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Sunday, April 15, 2012

"Oh, s**t!"

          So titled because those are usually the last words heard on the cockpit voice recorder (unless the pilot is from Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia, in which case they're more likely to be, "Hold my beer, I'm gonna try something," but that's a whole other post).  I mentioned back on the "farewell to games" post that I was considering replacing games with a category about Mysteries and Disasters.  I've since done some serious soul searching about that.  Why?  Because my tag line is "good, clean fun," and I take that seriously; I want you to be able to count on finding those three things when you come here for a break from the workaday.  In the end, I decided to go ahead with this new category.  My rationalization:  One, it's good reporting.  Two, containing neither obscenities, nor descriptions or depictions of bloody corpses or gratuitous suffering, it's clean.  Whether or not it's fun is dependent on your judgement, but if you enjoy learning the little-known factoids of historical events, then perhaps it is indeed fun.  In any case, it's my blog, and I'm doing it; hope you like  it.  The disaster I am inaugurating the series with is the crash of an airliner in a San Diego suburb, both because this effected me personally, and it's fresh in my mind, having had a brief discussion of this with CT over at Nerd Lunch.  If you have any strong opinions about pieces like this, you like them, you don't like them, let me know.  I am responsive to the wishes of my readers.


          From 1949 to 1988, one of the most beloved San Diego institutions was Pacific Southwest Airlines, a regional carrier catering to the casual flier and the business crowd.  Kenny Friedkin founded the airline in 1949 with a $1,000-a-month leased Douglas DC-3.  That aircraft inaugurated a weekly round trip from San Diego to Oakland via Burbank. Reservations were initially taken from a World War II surplus latrine refitted as a ticket office.  Under the slogan "Catch our smile!" PSA was built into a model air carrier that was the envy of the giants with their sterile corporate feel, and the model for Southwest, USAir (who eventually bought them), and all the other regionals to follow.

          In the postwar era of surplus transports and thousands of qualified pilots, some regionals may have started up before PSA, but they showed the world how it was done, and San Diegans, myself included, took a measure of pride in those smiling jets with their psychedelic racing stripes that would have had anyone thinking we were shareholders.  It didn't hurt that Kenny had a pretty good handle on how to pack in the businessmen, either!  I'm sure it's just a coincidence that the year PSA's stews donned those uniforms just happened to be the first year in the history of commercial aviation that reservations of aisle seats outnumbered reservations of window seats...

          Everything seemed so rosy, the sky the limit, when September 25th, 1978 dawned clear and warm over San Diego, and things in Paradise would never be quite the same again.  On that awful day, a PSA jetliner with 135 passengers and crew aboard went down in a middle-class San Diego neighborhood, killing everyone aboard, seven people on the ground, and the two occupants of the Cessna they had run down from behind, destroying 22 homes in the crash.  It was unfathomable.  September 25th was a "Santa Ana" day, the hot wind blowing out of the desert to the east keeping any trace of marine air at bay; there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and visibility was virtually unlimited.  How could this have happened?  What had gone wrong?

          My personal involvement began immediately after the crash.  Bonnie and I both still worked in the same building where we had met, a warehouse approximately under the "m" in "North Island Naval Complex" down in the lower left corner of the map.  The fork lift operators had taken their vehicles into the parking lot to get fuel from the tanker that delivered to the remote sites.  One of them was a big, macho Mexican named Al, whose black moustache and swarthy complexion gave him the look of a bullfighter.  He came in the door as white as any Norwegian I've ever seen, and announced that he had just seen an airliner crash on the mesa, or plateau, behind town.  Of course, everyone went out to see, and there on the horizon was a black mushroom cloud that bore no resemblance to the gray clouds from the occasional brush fires that San Diegans know so well.  The crash site is the green arrow in the middle of the map.  The source of the smoke was rising directly in line with the El Cortez Center, a well-known landmark at 7th and Ash downtown.  I got the map from my glove box, laid my ruler to connect the warehouse with the El Cortez, and the extended line (which wasn't perfectly accurate) ran within feet of our house in University Heights.  Somewhere to the right of that line, ominously close to the smoke, was my grandmother's house (A), and in that house were not only my grandmother, but our 22-month old twins, and their 6-month old sister.  I think I set the world record for dialing a rotary phone, and grandma was there to reassure me that everyone was fine, it was farther out toward the freeway, and she could barely hear the sirens.  Relieved, we went back to work, one ear on the radio, but after we got home, we found that we were close enough so that we never got the charred meat smell out of that house, and it wasn't too long before we moved out to Casa de Oro, about two inches off the map southeast of Lemon Grove to get out from under this foolishness.  To this day, flying is at the top of my short list of things to avoid.  Like I say, this is as close as I ever want to come.

View Larger Map

          PSA Flight 182 was a popular early morning commuter flight originating from Sacramento, and terminating in San Diego, with a stop in Los Angles.  On the morning of September 25th, 182 carried a full flight crew, plus an additional qualified pilot riding in a "jump seat" in the cockpit.  The aircraft used for the flight that morning was a Boeing 727-214, registration N533PA.  The aircraft was mechanically sound and well maintained, and no problems were anticipated.  The flight from Sacramento and the Los Angeles stopover went smoothly, and the aircraft entered the San Diego approach area shortly before 9:00 AM local time.

          Roaming the area through which it had to pass was a Cessna 172 of Gibbs Flite Center, Inc., registration N7711G.  I have been unable to locate any information on the condition of this aircraft, but the crew of two were involved in training exercises, and it seems reasonable to assume that if the aircraft had been giving them problems, they would have broken off their flight for their own safety if nothing else.  The Cessna was manned by two experienced pilots with multiple ratings and certifications.  One was seeking his instrument rating, and the other, a certified instructor for that rating, was administering the training, which consisted of the trainee controlling the aircraft while wearing a hood that blocked his view of everything but the instrument panel.  The understanding is that the instructor pilot is to maintain spacial awareness around the aircraft, and assume control whenever that is warranted.  Their flight originated from Montgomery Field, east of Clairemont Mesa, and then proceeded to the area east of San Diego International Airport, and was under the control of ATC there.

          Flight 182 entered their approach route just before 9:00 AM, coming in off the ocean over Mission Bay, and making a broad, sweeping right turn over University Heights and North Park to line up a final descent over Balboa Park and the northern fringe of Metropolitan San Diego.  They were immediately warned of the presence of the Cessna:

8:59:39 - "PSA one eighty-two, additional traffic's ah, twelve o'clock, three miles (5 km) just north of the field, northeastbound, a Cessna one seventy-two climbing VFR out of one thousand four hundred."

          It takes ten seconds for 182 to acknowledge; the voice recorder caught instead the sound of the off-duty pilot relating an anecdote.  Was this a warning sign that the crew was taking this approach lightly?  I can't say.  That's outside of my pay grade.  Nonetheless, ATC gives the Cessna a vector to avoid the jetliner, and repeats the warning to 182:

8:59:57 - "Cessna seven seven one one golf, San Diego departure radar contact, maintain VFR conditions at or below three thousand five hundred, fly heading zero seven zero, vector final approach course."
9:00:15 - "PSA one eighty-two, traffic's at twelve o'clock, three miles out of one thousand seven hundred."

          Six seconds later, 182's first officer says "Got 'em."  Was he referring to a visual contact with the Cessna?  182's captain assumes that he was (maybe he pointed at them?), and reports contact to ATC:

9:00:22 - "Traffic in sight."

          182 reports they are now headed downwind, and receives yet another warning:

9:00:38 - "PSA one eighty-two, Lindbergh tower, ah, traffic twelve o'clock one mile a Cessna."

          Inside the cockpit, the first signs of trouble:

09:00:42 - Captain: "Is that the one we're looking at?"     
09:00:43 -First officer: "Yeah, but I don't see him now."

          A somewhat confused exchange follows on the radio:

9:00:44 - 182: "Okay, we had it there a minute ago."
9:00:47 - ATC: "One eighty-two, roger."
9:00:50 - 182: "I think he's pass(sed) off to our right."
9:00:51 - ATC: "Yeah."

          At this point, it probably becomes legitimate for the interested observer to ask how many assumptions it is permissible for a flight crew and Air Traffic Control to make during an approach through occupied air space.  Whatever the answer is, Flight 182 seems to have exceeded it right around here, because chaos and confusion quickly begin to take over the cockpit:

9:00:52 - Captain: "He was right over here a minute ago."
9:00:53 - First Officer: "Yeah."
9:01:07 - ATC: "PSA one eighty-two, cleared to land."
9:01:08 - 182: "One eighty-two's cleared to land."
9:01:11 - First Officer: "Are we clear of that Cessna?"
9:01:13 - Flight Engineer: "Supposed to be."
9:01:14 - Captain: "I guess."

          There follows an unintelligible word from the First Officer, the sound of laughter, then:

9:01:20 - Off-duty Pilot: "I hope."
9:01:21 - Captain: "Oh yeah, before we turned downwind, I saw him at about one o'clock, probably behind us now."

          Actually, the Cessna had taken up a course twenty degrees to the right of that which he was ordered onto, and was directly in front of and below the jetliner, which was closing at over 100 knots faster than the private plane.  ATC on the ground picked up an automated conflict alert 19 seconds before the collision but did not relay this information to the aircraft, presumably because 182 had confirmed visual contact with the Cessna.

9:01:31 - First Officer: "Gear down."
9:01:34 - [Clicks and thumps consistent with gear extension.]
9:01:38 - First Officer: "There's one underneath.  I was looking at that inbound there."
9:01:42 - [Sound of thump similar to nose gear door closing.]
9:01:45 - Captain: "Whoop!"
9:01:46 - First Officer: "Arrgh!"
9:01:47 - [Sound of impact.]
9:01:47 - Off-duty pilot: "Oh, s**t!"

          PSA Flight 182 overtook the Cessna, which was directly below it, both approximately on a 090 (due east) heading. The collision occurred at approximately 2,600 feet (790 m) and broke the Cessna, and the 727's right wing and empennage, to pieces.  According to several witnesses on the ground, there was first a loud metallic "crunching" sound, then an explosion and fire that drew them to look up.

9:01:49 - Captain: "Easy baby, easy baby.  What have we got here?"
9:01:52 - First Officer: "It's bad."
9:01:52 - Captain: "Huh?"
9:01:53 - First Officer: "We're hit, man.  We are hit!"
9:01:55 - 182: "Tower, we're going down, this is PSA."
9:01:57 - ATC: "OK, we'll call the equipment for you."

          Suddenly so cool and professional.  Where was that two minutes ago?

9:01:59 - 182: "This is it, baby!"
9:02:03 - Captain (on intercom to passengers): "Brace yourselves!"

          Amid tense, confused shouting in the cockpit, the last words spoken can be clearly made out:  Ma, I love you.  Flight 182 struck the ground 4830 meters (three miles) northeast of Lindbergh Field, in a residential section of San Diego known as North Park. It impacted in a high-speed, nose-down attitude while banked 50° to the right. Seismographic readings indicated that the impact occurred at 09:02:07, about 2.5 seconds after the cockpit voice recorder lost power. The jet impacted just west of the I-805 freeway, approximately nine meters (30 feet) north of the intersection of Dwight and Nile streets, with the bulk of the debris field spreading in a northeast to southwesterly direction towards Boundary Street.

          The largest piece of the Cessna impacted about six blocks away near 32nd St. and Polk Ave.  The explosion and fire created a mushroom cloud that could be seen for miles, and first responders on the scene reported that there was nothing left but utter destruction.  In total, 144 people lost their lives in the disaster, including Flight 182's seven crew members, 30 additional PSA employees deadheading to PSA's San Diego base, the two Cessna occupants, and seven residents (five women, two male children) on the ground.  Among the victims on board PSA Flight 182 were Alan Tetelman, professor of metallurgy at UCLA and president of Failure Analysis Associates (now Exponent), who was en route to investigate a U.S. Navy helicopter crash; Charles Dunsmoor Bren, the 34-year-old son of actress Claire Trevor Bren; Richard "Ric" Horne, the 51-year-old brother of American mezzo-soprano opera singer Marilyn Horne; and Valerie Woods Kantor, the first wife of future United States Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor.  An additional nine people on the ground were injured, and 22 homes across a four-block area were destroyed or damaged.  One would-be passenger, Jack Ridout, a survivor of the Tenerife airport disaster the year before had also booked a ticket on Flight 182 from Los Angeles, but had cancelled his booking to leave for home the day before.  At the time it was the U.S.'s deadliest commercial air disaster, and it remains the worst in California's history.

          Those are the clinical facts, the second-by-second analysis of the black boxes and instrument recorders, the reassembly of the shattered remains.  As someone with an admittedly morbid fascination with these things, I seek them out on the net sometimes when I have time on my hands, to see what went wrong.  In many cases, as it seems to be here, people got careless, complacent, developed the attitude that nothing's ever gone wrong before, so it won't go wrong now.  The NTSB laid the lion's share of the blame on the PSA crew for not following established approach procedures.  There was enough left over for the Cessna for not coming to the directed course, and ATC for not demanding accurate reports from the airliner, nor compliance from the Cessna.

          What I always come back to is the human factor.  What was it like to be a passenger on that airliner?  Specifically, what was it like to have a right-side window seat, to see that little airplane being overtaken, to feel the impact as your wing tears it to pieces, to see your wing burst into flames, and dip for that final high-speed fall into the unsuspecting houses below?  I'm not generally afraid of a whole lot of things, especially movie fantasies.  It's been a long time since a young boy was frightened out of his wits by The Blob, but this stuff really happens to people, and my imagination is good enough to put myself on that airliner, and ride it all the way in.  I feel the terror, and what I want more than anything is for this to never happen again.

          So, what has changed here?  In a word, nothing.  Actually, that's not true.  It's gotten worse.  People were talking about moving the airport before this ever happened, 34 years ago.  It is still in the same place, and is now the busiest single-runway airport in the United States.  Airliners still weave between the skyscrapers and buzz cars on the freeway on their final approach, and you don't have to park at the head of the runway and watch planes for very long before you realize that the only thing between San Diego and the next Flight 182 is nothing but pure, blind luck.  As a person who, as a professional, is heavily involved in safety, this just slays me.  I'm sure there were investigators in the aftermath who called for improvements to save lives and property in the future, and were quoted the same mantra that I hear too frequently today:  "We don't have money for that!"  I hope we find some before too many more people pay for this short-sightedness with their lives...

          During the construction of this post, I've been comparing notes with Bonnie on this incredible event in our lives, and she has a few things she wants to say.  I've about covered everything I have to say, so I'm going to turn the helm over to the Hideout's first guest speaker, my sweetie!


          After viewing the collision in mid-air, the Supervisors asked Al if he needed to go home.  He was the one who saw the collision, and our Supervisors showed a rare consideration for others by asking him.  He declined, but he was shaken.  The rest of us couldn't believe it had happened and I was so thankful that Jack's grandmother verified that all was well there.  Our kids were alright and I could breathe a sigh of relief.  That night after we arrived at the house, we turned on the TV to catch any details that might be on the news.  We hadn't picked up the kids yet, taking a few minutes to unwind before we began our tasks for the evening, taking care of the kids, feeding them, bathing them and falling into bed exhausted after our 16 hour day.   The thing that struck me as the saddest, and actually had me sobbing, was a 16-year old boy who had been waiting for his Mother to come in on that flight.  He was cowering off in a cubicle of some kind, and his arms were wrapped around his knees as he curled himself up into a ball.  People were trying to talk to him, to get him to come out of hiding so they could help him.  He wouldn't budge.  He sat frozen in time and could probably not believe the worst thing imaginable had happened to his Mom.  It was heart- breaking. 


          Every single person on the plane had died.  It was so tragic.  But worse than that, there were looters all around the area, taking valuables from dismembered hands.  Rings, watches, anything they could attach themselves to.  I couldn't believe people were so callus and unfeeling.  The smell was everywhere.  I couldn't even imagine fixing dinner.  It was a smell like nothing I'd ever experienced before.  For quite a while afterwards, you could see the wavy lines in the road where the plane had crashed and burned.  It brought it all back crystal clear every time we drove by there.  It got so I had to deliberately look in the opposite direction when we were in that area.  We picked up our children a little while later and I was so thankful to hold them and love them and see that they were safe.  I've never lost anyone in a tragic accident like that.  I don't know how I'd react.  Maybe like the 16 year old.  Just holding onto something because it all seems so unreal, so tragic, so cold and final.  I'll never forget what it was like, all those people, their lives ended in a terror-filled moment that there was no escaping from.  I'm just so thankful for my family and that we are all well and all together, except for one of our sons who lives out of state.  I'm grateful every night when I lay down to rest, my loved ones are here, safe, in my arms and in my heart.


          And that's the story, our part of it, at least, of what is arguably San Diego's greatest disaster.  I look at what we've wrought here, and can't avoid the certainty that it's pretty intense.  Whether that's due to our proximity to the events I can't say; I can't view it with someone else's eyes.  Like I said, if you have any strong feelings, pro or con, about this sort of post once in a while, speak up and be heard.  I'll be waiting...


Hideout Happenings


          The first order of business is to welcome the Hideout's newest denizen, Sandy, aka Doris the Great. Her blog posts run the gamut from whimsical to profound, and I highly recommend that everyone pay her a visit in the near future. You'll find her on the link list at Aging Disgracefully, a caustically charming name that I wish I'd thought of.  I hope you enjoy what you find here, Sandy, and visit us frequently.  Visit my friends while you're here, too.  Hopefully, you'll find them as, uh, charming... Yeah, that's it!  As charming as I do.  Also added to my link list is the Books Anonymous site, although Kaz hasn't decided to join us yet.  I'm hoping we'll grow on her...

          The grrls have been cleaning out a long-neglected store room, and they are finding old things of mine that I've forgotten.  One of them is an opened and sorted, but unplayed copy of Sid Meier's Civilization: The Boardgame.  If you would like this game as my gift to you, sort of a reward for hangin' out, mention in my comments section that you want it.  I have rolled a die and recorded the number.  The person (3rd, 5th, or whatever) corresponding to that die roll gets it.  The only possible drawback:  You will have to give me an address to send it to.

          I'll close with an appeal.  I have three good friends who, despite repeated attempts to contact, I have not heard from in many weeks.  People get busy, people encounter problems they have to deal with, things happen.  People also get tired of where they are, and move on, and sometimes they leave behind friends to wonder what they did wrong.  So, here's the appeal:  Chops of The Irish Navy; Arabella of The Genteel Arsenal; and "T" of Beyond the Rails, if you're still out there reading this, and I still have a place on your dance card, take a moment and let me know.  If you don't have ten seconds to type "We're still good," and hit send, then I can only guess that we're not still good...

In the meantime, Get out there and live life like you mean it!

2 comments:

  1. This is very sad, very heartbreaking, especially the looting incident at the end. Thank you for sharing this. I'm glad and I'm thankful that you and your family are safe.

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    1. As are we! We weren't in the direct line of fire, but our children were, not to mention Grandma. Call it God's protective hand or sheer blind luck, it wasn't their time. We understand gratitude here...

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