This chapter is from the book, History of Aviation Disasters: 1950 to 9/11:
World’s Worst Series of Airline Disasters—
Starting in NYC in 1960—and Ending in NYC on 9/11,
And Sampling of Their Enablers
Starting in the 1950s, the politically-powerful United Airlines corporation was experiencing a world-record number of airline disasters, most being due to pilot error, an indication of inadequate periodic training and competency checks. IN an attempt to improve the effectiveness of the government agency responsible for aviation safety, Congress passed legislation that replaced the Civil Aeronautics Agency with the Federal Aviation Agency.
Improvements were ordered by replacing the administrator with an experienced aviation-safety-literate administrator. Throughout the FAA remained management that were incompetent, politically motivated, revolving door problems, and corruption.
This legislation was effective in part because a competent FAA administrator was appointed who knew what had to be done and who ordered major safety training and competency check requirements. This helped, but it did not address the situation that existed at United Airlines (UAL) and within the Flight Standards Division of the FAA in the Western Region, and to some extent, in other FAA regions.
The description of misconduct in the government’s aviation safety offices starts with an air disaster that occurred during the Christmas season, December 16, 1960. It was the world’s worst air disaster at that time and in some ways it is still the most brutal air disaster ever to occur in the United States or anywhere.
That disaster was one in a series of aviation disasters that caused the federal government to give me the assignment to correct the conditions resulting in these tragedies. In those days, the FAA was a much smaller organization and the number of aircraft in the nation’s commercial aviation sector was also much smaller. So it was not so unusual for one federal aviation safety agent to be given this assignment.
The airline responsible for most of these record numbers of airline crashes was United Airlines, and it was here that the blame met the definition of corrupt and criminal activities. The relatively fewer crashes by all the other airlines combined were due to a more innocent type of recognizable and ignored problems.
United Airlines Crash into New York City—
World’s Worst Air Disaster at That Time
United Airlines Flight 826, a DC-8, departed Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on a non-stop flight to New York City’s Idlewild Airport (since renamed John F. Kennedy Airport). Taking off from Cleveland Airport, and also heading for New York City, but landing at La Guardia Airport, was TWA Flight 266, a tripletail Constellation.
One of United Airlines two VOR navigation receivers was inoperative, and known to be so by the crew. Good judgment dictated that the crews notify air traffic control of its inoperative receiver so as to receive extra radar assistance. The crew did not do this. ATC cleared Flight 826 to Preston Intersection, formed by the crossing of two radials from nearby VOR navigational radios. (Two VOR receivers are used to determine the holding fix.) One receiver could do this under some conditions in less-dense traffic and holding conditions, but in the congested New York City area, it was foolhardy and obviously dangerous not to request radar assistance to determine the holding fix location. Further, a slower approach speed than normal was dictated by the loss of the second navigational receiver.
Instead of arriving at the low-altitude terminal area holding pattern at approach speeds of approximately 200 knots, United Flight 826 approached it at almost 500 miles per hour. At this speed the aircraft could not remain within the protected airspace of its assigned holding pattern even if the crew could accurately determine their holding position. A parallel to this would be a car making a 180-degree turn. At a slow speed, for instance, ten miles per hour, the amount of ground covered during the reversal would be much less than if the turn was made at forty miles per hour.
Airspace allotted for holding patterns are based upon an aircraft at a holding speed and not at a much faster cruising speed. TWA was approaching its New York City destination at approximately the same time that United 826 shot through its holding fix. Both planes were at 5,000 feet. The La Guardia air traffic controller cleared TWA for an ILS instrument approach to runway 04, landing to the northeast. Drizzle and low-level clouds covered the New York City area.
Following the TWA blip on his radar screen, the La Guardia controller directed TWA toward the narrow ILS course that guided planes to the La Guardia runway. Unknown traffic suddenly appeared on the radar screen moving rapidly toward TWA, its altitude unknown. In 1960 the aircraft did not have altitude-encoding transponders and the radar did not show the other aircraft’s altitude. Because of the high speed of the suddenly appearing traffic, the controller assumed it was high altitude enroute rather than low-level approach traffic. But the controller routinely alerted TWA to the converging traffic, “Traffic at two-thirty, six miles, northeast bound.”
The Missing Radar Blip
TWA was in the clouds and could not see the reported traffic. Again the controller advised TWA, “That appears to be jet traffic off your right now, three o’clock at one mile, north-east bound.” United, slowing down but still traveling at almost six miles per minute covered this one-mile separation in seconds. At 10:23 a.m. the two radar blips merged, indicating to the radar controller that the flight paths crossed, presumably at different altitudes. But that was not to be.
The Sound of an Open Mike
The sound of an open microphone pierced the air, as if an aircraft was trying to make a radio transmission. The La Guardia controller gave TWA a heading change to intercept the final ILS approach course. TWA didn’t answer. Again, the controller radioed, “Transworld 266, turn further left one zero zero.” Again the call went unanswered.
The controller suddenly realized what might have happened. He quickly contacted Idlewild approach control (now JFK Airport) to determine if one of their planes was missing. It was soon obvious that the lost traffic was United’s DC‑8. There were now two large airliners missing over the New York City area, with ominous signs that they had collided.
One of the passengers on United Flight 826 was Stephen Baltz, a young boy traveling by himself. As he looked down at the white mantel of snow covering New York City, the plane shook with a loud thud as the collision occurred. One of United’s jet engines rammed into TWA at nearly 400 miles per hour, splitting open TWA’s fuselage, and scooping out of the TWA cabin a woman passenger. Slowly she was fed into the knife-like fan blades at the front of the jet engine.
The airport control tower operator at Miller Army Airfield on Staten Island watched in horror as three large sections of the TWA plane hurled through the base of the overcast, trailing flames and smoke. Two explosions occurred just before the main fuselage hit the ground, causing the wings to rip from the fuselage, followed by the separating tail section.
As the pieces rained down upon them, two workers loading a furniture truck on Hyland Boulevard dashed inside for protection. The pieces fell like shrapnel. One later recalled, “I prayed that it would be over soon.” Parts of the wreckage narrowly missed a community of homes, tall apartment buildings and public schools, containing thousands of people. It was pure luck that the death toll did not include them. The falling fuselage and wing sections hit the ground with an ominous heavy thud. The impact ejected more passengers onto the snow-covered ground, turning the snow bright red.
The open spaces of Staten Island permitted an unobstructed view of this drama, and alerted rescue vehicles that rushed toward the expected crash site. Witnesses on the ground stared in shock at TWA’s spiraling descent. People watched in horror as the downward spiraling plane ejected passengers out of the aircraft.
As the rear half of the TWA fuselage plunged toward them, a fear-stricken mother grabbed her six-year-old daughter and ran for her life. The huge fuselage section struck the ground fifty feet away, splitting open like a lobster shell, and ejecting more people into the snow.
“I thought it was a bombing!”
Sitting in his third floor apartment on Staten Island, a Minister felt the earth shake as the first part of the TWA plane hit nearby. “I thought it was a bombing,” he later said. “I saw the plane fall in flames and smoke, and a black object fell in front of my home. It looked as though the plane was going to fall on the housing development, but it missed.”
Washing windows in her Staten Island home, one woman saw United on a collision course with TWA, and then saw the crash itself. She later exclaimed, “I saw what I believe to be the right wing of the other plane fall. It spiraled down at an angle toward Hyland Boulevard. I saw the fuselage was on fire.”
“It went down in a terrible way.”
“Listen to the thunder,” exclaimed one woman to her niece. She later explained, “I rushed to the window and I saw this terrible ball of fire. It was huge, and it must have been a mile off.” She continued, “I watched, and it was terrible. We could see now it was a plane. It seemed to fall a few feet and there was another huge burst of flame. And then the plane went down. It went down in a terrible way.” She recalled, “One wing gone, it turned over and over very slowly. You could watch it. All the way it was always red from the flames.”
Sitting in his radio car, a Staten Island dispatcher for the Transit Authority buses suddenly heard a loud noise, “like a jet breaking the sound barrier.” Looking up, he saw a sight he would remember forever. He described it as “parts of bodies falling from the plane.” Quickly starting his car, the dispatcher picked up a nearby foot patrolman and the two of them sped toward Miller Field where the wreckage was expected to crash. By radio they alerted the bus terminal dispatcher, who in turn notified police.
They stopped several times on their way to Miller Field, gathering bloody human remains that had fallen from the spiraling plane. At the crash scene, they placed more human remains in the radio car. Impaled on a nearby tree was a woman, covered with blood.
“I prayed that it would be over soon.”
At a nearby shopping center, two brothers, Peter and Gerard Paul, threw down their purchases, and ran to the crash scene, vaulting a ten-foot cyclone fence. The first to arrive, the bloodied and dismembered bodies overwhelmed their comprehension. Pulling out his knife, Peter cut the safety belts from three people, two men and a woman, who moaned in pain. Arriving soldiers from nearby Miller Field helped remove these three people who barely clung to life by a thread. They placed two of them into a Coast Guard helicopter that flew the painfully injured men to the New Dorp United States Public Health Hospital. Others drove the woman to the hospital by car. The only one of the three to reach the hospital alive died a few hours later.
“It was very quiet inside the aircraft,” they later said, “except for occasional moaning.” Peter stated, “I prayed that it would be over soon.”
Fire apparatus reaching the crash scene cut through the same wire fence that the Paul brothers had earlier vaulted. They directed water hoses to the now fiercely burning forward section where the passengers fared even worse than those in the separated rear section. Arriving rescuers reeled at the sight of dismembered and decapitated bodies.
Later, after nothing more could be done for the victims, a solemn crowd gathered on the far side of the nearby cyclone fence. They stood quiet and looked sad, shocked by the great tragedy. They had difficulty comprehending the magnitude of the horror. Yellow insulation from the doomed TWA plane interlaced the bare branches above their heads, festooned as if in celebration for Christmas.
“God brought that plane in,” said Colonel E. Howan, Commander of Miller Army field, as he stood at the crash scene. He noted that the falling aircraft sections miraculously missed many homes and apartment buildings. United’s jet engine, torn from the wing by the initial impact, buried itself in the frozen ground of an empty playground. Still inside the engine were the remains of the ingested passenger.
Elsewhere, the Horror Continued
It was all over for the passengers and crew of TWA Flight 266. But the horror continued for those on United Flight 826. After ramming TWA, and losing one of its engines, Flight 826 proceeded for eight miles in a northeasterly direction, losing altitude as it descended toward the heavily congested Brooklyn section of New York City.
The only noise on Brooklyn’s Sterling Place was the occasional sloshing sound of a car going through the snow. But this shortly changed. Thousands of people on the ground in New York City watched the DC-8 streaking toward the densely populated Park Slope residential and business section. Flight 826 swept in low, and just before impact, threatened to crash into St. Augustine parochial school that contained over a thousand children.
Two men shoveling snow at the intersection of Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue suddenly heard the whine of jet engines. They looked up and saw the DC-8 coming straight at them.
A Brooklyn teacher, James Barnes, noticed a student suddenly turn pale. Barnes looked in the direction the student was staring, and saw the cause of the fright. The DC-8, not over a thousand yards away, was descending straight for the school. Suddenly the plane banked to the right, barely missing it.
At over 200 miles per hour United’s right wing rammed into a brownstone apartment building, spinning the jet’s nose section directly into the Pillar of Fire Church. The three-story building instantly disintegrated, erupting into a fiery inferno. The crumbling church buried Wallace Lewis, the caretaker, in the rubble.
The DC-8 tail section crashed into the intersection in front of a small grocery store. A blazing section of the left wing thrust itself into a nearby four-story apartment building, its tip protruding grotesquely through the shattered roof.
A large section of the cabin, with passengers trapped inside, slammed against McCaddin Funeral home. Immediately before the crash, the McCaddins were having mid-morning coffee in their apartment over the funeral home. Suddenly, Mrs. McCaddin exclaimed, “My goodness, that plane sounds awfully low!”
Just then the entire building shook, as if hit by a bomb. Flames leaped into the air outside the broken windows. Grabbing their baby, the McCaddin family ran for their lives.
The Pitiful Sound of the Dying
From inside the DC-8 wreckage came the pitiful, tortured screams of the dying crew and passengers. A bystander later described the cries as “the worst sound I ever heard.” The first to arrive on the crash scene could see and hear the passengers screaming in pain. They could offer no help. Trapped and hopelessly beyond aid, those inside the wreckage felt the terrible heat and hopelessness of their final moments.
A young boy, injured by falling debris, ran from the crash scene, blood streaming down his face. He shouted as he ran past a flower shop, “Oh, those people are burning to death.” His eyes showed the horror he had just seen. A man grabbed the boy and shook him, but the boy pulled away and ran. A woman, unaware of the tragedy that had just occurred, stated, “He must be out of his mind.”
“Am I going to die?”
Not everyone perished on Flight 826. The owner of a small grocery store, stacking milk containers in the rear of the store when the crash happened, ran to the front door, pulled it open, and saw the astonishing pandemonium only a few feet away. Suddenly, he saw a little figure crawling from the burning tail section.
His clothes on fire, covered with blood, and bleeding from his nose and mouth, Stephen Baltz crawled slowly and painfully from under the flaming wreckage. Two patrolmen arrived on the scene as Stephen crawled on the ground. They quickly rolled Stephen in the snow to extinguish his burning clothes. After extinguishing the flames, a woman in a leopard coat held an umbrella over Stephen to protect him from the light rain. It was a sad scene.
“Am I going to die?” Stephen asked, looking up, and crying in pain. Stephen reached out for help. His lips quivered as he cried, “Mommy, Daddy...”
Completing his services at nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church, Reverend Harry Sterling rushed outside as a police officer ran up and asked him to give absolution to Stephen. Together they rushed to the flaming wreckage, finding Stephen still conscious. The smell of burning flesh worsened the horror.
“Mother ... She’s Waiting for Me.”
The flames burned Stephen’s face, hair, eyelashes, and lungs. He kept holding up his right arm, showing his bleeding hand. Rushed by police car to nearby Methodist Hospital, Stephen lay in the arms of Mrs. Dorothy Fletcher, Chief of the Brooklyn Volunteers for Civil Defense. Just before lapsing into unconsciousness Stephen sobbed, “Mother...she’s waiting for me.” It was only by chance that Stephen had been on this United Airlines jet. Stephen was to have flown two days earlier with his mother and younger sister, Randee.
Initial Signs of an Airline Crash at the Passenger Terminal
At the airport terminal, families and friends, unaware of the crash, became more anxious every time the airline personnel changed the aircraft’s expected arrival time. After several such delays, ticket agents removed the flight’s listing from the flight board, providing the first hint of the disaster, although the public didn’t recognize the omen at the time.
Finally, a United Airlines employee, holding back tears, announced that United 826 would not arrive; it had crashed. Cries and screams erupted. In the background gala Christmas music sounded through the terminal.
“What am I going to do, what am I going to do?” sobbed one young woman, waiting for her husband who would never arrive. Others tried to comfort her, saying that he was still alive. “No, no, there’s only one survivor,” she cried, a fact she learned from news reports of the tragedy on TV.
Throughout New York City sirens pierced the air, as over fifty pieces of emergency equipment rushed to the disaster scene. It was probably the worst disaster the nation’s largest city had ever experienced.
Wallace Lewis, caretaker of the nearby Pillar of Fire Church, had not purchased a ticket for a flight in the friendly skies of United, but he was affected by United’s “unfriendly skies.” He died in the destroyed church.
“An Act of God”
Fire Commissioner Cavanaugh said it was “an act of God that the major impact of the crash had been on the vacant church, rather than on any of the surrounding buildings, heavily occupied with tenants.”
Tons of Human Remains
The crash caused dismemberment or cremation of twenty-six thousand pounds of humanity. Two hours after the initial crash, the Brooklyn fire department declared the fire under control. The gruesome task of removing and identifying the dead then began.
Lining the streets and watching from apartment windows, quiet and visibly shaken onlookers watched the grim procession of stretchers carrying blackened, mutilated and bloodied bodies. City officials declared an unprecedented citywide emergency by sounding the emergency disaster signal.
The only living survivor of those last desperate minutes described the experience from his hospital bed. Stephen described the beauty of the snow-covered city as the DC-8 descended. He described the fear he felt as the plane plunged toward the ground. Stephen added, “That’s all I remember until I woke up here.”
Stephen’s father rushed from Chicago by plane to reach his badly injured son. Landing shortly after dark, a police escort rushed him to the hospital. Later, Mr. Baltz said, “My son tried to smile but could not.” Medication covered Stephen’s badly swollen face. The crash broke Stephen’s left leg, and the ensuing fire inflicted burns on a major portion of his body. Stephen was in critical condition, and doctors expressed fear that searing of his lung tissues had occurred.
Stephen’s mother and father stayed in a room at the hospital so they could be close to their son. The morning after the tragedy, Stephen felt well enough to ask his father for a book, and permission to watch television. Chances for his survival improved. Shortly before Stephen lapsed back into unconsciousness, his father promised him a portable television set for Christmas.
Thousands of telephone calls and telegrams poured into the hospital from all over the nation, expressing hope and prayers for Stephen’s recovery. It was only eight days until Christmas; it would be cruel if Stephen didn’t make it after suffering so terribly.
Stevie Joins the Others in Death
The nation’s prayers, the intensive medical help, could do only so much. Stephen’s parents maintained a constant vigil at his bedside. Whatever plans Stephen’s parents had for his future, whatever dreams young Stephen had, they all ended. He died.
A heartbroken father, his eyes misting and his voice breaking, stated to the press: “Well, our Stevie passed away at one p.m. His mother and I are tremendously saddened. But we have had so many fine people in the world send sympathy and prayers and we want to thank them. Stevie tried hard; tried awfully hard. He was a wonderful boy, not because he was my son, but because he was Stevie.”
The hospital staff issued a bulletin: “All could not bring the little boy back from the effects of his severe injuries. He closed his eyes and went to sleep.”
The task of identifying the horribly mutilated bodies remained. A Bellevue hospital morgue attendant said, “The bodies are so badly mangled, even worse than those from the Morro Castle. It is the worst I’ve seen in my thirty-eight years here.”
Saddened relatives and friends climbed the fourteen steps leading to Bellevue city morgue from the early morning hours and late into the night. The morgue staff avoided personal identification whenever possible. One attendant said, “It’s an ordeal we don’t like to put people through if we don’t have to.” But fingerprints and dental charts did not always spare the next-of-kin the tragic ordeal of identifying a loved one.
The human suffering in the disaster, as in many others, was indescribable. For some of the friends and relatives, the emotional and financial suffering continued for years afterwards. Financial settlements often occur years after the crash, and by then the legal costs and attorneys’ fees take much of the final settlement, leaving very little for those who need it most.
Politics of Accident Investigation
By law, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates airline crashes. In addition to its own investigators, the NTSB is assisted by people from the FAA; aircraft, engine, and accessory manufacturers; from the airline; and from the pilot’s union. They also have a vested interest in protecting themselves.
Shortly after the NTSB accident investigators arrived at the Brooklyn accident scene, they found the aircraft flight data recorder in the rubble of the Pillar of Fire Church. It provided information on the plane’s speed, altitude, direction, and time, which was then compared with radio communications and radar information.
It was obvious that the United Airlines captain badly mishandled the flight by speeding into a low altitude holding pattern area, compounded by failure to notify air traffic control that one of his navigational radios was inoperative. This was the direct cause of the crash. And the NTSB reported it correctly. But what the NTSB omitted from the report was a scandal that to this day has never been officially released. If the records had been released, they would have exposed the arrogance and corruption at UAL and within the FAA that enabled this and other airline tragedies to occur. These were the underlying causes of the nation’s worst air disaster and would play underlying roles in crashes occurring for many decades thereafter. The NTSB cover-up was a felony under federal law.
NTSB and FAA management withheld from the official accident report the many FAA inspector reports that caused the conditions to exist that resulted in the tragedy. Covering up for these serious deep-seated problems and culture continued the status quo—and the expected continuing airline disasters and deaths. Doctoring government records become capital offenses under federal law when death follows. With each subsequent resulting crash—that could have been prevented if the cover-up had not occurred—it became necessary to continue the cover-ups. And this culture exists to this day.
Air Safety Corruption
Before this crash, FAA inspectors repeatedly complained that:
· The UAL training program was dangerously unsatisfactory.
· Many of the United Airlines FAA approved company check airmen deprived the crewmembers of legally required training.
· United Airlines deprived weak crewmembers corrective training.
· That United Airlines engaged in a pattern of violating important air safety laws by not providing recurrent training to its flight crewmembers.
· Did not check the competency of the flight crews, as required by law.
· Government required records were falsified to indicate legally required training was provided when in fact the training and competency checks had not been performed.
· FAA management knew of these safety problems and violations, blocked the correction of them, and retaliated against government inspectors who made such reports.
These were serious federal crimes and made into capital offenses under federal criminal and air safety statutes, including Title 18 U.S.C. Sections 34 and 35.
Similar to the savings and loan and many other government scandals, FAA inspectors who discovered serious fraud relating to violations of the government air safety requirements were blocked from taking corrective actions. FAA and United officials obstructed compliance with the air safety laws, with the assistance of members of Congress, just as in the HUD, savings and loan, and other scandals.
Sequestered Reports of Criminal Activities
By law the FAA, through its inspectors, inspects and determines whether the airline meets federal air safety requirements, and determines whether an adequate level of safety exists. The FAA approves company pilots to act in place of the FAA inspectors, and then the inspectors observe a percentage of training and competency checks conducted by airline check airmen to insure that FAA standards are met. If they don’t meet FAA standards, the airline’s check airmen are to be removed from that function. In reality, it was the FAA inspectors who were removed when they reported FAA standards were violated by FAA-approved company check airmen.
FAA inspectors repeatedly reported check airmen at United Airlines engaging in questionable practices, having low standards that reduced the training costs, and depriving the crewmembers of the safeguards that come with a good training program.
Falsified Training Records
Several months before this crash, FAA inspectors traveled from the Denver training center to United’s maintenance base at San Francisco, to crosscheck the aircraft records with the Denver training records. The intent of this unusual cross-check of records was to determine if United Airlines personnel were falsifying training records and withholding training to the crewmembers, as the inspectors suspected.
The cross-check revealed that the legally required training and competency checks that required three to three and a half hours to complete when FAA inspectors were present, only required thirty to forty-five minutes when inspectors were not present. Obviously, UAL check airmen were falsifying the training records, and not providing the flight crews the legally required training. United Airlines personnel covered up for this by falsifying the training records. This was very serious, especially now that the same program experienced the world’s worst air tragedy.
On October 16, 1960, the inspectors conducting the unexpected inspection signed an eight-page report prepared by FAA inspector Frank Harrell, describing their findings. That report became an official government document, and should have been the primary evidence in the NTSB investigation of the New York City air disaster. That report, and many similar reports in the FAA files, explained why the DC-8 crew mishandled the aircraft as badly as they did.
That document would have revealed why the UAL pilots handled their DC-8 in such a dangerous manner, and why the reported problems were blocked from being corrected. The report was a blockbuster and if it had been made public would have shown the United States involved in the world’s worst air disaster scandal.
FAA Response for Reported Safety Problems:
Destroy the Report and Silence the Inspector!
After that alarming report was filed as a government document, and before the New York City crash occurred, FAA Western Region officials engaged in a cover-up that would cost hundreds of people their lives. Instead of forcing United Airlines officials to comply with the law, and provide the legally required training, FAA officials sequestered the report, which was another felony.
Two FAA reports written several months prior to that crash were hidden from the public. They revealed how the United Airlines corporation increased their profit by multiple tactics that deprived the pilots the legally-required periodic training and competency checks, which then enabled the pilot errors to occur that had such horrific consequences.
FAA report by FAA personnel concerned about the United Airlines safety practices: September 23, 1960.
Another, October 22, 1960.
The Deadly Practices Continued—for years, with Many
More Crashes, and Many More Screams of the Dying
The government aviation accident investigation group at that time, the Civil Aeronautics Administration, covered up the serious safety problems at United Airlines, and covered up for the internal problems in the Federal Aviation Agency (known at that time by knowledgeable insiders as the "Tombstone Agency). Department of Justice personnel covered up for all of them—and continued to do so for decades thereafter.
The next step was to get rid of FAA inspectors who embarrassed the FAA and NTSB with sensitive reports. The primary FAA inspector responsible for UAL’s DC-8 program was Frank Harrell, whose determination to correct the unlawful and dangerous training program put him in frequent confrontation with United Airlines officials.
Harrell was also the FAA inspector responsible for the inspection team visit to United’s San Francisco maintenance base, which led to the discovery of training record and training falsifications. United officials put pressure upon FAA management to get rid of Harrell, and this was done. The FAA Western Region transferred Harrell to an undesirable job in Puerto Rico, which inspectors associated with their version of Siberia. This move sent a warning to other inspectors not to report safety violations or safety problems at United Airlines.
The cover-up continued the conditions that made the crash possible. Other crashes, and other deaths, naturally followed, making the FAA and NTSB cover-up contributory causes to the tragedies. These will be explained in subsequent pages.
Cover-up Response by Pilots’ Union
The UAL training program irregularities were obviously known to the pilots and the pilots’ union; Airline Pilots Association (ALPA). The union made no attempt to exonerate the crew of Flight 826, which they could have done by exposing the training program misconduct that preceded the crash. Instead, ALPA claimed that the crash was the fault of air traffic control, implying that the controllers on the ground should have been able to halt the aircraft in the sky like a traffic cop.
Warnings Two Days before the Crash
Ironically, two days before this crash the head of the Federal Aviation Agency, Air Force General E.R. Quesada, testified before the House Commerce Subcommittee on airline safety. Quesada identified the obstacles and roadblocks confronting aviation safety: Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). Aviation Week & Space Technology reported his testimony:
Quesada Blasts AOPA and ALPA During
FAA Report to Congress
The Federal Aviation Agency Administrator E.R. Quesada accused Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. and Airline Pilots Assn., last week of attempting to undermine Federal Aviation Agency’s safety rules and enforcement during a farewell appearance during a House Commerce Subcommittee report on FAA’s two-year existence.
In his two hour, 47-page testimony, Quesada told the sub-committee that when he became Administrator of the newly created agency on Nov. 1, 1958, “I was by no means naive as to the past history of the AOPA as a self-serving group. But I must admit I was not fully prepared for the intensity of their invective or for the imaginative and sometimes devious methods they employ.”
Declaring that he refused to allow the pressure groups to intimidate him or FAA inspectors, Quesada presented a case-by-case list of AOPA and ALPA attacks on government safety activities. He urged the subcommittee to insist on effective administration of the new government air safety agency.
FAA Administrators come and go, and Quesada probably did not know the bureaucratic corruption that existed deep within the FAA (which was especially rampant in the FAA Western Region). Although United’s executive offices were in Chicago, and the FAA office at Chicago would have been the one holding safety responsibilities for United, the certificate was held by the Los Angeles FAA Regional Office, which had a cozy relationship with United Airlines officials.
Quesada was probably the most competent FAA administrator that ever existed in the FAA’s history. He would be replaced over the years with mostly unqualified and politically correct administrators.
The Public Never Learned the Truth
The public never learned the true cause of the crash. If it had become public knowledge, the lawsuits against United Airlines would have included punitive damages that were not covered by insurance. UAL contributed large sums of money to members of Congress; it was a source of high-paying positions for former government employees; and it controlled powerful law firms. Further, the criminal acts included FAA officials, plus the bribing of members of Congress with euphemistically called political contributions.
Lawsuits were filed against UAL, TWA, and the FAA, but without any of the plaintiffs knowing the truth behind the crash. The fuzzy argument for suing the FAA was that the FAA should have been able to stop the United DC-8 in flight. At the time of this crash, government air traffic services were already providing more assistance to pilots than ever before. The air traffic controller on the ground could not stop a plane that ignored its clearance limit and sped into the airspace assigned to other aircraft.
The total claims arising as a result of the disaster neared a third of a billion dollars. The Journal of Air Law and Commerce stated, “371 cases amounting to 153,000,000 dollars were pending” as a result of this crash. Claims against the United States Government, defended by the Department of Justice, were close to seventy million dollars. The amount would have been much higher if the next of kin knew of the misconduct at UAL, being legal basis for punitive damages because of the fraud. Even today, UAL and the FAA could be sued as the statute of limitations does not start to run until evidence of the fraud is known to those with a claim.
Outspoken FAA Administrator Pete Quesada issued a statement based upon the evidence shown by the DC-8 flight recorder and other data. He either did not know of the internal FAA misconduct or he deliberately covered up. But he did warn that unless the FAA and the airlines paid greater attention to basic safety requirements, the tragedies would continue. And that did occur!
UAL management and the Airline Pilots Association each had an ax to grind against Quesada. Neither took kindly to Quesada’s requirement that the crews meet the stiffer training and competency standards than Quesada initiated. Even though this air tragedy showed the importance of training, United and ALPA blamed Quesada for the crash.
Despite Quesada’s warnings, the Chairman of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee, Senator Mike Monroney of Oklahoma, condemned Quesada’s control of the FAA, and eulogized the very group that shared blame in the crash. Aviation Week wrote:
Monroney Increasingly Critical of FAA. Sen. A.S. Mike Monroney (D-Okla) made it clear last week that he intends to keep a closer, more critical eye on the Federal Aviation Agency as his Aviation Subcommittee continued its investigations of air safety. He made it clear that he has some misgivings about the uncritical support he gave the agency during its first two years and that he intends to keep FAA operations under close surveillance. Commending ALPA on its testimony...Sen. Monroney again raised the issue of whether FAA has exerted its full powers to promote air safety, and commented, “This is not a very good record. I don’t think we’re doing a good job.”
Monroney reportedly received healthy financial contributions from ALPA and other union and corporate interests. Under the direction and insistence of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the United States Department of Justice acted to relieve United of considerable financial responsibility for the crash. This caused the public to assume a greater portion of the financial liability arising out of the air disaster. A World News Digest article stated:
U.S. to Pay in Air Crash. It was disclosed Oct. 22 that the federal government [i.e., the taxpayers] had agreed to pay 24% of the damages of verdicts agreed on in lawsuits growing out of the Dec. 16, 1960 collision over N.Y. Harbor between a United Airlines DC-8 jet and a Trans World Air Line Lockheed Super-Constellation. (134 people were killed.) United Airlines was to pay 61% of lawsuit damage costs, Trans World 15%.
The government was a co-defendant in the suits because the planes’ instrument landing approaches were being guided by Federal Aviation agency controllers when the collision occurred. A tentative government agreement to bear such a share of the damages had been canceled by FAA administrator Najeeb E. Halaby, but his decision was over-turned by the Justice Department. [See Vol. XXII, P. 256B-C3]
In the Journal of Air Law and Commerce a description appeared of the government’s settlement of the lawsuits arising out of the DC-8 crash into New York City:
On October 23, 1963, the United States Government, specifically the Department of Justice, agreed to pay twenty-four per cent of whatever damages are fixed as a result of claims and lawsuits arising from the collision of a United Airlines DC-8 jet with a Trans World Airlines Super Constellation over Staten Island on December 16, 1960.
United Airlines and Trans World Airlines agreed to pay sixty-one and fifteen percent respectively. ... It is interesting to note that if the case had been tried and lost, the Justice Department would have been responsible for paying the judgment out of its budget. However, since the case was settled, the FAA is liable out of its budget.
The article discussed the danger of executive department settling of claims, benefiting industry and added:
Would ... political considerations cause these standards to be stretched beyond those of even the most liberal court?
Voicing strong disapproval of this settlement, FAA Administrator, Najeeb Halaby (who followed Pete Quesada when his outspoken position caused his removal as head of the FAA), lambasted the settlement in an internal FAA communication:
I opposed this settlement formula at every level in the Department of Justice up to and including the Attorney General. My opposition was based on the fact that the system (referring to the air traffic control system) cannot either then or now reach out and prevent an accident involving an airplane which flies 12 miles past a holding fix at a great rate of speed...The Air Traffic Control system is very much like the system furnished to the highway users. The government authorities furnish the stop signs, the red and green traffic lights and the rules for their use.
The air traffic control system cannot physically prevent a pilot from disregarding a stop signal any more than the highway traffic control system can physically stop a vehicle whose operator disregards a red light and plunges through it. Both systems are dependent on and require responsible compliance on the part of the operator of the vehicle with the traffic rules. When a pilot is told to hold at a particular holding pattern and says he will, it is up to him.
The controller on the ground cannot pilot or navigate the airplane for him ... the system in December 1960 was not capable of stopping those who did not comply with directions from the controllers. Neither does it today, despite the many advances made in the past three years. Nor will it in the future, because it is generally agreed that ultimate responsibility must reside with the pilot ... the system was not violator proof nor will it be.
The Corrupt Practices Continued as if Nothing Happened
After the New York City crash nothing changed at the FAA Denver district office and Los Angeles regional offices. Nothing changed at United Airlines. The competent and conscientious FAA inspectors continued to complain among themselves about the poor training and standards at United. FAA inspectors continued to observe United Airlines FAA-approved check airmen denying legally required training to the crewmembers. FAA officials continued to pressure inspectors not to report safety violations or safety problems. Harrell, the “trouble-maker” was gone, and the other inspectors grumbled among themselves. But they rarely filed any written reports of the continuing safety violations and safety problems. The “smart” politically attuned inspectors ignored the safety problems and violations, as they found that was the way to benefit in the FAA (as in every other government organization).
Deep-Seated FAA Culture Remained in Place
One of the key obstacles faced by FAA inspectors in trying to make the airlines conform to the law and meet adequate safety standards was the culture in the FAA that blocked the federal government from carrying out its aviation safety responsibilities. These problems emanated from a combination of factors: politics; incompetence in management positions; revolving door syndrome in which people in government ignored major safety problems and safety violations of airlines for which they were seeking to be hired; laziness.
When pressure came from higher offices, the pecking order down below continued the status quo, despite the repeated crashes and deaths arising from them. The power of higher management to rate the performance of personnel, to make promotions and higher pay, to pay bonuses, acts to spread the misconduct and discourage the more competent and dedicated from performing their air safety duties.
Inspectors faced a culture that didn’t want reports of safety problems or safety violations, a culture that destroyed such reports and retaliated against those inspectors that sought to carry out the government’s air safety responsibilities.
One instance of this in the Western Region of the FAA was the well-known conduct by the chief of the Air Carrier Branch in Los Angeles, Lynn Ashwell. He was reportedly looking for industry support to become the first career administrator of the FAA at a time when most administrators were political appointees. To obtain industry assistance in reaching his goal, Ashwell applied pressure on inspectors not to report unsafe or illegal practices. I encountered this problem when I joined the FAA, and got into the thick of the problem when I accepted the assignment to take over the United Airlines DC-8 program.
After Harrell was banished to Puerto Rico, a Los Angeles regional safety group asked me to accept an unprecedented life and death assignment to correct the serious problems at United Airlines. Their last statement to me was, "Rod, this is a difficult assignment, but we are right behind you."
middle management FAA officials offered me the United DC-8 opening at Denver while I was working in Los Angeles with American Airlines, Western, and others. I was already aware of some of the problems on the United Airlines assignment. But after I accepted the assignment and moved to Denver, I found the problems worse than I had been told.
UAL Midair Collision Over the Grand Canyon was
The Catalyst for Formation of the Federal Aviation Agency from the CAA
Ironically, the Federal Aviation Administration was legislated by Congress through the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 because of an earlier United Airlines crash. Congress passed this legislation after a United DC-7 crashed into a TWA Constellation over the Grand Canyon on June 30, 1956. Both planes plunged into the Grand Canyon with the loss of all 128 people.
The former government air safety agency was the Civil Aeronautics Administration, managed by indifferent bureaucrats and responsive to political and vested interest groups. The Act granted the FAA the authority and responsibility to make and enforce air safety rules. Unfortunately, the Act brought into the new agency the same government bureaucrats and mentality from the CAA. Deeply ingrained in the CAA were government politics, favoritism, graft, and corruption. These individuals, and this attitude, carried over into the Federal Aviation Agency, preventing any conscientious and competent inspector from functioning.
The horror of the New York City disaster faded from the public’s mind. The public soon forgot. The government withheld from the public the scandal behind that great air disaster. The cover-up made possible, or caused, many air disasters to follow. This book is a saga of scandals starting with the deaths of Stephen Baltz and 133 others.
United Airlines continued to experience a world-record series of fatal crashes, non-fatal crashes, and near crashed.
at United Airlines (and to a lesser extent at other airlines) then followed for the next eighteen years, almost every one due to the known air safety problems and air safety violations.
Deadly Survivable Crash at Denver
Seven months after the New York City crash, another United Airlines crash occurred, caused by the same training program problems. This one occurred in Denver, where United had its training base that was the root cause of many UAL crashes. Nothing had changed since the New York City crash. If anything, the defiance by UAL management to FAA safety requirements became worse with their success in escaping punishment for earlier tragedies. And FAA officials continued the culture, the arrogance, and the misconduct, as before. Very few inspectors dared to report the problems, avoiding the fate netted out to Harrell.
 Primary navigational receivers with which pilots determine their position (except on long over-water flights). The VOR units are combined with DME (distance measuring equipment) to provide radial (magnetic bearing) and distance information with respect to the VOR station.
 Instrument Landing System precision approach that provides lateral direction and a glide path to the runway.
 The ship that burned off the New Jersey coast in 1934.
 Title 49 U.S.C. §§ 1441, 1443, 1903.
 At that time it was within the Civil Aeronautic Board and known as the Bureau of Aviation Safety. For convenience, in most cases within these pages they are referred to as the NTSB.
 Title 18 U.S.C. § 35. Whoever imparts or conveys or causes to be imparted or conveyed false information, knowing the information to be false, ... to do any act which would be a crime prohibited by this chapter or chapter 98 or chapter 111 of this title shall be subject to ...
Title 18 U.S.C. § 1001. Whoever in any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States knowingly and willfully falsifies, conceals or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact, or makes any false, fictitious or fraudulent statements or representations, or makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any false, fictitious or fraudulent statement or entry, shall be fined ... or imprisoned ...
Title 18 U.S.C. § 2071. Concealment, removal, or mutilation generally.
(a) Whoever ... conceals, removes, ... or destroys ... any document ... filed with any public officer of the United States, shall be fined ... or imprisoned ...
Title 18 U.S.C. § 34 Penalty when death results
Whoever is convicted of any crime prohibited by this chapter, which has resulted in the death of any person, shall be subject also to the death penalty or to imprisonment for life.
 Title 18 U.S.C. § 34. “Whoever is convicted of any crime prohibited by this chapter, which has resulted in the death of any person, shall be subject also to the death penalty or to imprisonment for life, ... “