Sunday, December 16, 2012

Disaster in Park Slope

Fifty-two years ago today, on December 16, 1960, the residents of the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn were in the middle of a brisk winter morning when a most unwelcome visitor descended among them- a brand new United Airlines DC-8 Mainliner. The big jet, only a year old, had collided with a TWA Super Constellation in mid flight and was plunging to a premature end in a busy New York neighborhood. It happened much too quickly for anyone to react. A few miles away in Staten Island, a TWA Constellation on final approach to La Guardia was making a similar plunge.

Sadly, it wasn't the first time that such a meeting had happened. Just four years prior, an eerily similar accidental collision between a United DC-7 Turboprop and another TWA Constellation sent them both plunging into the Grand Canyon, where the wreckage remained for years.

The "Star of Sicily" was a Lockheed Super Constellation, model L-1049. It had entered service in 1952 and was just over eight years old with 21,000 odd hours in flight. It carried registration number N6907C and had departed Columbus, OH at 9 AM bound for New York's La Guardia with 39 passengers and a crew of 5. The triple-tailed Turbo Propeller driven Super Constellation was the backbone of TWA, a design from the immediate postwar era which had been the staple of air travel in the fifties, but was just now being outpaced by the new jet airliners entering the market from Boeing and Douglas.

In contrast, the United Airlines Douglas DC-8-11 Jet was nearly brand new. N8013U was only the twenty-second DC-8 off the assembly line. It had been completed in 1959 but not delivered to United until after the DC-8 received its Airworthiness Certificate in August of that year. The plane had only 2,434 hours in the air at the time of loss. Its powerful Pratt and Whitney JT3-C engines allowed it a cruising speed that was nearly double that of the Connie. Ironically, this aircraft carried the name "Mainliner Will Rogers", after the beloved orator who, tragically, had been killed in an air crash hinself in 1936. N8013U had departed Chicago O'Hare Airport at 9:11 AM bound for New York Idlewild with 77 passengers and a crew of seven.

The flights appeared to proceed routinely for both aircraft, except for limited visibility due to clouds and some fog. The United Flight was under the control of New York Air Route Traffic Control Center, which had guided them to a holding pattern point known as Preston and governed their descent from 25,000 to 5,000 feet, at which point they would be advised to contact Idlewild Approach. Unknown to NYART was the fact that N8013U's VOR radio receiver was misbehaving, meaning that their ability to hold their precise assigned course was less than certain. In fact, they were eleven miles off course and instead of circling Preston, were headed directly for Miller Field on Staten Island. In addition, they were traveling at just over 300 knots, despite being assigned an airspeed of 250.

At the same time, TWA Constellation N6907C was under the control of La Guardia approach and was also heading in the direction of Miller Army Air Station, while preparing for an ILS approach at Runway 04. The flight was descending to 5,000 feet when it was advised of "traffic at 2.30, six miles northeast", which was the misplaced DC-8. No acknowledgment came back from the TWA crew.

At 10:33 AM, both aircraft were flying inside cloud cover when suddenly, at an altitude of approximately 5,200 feet, the DC-8's number four engine sliced through the upper fuselage of the Constellation. The Connie's fuselage broke into three pieces and the wreckage fell about one mile onto Miller Field. The DC-8, badly damaged, continued for approximately ten miles before plummeting into the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn with the huge tail section coming to rest at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place. Victims and airplane parts rained from the sky. A church, a laundry, a funeral home and several apartment buildings were destroyed or badly damaged. Several people on the ground were killed, including occupants of a car that was crushed by the DC-8. All in all, over 130 people lost their lives in what was, at the time, the worst air disaster in American air space.

For a moment, there was a bright spot as rescuers found a survivor- eleven year old Steven Baltz of suburban Chicago was badly burned but alive. To many it seemed miraculous, and the whole city of New York prayed for him, but his injuries were too great. His lungs were badly damaged by the fire and the child succumbed to pneumonia the following day.

The tragedy was heartbreaking. The very first crash of a passenger jet in American airspace was a thoroughly avoidable collision of two totally airworthy craft. Two neighborhoods in ruins, and the greatest death toll in American history, and all ten days before Christmas. The heartbroken city dug out from the rubble, buried its dead and carried on. The tragic 1956 Grand Canyon crash had led to the "black box" data recorders on commercial aircraft, and significantly, this incident marks one of the first times such data was utilized in investigating a mishap. And there was one more significant development from this tragedy-then newly elected President Kennedy created a task force for Air Traffic Control that created the basic system that we use today.

Two years ago this morning, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy, the Park Slope Neighborhood Council and Methodist Hospital held a memorial service at Greenwood Cemetery and unveiled a granite memorial to those lost. It is a tragic reality that the development of safe passenger air travel has a human cost. This was not a wartime accident, this was a civilian accident in peaceful airspace. The victims were ordinary citizens. The child who survived briefly could have been any eleven year old in the country. Just people in their daily routine of travel, and the time of year certainly compounds the tragedy and adds a poignance. May the victims never be forgotten.

New York Times Park Slope Series Here

A reminiscence from Steven Baltz' Younger Brother Here

Life Magazine Photos of the Crash Scenes Here

50's Travel Photographs taken by Dean Bowen, TWA Co-Pilot lost in the crash, Here

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