Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadaloupe: On what was to be the end of the third leg of a multi-stop flight from Paris, France to Santiago, Chile, Air France Flight 117, a Boeing 707, registration F-BHST, crashed on approach to the airport after only four months in service. Very little is known of what happened on that fateful flight other than several contributing factors seemed to have doomed the flight from the beginning so that it went down with all 113 souls aboard. When officials and investigators began to piece together the events of that day, multiple issues seemed to give rise to an inevitable downed craft.
The first thing that investigators noted was that the weather was punishing over Guadaloupe at the time of the attempted landing, with violent thunderstorms and a very low cloud ceiling. This, along with an airport that is surrounded by mountains which requires a steep ascent glide plane did not help matters any. Investigators also discovered that the VHF Omnidirectional Range (VOR) finder was not serviceable at the time of the attempted landing. The crew did report that they had found the Non-Directional Beacon (NDB) and were on course for landing, a faulty Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) caused by the storm, put the plane 15km off course from their glide path. The plane crashed into a hillside and killed all those aboard.
While investigators couldn’t conclude a single cause for the crash, the combination of the previously mentioned elements led them to believe that all of these contributing factors made for an impossible safe landing.
Orly Airport, Paris, France: Air France Flight 007, a Boeing 707, registration F-BHSM, begins to taxi down the runway and lines up for takeoff from Paris’s Orly Airport on a chartered flight to Atlanta, Georgia via Idlewild Airport in New York. Pilots began the takeoff sequence and accelerated down the runway, passing V1 and attempting to take off. Witnesses, however, reported that while the nose of the plane rotated, the main landing gear never got off of the runway. The plane began to power down immediately, and brakes were applied, but not before the fully fueled, fully loaded jet ran off the end of the runway, collapsing to the ground and bursting into flames.
The control tower at Orly reported that the pilots had radioed that a problem with the elevator controls, making it impossible for them to complete the rotation and get the plane off of the ground. Pilots then initiated an emergency stop. The pilots immediately initiated the thrust reversers as well as the brakes for the tires. Witness reported that the brakes were applied so hard that it shredded the tires of the landing gear. Investigators found that the front and left-side landing gear suffered the worst damage from the stop attempt, shredding all of the tires and damaging the landing gear severely. When the aircraft continued off of the end of the runway, the left landing gear support collapsed along with the undercarriage and the fully-fueled plane burst into flames.
Emergency crews rushed to the scene to put out the fire and rescue the survivors, but the only survivors from the wreckage were two airline attendants who had been strapped into the tailpiece of the plane. All of the other 130 souls on board perished. Investigators began to sift the the wreckage and catalog the state and functional qualities of the components on board. After reviewing the tower recording of the pilots complaining of elevator trouble, investigators searched for and found the elevator control motor. The engine was completely seized, thereby making it impossible for the plane to take off. It is unclear whether the elevator control motor seized because of a maintenance deficiency or design flaw, but investigators had their cause.
This accident had the distinction of having a severe effect on one city in particular. The airliner had been chartered by a group of Atlanta, Georgia arts supporters. In fact, 106 of the passengers were part of the Atlanta Art Association and were returning home from a month-long tour of Europe, including a momentous visit to the Louvre in Paris. The Louvre had in fact considered sending the well known painting “Whistler’s Mother” to an Atlanta museum on the flight, but deferred to later in the year. After the loss of so many patrons of the arts, the Louvre did donate a Rodin sculpture, The Shade, to the High Museum in Atlanta for a memorial to those who died on the flight. While some say it was a coincidence, others just called it commentary on the news of the day, but artist Andy Warhol created a newsprint ad piece called “129 Die in Jet” (seen on right) which came out shortly after the news of Flight 007 (At the time of the actual crash, another attendant had survived, but later died in hospital, raising the death count from 129 to 130).
Unionville, Iowa: At approximately 9:17 p.m. on May 22, Continental Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 707, registration N70775, from Chicago to Kansas City experienced an explosive decompression and broke apart mid-air before falling to earth in a clover field near Centerville, Iowa in the Union Township. All forty-five souls aboard lost their lives in what became a first in commercial aviation history, the crash of a jet airliner via sabotage.
At 9:22, a B-47 Stratojet from nearby Forbes Air Force Base in Topeka, Kansas, reported seeing fiery debris falling from the sky and landing with devastating effect. Air traffic controllers had no reports from the crew, other than just before they lost contact, Flight 11 reported a deviation in course to avoid a line of thunderstorms. Controllers wondered if the weather had something to do with the crash, but investigators soon discovered something more sinister was afoot.
Investigators found the crash site to distributed over a large debris field, with the tail section quite a distance away from the main fuselage. Investigators also began to see signs of peeled skin on the fuselage indicating an explosive force outward. The point of ignition seemed to come from the lavatory on the right side of the aircraft. Investigators began to work with the FBI and soon began looking at the passenger list. One name stood out almost immediately, Thomas G. Doty. The reason that his name stood out among the others was that Mr. Doty had recently purchased a $150,000 life insurance policy from Mutual of Omaha, the maximum at the time. He also purchased additional insurance at the airport. Mr. Doty had a criminal past and was due to appear in court int he near future for an armed robbery attempt. He was also married and had a small daughter. Investigators later learned that in the week prior to the flight, Mr. Doty purchased six sticks of dynamite for $0.29 apiece.
When chemical analysis on the fuselage around the point of decompression was complete, the presence of dynamite residue confirmed investigators suspicions. The team concluded that Mr. Doty brought the dynamite on board, set the timer, placed the package in the starboard lavatory and settled into his seat thinking that his family would be taken care of for the rest of their lives. It is unknown whether Mutual of Omaha actually paid out the policy or ruled the death as a suicide.
Jamaica Bay, Queens, New York: Shortly after takeoff, American Airlines Flight 1 banked sharply to the left before flipping completely over and diving almost vertically into Pumpkin Patch Channel in Jamaica Bay taking with it all 95 souls. Flight 1 from New York to Los Angeles (American Airlines still uses this flight number) took off without a hitch and had just began to approach cruising altitude when the plane seemingly flipped over and fell from the sky of its own accord. Air traffic controllers said that pilots reported that the automatic pilot had caused the flip and they were desperately trying to regain control off the craft.
The Boeing 707, registration N7506A, was three years old and had just over 8000 flight hours on it. The last inspection of the craft had been at 7900 hours. When the plane landed in the marshy channel in Queens, residents of Long Island recalled the enormous sound created as well as the shaking of coastal houses. The fully-fueled plane burst into flame upon impact creating a three-alarm fire which took firefighters just over half an hour to control. Investigators at the scene recalled that very few bodies remained intact, so it was decided that family could not come to identify bodies, but rather dental records would be used by coroners.
After combing over the wreckage site for many days, the investigation team noticed that a bolt and cotter pin were missing from the rudder mechanism aboard the 707. Investigators pointed to this until the FDR (flight data recorder) reported that the plane had suffered electrical troubles in the automatic piloting system. Frayed wiring and arcing evidence were present in the control box of the automatic pilot, causing investigators to inspect the Bendix facility in New Jersey which produced the component. There investigators found employees using tweezers to bundle wires together, causing minor fraying and stripping of the wires. Company officials denied that this damage was the culprit as they did sixty-one separate quality control tests during the manufacture of the component. Still investigators were sure that the fraying and arcing caused the automatic pilot malfunction, contributing to the crash.
Several notable people died on the flight including Linda Eastman’s mother, Louise, Arnold Kirkeby, hotel magnate, Alton Jones, multi-millionaire, and Irving Rubine, producer.
Berg, Belgium: Sabena Flight 548, a Boeing 707, registration OO-SJB, plummets to earth from 600 feet after suffering what is suspected to be a faulty stabilizer while in a holding pattern around Zaventem airport near Brussels, Belgium. The crew reported no difficulties with the plane during flight and while holding over the airport while a smaller plane was taxiing off of the runway, suddenly climbed before rolling over and crash-landing into a farmer’s field. Debris from the crash killed the farmer while another farmer was also wounded by debris.
Most unfortunate was the flight was carrying the entire 1961 U. S. Figure Skating team as well as a majority of the coaching staff. In all, sixty-one passengers, eleven crew members, and one farmer lost their lives that day. The crash marked the first crash of the Boeing 707, over two years since its placement into full-time commercial use.