In Our Waters
By Adam Grohman
The four engines of the Boeing 707 roared at full throttle as the aircraft bounded down the tarmac. Captain Lloyd D. Reinhard pulled on the yoke having reached a safe take-off speed. Reinhard, along with five other officers and crew, felt the aircraft lift from the cement runway and begin her ascent into the cold mid-morning air. Gaining altitude, Captain Reinhard eased the controls and took a heading as per the instructions of the tower. Flight 1502 continued to gain altitude as New York International Airport – Idlewild grew smaller and smaller behind them. With a flight plan previously discussed, Captain Reinhard took a heading along the south shore of Long Island heading east. Captain Rienhard, in control of the aircraft was part of a training flight. Also aboard were Captain Robert Hinman, Captain John B. Coyne, Captain Herbert J. Thing, both trainees, flight Engineer and instructor Harold Engh and flight engineer trainee, Howard Sturdy. With the purpose of running through a list of drills and emergencies, the flight of the Flagship Oklahoma had commenced many years earlier with a daring bet on the success of commercial jetliners.
In 1952, the president of Boeing allegedly “bet the company” on the development of a safe and efficient jet-powered commercial aircraft.1 With a commitment from the board of sixteen million dollars, Boeing executives, designers, and engineers began to develop a new aircraft nicknamed the “Dash 80.” After a six year development process, the aircraft evolved to a length of one hundred and forty-four feet, six inches with a wingspan of one hundred and thirty-feet, ten inches. On her swept back wings were placed four thirteen thousand five hundred pound-thrust Pratt and Whitney JT3C-6 turbojet engines capable of providing a six hundred mile an hour cruising speed.2 With a range of three-thousand miles, the newly named 707 could climb to forty-one thousand feet and ferry up to one hundred and eighty-one passengers. The Boeing 707 first launched into the air on December 20, 1957. With testing completed, Boeing 707’s began rolling off the production tarmac. The eighth one completed was designated to serve as part of the American Airlines fleet under the name Flagship Oklahoma. Her first flight was in 1958 and she quickly began servicing hundreds of passengers a day as she jetted back and forth across the United States.
Until 1959, the Boeing 707’s had a perfect safety record. All of that changed on August 15, 1959 with American Airlines Flight 514. At approximately thirteen hundred hours, a five man training crew boarded the Flagship Connecticut. With only seven hundred and thirty-six flight hours, she had entered service for American Airlines on their New York to Los Angeles flight service. The flight plan would include high-altitude training which would also allow for the crew to safely burn-off fuel prior to the reaching the airport facilities located in Calverton, New York. After a flight time of approximately one and a half hours, the flight crew reached the Peconic area. During the flight the flight crew completed a host of required training evolutions including full-stop landings, crosswind landings and take-offs, a high off-set approach, loss of engines simulations and a no-flap aborted approach. After the completion of the no-flap aborted approach training evolution, the flight crew received permission to land to complete another training evolution which simulated the loss of two of her engines on one wing. The maneuver was designed to train crews to effectively deal with what pilots referred to as a “Dutch roll” or a “one-sided yaw induced by unsymmetrical loss of engine power…the wing that slides forward generates more lift than the lagging wing.” While on its approach the aircraft made a steep left bank to nearly forty-five degrees. Tower control officials then observed her recover to level flight. A breath of relief was fleeting when the aircraft was observed banking steeply to the right. Within seconds, the Flagship Connecticut inverted. The jetliner’s bow dipped and began to yaw. Continuing to roll to the right in a nose-down manner, the Boeing slammed into the ground. A fireball erupted as the jetliner broke apart across a potato field. All five men aboard were killed and the impeccable safety record of the Boeing 707 was finally marred by a loss of one of its aircraft and five souls.
Upon investigation, it was determined that the most likely cause of the accident was that the “crew failed to recognize and correct the development of excessive yaw which caused an unintentional rolling maneuver at an altitude too low to permit complete recovery.” The crash, investigators determined, could have been prevented if the “Dutch roll” maneuvers were completed at a higher altitude and thus providing flight crews a larger margin of error to correct the situation. While the Civil Aeronautics Board continued its research into the development of recommendations to correct the situation, Boeing instituted improvements in the structure of the rudder to assist in alleviating the jetliner’s original rudder design which some pilots had complained as “extremely marginal.” In essence, the original design was a “rudder on a rudder” that “if the plane was allowed to yaw, or crab, beyond a certain angle, the rudder became useless.” Boeing added a hydraulic boost control to address the problem which allowed for “added control movement after the rudder-on-rudder system moved the rudder a certain number of degrees.” While Boeing had improved the controls of the aircraft, the Civilian Aeronautics Board remained staunch regarding the two-engine loss training regime. Many within the airlines questioned the necessary training requirement noting that the loss of two engines on the same wing was “infinitesimally small.”3
While the arguments continued, the commercial airline industry suffered a host of horrific and deadly accidents. On Friday, December 16th, 1960, a United Airlines DC-8 was on approach to Idlewild airport inbound from Chicago. Aboard were seventy-seven passengers and seven crewmen. Meanwhile, in the skies over the bustling city streets of the metropolis of Manhattan and her boroughs, a Trans-World Airways Lockheed Super Constellation was awaiting word from the control tower at La Guardia to commence its landing approach.4 Aboard were thirty-nine passengers and five crewmen. Though a three-mile buffer zone had been established between the two circling aircraft, the DC-8’s flight crew flew off course. The two aircraft struck. The United Airlines DC-8 fell onto the streets of Brooklyn and erupted into a conflagration of fire and flame. Firemen rushed to the scene to fight the horrible scene of death and destruction. Meanwhile, reports of another aircraft crashing in Staten Island crossed over the radio waves.5 The Trans-World Airways Constellation crashed killing all on board on the Miller Army Air Field. In the aftermath of the collision, one hundred and thirty-four people and six people on the ground, had been killed.6 A month later, on January 19th, 1961, an Aeronaves de Mexico DC-8 crashed after an aborted take-off from Idlewild Airport in snowy conditions.7 Four out of one hundred and six aboard died in the resulting crash and fire. And then there was the flight of the Flagship Oklahoma.
Airman First-class James F. Ross was driving along Montauk Highway heading back to the nearby Air Force Base when he heard the roar of jet engines overhead. He looked up and saw the massive craft. “It shot past me overhead, about 100 feet above the ground, the engines roaring…He was coming down at a 60 or 70-degree angle.” Ross pulled his car to the side of the highway. “It just cleared the dunes and disappeared,” he reflected. “Then the noise stopped. All you could hear was the surf.” Nearby, also driving along the highway was Captain Frank Ward, a fishermen from Montauk. “It rolled over and over then straightened out just before it hit. I saw an engine on fire.”
The Flagship Oklahoma had slammed into the barren coastline and shallows off of Napeague Beach, four miles east of Amagansett and ten miles west of Montauk Point. Emergency crews raced to the scene to find only the scattered remains of the aircraft. All members of the flight crew had been killed upon impact.
Even after the January 28th crash of the Flagship Oklahoma, the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing and many other airlines remained in disagreement regarding the administration’s unwillingness to waiver on its required two engine stall landings. Under continued pressure, and on the heels of the issuance of the final findings of the August 15, 1959 crash near Calverton of the Flagship Connecticut, the F.A.A. finally discontinued the requirement for all 707 flight crews to complete practice landings with two stalled engines on the same wing. The relaxation and amendment to the training requirements was a welcomed addition to an industry that would see fatalities rise as the utilization of jet aircraft increased to meet customer demand on a global scale.
The remainder of 1961 would mark the loss of an additional 707 jetliner. Sabena Flight 548 killed seventy three people while on approach to the Brussels Airport.8 1962 would prove even worse with the loss of American Airlines Flight 1 which took all ninety-five souls aboard to their deaths in Jamaica Bay while on take-off from Idlewild Airport and the loss of Continental Airlines Flight 11 due to a suicide bomber. In June of 1962, Boeing was reeling from the loss of its fourth 707 when Air France flight 007 crashed during take-off from Orly International Airport leaving only two survivors of its complement of one hundred and thirty-two passengers and crew. When questioned to the safety of the jetliner, the spokesman offered newspaper reporters a statement that the 707 had the “best safety record of any airplane ever introduced into commercial operation.” Statistically speaking, the Boeing spokesman was accurate as up to that day, with the fleet of two hundred and eighty nine jetliners in active service, the jetliner had been responsible for the safe passage of over twenty-five million passengers worldwide.
Despite the safety record of the Boeing 707 and its millions upon millions of passengers safely delivered to their airport destinations on a global scale, the flight of the Flagship Oklahoma marked the final moments of life for six men who died training to ensure their abilities to safely carry their precious cargo of human lives across the skies of the world. Though the crew was able to recover from their training maneuver, they were simply too low to be able to completely ensure their own safety as they spent the final seconds of their lives before crashing into the shallows on a barren branch of the beach on the eastern end of Long Island, in our waters.9
1 According to Boeing records, the use of sixteen million dollars in the development of a commercial (as well as military version) jetliner represented betting the bulk of the company’s post-war profits to that point.
2 The additional “sweepback” of her wing design allowed the aircraft to gain an additional twenty-miles an hour of speed over Boeing’s biggest commercial aircraft competitor’s DC-8 aircraft.
3 The Civilian Aeronautics Board members argued that “the penalties for mistakes when flying jet airliners are much more severe than on propeller craft. At jet speeds, a slip-up that a propeller plane might forgive is likely to be catastrophic. The death toll in a crash would be not ten, thirty or even fifty, but would probably run into three figures.”
4 The Lockheed Super Constellation was a propeller driven aircraft.
5 Initially, it was believed that the two crashes were not related. It was not until a jet engine was found amongst the Constellation debris field that investigators realized that the two aircraft had collided in mid-air.
6 An eleven year old boy, Stephen Baltz, flying to meet his mother for Christmas, emerged from the wreckage of the United Airlines DC-8. Despite the efforts of medical personnel, he succumbed to his injuries and perished. Up to that time, the collision marked the world’s worst air disaster.
7 Upon further investigation it was determined that the check-pilot pulled back on the throttles during the take-off attempt for an unknown reason. It was summarized that he was not wearing his head-set at the time of the incident which led to his misunderstanding of the aircraft’s position on the runway. The aircraft, which slammed through a fence, afforded her passengers several precious minutes of safety before her fuel sparked and caused a horrific explosion.
8 The eighteen members of the United States Figure Skating Team along with sixteen family members, coaches and officials were killed in the crash.
9 As of May 2011, the Boeing 707 design has had 170 hull loss occurrences with 2739 fatalities.