Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ones and Zeros

Well, we made it through another harrowing Christmas season without any terrorist incidents- no shoe bombs or exploding underwear threats. The TSA did their best Grinch imitation as usual and confiscated a particularly suspicious looking cupcake, but the public was not fooled. They are not accepting the notion that baked goods are a sufficient threat to an airliner. However forty years ago today, a brand new jumbo jet was lost over something which seemed equally innocous.

There wasn't a malicious cupcake bomb aboard Eastern Airlines Flight 401 as it flew toward Miami on the night of December 29, 1972. The airplane itself was a Lockheed L-1011, brand sparkling new. Here I digress and interject that I refer to the L-1011 as the binary airliner, not only because her name is made of ones and zeros, but also because they featured the most sophisticated flight controls in the air at that time. The plane was full of ones and zeros.

This particular airframe had been delivered to Eastern on July 30, 1972 and was not yet five months old. She carried serial number 1011 (a most interesting and binary coincidence) and was the tenth passenger airframe completed. All of the earliest L-1011's went to Eastern, she carried tail number N310EA (one-zero again) in sequence with her sister ships. She had completed just 501 landings prior to that morning, when she departed Tampa to New York's Kennedy airport as Flight 164 where she would then turn around and return to Florida that evening.

The flight was by all accounts comfortable, luxurious and uneventful. The big L-1011 departed JFK at 9:20 PM and headed south. Captain Robert Loft put the bird in the sky and then turned on the autopilot, whose ones and zeros controlled the plane for most of the trip. The big Rolls Royce engines purred along, so silently that Eastern referred to their L-1011's as "Whisperliners". At only two-thirds capacity, the passengers stretched out. The L-1011 has always been one of my personal favorites- the power of the Rolls-Royce engines, the spacious cabin whose very high ceilings and wide aisles provided a great environment for flying. The night was clear, the winds calm. The passengers were Holiday travelers, returning from Christmas and preparing for the New Year.

Upon approach to Miami, a minor problem occurred. The landing gear was lowered, but the green nose gear light did not illuminate. Probably the bulb, the flight crew decided, but not wanting to risk their brand new airplane, they abandoned their approach. First officer Bert Stockstill increased their altitude to 2000 feet and turned the Whisperliner west over the Everglades. Captain Loft instructed him to reengage the autopilot, so the ones and zeros flew the plane while the flight crew diagnosed the problem. Soon the pilot, first officer, flight engineer and an Eastern L-1011 maintenance specialist were engrossed in attempting to replace a failed light bulb. So engrossed that no one noticed that First Officer Stockstill had nudged the control column and unknowingly turned off the altitude hold. The flight crew realized their error seconds before the big L-1011 flew itself into the swamp.

Amazingly, of the 176 souls on board, seventy five lived. One hundred and one perished, including the three man flight crew who became so obsessed with a failed light bulb that they somehow forgot to fly the plane. Survivors and victims seemed almost randomly disbursed, as if a computer were randomly assigning ones and zeros. In the end, there were seventy five ones, and one hundred and one zeros. One brand new fifteen million dollar aircraft, absolutely airworthy in every way except for a failed light bulb was destroyed. In the Florida swamp, investigators found the nose landing gear. It was down and locked.

To mark each anniversary, survivors gather to remember the experience, give thanks to the rescuers and honor the victims. They will reflect on how their lives were affected by the massive convergence of ones and zeros. Among those attending will be Flight Attendant Mercedes Ruiz, who wrote the poem below in February 1972 when the accident was still fresh in her memory:

Because I've been granted the gift of life
I want to live each moment to the fullest
I want to submerge my being much more than before
Into the wonders of nature and love.
I want to reach and feel,
because feeling in itself is a way of loving.
I want to tremble at the wildness of the storm,
and bathe myself with rain.
I want to touch the clouds
and hold the blue within one word.
I want to cry before the ocean waves
because they rush to me and kiss me
and then they leave.
I want the wonder of the starry night above,
the moon, a sigh, and each of all my silences.

The ones and zeros can change the course of our lives in an instant. Let us remember all of the souls flying back to Miami on that clear December night- those that returned safely to earth, and those for whom fate had other plans.

For those who desire to read more, here are two excellent sites:

Eastern 401 Homepage
Remembering Eastern 401

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Patriot Act

I can't watch "I Love Lucy" anymore. It reminds me too much of her. The same strong will, the sheer determination. Nothing stood between Lucy and her crazy scheme. They were so much alike.

Like the time with the cookies. It was Christmastime 1990 and thanks to a Bush in the White House, we were building up to a war- Desert Shield, it was called at that time. Mom was seeing TV reports of all the troops away from home for the holiday and she wanted to do something nice for them. Somewhere she stumbled across a cookie recipe that was approved by the Marine Corps. It contained no processed sugar, instead it used fruit juice for sweetener. She baked a trial batch and declared it "not bad". She decided that instead of holiday cookies for the family, she would forego that this year and bake cookies for the troops instead.

I admit I encouraged her, I thought it was a cute little project that would give her something fun to do. I guessed she would make ten dozen, maybe twenty at the outset. It would give her something to talk about to the card club.

It seemed like The cookies were taking a long time to bake. Every time we talked she was mixing dough, or had a batch in the oven. And I knew that Patsy always thought big, I began to wonder exactly how many cookies she planned to bake. But it was her gig, and I didn't interfere.

Finally the cookies were ready to ship. At that point I asked her point blank how many she had made. "Eleven Hundred" she said somewhat sheepishly. ""Eleven Hundred Cookies?" I asked. ""No," she replied tentatively- "Eleven Hundred Dozen."

Eleven Hundred Dozen. Eleven Hundred DOZEN. She baked Thirteen Thousand Two Hundred cookies to send to the desert to feed to young men and women that she would never meet. She spent more than a month on the project. The Marines had to send four trucks to pick them all up. She received a Commendation from the Marine Corps Commander.

I told this story at the time to a client who chuckled and said, "Your Mother is quite a patriot". Yes, she was. And she was quite a Mom.

Originally published in Feb. 2008. Merry Christmas, Patsy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Eagle has Landed

For John, on the fourth anniversary of his untimely passing. Rest well.

That was John's code. It meant that he had gotten some last night. I would see this message scrawled on a business card left in my cubicle.

It was 1985, and I was working for a major corporation in Michigan. John was my most intense post college friendship,we were like frat brothers who hadn't met until after graduation. He was my IT support person, and the term "Metrosexual" was probably coined to describe him. Our first post-work adventure was shopping at J.L Hudson. I should have had an inkling.

We became close friends, traveling companions, drinking pals and bong buddies. Living in a rust belt town with very limited sophistication, we learned to travel. We traveled for shopping, for movies, for concerts, for adventures. I saw Betty Blue, the Psychadelic Furs, Sid and Nancy, The Pretenders, and Blue Velvet because of him. He had friends in Chicago. I wanted to see the Prairie Home Companion in Minneapolis. He wanted to experience Boxing Day in Toronto. By now we were also workout buddies, and we had both noticed a certain spark in the shower, although we both double dated with women. By now I had noted that my future was elsewhere, but I was yet to act on it.

It was on a weekend trip to Dad's cabin in a Michigan winter that we managed to land the Eagle ourselves. The cabin had a gas powered sauna, which once warmed up, allowed our relationship to find a new level. He admitted that he was bisexual in words moments before he demonstrated it in gesture. At some point his wrist somehow made contact with the heating element, causing a burn which he wore as his mark of retribution for weeks to come. It was one of many inside jokes we would have. And it was the first that I began to notice a pattern of him disappearing for a while after the Eagle landed. But he always came back around, and the situation repeated itself.

I guess it peaked on our trip to Europe. We had both scheduled vacation for the same week. The entire office knew where I was going, and John created a cover story of a camping trip. Only our General Manager's secretary knew the real story, and we sent her a post card from Paris. Paris was wonderful. Our first night there we shared the company of a girl named Gina, on subsquent evenings we somehow got by without her. We discovered early on that wine was cheaper than Coca Cola, so we drank heavily and fucked like dogs. His regret spirals were conveniently short in duration by then, and pretty much gone by nightfall. And while I never thought of him as gay, it became clear that he was enjoying himself. Perhaps this was his week to just let his guard down and live. I must admit he did it well.

Things cooled after that trip, as I had suspected they would. I was now ready to be out, and steered accordingly. I believed he was bi, so his needs were much more supplemental in nature. We spent less time together, although we remained friends. I transferred to Chicago, he took a job in Denver. We saw each other a few times after that. He came up one weekend to Chicago, I spent thanksgiving one year with his new girlfriend and himself. We spoke of the past landings of the Eagle in code.

I guess the letters stopped shortly after I moved to California. I saw him on a flight to Atlanta in the summer of '97, he wore a wedding band and a few extra pounds. We exchanged pleasantries but neither seemed compelled to stay in touch. Our paths were divergent by then.

It was on a whim that I typed his name into google and found a memorial site in his honor. Cancer, at age forty-eight, leaving a wife and two surviving children. Damn. Very sad.

I recall one conversation over Guinness Stout where he asked, "Where are the friends that we are going to know for the rest of our lives?" I wish I had been that friend for him. I'm certainly grateful for the adventures we had.

For John, in remembrance of Paris all those years ago, Edith Piaf from the year of his birth and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.

Rest well, my friend. No regrets.

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