The New York Midair Collision: Analysis

Image source: AP

On the 16th of December 1960, a United Airlines DC-8 collided with a TWA Lockheed Constellation at 5000 feet over New York City. The Constellation fell onto Staten Island, killing all 44 people on board, while the DC-8 crashed in Brooklyn, carving a swathe of destruction through Park Slope and killing a further 90 people, including six on the ground. At the time, it was the deadliest plane crash in history. Today, however, it is largely forgotten. This is the story of the tragic drama that unfolded in the skies over New York 59 years ago.

A United DC-8 like the one involved in the accident. Image source: Wikipedia

The chain of events that led to the crash began with United Airlines flight 826, a state-of-the-art Douglas DC-8 carrying 84 passengers and crew from Chicago to New York’s Idlewild International Airport (now JFK). The four-engine jet was the largest and fastest passenger airliner in the skies in 1960, and was less than two years old in December of that year. However, its speed was a stumbling block for many pilots at the time, who were more familiar with slower propeller-driven aircraft and often had trouble slowing it down. Such was the case on flight 826 — the plane was coming in at over 800kph (500mph), which was significantly faster than they should have been traveling.

The advanced plane also was not in perfect working order. While on approach over Pennsylvania, the pilots discovered that one of the plane’s VOR receivers wasn’t working. The VOR receivers allow the plane to follow precise tracks between waypoints by picking up radio signals from ground-based beacons. (The above picture demonstrates a VOR navigation system in use.) This was a serious issue because, due to bad weather in the area, flight 826 was supposed to be operating on instrument flight rules as ground landmarks were not visible. With one of the VOR receivers out of service, flying under instrument conditions proved extremely difficult, as the pilots had a hard time figuring out where they were, a problem which was compounded by their excessive speed. Air traffic control was not informed of the problem.

Visualization of the route which flight 826 was cleared to fly. Video source: The Weather Channel

While all of these problems were unfolding, air traffic control cleared flight 826 to take a shortcut to a waypoint further along its approach path, where it was to enter a temporary holding pattern at an altitude of 5000 feet. The waypoint, known as “Preston,” was on the New Jersey coast. However, the pilots of flight 826 couldn’t see the ground due to the weather and also couldn’t tell precisely where Preston was due to their malfunctioning equipment. As a result, they flew straight past it for a further 19km (12mi) out over the Lower Bay and Staten Island.

A TWA Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation like the one involved in the accident. Image source: HistoryNet

At the same time, Trans World Airlines flight 266, a Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation with 44 passengers and crew on board, was on approach to LaGuardia Airport after a flight from Dayton, Ohio. As the two planes were not approaching the same airport, air traffic controllers were not terribly concerned about any separation issues between them, and they were under the jurisdiction of different controllers. Nevertheless, a controller warned the pilots of the Constellation about the DC-8, which was rapidly closing from behind them and slightly to the right. However, controllers at the time used relatively primitive primary radar which didn’t display the altitude of the aircraft on the screen. As a result, they didn’t know that both planes were at 5000 feet, and assumed that they were at different altitudes. In either case, responsibility supposedly fell on the pilots to see and avoid each other, but this was impossible due to the weather conditions.

The United DC-8, far off track, closed in on the much slower propeller-driven Constellation at 584 kph (363 mph), its pilots completely unaware that they were on a collision course. When TWA flight 266 suddenly appeared in front of them through the clouds, there wasn’t even time to take any sort of evasive action. Just seconds after the warning about nearby traffic, flight 826 crashed into flight 266 from behind. The right outboard engine of the DC-8 tore through the Constellation’s fuselage, ingesting cabin material and at least one passenger, while the left wing sliced through the Constellation’s horizontal stabilizer, instantly crippling the smaller plane. The DC-8’s engine also separated in the collision, taking with it a huge section of the right wing. The Constellation immediately shattered into three pieces, spewing debris and passengers into the freezing air as it plunged toward the ground.

Simulation of the collision. Video source: The Weather Channel

The wreckage of the TWA Constellation, as well as some major pieces of the United DC-8, mostly rained down in Miller Field on Staten Island, while some debris also fell into the sea nearby. Bodies fell from the sky in various places around Staten Island, and still more bodies ended up in the Upper Bay. All 44 passengers and crew on board were killed, although one report mentions the discovery of six survivors in the water, all of whom died on the scene.

Meanwhile, the pilots of flight 826 were engaged in an epic struggle to save their crippled aircraft, which was on fire and had suffered severe damage to its control surfaces. The plane plunged toward New York City, crossing over the Upper Bay into Brooklyn, flying on for a further 13 km (8 mi) beyond the site of the collision. Unable to slow their breakneck descent, the pilots may have attempted to steer the plane toward a crash landing in Prospect Park, but they never made it. The DC-8 narrowly missed a Catholic school filled with 2000 students, then came down at the intersection of Sterling Place and 7th Avenue in Park Slope, right in the middle of a densely populated residential and commercial neighbourhood.

Wreckage of the United DC-8 in Park Slope. Image source: The New York Daily News

The destruction that occurred on impact was unimaginable. The wing clipped the roof of a garage, sending the forward fuselage and right wing spinning into the Pillar of Fire Church, which was consumed in an enormous explosion. The tail section broke off and slid down Sterling Place into a funeral home, scattering embalmed bodies into the street, while the left wing broke in half, one piece ending up in an intersection and the other becoming lodged inside a brownstone apartment building, its tip sticking out of the roof. The Pillar of Fire Church collapsed completely, leaving nothing but rubble, as did portions of several apartment buildings that were also struck by the plane. Numerous vehicles and pedestrians were hit as well. Witnesses near the tail section reported seeing passengers trying to escape from the burning fuselage, and a woman managed to open an exit door, but before she could escape, the plane exploded, killing anyone left alive inside. It then exploded twice more in rapid succession. Within minutes, an entire city block was in flames, and 11 buildings had been partially or completely destroyed.

Overview of the scene. Image source: The Daily Mail

The Park Slope Reader published the following description on an anniversary of the crash: “For those on the ground, the scene was as if taken from a horror movie. Interviewed by a reporter from The New York Times, a Mr. Manza said, “All of a sudden, the right wing dipped: It hooked into the corner of the apartment house [122 Sterling Place], and the rest of the plane skimmed into the church and the apartment house across the street. All at once everything was on fire, and the fire from the plane in the street was as high as the houses.” Mrs. Robert Nevin lived at 122, and was in her nightgown standing in the front room of her top floor apartment doing her hair when she heard a shattering crash. “The roof caved in and I saw the sky.” Henry and Pauline McCaddin, owners of the McCaddin Funeral Home, were enjoying a mid-morning cup of coffee in their second-floor kitchen while their one-year-old daughter played under the table. Ms. McCaddin reported, “We were having our coffee and I said to Henry, ‘My goodness, that plane sounds awfully low!’ And just then the whole house shook like it had been hit by a bomb, and the room was all in flames.” The McCaddins escaped with the help of Robert Carter, owner of a hairdressing establishment on Seventh Avenue, who ran into the burning building to rescue them. A burning section of the plane’s left wing landed on top of 124 Sterling Place, and soon a fire spread to the roofs of numbers 122, 120 and 118. The jet also set fire to six buildings on Seventh Avenue, including numbers 18, 20, 22, 24, 26 and 28.”

Aerial view of the Park Slope crash site. Image source: amNY

In addition to the passengers, six people on the ground were killed, including a street sweeper, a dentist walking his dog (the dog also perished), a young man selling Christmas trees, and the 90-year-old keeper of the church, who had been asleep inside. One family survived because they happened to be in the one room in their apartment that wasn’t destroyed. However, emergency responders were amazed to find a survivor from the plane: 11-year-old Stephen Baltz, a young boy who had been flying on United flight 826 without his parents to visit relatives in New York. When the plane crashed, he was ejected from the fuselage and thrown into a pile of snow. He had burns over 85% of his body and several broken bones, but he was alive and conscious, and an ambulance rushed him to a nearby hospital.

People attend to Stephen Baltz after the crash. Image source: Documenting Reality

Baltz’s father flew in from Illinois and gave an interview to the press, expressing gratitude for his son’s survival and sorrow for the families of those who died. From his hospital bed, Stephen was able to describe the collision, which he likened to an “explosion” that sent the plane into a steep descent, while passengers around him screamed and cried. However, unbeknownst to millions of people rooting for his recovery, doctors had privately determined that Stephen’s prognosis was grim. He had breathed in fire and smoke and burned the inside of his lungs, causing permanent damage. 24 hours after the crash, he died from a form of pneumonia. “The little boy closed his eyes and went to sleep,” said the hospital chaplain in an address. “This little guy was important. 130 people or more lost their lives in this tremendous disaster, and if only we could have saved this one little spark… but I guess you just don’t win all the battles.”

New York Times front page the day after the crash. Image source: The New York Times

With a final death toll of 134, the crash was at the time the worst ever commercial aviation disaster, surpassing the 1956 Grand Canyon mid-air collision, which killed 128. There were several eerie parallels between the two crashes. Both involved a United plane and a TWA Super-Constellation, and in both cases, the United aircraft struck the TWA Super Connie rather than the other way around. And in both collisions, the Constellation immediately crashed, while the United plane struggled on for a few minutes before also crashing. After the 1956 disaster, which prompted President Eisenhower to create the Federal Aviation Administration, a national network of radar coverage was established so that controllers in the United States would always know where their airplanes were. However, information about the altitudes at which those aircraft were flying generally still had to be relayed from the pilots, and although controllers could now warn planes of nearby traffic, they couldn’t accurately predict whether a collision was about to occur. In the years after the Park Slope crash, further improvements were made to the system, such as mandatory transponders on airliners that would always broadcast a plane’s altitude and identifying information to air traffic controllers.

Modern view of the intersection with the crash aftermath overlaid. Image source: Matthijs Jansen

In New York and America’s collective memory, the crash is all but forgotten. But the legacy of the disaster is still visible if one knows where to look. The brick style on several of the buildings near 7th and Sterling changes abruptly near the top floor, revealing how the apartments were repaired after the crash. The Pillar of Fire Church was never rebuilt, and until recently the empty lot where it once stood was used as a parking lot. In a nearby hospital chapel, Stephen Baltz is memorialized by a plaque that includes a handful of nickels and dimes that were found in his pocket. Several blocks away in Greenwood Cemetery, a monument erected in the late 2000s marks the spot where unidentified remains of crash victims were buried. These remnants are the last physical reminders of New York’s forgotten air disaster, commemorating the strange coincidences, dashed hopes, and terrible destruction that occurred on that fateful December day 59 years ago.

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Visit reddit.com/r/admiralcloudberg to read 100+ similar articles. This article was originally posted to Reddit on 20 October 2018.

Analyzer of plane crashes and author of upcoming book (soon™). Contact me via @Admiral_Cloudberg on Reddit or by email at kylanddempsey@gmail.com.

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