25 September 1978, 16:02:07 UTC

PSA Flight 182, on fire after mid-air collision, 25 September 1978. (Hans Wendt, County of San Diego)

25 September 1978: At 09:02:07 a.m., local time, the worst aircraft accident in California history occurred when a Boeing 727-214 airliner, civil registration N533PS, operated by Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) as Flight 182, crashed at the intersection of Dwight Street and Nile Street in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego, 4,830 meters (3.00 miles) northwest of Lindbergh Field (SAN), today known as San Diego International Airport.

Flight 182 was a regularly scheduled commercial airline flight from Sacramento, California to San Diego, with a stopover at Los Angeles. Captain James E. McFeron, a 17-year veteran of PSA, was in command. First Officer Robert E. Fox was the pilot flying the 727 on this leg. The Flight Engineer (also called the Second Officer) was Martin J. Wahne. Also in the cockpit, occupying the two “jump seats” were two off-duty PSA captains. Four flight attendants were on duty in the passenger cabin along with 126 passengers, which included 30 PSA employees.

In clear weather and early morning sunlight, the airliner was on an visual approach to Lindbergh. The 727 passed over the Mission Bay VORTAC (MZB), a navigation aid 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) northwest of the airport, and turned left to a heading of 090° to intercept the downwind leg of the approach.

Detail of current aeronautical chart of airspace around San Diego International Airport (Lindbergh Field.)
Detail of current aeronautical chart of airspace around San Diego International Airport (Lindbergh Field), center near bottom of image. Montgomery field is at the upper right.

Ahead of the 727, a single-engine light airplane, a Cessna 172, N7711G, with an instructor and student aboard, had made two practice ILS approaches to Runway 9 at Lindbergh and departed to the northwest, returning to its base at Montgomery Field (MYF), 6.4 miles (10.3 kilometers) north-northeast of SAN.

Approach Control called, Cessna 7711G, radar contact, maintain VFR at or below 3500 [1,067 meters], fly heading 070, vector (for) final approach course.” The pilot of the Cessna, David T. Boswell, acknowledged the east-north-easterly heading and the altitude restriction. About 15 seconds later, at 08:59:39, the controller informed the 727, “Additional traffic’s twelve o’clock, three miles, just north of the field, northeastbound, a Cessna One Seventy-Two climbing VFR out of one thousand four hundred.” [427 meters] At 08:59:50, First Officer Fox reported, Okay, we’ve got that other twelve.”

Radar tracks show that N7711G initially maintained the assigned heading but after about one minute, turned 20° right to 090°, the same heading as that of Flight 182.

At 09:00:23, Approach Control acknowledged Flight 182: “Okay, sir, maintain visual separation, contact Lindbergh Tower 133.3. Have a nice day, now!”

Flight 182 switched radio frequencies and Captain McFeron checked in with the tower: “Lindbergh, PSA 182. Downwind.” The Tower Controller responded, “PSA 182, Lindbergh Tower, traffic 12 o’clock, one mile, a Cessna.”

In the cockpit there was confusion about the reported conflicting traffic ahead. Captain McFeron asked, “Is that the one we’re looking at?” Flight Engineer Wahne replied, “Yeah—but I don’t see him now.” McFeron called the Tower, “Okay, we had it there a minute ago.” The Controller replied, “One Eighty-Two, roger.” The Captain continued, “I think he’s passed off to our right.”

Inside the cockpit, McFeron said, “He was right over there a minute ago.” Wahne agreed, “Yeah.”

Lindbergh Tower authorized Flight 182 to land, “PSA 182—cleared to land,” and McFeron acknowledged with, “PSA 182’s cleared to land.” He then asked the Flight Engineer, “Are we clear of that Cessna?” Wahne said, “Supposed to be!” McFeron responded, “I guess.” In the cockpit’s jump seat, one of the two off-duty captains said, “I hope!”

At 09:01:21, Captain McFeron stated, “Oh, yeah, before we turned downwind, I saw him about one o’clock, probably behind us now.”

First Officer Fox called for the wing flaps to be lowered and then at 09:01:31 he asked for the landing gear to be lowered. At 09:01:38, Fox said, There’s one underneath [pause] I was looking at that inbound there.” Flight 182 was now descending through 2,600 feet (793 meters).

At 09:01:47, the Flight 182’s Cockpit Voice Recorder picked up the sound of the collision.

The Boeing 727 struck the Cessna 172 from above and behind, destroying it. The airliner was heavily damaged and on fire. With the flight controls damaged, Flight 182 rolled and turned to the right. On a heading of approximately 200°, it crashed into residential neighborhood in a 300 mile per hour (483 kilometers per hour), 50° dive.

According to seismographs at the Museum of Natural History, San Diego, the impact occurred at 09:02:07 a.m., Pacific Daylight Savings Time (16:02:07 UTC).

The largest piece of the Cessna impacted six blocks away, near 32nd Street and Park Avenue.

PSA Flight 182, a Boeing 727-214, registration N533PS, shortly before impact, 0902 a.m., 25 September 1978.
PSA Flight 182, a Boeing 727-214, registration N533PS, shortly before impact, 0902 a.m., 25 September 1978. (Hans Wendt, County of San Diego)

All 135 persons aboard the 727, both persons on the Cessna, and seven persons on the ground were killed. Another nine persons on the ground were injured. Twenty-two homes in a four-block area were destroyed or damaged.

The last words of the flight deck personnel recorded by the Cockpit Voice Recorder were that of an unidentified voice saying, “Ma, I love you.”

Scene of the crash of Flight 182, 25 September 1978. (San Diego Union-Tribune)
Scene of the crash of Flight 182, 25 September 1978. (San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Pilot in Command of Flight 182, Captain James E. McFeron, had been employed by Pacific Southwest Airlines since 1961. He held an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate and was type-rated in both the Lockheed L-188 Electra and the Boeing 727. He had a total of 14,382 flight hours, with 10,482 hours in the Boeing 727.

First Officer Robert E. Fox, Jr., also held an ATP certificate. Of his 10,049 flight hours, 5,800 were in the 727. He had been with PSA for 9 years.

Flight Engineer Martin J. Wahne had worked for PSA for 11 years. He had 10,800 hours, with 6,587 hours in the Boeing 727.

The Pilot in Command of the Cessna was Gunnery Sergeant David Lee Boswell, U.S. Marine Corps, who was stationed at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. Gunnery Sergeant Boswell held Commercial Pilot and Flight Instructor certificates, with Airplane—Single– and Multi–Engine Land ratings. He was receiving instrument flight instruction to apply for an Instrument Rating. Boswell had 407 total flight hours, and had flown 61 hours in the previous 90 days.

The Instructor Pilot on board the Cessna was Martin B. Kazy, Jr., an employee of the aircraft owner, Gibbs Flight Center at Montgomery Field. He held Commercial Pilot and Flight Instructor certificates, with Airplane Single– and Multi–Engine Land, and Instrument–Airplane ratings. He had a total of 5,137 flight hours. Kazy had flown 347 hours in the previous 90 days.

Pacific Southwest Airlines' Boeing 727-214, N533PS, photographed at San Francisco International Airport, September 1975. (Edge to Edge Photography)
Pacific Southwest Airlines’ Boeing 727-214, N533PS, photographed at San Francisco International Airport, September 1974. (Edge to Edge Photography)

The aircraft operated as PSA Flight 182 was a Boeing 727–214, serial number 19688, which made its first flight 4 June 1968. At the time of the accident, the total time on the airframe (TTAF) was 24,088.3 hours. It had made 36,557 takeoffs and landings.

The Boeing 727–200 series was a stretched version of the original –100 model. It was designed to be operated by a flight crew of three, and could carry up to 189 passengers. The –200 was 153 feet, 2 inches (46.685 meters) long with a wingspan of 108 feet, 0 inches (32.918 meters) and overall height of 34 feet, 0 inches (10.363 meters). The empty weight was 98,400 pounds (44,633 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) was 184,800 pounds (83,642 kilograms). The airliner was powered by three Pratt & Whitney JT8D-9 low-bypass axial-flow turbofan engines, rated at 14,500 pounds of thrust at Sea Level for takeoff (5-minute limit), and 12,600 pounds of thrust, maximum continuous power. This gave the 727–200 a maximum cruise speed of 0.9 Mach (610 miles per hour, or 982 kilometers per hour, at 30,000 feet/9,144 meters). Its service ceiling was 42,000 feet (12,802 meters), and the maximum range was 1,956 miles (3,148 kilometers).

1,832 727s were built by Boeing between 1963 and 1984. 1,245 of these were 727-200s.

This 1976 Cessna 172M is similar in appearance to Gibbs Flight Center's N7711G. (Skytamer)
This 1976 Cessna 172M is similar in appearance to Gibbs Flight Center’s N7711G. (Skytamer)

Cessna 172 N7711G was a 1975 Cessna 172M, serial number 17265788. It had 2,993 total flight hours on the airframe (TTAF). It was a single-engine, four-place light airplane with a high wing and fixed tricycle landing gear. 711G was painted white with “mustard” yellow trim. The 172M is 26 feet, 11 inches (8.201 meters) long with a wingspan of 36 feet, 0 inch (10.973 meters) and height of 8 feet, 9½ inches (2.680 meters). The empty weight is 1,350 pounds (612 kilograms) and gross weight is 2,300 pounds (1,043 kilograms). It is powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated 319.749-cubic-inch-displacement (5.240 liter) Lycoming O-320-E2D horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder direct-drive engine rated at 150 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. The engine drives a two-bladed McCauley fixed-pitch propeller with a diameter of 6 feet, 3 inches (1.905 meters). The engine installed on N7711G engine had 3,086 total hours since new (TSN) and 879 hours since overhaul (TSO). The 172M has a cruise speed of 138 miles per hour (222 kilometers per hour) at 8,000 feet (2,438 meters), and a maximum speed of 142 miles per hour (229 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level. The airplane’s service ceiling is 13,100 feet (3,993 meters) and its maximum range is 875 miles (1,408 kilometers).

More than 43,000 Cessna 172s have been built, more than any other airplane type.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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13 thoughts on “25 September 1978, 16:02:07 UTC

  1. This tragedy is very haunting. I can only imagine the horror those passengers faced knowing that they were going to die in a matter of seconds. So very sad. I saw photos of the PSA employees that were on that flight on a PSA Memorial web site, but it did not include all of the passengers on the plane that day. Do you have or can you find photos of all of the passengers ?

  2. >McFeron called the Tower, “Okay, we had it there a minute ago.” The Controller replied, “One Eighty-Two, roger.”

    I don’t understand how this one radio call didn’t shift primary responsibility for separation to ATC.

    The PSA crew either had sight of the traffic or they didn’t. Granted, I’ve never worked ATC, but if I heard that call, that would tell me they didn’t.

    A tragedy, regardless.

    1. The Pilot in Command IS ALWAYS RESPONSIBLE. ATC gives instructions, but it the responsibility of the P.I.C. to operate the aircraft safely at all times. There is also a requirement of the pilot “to see and avoid” other traffic. McFeron’s statement is a little ambiguous. He didn’t say, “No, we don’t see it.” Regardless, if the Cessna had not deviated from its assigned heading, the collision would not have occurred.

  3. Once a pilot of the airliner tells ATC they have the traffic in sight it relieves ATC of their duties for separation. I used to get on my copilots when we would be in high density airport areas who would say they had the traffic and I didn’t. Use to tell them until all 4 eyeballs see and confirm let ATC do their job of keeping us from having another PSA mishap. Mind you, I’ve had more close calls when in Solid IMC conditions that I care to think about.. two of which were so close you could see the crew and passengers on the other plane. 20 years of commercial flying experience for both 121/135/91/91k operations

  4. I was witness to this tragedy and I was only 17. I was there on the ground a few blocks away when it happened, on my way to my lifesaving class at the Red Cross. I heard the explosion, felt the percussion of the explosion pop my ears, and looked up and saw the burning plane falling to the ground. At 17 I couldn’t comprehend it was an airplane. I thought it was fireworks or something and it puzzled me who would be doing fireworks in the daytime. It looked like a burning boomerang from my perspective…and I watched it as it fell from my sight, not realizing what I had witnessed….at first. Then there was the acrid thick black smoke that seemed to last forever and was filled with smell of burning flesh which sadly I will never ever ever ever forget as long as I live. I saw more ambulances than I have ever seen in my life lined up for blocks and blocks. There were dozens and dozens of priests everywhere waiting to give last rights, but no one to give them to because everyone perished. On the radio stations, all of them, they were asking for emergency blood donations to help the survivors…but there were none. Eventually they had to tell everyone to stop coming to donate blood because it wasn’t needed.. It was a day I will never forget as long as I live . It is imprinted on my soul. And my heart still breaks for the people who were killed in both planes and in the neighborhood below….and for their families. May God give them peace even after all these years.

  5. Hi Bryan, I just wanted to comment on a question that someone asked about Stuart W. Smith who worked at Lockheed. Stu Smith was my husband’s dad. I believe in retired from Lockheed in the early 90s. He passed away from Cancer In May of 2001. He was a wonderful man and a true gentleman. My husband,who by the way, is also a Bryan, has so many interesting stories about the people that my Father-in-law through his many years at Lockheed. They included Howard Hughes and Frank Borman. If anyone wants to know anything else about Stuart Smith, you can email me and I will see if I have an answer. Thank you, Debbie Smith

  6. I was 16 and watched this tragedy unfold from my classroom window at Hoover High School. I was living on Boundary Street when this happened. The carnage I witnessed still gives me night terrors.
    God Bless the 144 souls who perished that day in my neighborhood ✈🖤😢

  7. My twin brother Kevin B Wholey was on that flight.
    I always wonder what went through his mind in the seconds before impact.
    I flew to San Diego the evening of the crash.
    PSA had put us in a hotel at or near the airport.
    The pictures on the front page of the newspaper was tge 1st thing I saw when I came down to the lobby the morning after.
    We were 28 at the time.
    It was & still is the most terrible & tragic event of my life.
    My poor mother never fully recovered from the death of her son.
    I relive this terrible event every year on this date.
    RIP Kevin 💕❤😪

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