The Story of Flight 853
Setting the Stage
Flight 853 from Boston
A Miracle of Misunderstanding
Setting the Stage for September 9, 1969
What was going on in the world?
Judy Garland had died on June 22.
The Jets, led by Joe Namath, had upset the favored Baltimore Colts, 16-13, in Super Bowl III on January 16.
On Broadway, Andrew Lloyd Webber had another hit: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Woodstock had been less than a month ago.
Bud Collyer, the emcee of "Beat the Clock" and "To Tell The Truth", had died the previous night.
The Godfather and Slaughterhouse Five had just been published.
The Beatles had recently released Abbey Road.
Ringo Starr was in the hospital with a serious intestinal problem.
Well-respected Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen (R-IL) had died on 7 September.
Rocky Marciano, the great boxing hero, had been killed in a plane crash on 31 August, just 9 days prior to the crash.
The New York Mets, traditional cellar-dwellers of baseball, had beaten the Reds on 8 September, moving up to within 1½ games of first place in the standings. The day after the crash, they would sweep a doubleheader from the Expos to capture first place on their way to becoming World Series champions.
On 21 July, 51 days before the crash, Apollo 11 had landed on the moon, fulfilling President Kennedy's promise to the world, and filling every American with a huge sense of pride.
On August 17, only 23 days before the crash, the United States was subjected to one of the most catastrophic meteorological events ever witnessed. Hurricane Camille pounded the Gulf Coast with sustained winds of 190mph, gusts to well over 200mph, and a storm surge of over 22 feet. Hundreds of people and thousands of animals were killed, and whole communities in Mississippi were simply erased from the map. The storm continued up into the mainland, and massive flooding in Virginia claimed many more lives.
The Who had released their smash album, Tommy, and had recently performed most of it at Woodstock (though the movie would not follow until 1975).
In the predawn hours of 19 July, Mary Jo Kopechne had been killed at Chappaquiddick by Senator Ted Kennedy. He was charged only with leaving the scene of an accident.
On Saturday morning TV, shows making their debut were Penelope Pitstop, The Pink Panther, and Scooby Doo.
In Southeast Asia, President Johnson's legacy continued to haunt Americans, as more men died every day in the pursuit of whatever goals the bureaucrats decided to come up with each week
Ho Chi Minh had died only the previous Wednesday, on September 3.
Just before Woodstock, over the weekend of August 8-10, the Charles Manson murders took place in Los Angeles.
Songs that were popular at the time:
The Billboard Magazine #1 song was "Honkey Tonk Women" by the Rolling Stones. It had taken over the top spot two weeks earlier from "2525", and would hold onto #1 until late in the month (when "Sugar, Sugar" took the honors).
Marmalade - Obladi Oblada
Dusty Springfield - Son Of A Preacher Man
Stevie Wonder - For Once In My Life; My Cherie Amour; Yester-Me Yester-You Yesterday
Martha and The Vandellas - Dancing In The Street
Nina Simone - To Love Somebody
The Supremes and The Temptations - I'm Gonna Make You Love Me
Glenn Campbell - Witchita Lineman
The Tymes - People
Marvin Gaye - I Heard It Through The Grapevine
Dean Martin - Gentle On My Mind
The Hollies - He Aint Heavy He's My Brother
Joe South - Games People Play
Desmond Dekker - The Israelites
The Beatles - Get Back; The Ballad Of John and Yoko; Something
The Temptations - Get Ready
Fleetwood Mac - Man Of The World; Oh Well
Frank Sinatra - My Way
Simon and Garfunkel - The Boxer
Tommy Roe - Dizzy
Fifth Dimension - Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In
Jackie Wilson - Higher and Higher
Smokey Robinson and The Miracles - Tracks Of My Tears
Jethro Tull - Living In the Past
Elvis Presley - Living In The Ghetto; Suspicious Minds
Creedence Clearwater Revival - Proud Mary; Bad Moon Rising
The Rolling Stones - Honky Tonk Woman
Zager and Evans - In The Year 2525
Bobbie Gentry - I'll Never Fall In Love Again
Bob Dylan - Lay Lady Lay
The Archies - Sugar Sugar
Johnny Cash - A Boy Named Sue
Kenny Rogers - Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town
Crimson and Clover
Crystal Blue Persuasion
Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye
Take a Letter Maria
Build Me Up Buttercup
Time of the Season
Good Morning Starshine
Other "Highlights" from 1969:
Paul McCartney marries Linda Eastman
John Lennon marries Yoko Ono
Jim Morrison arrested in Miami for exposing himself during a Doors concert.
Disaster at Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. Hell's Angels run riot and kill a member of the audience.
Beatles make their last appearence together on the roof of Apple building.
'Paul is dead' rumours are rife . Many clues in pictures and lyrics are said to support claim.
John Lennon refused visa to USA on grounds of a previous drug conviction.
At the moment of the crash, the TV networks were at their 3:30pm break between programs. This is what was on:
One Life to Live
You Don't Say
The Edge of Night
Tuesday, September 9, 1969 dawned bright and clear at 6:19am. There had been no clouds in the sky all night, and it was looking like it would be a beautiful day. There had only been a couple of days recently that had been good for flying (the day before had been perfect!), and Bob Carey wanted to get his last few requirements in before he took his private pilot checkride the next week. The forecast was for some clouds to move in later today, but they'd be high enough that a flight in a small plane, especially a required cross-country such as this, wasn't going to be thwarted!
There were no clouds as Bob went to work at 0800 that morning, and the visiblility was >15 mi (it stayed that way all day). A light breeze was blowing from the northwest, as it would all day, and his plans for the day were set: finish up the job this morning, lunch at home, then on to the airport for the flight! Bob saw the relative humidity, which had been hovering around 95% all night, start to drop as he went to work. It would be a cool morning, with temperatures in the low 50s, and, as they began to climb into the 60s, by 0900 there was some low-level cumulus beginning to form. The cloud cover was 3/10s of the sky at 1400' by 1000, which wasn't too bad, but it didn't move throughout the morning. In fact, by 1200, the scattered stuff at 6000' had become broken at 2700', with that scud still down there at 1400'. Maybe this wasn't going to be the day for a flight after all.
The low-level stuff went away while Bob was eating lunch, though, and by 1300, a measured ceiling of 2900' broken (3700' MSL), with 8/10s cover, was all that was left. That was enough to be legal, because with the terrain elevation at 650' to 800' along the intended route of flight, Bob could guide his Cherokee 140 along at about 2500' MSL, have great cloud clearance, and still enough altitude that he felt the flight could be conducted safely. The forecast was for the weather situation not to deteriorate, and he needed to get this flight in. He'd planned for it, he wanted to get his checkride in as scheduled, and it was weather an advanced student like him could handle.
At 1500, the sky conditions were measured 3500' broken (4300' MSL), 5000' overcast, and forecast to stay that way, so Bob got the Cherokee fired up and ready. He was wheels up at about 1511. (The ceiling at Bakalar AFB in Columbus at that time was estimated 2900' broken, or 3550' MSL. Still OK, but cutting it a little closer.)
NOTE: As a result of further research, I've learned that Mr. Carey's original intentions that day were to go to Purdue University airport in Lafayette, IN, then on to Kokomo, with a return to Brookside. This route lay to the northwest, and had even worse weather forecast. The decision to go to Columbus was a very last-minute thing, but was prudent given the weather conditions. During the subsequent investigation, it was implied very heavily that Bob should not have made the flight that day at all, due to the weather. This biased second-guessing is open to heavy interpretation, though, which will not be gone into here. See my section on the Trial below for further details.
Boston - Baltimore - Cincinnati - Indy - St. Louis
Scheduled departure of Flight 853 from Boston was 1200. The crew reported at 1100. The flight was due to go first to Baltimore, then to Cincinnati, on to Indianapolis, and finally, to St. Louis. In Cincinnati, 64 people were waiting on TWA flight 69 from New York. It was due into CVG at 1445, but wasn't going to be on schedule. TWA offered its passengers the option of transferring to Allegheny 853, and 38 people took the offer. Therefore, with the delay while these passengers transferred, 853 was supposed to leave at 1457, but didn't leave until 1516. Flight 853 was scheduled to arrive in Indy at 1536. 26 passengers chose to stay behind and wait for TWA 69, which came in at 1545, half an hour after the Allegheny flight departed.
The flight plan of the jet was to fly V97 at 390kt to the Shelbyville (IN) VOR at 10000'. (The airway V97 is defined between the Cincinnati and Shelbyville VORs, and is still in use today. It departs Cincinnati on a 306° heading, and arrives at SHB on a 304° heading. The distance between the two VORs is 64 nm.)
Carey flew most of the summer of 1969 at Brookside Airpark, under instructor Robert Kiesel. See his sample flight plan here. Carey had flown extensively with Mr. Kiesel (who, as it turned out, was also a plumber!), and solo in the weeks before the accident. On September 9, however, Mr. Kiesel was not at the airport, and it was chief flight instructor Robert Rice who signed Bob off for his final flight. See the Trial section below for more detail.
Go here to see pictures of the two involved aircraft
Allegheny Airlines DC-9-31, reg. # N988VJ, put
into service 8/7/68, 3170 Total Time at time
of the accident.
Piper Cherokee PA-28-140, reg. # N7374J, put into service 7/26/68, 803 Total Time at last 100hr (8/29/69)
This aircraft, serial # 28-24730, was certified on 8/7/68.and purchased by the Forth Corp. on 8/13/68, for $12,527.20. The flight school had made 12 payments of $208.78 prior to the accident.
Bob Carey loved to fly. His brother Kenneth had welcomed him to Indianapolis in August of the previous year, when the entire Carey family had moved there from Manchester, NH. Carey had begun flying a J-3 Cub in New Hampshire, accumulating 15 hours or so (enough to have been able to solo), and, after settling into Indianapolis and finding employment in his field (plumbing) had once again resumed his training on March 6, 1969. He had flown 39 hours in the PA-28, had passed his FAA written examination, and was in the home stretch toward obtaining his private license. (Go here to view his flying history at Brookside.) His medical certificate, dated March 13, 1969, showed him to be a wearer of corrective lenses for vision.
Mr. Carey was a Korean War Veteran, and had served in the US Air Force from 1953-1956, attaining the rank of Airman 2nd class (he served as an aircraft mechanic, not as a pilot). He had always had a love of flying, and his wife and family were very supportive. He had, in fact, taken some of his children flying with him, and had taken a second job to ensure that his family was well-provided for. Lorraine Carey stated that "the only thing he loved more than flying was his family".
Carey was described by his instructor, Robert Kiesel, as "a very personable individual, and I mean by this a very happy personality, a big man. He had a ruddy complexion, it seems to me, and he seemed quite enthusiastic from the very first day I met him." He went on to describe his attitude toward flight training: "I wish all students that I have ever had or ever hope to have would be as enthusiastic."
Carey had spent the previous day working. That evening at home, he had read, ate, and retired at about 9:30. He had worked the morning of September 9 from 0800 until 1200 (he worked for William Steck Plumbing and Heating, at 54th & College in Indianapolis), had eaten lunch at home and then gone to the airport in his 1967 Ford Country Squire for the flight he'd planned. He had a dentist appointment scheduled for later that afternoon.
Labor Day in 1969 had been on the first of the month, so the school year had already started for the kids. He would have eaten lunch with his wife and two youngest children, and then, as was his custom, Bob would have kissed his wife and told her that he loved her before leaving.
Mr. Carey had no health problems other than his wearing glasses, and the slipped disc he had suffered in January of 1967.
The Carey's children were: Michael, 11; Thomas, 9; Darlene, 8;
Kathleen, 6; Charlene, 4; Lisa, 8 months. Michael
was in junior high, and the rest (except Charlene and Lisa) were
in Elementary School.
James Elrod was an experienced pilot, and one of the best. He had become a commercial pilot in 1945, and had served with Allegheny Airlines for 19 years. His ATP certificate was loaded with type ratings, for the DC-3, DC-9, and Convair 240/340/440. His first-class medical had been re-issued only 36 days prior to the crash, with the only stipulation being that he wear glasses for his nearsightedness while flying. He had 900 hours in the DC-9, a staggering 23,813 hours total time, and an outstanding reputation of respect from his peers and supervisors.
William Heckendorn, the first officer, was 26 years old. He had been enamored by flying from a very young age, and had taken it up immediately after leaving the U.S. Army. He had progressed rapidly, and had been hired by Allegheny Airlines after only a few years flying a corporate twin. His credentials were impeccable, his certifications completely up to date, and he was rapidly working his way toward becoming a full Captain. His 2,980 hours are small in comparison to that of Capt. Elrod, but nevertheless show tremendous piloting experience, and are absolutely in line with what one would expect for a professional pilot of his standing. His 651 hours in DC-9s further prove that an extremely well-qualified pilot in type was in the right seat. He had been home in Newville, PA, the day before his final flight. His father gave me remembrances of Bill leaving the house in the afternoon to go to the airport, and how one of his little 2-year-old family members had been especially adamant that day that Bill not leave.
This crew had spent the previous evening in Boston, having arrived there at 2219. As they were not scheduled to report for duty until 1100 the next day, they had had plenty of opportunity to get the required rest they would need for Tuesday's schedule.
In Cincinnati, many people were waiting to board TWA flight 69 to St. Louis, and then on to Los Angeles. As it was not known how long this flight would be delayed, passengers were given the option to board Allegheny 853 if they desired. 38 passengers accepted this offer, and flight 853 was held 15 minutes for these passengers to transfer. 26 others decided to wait for their TWA flight, which arrived only an hour behind schedule. How many "what if"s are there in this scenario? If the flight hadn't been delayed, if the offer to switch hadn't been made, if they hadn't held 853 because of that offer,....
That having been said, though, I have been contacted by one of the gate agents who was in Cincinnati for flight 853, who took the tickets from each of the doomed passengers, and who himself had originally made the decision to hold the plane. Thirty years later, he is still struggling with that decision. Though the airline offered none of its employees any of the counseling sessions so commonplace today, the decision to hold the plane was the right one. Without the hub-and-spoke feeder systems used by airlines today, it was imperative that as many seats as possible be full when each flight took off. On-time standards were not so tight as today, and so it was very common for gate agents to hold flights for passengers, even for passengers connecting from other airlines. From personal experience, I can tell you that doesn't happen today. But still, by all rights, holding the flight was the correct thing to do.
Merrill McCammack was working quite a bit of sky. The task of handling arrivals from the east and west were usually split between two controllers, but on this day, he was responsible for both areas of sky. This didn't present much of a problem for a veteran controller, and was completely within legal guidelines for Air Traffic Control workload, and it wasn't a busy enough day that these thoughts would even have entered anyone's mind. McCammack was just doing his job.
The equipment in use at Weir Cook Airport in Indianapolis at that time was not much different than that used today, except for the fact that the radar wasn't selective enough in what it displayed to the controller. Ground clutter was picked up so frequently and to such a distracting extent, that it was very customary for the radar's sensitivity to be set on "low" power. This had been done on September 9, 1969. (The power setting turned out not to be a factor, however, as subsequent test flight showed the radar to be unreliable for picking up the small plane from that distance, even at a high power setting.)
The Cherokee had filed a VFR flight plan, and so, controllers knew it would be in the sky after 3:00. Being VFR, though, that flight would not be required to talk to anyone at Indianapolis' control tower, it was not required to have a transponder, and its position would not be tracked as diligently (if at all) as would a large jet on an IFR flight plan. Mr. Carey did not request "flight following" from ATC (though he did activate his flight plan), so there was no way ATC would see him except on their inadequate radar.
In fact, controller McCammack had Allegheny flight 853 on his radar scope, and was tracking its progress as he did every day at this time. In preparation for a visual approach to runway 31 left (which means the plane will be landing toward the northwest), with the plane to the southeast of Indianapolis, he cleared the flight down to 2500' and gave it a westerly heading in order to bring it directly to the southeast of the runway. (Pilots would call this "entering a 45° right base for 31L".)
The crew of 853 acknowledged this clearance, and the plane descended. Breaking out of the clouds somewhere around 3000', Captain Elrod would have had his attention totally fixed on the instruments, while co-pilot Heckendorn was monitoring the radio, ensuring the plane was complying with clearances, and beginning the final pre-landing checks.
Unseen on the radar scope was Bob Carey's Cherokee, flying south at 2500'. Post-crash tests determined that, even had the radar's sensitivity been turned to its highest level, the small plane would not have shown up. Because of the distance between the Cherokee and the tower, the radar in use at that time (the technology existed for more powerful radar, and the controllers had requested it, but Weir Cook was not using it), and the fact that the Cherokee was not position reporting (due to the flight being of such short duration), McCammack had no way of knowing what was about to happen.
He heard the crew's acknowledgement of the clearance, then turned his attention to another screen to handle an arrival from the west (Allegheny 820) and to look at the clock to write the hand-off time on 853's flight strip. (His notation was "29", meaning the time was 3:29pm.) Tapes showed him off the east screen for no more than ten seconds, but it was enough. When he looked back to 853, there was no return on the screen. The plane was gone. Even if he had seen it disappear, though, he would have had no way of knowing what had happened to it.
The two aircraft converged at an alarming rate, each completely
oblivious to the other's presence. The angle
of the flight paths, and the determination of the Cherokee's
pre-impact speed and heading (from the NTSB's examination
of body damage) allows us to calculate that the two aircraft were
converging at a relative speed of approximately
350 mph! (Diagram here.)
Only in the last second or so would the "blossom" effect
have allowed each crew to see the other, and by then it was
definitely too late. Witnesses reported that no pre-impact
diversions were attempted by either ship, and this observation was
backed up by the FDR on the DC-9. Though any
evasive control inputs made by the pilot would have taken some
time to manifest themselves visually, the accelerometers
aboard the plane would have recorded some tenths of a G change,
had those inputs occurred.
There is some evidence that Capt. Elrod did see the Piper, because the CVR records him saying "I'm going down" as the impact is happening. He begins the statement 0.7 sec before impact, then the impact occurs, then he finishes the statement within another half-second. The reasons for his taking so long to utter such a simple phrase may well be his mental preoccupation with the immediate task of seeing the other plane, recognizing that it indeed was another plane, and beginning to apply an evasive control input. His brain was most likely too occupied at that point to worry about finishing a sentence quickly, especially one that was most likely uttered half to himself, just to confirm what he was already in the process of doing! (Remember, Mr. Heckendorn had just given an altitude to him, and off-hand comments like "I'm going down" are often thrown out between crew members, as in, "Yes, we are in fact descending", kind of a thinking-out-loud between the crew.)
Mr. Carey, in the Piper, most likely never knew what hit him. He was probably performing that all-too-necessary task of advanced student pilots on cross-country flights: verifying his position. He was absolutely right on course, and certainly would've intended to stay that way. Small planes, when set up properly, do fly themselves straight and level quite well, and pilots often take a few seconds away from the window to look at a map, make a time notation, recheck fuel calculations, switch fuel tanks, or just re-tune the radio to the next point of contact. That these actions can take ten seconds or more is not evidence of unsafe flying skills, it's just the way flying is. Let's face it, mid-air collisions are rare, and if tunnel-vision-style devotion to collision-avoidance scanning were performed constantly by all pilots, not only would no one ever want to fly again, but flying would not be as safe as it is! People would get lost, and seriously overstressed pilots would tend to become even more lax in their collision-avoidance duties.
In the final one or two tenths of a second, Mr. Carey would have seen the large plane pass right in front of him. Because of the relative motion of the two craft, his plane would have been in one instant pointed right toward the cockpit of the DC-9, about 50 feet away. Then, in the next instant, it passed directly over the large right wing (30 feet), then above the engines (10 feet), and then…. When this sight hit his eyes, though, his brain would not have had time to react by sending a message to his arms to yank on the control wheel. He would not have had time to say anything, or do anything, or probably even think anything. If he had been looking down at a chart, he would've merely looked up from it -- into blackness. More likely, the blackness came as his head was turned away. Was his the easiest death, or the worst? He died instantly, without even being able to have the comfort of a last thought for the wife and children he loved so much.
Surely, though, there had to have been a passenger on the starbord side of the DC-9 who was looking out their window at just the right instant. They would have seen the Piper down and to their left, not moving in the window, but growing slightly larger. Then, in those last tenths of a second, the blossom of the small plane would have coincided with the beginning of its rapid relative motion upward and toward the right side of their window, and they would have vaguely recognized it, but only as something that was definitely not supposed to be there. Then, the impact. While everyone else on board was wondering what in the world that jolt could have been, and why they were turning left, and then, why they were going inverted, and then, why the pilot wasn't doing anything about it, well, our unlucky passenger would have been the only one, as the realization dawned of just exactly what that thing out there had been, who understood it all.
The two aircraft slammed into each other at a relative speed of 350mph. The initial point of impact, as determined by the NTSB, was at the top front right section of the DC-9's vertical stabilizer, just underneath the horizontal stabilizer. There had to have been some relative motion in the vertical plane, because the airliner was descending, but the NTSB investigation did not reveal enough to report this. On the Piper, the impact point was on the front left side of the plane, just forward of the left wing root. This is just inches in front and to the left of where the pilot sits.
The little plane was cut in half by the collision, the vertical stabilizer of the DC-9 slicing it cleanly in two at a 45° angle right across the cockpit. From cuts and scratch marks on both planes, the NTSB was able to determine that the engine, propeller, engine compartment, and right wing of the Piper continued on past the vertical stabilizer, the path of that assembly having been "wrapped around" it just slightly, and shot across the underside of the left half of the DC-9's horizontal stabilizer. The propeller still spun a couple of times, as evidenced by several cut marks in the stabilizer's underside skin. The rest of the small plane, including the left wing, fuselage, and about ¾ of the cockpit (including the body of the pilot, who had been instantly killed), scraped along the underside of the right half of the horizontal stabilizer.
The combined force of this huge impact completely sheared off the entire tail assembly of the DC-9. Though the fuselage's integrity was most likely compromised (witnesses reported seeing objects they thought were passengers falling from the plane), no one on the airliner was ejected. Whether anyone was killed in the impact, by the huge forces snapping their heads to the side, will never be known. That is unlikely, though, because the pilots, being as far away from the plane's CG as the impact point was, would have felt a similar instantaneous snapping torque in the opposite direction, and we know from the CVR that they were conscious following the impact.
The remains of the small plane fell to the ground, along with the
tail of the DC-9. When the Cherokee was beheaded,
all of its aerodynamics were severely compromised. What the huge
tail had begun, air resistance finished, and the
forward momentum that the plane had had was gone. Investigators
are fairly certain that the spot where the fuselage
of the 140 landed was almost directly beneath the point of impact.
The right wing and engine of the Piper, some of its momentum still intact, fell to the ground a couple of hundred feet to the south. The tail of the DC-9, likewise, fell somewhat closer to the west. Though the fuselage carrying Mr. Carey fell more rapidly, witnesses described the other pieces of both planes as "fluttering" to earth, taking seemingly quite a while to fall.
Mr. Carey's body, still strapped into his seat, was the only body that was found intact. No autopsy was performed, because it was obvious what had killed him. His body had sustained tens of thousands of Gs, and though applied only over a very short time, these forces were enough to provide fatal trauma to most of his internal organs and fracture his neck.
What happened to the DC-9 is somewhat a matter of academic conjecture. The NTSB, as well as the coroner who was on the scene, both state assuredly that the plane must have crashed inverted. Witnesses to the crash itself vary in their descriptions; some say the plane "nosed over" and went into the ground, some say the plane "spun in", and there was one description of a "barrel roll". The NTSB is at odds with witnesses on other points, though (most notably the time of the event), and they are the ones who reconstructed the fuselage. To attempt to affirm any observation through a study of the aerodynamics involved would be pointless, because tests of this sort have never been performed. A likely scenario, but one which must remain conjecture, follows:
The Piper hit the jet both behind and above the large plane's center of gravity, underneath its horizontal stabilizer, after having passed directly over its right wing. That passage over the wing would not have imparted any aerodynamic influence on the flight path of the airliner, because of the relative sizes of the planes and the short amount of time such influence would have had between its inception and the planes' subsequent impact. The impact itself was enough to impart a torque on the jet in all three of its axes, and cause it to begin a movement consisting of downward pitch, right yaw and left roll. The impact would also have slowed the large plane some small amount. Here is a summary of the CVR from the DC-9:
1) 1529:13 [FO] "Out of thirty-five for twenty-five"
2) 1529:14.3 [P] "I'm going down" (completed at 1529:15.9)
3) 1529:15 Sound of objects striking metal
4) 1529:16 Landing Gear warning horn
5) 1529:17 Stall vibration
6) 1529:18 Landing Gear warning horn stops. Noise level low.
7) (no time report) Items impacting the cockpit ceiling. [Unidentified] "…tail must be…"
8) (no time report) Noise level begins to increase. [FO] "What'd ya hit up there?"
9) 1529:27.1 Huge increase in noise level as the recording stops.
This sequence can be interpreted as follows:
1) The First Officer acknowledges ATC's direction to descend to 2500'. He would most likely have been looking at the altimeter to make this verification, and in any case, Allegheny procedures required him to stay on the altimeter for call-outs to avoid busting the clearance (descending below 2500').
2) Either the pilot saw the Cherokee, and began this statement prior to impact, or it was just a simple statement that, yes, in fact, we are definitely descending. If he saw the other plane with seven-tenths of a second to go, though, why wasn't some evasive force registered on the accelerometers? Would he have made such a banal, off-hand comment as an acknowledgment of a descent that was already in progress? Or, consider this scenario: The plane was in a steady descent, and so the plane was experiencing slightly less than 1G. Could the pilot have seen the small plane, reacted by beginning a pull-up, and just as the planes hit and the accelerometer trace ended (showing 1.0G as its last reading), the acceleration had increased to the 1G that registered? We would have to know the readings during descent to be able to calculate the likelihood of this happening, but it is possible.
4) The jet must have slowed down slightly. The landing gear warning horn is activated when the airspeed drops below a certain threshold, when the landing gear aren't extended. This is to remind the pilot to put the gear down, if by some unbelievably small chance he's overlooked it.
5) The speed has decreased to where the stall buffet actually starts, though stall characteristics of aircraft in this unusual (sans tail) predicament aren't too well documented. Keep in mind the plane is banked and level at this point, which would in itself cause the stall speed to rise.
6) The plane has banked; with no downforce from the tail, and no rudder to check the yaw, it proceeds into a nose-low attitude. The airspeed begins increasing, and so the horn cuts off.
7) The airplane has gone inverted, and is beginning to increase its nose-low attitude. Objects hit the ceiling, and the plane dives for the ground. The lack of a tail makes the situation worse (when inverted, a plane naturally wants to nose down, even with a tail), and the pilot, who has neither yaw nor pitch control, realizes something is wrong with the tail.
8) The plane is in a shallow dive. (From the cockpit, though, it must look as if it's headed straight in -- with nothing they can do to stop their impending death, this is about as helpless as I believe it's possible for a human to ever feel. It's one of the reasons that the most common last words heard on fatal CVRs are not screams, but merely a completely ho-hum, totally resigned, this-is-how-it-all-ends, "Oh, Shit.") The noise level is the ram air driving the engines past their normal speed, and the copilot throws out this question as if an answer would be the solution to their problems.
9) The CVR records the massive impact with the ground, but only for the mere hundredths of a second that elapse between the jet's first impact -- and silence.
It's been right at 12 seconds since the impact with the small plane, and the jet's speed is at least 400 mph. The dive is not so steep as to cause the impact crater to be small and deep, though. The plane hits at an angle, inverted and just about exactly wings-level. The aircraft, along with everything and everyone in it, is completely destroyed, shattering into thousands of pieces by the enormous, explosive impact. All the passengers are killed instantly by forces amounting to tens of thousands of Gs, and pieces of everything and everyone are found scattered everywhere, for a distance of over a half mile. The NTSB report dryly understates, "[The plane] was relatively intact except for the parts which separated in the collision." There is no fire, since kerosene does not burn easily, and because the force of the impact spreads the fuel out so thin that combustion cannot occur.
The plane has crashed into a soybean field, about a hundred yards north of a mobile home park. Residents of Shady Acres, some of whom actually saw and heard the impact, scramble toward the spot in total bewilderment. Those who had seen the plane coming had dived for shelter wherever they could find it, and now, as they look at what remains of the plane, they realize there is nothing they can do. Those who saw the crash are sure they saw the doomed plane actually turn slightly to avoid the trailers, as though the pilot had been doing what he was trained to do -- "fly it until the last piece stops moving".
There were some eyewitnesses who actually had observed the two aircraft for several seconds before the impact, one of them even shouting to her husband that "I think they're going to hit!" Quite a few people in the trailer park witnessed what must surely be one of the most spectacular and horrible things a person can imagine: a huge jetliner - normally so stately and serene while majestically soaring through the air or proudly standing on the tarmac - plunging like a wounded bird to a violent, deafening, earth-shattering death. We have become so accustomed to spectacular special effects in movies and on television, that such a sight might be expected not to elicit the awe and horror it deserves. We can only wish that the crash had been as unreal as images on Hollywood film, and that the aftermath of the tragedy had been only a bad dream. One resident of the trailer court said, "The pilot must have seen the open area and did all he could to keep the plane out of the trailer court. The pilot must have known he was going to die, but he didn't want to kill a lot of innocent people. It was only by the grace of God that he didn't ."
A school bus had just stopped to let off some children at the park, and the crash scattered debris and bodies all around it. The driver of the bus was heard to tell a reporter that he had to move several body parts away from the bus, so that the kids would have a clear path to get off. As improbable as the accident had been, as unlikely as it was that two aircraft could try to occupy the same spot in the sky at exactly the same fraction of a second, it was even more amazing that Captain Elrod, knowing he was going to die, with his ship crippled as it was, somehow managed to make sure that his last act as a pilot was to keep his terrible fate away from those residents -- and those children.
A Miracle of Misunderstanding
There was one family who was spared the full brunt of the tragedy. Mr. And Mrs. Darrell Hardesty of Linton, IN, had been ticketed aboard the ill-fated jet. They had been visiting their daughter in Fayetteville, NC, and were to return on Allegheny through Cincinnati on September 9. The couple were making their way to the airport that morning to catch their 8:00am flight in Fayetteville, only to see their plane taking off as they arrived at the airport. Apparently, some confusion over Daylight Savings Time had caused them to believe they still had an hour left before the flight would depart. Consequently, they missed their connection to Flight 853, and did not arrive in Indianapolis until 2:00am the next morning. As airline officials had not informed them of the crash of their scheduled flight, they did not know that relatives back home would be concerned about their welfare. Mrs. Hardesty's sister and brother-in-law, of Carmel, IN, had indeed been waiting for flight 853 at Weir Cook airport that afternoon, and therefore went home that afternoon believing the worst about their relatives. The confusion was cleared up only after Mrs. Hardesty called another sister in Linton the next morning to inform her of their late return. Imagine the surprise they both must have experienced during the first few exchanges of that conversation!
The following sections are still
I haven't been able to get along toward finishing these, and I'm
very sorry not to have been able to spend any
more time on them. I will get to it someday, I'm sure.
Meanwhile, here is a
fantastic link, provided to me in early 2014 by John Rabold,
of a contemporary NBC News Report on the investigation into the
The first people on the scene were the residents of the trailer
park. Of course, there was nothing they could
do. Security was on the scene within 15 minutes, and by 8:00pm,
over 500 emergency personnel were on the scene.
I've included one eyewitness account from someone who was there very soon after the accident, and it pretty much summarizes most of the people's stories who have e-mailed me over the years. Please note, it's very graphic, and not intended for people who may have an emotional connection to the tragedy. Go here to read it.
Sunset was at 7:01pm, and efforts were made that evening to gather as many remains as possible. The work was solemn and professional, yet hurried and intense. Everyone could feel the magnitude of what had happened, but for most, the whole situation was like a dream. Days would pass before some could come to terms with exactly what they'd seen in that field.
This was not the only tragedy that occured on 9 September 1969. In eastern Columbia, a Satena Airlines C-47 crashed with 32 persons aboard (including three children). There were no survivors in that crash either.
An amazing follow-up to the Allegheny tragedy was provided on September 11th, just two days after the crash. On that day, the exact same flight 853, while departing Cincinnati on its way to Indianapolis, was involved in a near-collision with a small single-engine airplane! The pilot of the jet reported the small plane crossing his path with less than a half-mile of clearance, and performed an evasive maneuver to avoid contact. As far as the controllers could tell, the small plane's pilot never knew the urgency or seriousness of the situation.
A multidenominational memorial service was held in the rain at Forest Hill Cemetery in Shelbyville, IN, on 17 September. (See a picture here.) 32 caskets were laid to rest there, each containing the remains of a victim (or, actually, bulk remains divided evenly among the caskets by weight) who could not be identified.
I was sent a copy of the funeral publication, The Director, from November 1969. Read an edited version of the story written by one of the major funeral directors involved in this tragedy here.
I have done some research into the litigation that came out of this tragedy. There is a lot of material of interest here, and you'll need to go here to see it.
© 1999 Dan McGlaun