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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

PROGRESS

I was 18 years old in 1969, and the future seemed like a steady progression toward a better world. Well, at that age your hormones usually don’t let you see beyond your own nose, and there was plenty of news clutter to distract me. Judy Garland had just died and the Beatles had a new album out; Abbey Road. Oh, and two months earlier humans had first set foot upon the moon. And so I could be forgiven for missing the significance on Tuesday, September 9th when, just after noon, Allegheny Airlines flight #853 lifted her wheels off the runway at Boston’s Logan Airport and clawed her way into the sky.
The aircraft was a DC-9 type 30, meaning she was the third upgrade from the original DC-9 production model, and had the tail designation N988FJ. The captain was 47 year old James Elrod, who had 900 hours at the controls of DC-9’s. His first officer was 26 year old William Heckendorn, who had 650 hours in the twin engine jet. The jet smoothly climbed over the blue collar Boston suburbs before turning south. Allegheny fight #853 had scheduled stops in Baltimore, then Cincinnati and Indianapolis and was scheduled to terminate late that afternoon in St. Louis, where passengers could connect with flights for the West Coast. Ah, if only I had been paying attention.
The DC-9 had first gone into service just four years earlier, and from the start the plane was a workhorse. She was designed as a short to mid-range passenger jet, unglamorous, uncomplicated and so reliable that some 2,400 were eventually produced at the Long Beach, California plant. The DC-9-type 30 had a swept wingspan of 93 feet, and was 133 feet long from nose to the swept fins of her high “T” tail. Her two rear mounted Pratt & Whitney JTD8D-7 turbofan engines could propel her through the air at over 500 MPH above 30,000 feet for over 2,000 miles. This particular DC-9-30 had first flown in 1968 and the air frame had only 3,170 hours on it.
After arriving at “Friendship International Airport” (BWI) at Baltimore, 45 miles north of Washington, D.C., Allegheny flight #853 picked up 16 more passengers and then headed for its next stop: Cincinnati (CVG). Waiting there were 64 people who were supposed to connect with TWA fight #69 from New York City, which was scheduled to continue on to Indianapolis. But TWA Flight #69 was delayed. And as often happened in the days before de-regulation, TWA and Allegheny offered any available seats on Allegheny Flight #853 to any TWA passengers who wanted them. Customer service was the only selling point between the airlines then, back before deregulation had “improved” the business.
Thirty-eight passengers took TWA up on their gracious offer. So when the Flight #853 left CVG at 3:16 PM, almost 40 minutes behind schedule, she carried 78 passengers, and a crew of four – 81 souls on board. She took a compass heading of 306 degrees, heading northwest into airway V97.
Indianapolis (IND) Weir Cook Airport (named after a World War I ace) was just 99 air miles from CVG. So Flight #853 climbed to only 10,000 feet for what was supposed to be a mere 35 minute flight. That would have put Flight #853 rolling up to the terminal at IND at about 3:50 pm.
At 3:22 PM Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control ordered Flight #853 to descend to 6,000 feet. At 3:36 PM #853 responded, “…leaving 10 thousand, (unintelligible) southeast of Shelbyville.” Shelbyville is a small community 26 miles southwest of Indianapolis, at which the Federal Aviation Administration has located a VOS transmitter, (for Very high frequency Omni range Station), and above which flights following V97 for IND switch to a heading of 304 degrees. Indianapolis Flight Control immediately instructed #853 to continue its descent to 2,500 feet, to shift its heading to 280 degrees and to contact IND approach control for runway three-one left. The crew immediately responded, “853 cleared down two thousand five hundred and report reaching.” They had done all of this a hundred times before. The only thing different this time was that Flight #853 was 40 minutes late.
Hearing the crew acknowledge his instructions, controller Merrill McCammack briefly turned his attention to Allegheny Flight #820, which was inbound to IND from the West. When he returned to the radar screen about a minute later, Flight # 853 had disappeared. McCammack called out to flight #853, but there was no response. At about 3:40 PM McCammack notified the Indiana State Police of a possible airliner crash, but by this time they were also receiving frantic phone calls from the Shady Acres Mobile Home Park, in Fairland, Indiana. Two planes had collided over the resident’s heads and crashed virtually on top of them.
The only body found intact was Bob Carey’s. He was a student pilot, flying a Cherokee PA-28, on a cross country training flight, and he was following all the rules. He had filed his flight plan, he had called in to IND control to notify them of his presence and he was following Visual Flight Rules, which amounts to keeping your eyes open. What he could not have known, and what he could have done nothing about if he had known, is that the radar at IND was too weak to pick him up at 26 miles from the airport. But what the system of air traffic control then in effect did not take into account was that while Cary’s Cherokee was flying at around 150 miles per hour, the DC-9 was on approach at closer to 400 mph. That meant that the closing speed of those two aircraft was much too fast for human reactions to respond to, even given the generally good visibility on this day. The Cherokee slammed into the tail of the DC-9, cutting it off and slicing the small plane in half at the wing root. The relative closing speed was 350 miles an hour. Cary had no warning, and was found still strapped in his seat. Pilots Elrod and Heckendorn had no warning either. At 3:29 PM and 14 seconds, just after confirming their new instructions Heckendorn was reading out the sliding altitude changes: “Out of thirty-five for twenty-five” One second later Elrod says, “I’m going down”. One second after that is the sound of objects hitting the cockpit ceiling, followed by the landing gear warning and then the stall warning and vibration. Ten seconds later the recording ends with the aircraft’s impact in a soy bean field, 100 yards from the mobile home park. Eighty-two human beings and about four million dollars ($23.5 million in 2007) worth of equipment been destroyed in something under fifteen seconds.
At this point you expect to hear the National Transportation Safety Board investigation forced a change in regulations so this specific disaster would never happen again. The report reads, “The board determines the probable cause of this accident to be the deficiencies in the collision avoidance capability of the Air Traffic Control system of the Federal Aviation Administration in a terminal area wherein there was mixed instrument fight rules (IFR) and visual flight rules (VFR)…include(ing) the inadequacy of the see-and-avoid concept under circumstances of this case; the technical limitations of radar in detecting all aircraft; and the absence of ….adequate separation of …mixed traffic in terminal areas.”
And yet, on August 31, 1986, in clear skies, another DC-9 – 30, Aeromexico Flight #448, collided in midair with another Piper Cherokee PA-28 over Cerritos, California, killing 85 people, including 15 on the ground. This time part of the blame was laid on the Piper pilot who was unfamiliar with the area and had entered the LAX terminal area without clearance. But the secondary fault was again laid on “…limitations of the see and avoid concept to ensure traffic separation…”.
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Would you call this progress, or just more clutter?
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