Published in May 2016 issue

By Jerome Chandler

When it comes to matters aeronautic, I’m an 11-year-old kid in a 67-year-old body—trapped in time on a warm summer’s day at Dallas Love Field (DAL), out on the open air observation deck watching Braniff El Conquistador DC-6s and Delta Royal Crown DC-7s perform their delicate dances on the tarmac.

I’d make the most of these idyllic days. Airline timetables in hand and just enough money to buy lunch at the snack bar, I’d get up early and ride my bicycle down Mockingbird Lane to the terminal.

I thought those summers would never end. Then, one day they did. Abruptly and catastrophically.

On the evening of September 29, 1959, my cousin Frank Greer, a former Navy Pilot, boarded Braniff International Airways Flight 542 along with 33 other souls bound from Houston Hobby (HOU) to DAL. The aircraft was all but brand new: a muscular L-188A Lockheed Electra. At 23:09, the number four Allison 501-D-13 propjet began a crazy, rotational dance of death, ultimately wrenching the right wing off, just outboard of its casing.

The aircraft broke apart in its fall towards Buffalo, Texas. All 34 aboard died.

I found out about the crash the following morning, when my mother came into my room crying. Frank had been a favorite of hers and of my grandfather, who had looked on him as a son.

Frank would not be the last victim of what became known as ‘whirl mode’—the undamped oscillation of propeller and power plant to the point of destruction. Less than a year later, on March 17, 1960, Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 710, en route from Chicago Midway (MDW) to Miami (MIA), penetrated an área of severe turbulence over Indiana. This triggered whirl mode. The right wing separated, sending the Electra into the wintry earth 5.6 miles northeast of Cannelton, Indiana. There were 63 souls on board this time. None survived.

I was made fearful—and, at the same time, fascinated— by these two events. My family was well off back then, and I often flew out of Dallas. Suddenly, I didn’t want to go near an airplane—especially an Electra (the problem was eventually fixed by strengthening the nacelles and other structures).

In time, of course, I did fly again. But the magic had been marred.

May 2016
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Two years later, I’d entered my teens. By then, my mom had remarried, falling for a former Navy flyer named Bob Gazzaway, who was a First Officer for Flying Tiger Line (Airways, February 2014). Bob had seen it all aloft: from crop-dusting to flying in the Pacific during World War II. He’d missed the Battle of Midway only because he’d been laid up after a motorcycle accident.

Ours was a love/hate relationship, not uncommon when it comes to teenage boys and stepfathers. One night in March 1962, I became particularly mad at him, picked up a plastic model of an L-1049H Super Constellation, the kind of aircraft Bob flew, and hurled it across the room. It shattered. Within two weeks, he was dead, the victim of—at least until Malaysia Flight 370—the planet’s most mysterious airline accident.

It was March 16, 1962. Bob was ferrying troops to Vietnam. Along the way from Travis Air Force Base, California, to Saigon, the propliner island-hopped across the Pacific. But, en route from Guam to Clark AFB in the Philippines, it simply vanished with 107 occupants on board. To this day—although rumors galore still persist —no one knows what actually happened.

By now, I was obsessed with aviation safety, collecting and devouring accident reports the way other teenagers read comics.

After making my own journey to Vietnam as an Army medic in 1970, I came home, got a job as a radio newsman and started, tentatively, writing about air crash causes on the side. My hobby became a full-time job in 1984, when I went to work with the late, great Frequent Flyer magazine. A year later, Delta 191 went down at Dallas/Ft Worth International (DFW) because of windshear, and I wrote a book about it.

Over the years, I’ve seen commercial aviation become significantly safer as our industry learns from its mistakes. That’s the most gratifying part. In future Airways columns, we’ll chronicle the never-ending battle to make the heavens ever safer. I hope you’ll join me.