Readers tell me they like to see articles about aviation as a change from the present day world turmoil. The aircraft crashes into our buildings by terrorists brought back memories of crashes observed by this correspondent during 40 years of flying. Readers shouldn’t get a slanted picture from such an article that flying is unsafe. Flight on the airlines has proven to be far safer than in your car on the highway. Terrorists can strike at any phase of transportation, not just the airlines.
Let’s look back over my 40 years of flight as we remember the excitement of some aircraft crashes during those years. Most crashes occur during training, and that was the case during World War II. There was a great deal of flying by student pilots with limited abilities, which added up to many accidents. There have been crackups where no one was hurt and the whole picture seemed like a humorous movie. During WWII, at a twin-engine Army Air Corps Base, an aviation cadet was thundering down the runway on a takeoff attempt and blew a tire. The aircraft veered off the runway and incredibly went between the standby required fire truck and ambulance. There was just enough room between the two vehicles for the plane’s fuselage, such that the wings on each side were sheared off, while the remainder of the aircraft rolled to a stop just beyond, with no injuries to the pilots.
The opposite type accident happened with this former aviation cadet on board. A fellow classmate was making a takeoff with me in the right seat. The tire blew on the same model twin-engine trainer, but with dire results. The scene was on an auxiliary field with no other planes there. When the tire blew, it flew off, causing the wheel to dig into the sod. The aircraft had enough speed that it flipped over on its back, and in the process ruptured the fuel tanks. Gasoline drenched us, but by some miracle, there was no fire, probably due to the sod runway. My classmate had a gash in his head, but I wasn’t seriously injured. Another aspect of the crash was that we were not found for hours. An instructor and student had been flying off the same field, but had departed. Nobody saw the crash, so we had to untangle ourselves and get out of the crackup however we could. My classmate was almost washed out of pilot training, but the war had just begun and bodies were needed, so he went on and received his wings.
While flight instructing in Twin-Engine Advanced, we were awaiting takeoff at the base and watched another approaching twin-engine aircraft. At the border of the field, the plane’s nose rose and suddenly stalled about 100 feet high, and crashed right in front of us. Both engines broke off and a small fire began. We ran to the crash and pulled the student and flight instructor from the mess. The student had superficial injuries, but the instructor was unconscious and bleeding. Later, we asked the student what caused the crash. He answered sarcastically that the instructor was demonstrating a short-field landing.
At our B-24 bomber base, awaiting our turn to take off, the Liberator ahead of us and the student officer pilot under the hood, was making a practice instrument takeoff. Thinking he was airborne, he hit the brakes to stop the wheels from vibrating at retraction. Because he was not yet airborne, the runway tore off the tires, followed by the landing gear. As the four-engine bomber skidded fast off the end of the runway, the right wing sliced through a nearby wooden house like a knife through bread. Unfortunately, the plane burst into flames and we lost all the crew.
The late Dr. Arbogast Sr. and this correspondent were watching the flying at the Milton Airport some years ago as a small Aerocoup approached to land. He undershot, hit trees on the border of the field, flipped and landed upside down. The doctor joined me in my car and we raced to the crash. We had to dig the pilots out of the soil from their inverted position. Outside of a couple broken noses the two occupants weren’t badly hurt.
During all my years at the Williamsport Airport, I observed some bad crashes. The worst had to be the day the former Allegheny Airlines twin-engine hit the south mountain, killing everyone on board. They passed overhead in a heavy snow storm and we could barely see the plane as it turned after missing the airport. Soon thereafter a loud boom was heard. The plane had struck the mountain.
The Lycoming Aircraft Engine Manufacturing Corporation experienced its only fatality during my years with them. One of our test pilots had a heart attack on takeoff in the fast Piper 400 H.P. single Comanche. We watched in disbelief as the aircraft suddenly pulled up abruptly, stalled and hit the ground. It killed the pilot and an engineer.
However, the traveling public shouldn’t lose confidence in flying. The airlines are still the safest type of transportation.
• Joseph A. Diblin, of Northumberland, was a four-engine pilot during World War II and has worked as a test pilot and civilian flight instructor. He is also seaplane rated. If you are a veteran — Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, World War, etc. — and would like to share your story, please contact him at 570-473-2594.