, please, see [where] we’re gonna wind up,” Captain White said, providing a response for Flight Engineer Greenway to relay to the controllers.
Eventually Captain White and First Officer Holt managed to find a power setting that kept them in a relatively steady descent of 500 feet per minute. If they touched the throttles much at all, the plane would start to go out of control. The chances of this descent path lining up with the airport were slim to none. Anticipating a forced landing in the countryside, Captain White came on the PA and gave the passengers a no-holds-barred rundown of the situation. He said that they had been in a midair collision, that the plane was out of control, and that they would be making a crash landing. He told people to stay seated, fasten their seat belts as tight as possible, and remove all sharp objects from their pockets. The flight attendants scrambled to prepare for the crash landing, instructing the passengers to read their safety cards and find their nearest exits. Some quietly, others openly, the passengers prepared for the worst.
Moments later, flight 853 passed over Danbury Airport at a height of two to three thousand feet, way too high to come in for a landing, and they didn’t have enough control to circle around. Captain White knew that a forced landing was now inevitable, and that he would have only a couple of minutes to select a landing site. The problem was that the area they were flying over was not flat. The region around the border of New York and Connecticut is covered in hills, forests, and lakes, none of which presented an obvious landing site. They would have to pick the best of several bad options.
One option was a large lake, which was flat, but came with its own dangers. First Officer Holt recalled advising against it: “I don’t much care for the lake,” he said. “I don’t think very many would get out alive.”
They had decided they were going to put it down on land, but where? Directly ahead of them was Hunt Mountain, a large hill covered in farmland and forest. Half way up was a wide open pasture, running up the hillside on a 15% grade. It was a bad place to land, but it was what they had. “How about that field?” Captain White asked.
“Let’s do it,” said First Officer Holt.
Going on the PA one last time, Captain White announced, “Brace yourselves, here it comes!”
Coming in low towards the field, White made one last critical move: he increased engine power just seconds before touchdown. Normally a pilot will decrease power before touchdown, but by doing the opposite, he caused the nose to pitch up in line with the slope of the hill, preventing the plane from slamming down hard and cartwheeling. He had to get the timing exactly right, and he did. The Constellation touched down in the pasture with its landing gear stowed, just barely clearing several farm buildings and sending three local boys running for cover. The left wing clipped a tree and sheared off, sending flames trailing behind the plane as it slid up the hill, breaking apart as it went. The fuselage split open behind the wings like a hinge as the plane spun around almost 180 degrees. A plume of fire and smoke rose over the village of North Salem as the plane finally ground to a halt, surrounded by flames.
On board the Constellation, everyone had survived the crash, but their fight to stay alive was far from over. One passenger was flung out into the field during the breakup sequence, and another threw himself out through a broken emergency exit window while the plane was still moving, but everyone else remained inside the burning aircraft. Without hesitation, the passengers undid their seat belts and flooded out through the break in the fuselage and through the two forward exit doors. Many of them had been injured, some seriously, but with the fire rapidly spreading, their injuries were of secondary concern.
Those who escaped near the end of the evacuation suffered from burns and smoke inhalation on top of impact injuries, and within a couple of minutes the window of survival began to close. But one passenger was still on the plane: a soldier seated in the forward cabin whose seat belt had jammed. His friends had tried to extract him but were beaten back by the smoke and fire. One of them spotted Captain White leaving the plane and told him that the soldier was still trapped inside. White could have said it was too dangerous to return, and he would have been right, but that’s not the sort of captain he wanted to be. Braving the raging fire and the toxic smoke, White went back into the plane in search of the last passenger. Nobody ever saw him alive again, and we don’t know exactly what happened in those final harrowing moments inside the smoke-filled cabin, but it is thought that White managed to get the soldier out of his seat and had turned around to leave when smoke overcame them both. White’s body would later be found in the forward galley, while the passenger succumbed in the aisle between rows seven and eight. Two other passengers also died of their injuries in a hospital several hours later. But of the 54 people on board, 50 made it out alive — an outcome which, in light of the circumstances, can only be considered miraculous. Without White’s quick thinking and excellent judgment, far fewer, if any, would have walked away.
Responsibility for investigating the collision fell to the Civil Aeronautics Board, the precursor to the NTSB (which wouldn’t be created until 1967). When investigating a midair collision, the CAB would normally have started out by trying to determine which plane was not at its assigned altitude, or, if they were both assigned to the same altitude, which one was off course. Usually this had to be reconstructed forensically, but in this case both crews, except for the Constellation’s captain, were still alive and could testify about what they saw and did before the two planes collided. This would be especially crucial as neither plane carried a cockpit voice recorder and only the 707 had a flight data recorder. The readout of the simple, four-parameter recorder showed that the 707 never strayed from its assigned altitude of 11,000 feet. So was the Constellation at 10,000 feet or not? First Officer Holt and Flight Engineer Greenway both insisted that it was. They had reported as much to air traffic control when they entered the sector, and the flight engineer’s navigation log also put them at 10,000 feet about 20 minutes before the collision. An examination of the altimeters ruled out the possibility of a faulty reading. In the absence of any plausible reason why all the crewmembers would have thought they were at 10,000 feet when they weren’t, the CAB concluded that the Constellation almost certainly was at its assigned altitude until shortly before the collision.
In fact, while the two planes weren’t on a collision course, a reconstruction of the circumstances of the collision revealed that it probably looked like they were. First Officer Holt saw the 707 on a collision course not because they were at the same altitude, but because the jet was framed against a false horizon. Scientific studies showed that when two planes are on track to cross paths, pilots will make a snap judgment of the collision risk primarily based on relative vertical movement. If the angle to the other plane changed by more than nine arcminutes per second, pilots almost universally estimated that they would not collide. If the angle changed by less than six arcminutes per second, they could not notice the movement and generally concluded that the planes were on a collision course — but only if the second plane was roughly level with the horizon. A plane below the horizon was usually determined to be below the observer as well, and a plane above the horizon was thought to be above the observer. On a perfectly clear day, the 707 should have appeared above the horizon, even if its relative motion was initially too small to notice. But in this case, a false horizon existed due to the gradual upslope of the cloud surface to the northwest over New York State. Because the northwestern “horizon” was higher than the observer, it gave the impression that the 707, which was also at a higher altitude, was in line with the horizon and thus on the same level as the observer.
Unaware that they were seeing an optical illusion, the crew of the Constellation elected to take evasive action by pulling up to climb over the 707. Most likely they chose to climb rather than descend because descending would have put them inside the cloud bank, where they wouldn’t be able to tell whether they were still on a collision course or not. Neither Captain White nor First Officer Holt could have known that they were climbing directly into the path of the 707. The TWA crew, for their part, saw the Constellation coming and attempted to avoid it, but they were unable to change course quickly enough to get out of its way.
Independent of the CAB investigation, court deliberations stemming from lawsuits brought by crash survivors and the families of the victims led to a dispute over who was to blame for the accident. One side sought to blame the air traffic controllers for not informing the two crews of each other’s presence, but this argument did not hold water because there was no requirement to do so if the planes were at different altitudes. The other side argued that the Constellation crew were not in fact at their assigned altitude of 10,000 feet, and that they were therefore at fault in the crash. It was certainly true that the CAB could not prove beyond all doubt where the Constellation was located before the collision, and had based its determination off of circumstantial evidence, pilot testimony, and a weighting of the probabilities. But besides the fact of the collision itself, there was no evidence that the Constellation was not at its assigned altitude. After hearing arguments, the judge decided that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it must be assumed that the Constellation crew had done no wrong. In the end he ruled that no individual or organization was legally at fault in the crash.
Indeed, the judge had realized what aviation safety experts already knew: that the system itself was not up to the job. The 1956 Grand Canyon collision had shown that pilots could not be counted on to see and avoid each other in time to prevent a collision. The 1960 New York collision showed that procedural separation would not prevent a collision in instrument conditions if a pilot made a navigational error while attempting to comply with a clearance. And now the 1965 Carmel collision had presented a case where pilots attempting to “see and avoid” created a collision risk where none previously existed. It was clear that “see and avoid,” while adequate as a primary defense, could not be the only defense. Without a second set of eyes on the sky, America’s increasingly crowded airways would become a bloodbath.
The Carmel midair collision was but one of several that ultimately spurred the development of modern aircraft transponders. In addition to the previously mentioned accidents, the following years featured more deadly collisions: in 1967, 26 died when a TWA DC-9 collided with a private plane; later that year, 82 died in a collision between a Piedmont Airlines Boeing 727 and a Cessna; and in 1969, another 82 people died when an Allegheny Airlines DC-9 collided with yet another small private plane. All these collisions led to the invention and installation of transponders that could broadcast aircraft altitudes directly to air traffic control, along with the introduction of special high-density airspace rules and more capable ATC radar. By the beginning of the 1970s, these improved technologies had entered widespread use across the United States, and still more layers of redundancy have been added since.
The effect of these changes was profound. In the two years between 1967 and 1969, three airliners were lost in midair collisions over the United States, compared with the same number in the 51 years between 1970 and today. Furthermore, the Carmel midair collision was the last in the United States involving two airliners, as opposed to one airliner and a small airplane.
But the Carmel midair collision is remembered today for an entirely different reason: the heroism displayed by both crews in getting their planes on the ground as safely as possible. Captain Carroll and First Officer Smith of the TWA Boeing 707 displayed exemplary skill in landing a plane that was missing 25 feet off one wing; few airliners, if any, have landed safely after losing more. Captain White and First Officer Holt on the Eastern Airlines Super Constellation faced an even more dire situation, the loss of all of their flight controls, but held it together through excellence of airmanship. From the moment of the collision, they beautifully demonstrated the classic saying: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” When the elevators failed, they used the engines to control their pitch. When they couldn’t make it to an airport, they chose to crash land in the spot where they thought there would be the most survivors. And it worked — nearly everyone made it.
Captain Charles J. White could have lived to see himself become a hero. He could have gratefully accepted awards, given speeches, shaken hands with the president. Instead, he chose to risk it all to go back inside his burning plane, determined not to leave a single passenger behind. Many of those who survived the crash thanks to his airmanship wish that he could have lived — perhaps no one aboard that plane deserved it more. But while his death was a tragedy, the least we can do is ensure that his name and deeds will live forever.
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