Friday, February 11, 2011
remembering sabena 548
The jet pushed back from the terminal just after 7 pm on Valentine's Day, 1961, and taxied to runway 22 to await takeoff clearance. The weather at Idlewild was cold. The last minute commemorative photographs taken on the gangway show ladies and gentlemen wearing heavy winter coats. It was already dark, and there is a dusting of snow on the tarmac.
The plane, however, was warm and inviting. Boeing airframe number 17642 was a 707-329 long distance Jet Airliner. It has been completed in late 1959 and first test-flown on December 31st. Once certified, the aircraft had been delivered to its new owner on January 15, 1960. Sabena World Airways registered the craft as 00-SJB. One of twenty they would ultimately purchase, this was only the second one they had received. With just barely three thousand hours in the air, it would commemorate its thirteenth month in service during the flight.
Sabena was very proud of their expansion into Jet travel, and the craft was richly emblazoned with the Boeing 707 logo at each fuselage door, alongside their promise of "world service". Their own logo, a highly stylized "S" in period font, curved up the blue vertical stabilizer like a cat's tail.
As brand new as the aircraft seemed, so too was the very idea of transatlantic jet travel in itself. It has been said that the Boeing 707 really started the Jet Age, and that had only been recently. The 707 received its airworthiness certificate on September 18, 1958, and airline deliveries began shortly thereafter. Why, airline travel itself was still quite new. having made great progress in the peaceful postwar 50's. But as with any new technology, there had been issues. A midair collision of a TWA Super Constellation and a United DC-7 Turboprop over the Grand Canyon in 1956 set into motion greatly expanded flight tracking and led to the establishment of the FAA.
The safety of air travel has suffered a setback just days before Christmas 1960, when another Constellation was rammed by an off-course United DC-8 Jet while both were circling this very same airport, Idlewild. Airplane parts rained down upon two neighborhoods in New York. But these thoughts were not on the minds of the passengers of Sabena Flight 548 on that evening of February 14, 1961. They were all busily dreaming of their upcoming adventures in Europe.
The entire US Figure Skating Team were on board. They had elected to travel together to the world championships in Prague. Sixteen athletes were on the flight, along with eighteen coaches, assistants, and family members. They accounted for over half of the passenger list of sixty-one.
No one on the trip had more to look forward to than sixteen year old Laurent Owen of Winchester, Massachusetts. Daughter of Olympic Champion Ice Skaters Guy Owen and Maribel Vincent Owen, Laurie has her eye set on the World Ladies Figure Skating Championship. She had won the US Gold Medal in Ladies Singles less than a month prior, and was accompanied my her mother and sister, Maribel Owen, who had won the Gold Medal in pairs skating with her partner Dudley Richards.
Laurie was an intense young woman with bright eyes, a graceful manner and a charming smile. She had become a media sensation since winning the US Championship, and had been nicknamed the "Winchester Pixie". The very week of the flight she graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in a red costume and white skates. She would have walked by pictures of herself on the newsstand in order to reach the boarding gate.
Many other talented skaters were on board as well. Single skaters Gregory Kelley, Bradley Lord, Rhoda Lee Michelson, Douglas Ramsay and Stephanie Westerfeld; Pairs skaters Ila Ray Hadley and Ray Hadley, Jr., and Laurie Jean Hickox and William Holmes Hickox, both brother and sister teams. Ice dancers Roger Campbell and Dona Lee Carrier, husband and wife skaters Robert and Patricia Dineen, who had a nine month old son, Dallas "Larry" Pierce and Diane Carol Sherbloom, who won the gold at the US Nationals despite only working together for five weeks, and many others.
Sabena 548 taxied along Runway 22 and lifted off from New York on its overnight transcontinental flight. No one had an inkling that once aloft, they would not reunite with the Earth.
The flight itself was by all evidence uneventful. The 707 approached the airport in Brussel-Zaventem on schedule for an expected 10 AM landing, but had to abort the first attempt and circle the field for a second approach. While circling, it became evident that something was terribly wrong. According to eyewitnesses, the 707 began to pitch "like a bucking bronco", until it stood almost straight up on end and disappeared into a farmer's field. A horrible loud crash and a fireball ensued. Sixty-one passengers, eleven crew, and a farmer on the ground were killed. It was the first crash of a 707 in passenger service.
FAA Investigators would later conclude that the most plausible hypothesis was a malfunction of the stabilizer adjusting mechanism, but no absolute cause was ever established. It is worth noting that the crash of an Air France 707 at Orly Airport in 1962 was caused by an eerily similar failure, and that the stabilizer controls were later modified.
The US Skating Team, and most of the seasoned US coaches, were gone.
The photographs of the wreckage are heartbreaking. Skates and Olympic jackets were strewn across the field. particularly heartbreaking is the poignant image of a partially burned copy of Sports Illustrated, with a smiling Laurence Owen, among the twisted metal of the once-proud Sabena flagship.
The world championships were canceled out of respect for the US team. The sadness of such a loss will never really fade, the joy of youth and the excitement of competition cut short before their time. These young people, lost just as they were coming in to the height of their athletic talents. It truly is beyond comprehension.
Recently I came upon archival footage of the 1961 US Finals. Held in Colorado Springs in January, 1961. It's both wonderful and tragic- as it puts faces on the names of the victims in a very real way but also tells their stories and allows us a glimpse of them at the high point of their young lives. It allows us to see them as they would most want to be remembered.
It's such a charming display. The men wear ties and tailored jackets. The contestants are referred to as Mr. and Miss. Even the judges have a formality to them, displaying their scores at the sound of a whistle. It was a more gracious time.
In Pairs Skating, the silver medal was won by siblings Ila Ray Hadley and Ray Hadley, Jr. I love how they open to "I Could Have Danced all Night":
The Gold Medal in Pairs Skating went to Maribel Owen and Dudley Richards. Watch how relaxed and poised they look:
In Ice Dancing, the Silver Medal was won by Donna Lee Carrier and Roger Campbell. Watch their precise footwork and they skate to "Biding My Time" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off":
Diane Sherbloom of Los Angeles and Larry Pierce of Indianapolis only had five weeks to put their routine together. They're charming- watch them open with "Pennies from Heaven". Later in the program, they Cha-Cha to "Isle of Capri"- it's really lovely.
The Men's Single Gold Medal was won by twenty-one year old Bradley Lord. A handsome young man with a great deal of poise, this is a great performance:
And last but certainly not least, here is our Winchester Pixie, the captivating sixteen year old Laurence Owen, with her gold medal performance. She really is a pixie, isn't she?
Fifty years can be both a lifetime and a moment, and the passing of time does noting to diminish the tragedy of the loss. Rest well, young souls. We will always miss you and wonder what you could have achieved.
Read more about Sabena 548 here
And read more about the US Figure Skating Team here
(Originally published as Winchester Pixie in April, 2009)