31 December 1985

Eric Hilliard Nelson (8 May 1940–31 December 1985) (Guy Webster)

31 December 1985: At 5:14 p.m., Central Standard Time, a Douglas DC-3C, N711Y,¹ crash-landed in a field near DeKalb, Texas. The airplane struck a wire and several trees and was extensively damaged. The airplane, already on fire, was completely destroyed.

The pilot and co-pilot escaped through cockpit windows, but all seven passengers, including singer Rick Nelson, died.

N711Y was a Douglas C-47A-25-DK Skytrain twin-engine military transport, serial number 42-108981, built at the Midwest City Douglas Aircraft Company Plant, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, circa 1943–1944. Following U.S. military service, the transport was operated in Brazil. The Skytrain had been converted to a civil DC-3C in 1959, and registered N136H. At one time the airplane had been owned by the DuPont family, and later by singer Jerry Lee Lewis. It was registered to the Century Equipment Co., Los Angeles, California, 13 March 1981.

Rick Nelson's Douglas DC-3C, N711Y. © Thomas P. McManus
Rick Nelson’s Douglas DC-3C, N711Y. (Thomas P. McManus via lostflights)

At 5:08 p.m., the pilot informed Air Traffic Control  that he had a problem and was going to divert from the intended destination of Dallas, Texas, to Texarkana. At 5:11 p.m., ATC received a call from N711Y saying that there was smoke in the cockpit. At 5:12 p.m., it was seen on radar at an altitude of 600 feet (183 meters). The airplane disappeared from radar at 5:14 p.m.

Witnesses reported seeing the airplane descending in a left turn to line up with a farm field. It was trailing smoke. Small pieces of metal fell off which started several small fires. The DC-3 struck two power wires suspended about 30 feet (9 meters) above the ground, then a utility pole and several trees.

The pilot and co-pilot, who were both severely burned, gave differing statements as to what had occurred. The National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that there had been an in-flight fire in the passenger cabin which had probably started in the on-board cabin heater. The board concluded that the pilot in command did not follow proper procedures or check lists.

Burned-out wreckage of Douglas DC-3C N711Y. (Unattributed)

The Douglas C-47 Skytrain is an all-metal twin-engine, low wing monoplane transport with retractable landing gear. It was operated by a minimum flight crew of two pilots, a navigator and a radio operator. The wing is fully cantilevered and the fuselage is of semi-monocoque construction. Control surfaces are fabric-covered. The C-47A variant used a 24-volt electrical system.

The C-47 is 64 feet, 5½ inches (19.647 meters) long with a wingspan of 95 feet (28.956 meters) and height of 17 feet (5.182 meters). The wing center section is straight, but outboard of the engine nacelles there is 5º dihedral. The wings’ leading edges are swept aft 15.5°. The trailing edges have no sweep. Empty weight of the C-47A is 17,257 pounds (7,828 kilograms) and the maximum takeoff weight is 29,300 pounds (13,290 kilograms).

The C-47 is powered by two 1,829.4-cubic-inch-displacement (29.978 liter) air-cooled, supercharged R-1830-92 (Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp S1C3-G) two-row 14-cylinder radial engines. These had a maximum continuous rating for normal operation was 1,060 horsepower at 2,550 r.pm., up to 7,500 feet (2,286 meters), and 1,200 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m., at Sea Level, for takeoff. Each engine drives a three-bladed Hamilton Standard Hydromatic constant-speed full-feathering propeller with a diameter of 11 feet, 6 inches (3.505 meters) through a 16:9 gear reduction. The R-1830-92 is 48.19 inches (1.224 meters) long, 61.67 inches (1.566 meters) in diameter, and weighs 1,465 pounds (665 kilograms). (N711Y had been re-engined with Pratt & Whitney R-1830-75 engines, rated at 1,350 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m.)

The C-47 has a cruising speed of 185 miles per hour (298 kilometers per hour) at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) and service ceiling of 24,100 feet (7,346 meters).

The C-47 could carry 6,000 pounds (2,722 kilograms) of cargo, or 28 fully-equipped paratroopers. Alternatively, 14 patients on stretchers could be carried, along with three attendants.

The C-47A served with the United States Air Force until 1971. Hundreds of C-47s and DC-3s are still operational, worldwide.

Crash site of Douglas DC-3C N711Y, near DeKalb, Texas. (Unattributed)
Crash site of Douglas DC-3C N711Y, near DeKalb, Texas. (Unattributed)

¹ N711Y was  registered to Century Equipment, Inc., Los Angeles, California. The airplane was sold to Rick Nelson on 2 May 1985, but was never re-registered.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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17 thoughts on “31 December 1985

  1. The report failed to mention that Ricky (Nelson) abd his team were free basing cocain in the cabin if the plane before the accident happened. It’s a shame that so many of the boomer generation rock stars were killed in such accidents. I hope God forgave them for making the drugs on the plane that killed 7 friends. Let’s hope this will never happen again. I really loved Ricky’s music and he is missed greatly. God Bless you Ricky and your team.

    1. There was nothing in the accident report mentioning such an allegation, nor would it have been relevant. The fire was caused by a malfunctioning gasoline-fueled cabin heater and the flight crew’s failure to follow proper procedures. Whoever the passengers were, and whatever they may have been doing, they didn’t deserve to be asphyxiated and burned to death because of an equipment malfunction and the crew’s failure to deal with the problem.

    2. The Los Angeles Times reported:

      “Probe Discounts Drugs as Cause of Air Crash That Killed Rick Nelson”

      “Although toxicology tests found traces of cocaine in the bodies of several passengers, including Nelson, investigators said that they had found no evidence of drug use during the flight or drug-related paraphernalia after the crash. Early in the inquiry, investigators had speculated that the “free-basing” of cocaine, which involves heating the drug with a flame, might have been a possible cause of the fire.”

      —May 29, 1987|PENNY PAGANO | Times Staff Writer

  2. Sad to have lost Rick Nelson and everyone else. But equally sad to have lost the DC 3 over such a simple cabin heater . In flight checklist and extinguishers May have saved them all. ?

  3. I wonder why the aircraft never got registered after the sale to Nelson. May to December is plenty of time to do so. Did it at least get an annual?

  4. Two thoughts about the long debunked passenger drug involvement:

    “A lie makes its way around the world before the truth can get its boots on” – attributed to Mark Twain
    “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” George Bernard Shaw

    RIP to a true musician and his band

  5. IIRC in his masterpiece “Fate is the Hunter”, author and pilot Ernest K. Gann wrote that a DC-3 captain highly valued a copilot who could operate the airplane’s cantankerous heater.

  6. Thank you Mr. Swopes “for setting the record straight ” that the notorious gasoline-fueled cabin heater was the source of the “uncontained fire” that destroyed this aircraft and killed its “souls on board”. Again, thank you.

  7. The reason for the un-contained fire was that the pilots opened the cockpit windows in violation of procedures causing the fire to be sucked through the cabin. Such an unavoidable tragedy.

  8. If the cockpit was filling up with smoke and they couldn’t breathe or see I could understand why they would open the windows. Put yourself in their situation. It’s dark or almost dark, your on fire and your only chance of survival is that you get on the ground immediately. You need to see to land! I am not going to fault them for opening the window to try and clear the smoke from the cockpit to do so. I think I can speak with some experience.
    ATP OVER 28,000 HOURS TT

  9. Did the heater malfunctioned first, or was there smoke in the cockpit first? Because i try to understand why some would open a cockpitwindow mid-winter? So if there was smoke first, then the open window caused the heaters flames blow into the cabin… Forgive my speculations, it is a heart-wrenching tragedy anyway.

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