Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest and continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard, following in the tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them, continue as sentinels and saviors of the sea. This is one of their stories. Semper Paratus!
A Falling Star – Flight 253
Lieutenant Commander Frederick J. Hancox and his co-pilot, Lieutenant William P. Butler had just finished up with their pre-flight checks. The twin-engines of the Albatross aircraft began churning, and within minutes the amphibious flying boat was ready for take-off. Aft of the pilot and co-pilot were five other men. Three were aircraft crewmen of the United States Coast Guard. Darrell Miller was a U.S. Marshall. The last member was a “guest” of Miller. As they prepared for take-off from their watery tarmac from Haines Harbor, Alaska, Miller reached over and secured the straight-jacketed Fred Harrington’s seatbelt. They were heading for Juneau, Alaska.
The Albatross’s sleek hull sliced through the water as it reached its take-off speed. The men jostled about as the aircraft finally lurched from the water and started to gain altitude in the morning sky. Suddenly, the nose of the plane careened downward and crashed into the waters of Portage Bay. The hull was breached, and the fuselage began to sink into the icy water. The crewmen attempted to escape from where the fuselage cracked apart. Nearby fisherman raced to the scene. Lt. Commander Hancox, dazed by the crash, came to and immediately checked on the condition of his co-pilot. Butler was hurt but alive. Hancox pulled off his harness and assisted his co-pilot from his seat, and freed himself and Butler from the plane. He grabbed a life-raft and tied the painter line off to the hatch of the floating fuselage. The life-raft filled with air and buoyed in the water. Then, Hancox re-entered the aircraft and searched for other members of the crew. He spotted the Deputy Marshall and helped him out of the plane and into the life-raft to assist Butler. Hancox continued the search. He found one of the crew, Clifford E. Habecker, a first class petty officer. He was dead. Hancox pulled him from the aircraft. There was no sign of the other two crewmen or of the straight-jacketed patient.
The aircraft slowly sank below the surface and into the depths. Fisherman quickly assisted transferring Hancox, Butler, Miller, and the body of Habecker to their boat. They searched frantically for the other three missing men. Realizing that Butler was seriously injured, the fisherman marked the spot of the wreckage with a float and proceeded at top speed to the nearest dock to get medical care to the survivors.
The two other Coast Guard crew members, Andrew P. Turner and Doyle E. Jahn, along with Fred Harrington, were never found, despite the efforts of the Coastguardsmen aboard the U.S.C.G.C. Citrus that combed the area for several days. The day following the crash, Hancox, Butler, Miller and Habecker’s body arrived in Juneau aboard the U.S.C.G.C Storis. The loss of three of their own made a significant impact on the Coast Guard Aviation community, and despite the horrific crash, Lieutenant Commander Hancox was back behind the controls and flying missions for his beloved service.
Frederick J. Hancox was born in Reading, PA in 1920. He attended the University of Michigan and the VA West Point Preparatory School. He transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, graduating in 1944. He was then sent to the fleet in the waters of the North Atlantic as a gunnery officer. Following WW II, he remained on active duty and went to flight school where he received his gold aviator wings, and was rated to fly both fixed and rotary aircraft.
A year and a half later, Lieutenant Commander Hancox was sitting in the ready room at the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Floyd Bennett Field talking with some of his crewmen. Suddenly they were alerted to a mayday. They pulled on their flight jackets and raced out to the tarmac. Within minutes, CG 2124, a Grumman HU-16 alighted into the moonlit sky. Details of the mercy mission came through his headset. Flight 253, Linea Aeropostal Venezoiana was experiencing a malfunctioning engine. The pilot had declared an emergency and requested to return to Idlewild Airport. Hancox ordered his flight crew to utilize their onboard directional finder to locate the position of the mayday call.
A few hours earlier, at 2315 hours, flight 253 had lifted off from Idelwild’s runway. Captain Luis F. Plata was in command of the Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation. Aboard were nine additional crewmen and sixty-four passengers. The flight was bound for Caracas-Simon Bolivar International Airport. The flight was routine for the first hour and five minutes. Then Captain Plata and his co-pilot noted a problem. The number-two propeller – located inboard on the port wing – was over speeding and causing a dangerous situation. The navigator calculated their position. They were two-hundred and fifty miles east of Norfolk, VA. The flight crew radioed the Idlewild tower of their situation. Captain Plata attempted to feather the propeller as per standard operating procedures in such a situation, but the propeller continued to over speed. Twenty minutes after the initial radio call, Captain Plata declared an emergency and altered his flight plan to return to Idlewild.
Twenty-three minutes after take-off from Floyd Bennett Field, Hancox and his crew spotted the in-bound Super Constellation, and maneuvered his aircraft above and aft of the stricken airliner and established communications with Captain Plata. Hancox then noted another aircraft offering support. Captain Charles Fisher, in command of an Eastern Airlines commercial flight, joined with Hancox to assist Captain Plata back to Idlewild. Captain Plata advised Hancox that he would begin jettisoning fuel when he was forty miles out from Idlewild. Shortly after, Hancox watched as a stream of high octane gas streamed from the Super Constellation. Merely seconds later there was a flicker of light number the number three engine. Almost instantaneously a fire erupted beneath the hull of the stricken aircraft. Captain Plata voice gasped over the radio that the “gas caught fire.” It was the last radio call from Flight 253.
The Super Constellation reeled to starboard and then heeled over on her nose. The falling fireball screamed toward the Atlantic Ocean at nearly four-thousand feet per minute. Parts of the aircraft ripped off and fell into the ocean. The plane struck the surface of the ocean at a ninety-degree angle. Hancox and Fisher witnessed the violent explosion upon impact. Hancox took evasive action and circled the crash site. His crew jettisoned thirty parachute flares to illuminate the scene. He circled at a low altitude to search for survivors, but saw nothing but burning debris. There was no sign of life.
News of the tragedy was quickly passed to nearby aircraft and ships. The closest ship to the scene was the U.S.S. Lt. Robert Craig. It had left New York harbor two hours earlier bound for Bremerhaven, Germany. It diverted its course and raced at full-speed to the scene of the crash. U.S. Coast Guard cutters altered their courses to render aid and assist in the search and recovery. The Craig reached the scene at 0343 hours. Lifeboats were lowered to assist in trying to locate survivors. It was a ghastly and horrific scene. As noted in the press, “the restless sea was devoid of any trace of survivors. Crewmen began picking up debris that might help identifying bodies later . . . a pair of baby’s swimming trunks, a man’s hat, a woman’s sandals, a striped skirt, a handbag. . . occasionally parts of human bodies surfaced and were picked up. Sharks nosed about the area as the salvage work went on.”
The Craig sent a radio message: “Found no survivors – expect to find none.” Over the course of the next few hours, six bodies were recovered and were placed on one of the Coast Guard cutters. The grim task of recovery had commenced. U.S. Navy salvage and dive teams arrived at the site and began dragging for wreckage. Poor weather conditions dampened the search and recovery efforts. The Venezuelan government requested that the recovery operations end. Flight 253 would remain on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
The cause of the fire became the main focus of investigators. Based on aspects of the wreckage that was recovered, it was believed that while the fuel was being dumped, the propeller from the number two engine ripped from its housing and sliced into the main cabin fuselage. The propeller ripped through the skin of the aircraft and severed a double seat, which had been occupied by two persons, in half. Jarred by the knife-life propeller, the two seats were sucked from the cabin and into the flames. The severed double seat was recovered along with the occupants. Both had lost their legs when the propeller sliced into the fuselage. Without the main section of the aircraft, investigators surmised that the vibration from the number two engine had caused damage to the alternate wing, and when the number two propeller sheared off, sparks from its hub ignited the dumped fuel, or as it sliced into the cabin section also struck the number 5 fuel tank. Minus the majority of the wreckage, there was no way of coming to a complete determination as to what happened.
Flight 253 marked the world’s worst loss of life in a commercial flight up to that time in history. Ten days after the June 20th, 1956 crash of Flight 253, the record would shift to another aviation disaster with an even greater loss of life. On June 30th, a United Airlines Douglas DC-7 and a Trans World Airlines Lockheed Super Constellation collided over the Grand Canyon. A total of one hundred and twenty-eight souls were lost in the horrific crash.
Captain Fisher, the Eastern Airlines commander, upon arriving in San Juan, Puerto Rico, commented to reporters, “all I could see was a ball of fire . . . a falling star.” Lieutenant Commander Hancox solemnly offered, “it was a frightening sight.” Sixty-four passengers perished. Among them was a number of Venezuelan students, including two sets of sisters, two young American pianists bound for a South American concert tour, a flight attendant on her last flight before taking another position, a Latin American baseball team owner, a mother and daughter flying to reunite with husband and father, a petroleum engineer, and so many more.
After over ten years as a search and rescue aviator, Lieutenant Commander Hancox was transferred to the U.S.C.G.C. Westwind, an icebreaker, as her navigator and executive officer. Following tours in the Artic and Antarctica, he served on a training and procurement team at the United States Coast Guard Headquarters. After being promoted to captain, he was assigned as the Group Commander at Woods Hole, MA. He retired from the service in 1969 and became the Academic Dean of Students at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy for the next decade. At the age of eighty-four with a distinguished service record behind him, he passed away.
Hancox had spent twenty-five years as a U.S. Coast Guard officer, and always found the inner-strength, despite the sometimes onerous nature of his duties, to push forward to meet the highest demands of his service. It is this same resolve and strength that serves as a beacon to those that follow in his footsteps as members of the United States Coast Guard, as the service continues at the highest level of professionalism as the newest generation of sentinels and saviors of the seas.