When IFR Changed In A New York Minute

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On the slushy morning of Dec. 16, 1960, six residents of the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, suffered the irreversible consequences of turbines overtaking the propeller age, when one of the first jetliners, a United DC-8, collided with a piston TWA Super Connie over Staten Island, eight miles away. In total, 134 lives were destroyed, including those six on the ground who may have thought they had nothing to do with aviation. For the millions who survived and our descendants who fly today in the safest transportation system available, much changed, even if few are aware.

I was a kid in northern New Jersey in 1960 when I saw the EXTRA front page photo. Black and white devastation resembling the London Blitz 20 years earlier, except for the lone United empennage poking from the brownstone rubble. No YouTube video can speak like a well-composed photo. Give me Robert Capa Tri-X over an iPhone, stop-your-damn-panning shot any day. The photographer caught the horror one “Short Eight” wrought on a Brooklyn neighborhood, and I swore I’d never step inside an airplane. But, if I did—back-pedaling almost immediately—I’d take the last seat in the tail, because that’s what survived. I didn’t know that there was one survivor, although he wouldn’t survive long. Stephen Baltz was 11, and his story haunted me so that years ago I wrote a novel, Muzzy, that pivoted around this midair.

Muzzy means indistinct or blurred and encapsulates how life—including aviation life—can be altered when the best laid plans of pilots and air traffic controllers go to pieces in a blur of undetected mistakes. This blog limits telling the entire story, but it comes down to two airliners, flying IFR in typical winter weather, meeting a mile above Staten Island in what was both preventable and possibly inevitable.

United was en route from Chicago to New York International Airport (then Idlewild, now JFK). TWA was headed to LaGuardia from Columbus, Ohio. They met when United overshot a holding fix and clipped TWA inbound for the LaGuardia ILS. The DC-8’s right, outboard engine tore open the Connie’s cabin roof like an ice cream scoop through soft vanilla, scattering debris around Miller Field on Staten Island. End of all those stories.

United continued toward Idlewild, struggling with the literal loss of the number-four engine, embedded in the TWA wreckage. The United crew likely did everything possible to save the aircraft, but as systems failed, they lost control, and the promises of the jet age plowed into the ironically named Pillar Of Fire church in Park Slope, inside of which a maintenance man was napping. He was one of the six on the ground killed by the least expected visitation in this week before the holiday season. And New Yorkers adore the holidays.

The funny thing about fatal airplane accidents is there’s nothing funny. They’re brutal, chaotic and unplanned. Post-accident investigations, by contrast, are methodical and usually thorough. When researching the novel, with the help of NTSB’s Scott Dunham (now retired), we accessed the 60-year-old accident reports, which are colorless but paint a sobering image, especially to former controllers and pilots (Scott and I).

A brief sketch: United had been in radar contact with Center when cleared direct to Preston intersection and told to hold. Radar service was terminated—a common occurrence since coverage was far from universal—then, United was switched to approach control as it motored off-airway in search of Preston. Preston was defined by two radials from two VORs (Colts Neck and Solberg), back then called Omnis. Think 1960, long before GPS. To identify Preston, the crew ideally would have utilized two VOR receivers tuned to the separate but identifiable cross-radials. As needles centered the DC-8 should’ve entered the hold at 5000 feet to await a clearance beyond the fix. Routine. Just like today, or at least how we train today for the unlikely VOR-radial holds sans RNAV that were standard fare back then.

United, not in radar contact, called Idlewild approach and reported, “approaching Preston,” the holding fix. In truth, they’d already passed it. TWA, in radar contact with a LaGuardia approach controller, was being vectored for the localizer and warned of unknown-altitude, converging traffic. TWA’s approach controller had no idea it was a United DC-8, because ATC radar lacked sophisticated tracking data or handoff capability. TWA was likely in the clouds without any chance of seeing the wayward DC-8, doing 301 knots and intercepting them at the same altitude. TWA was doing 160 knots. Fate doesn’t need to be a hunter to do the math.

United was lost and cruising at high speed while the crew was preoccupied identifying Preston intersection by using one VOR receiver. The other receiver was INOP, and the crew had not informed ATC; weren’t required to back then. We are now.

I once shot a solo localizer approach into Teterboro, New Jersey airport (TEB) in my 1951 Bonanza with a 1951 panel in IMC, using a single VOR receiver and no RNAV. Mildly challenging, but I had radar service to put me on the localizer and call the f approach fix. United’s crew had one VOR, no ATC radar help and little positional awareness.

Today’s airlines are packed with navigational aids unimagined when United hit TWA. Rules have changed, as they always do after a disaster. Maximum speed (in most cases) is now 250 knots below 10,000 feet. Going direct isn’t usually permitted without radar monitoring, and only fools fly IFR with one stinkin’ VOR receiver for sole navigation. ATC has radar around the busier airports, and pilots have GPS plus ADS-B Out, In and Sideways or soon will. Safety has improved, although as the recent Lion Air accident reminds us, the best laid plans of engineers and planners sometimes amount to naught.

Meanwhile, Happy Holidays to us one and all who refuse to stay out of the sky, because it’s still the most amazing leap for humans who are only vaguely aware of how anything works.