Tag Archives: Aircraft Accident

22 May 1968

Los Angeles Airways’ Sikorsky S-61L N300Y at Disneyland Heliport, Anaheim, California. This is the sister ship of N303Y, and it would also be destroyed in a catastrophic accident, 14 August 1968. (Sikorsky Historical Archives)
Los Angeles Airways’ Sikorsky S-61L N300Y at Disneyland Heliport, Anaheim, California. This is the prototype S-61L and the sister ship of N303Y. It would also be destroyed in a catastrophic accident, 14 August 1968. (Sikorsky Historical Archives)

22 May 1968: Los Angeles Airways Flight 841, a Sikorsky S-61L, N303Y, was enroute from Disneyland, Anaheim, California, to Los Angeles international Airport (LAX). Captain John E. Dupies and First Officer Terry R. Herrington were in the cockpit, while Flight Attendant Donald P. Bergman was in the passenger cabin with twenty passengers. The flight was cruising on a westerly heading at 2,000 feet (610 meters) when the five main rotor blades “underwent a series of extreme over-travel excursions in their lead/lag axis.”

The five main rotor blades are identified by color markings: red, black, white, yellow and blue (clockwise as seen from above). As the black blade oscillated fore and aft, the geometry of the pitch change control rods to the blades changed, rapidly varying the blades’ pitch angles and therefore, the lift and drag they produced. This put extreme overloads on the pitch control rods and and the rod controlling the yellow blade failed. The yellow blade was no longer in control. The extreme dynamic changes in the blade’s motion was transmitted to the white blade which also went out of control, followed by the other three blades. All five blades diverged from the normal tip-path plane and began to strike each other and the helicopter’s fuselage. The yellow blade was driven out of its normal sequence between the white and blue blades and struck the fuselage at the baggage door with its top flat against the fuselage side. It broke into five sections then wrapped around the rotor mast. All blades were destroyed. The helicopter, completely out of control, fell nearly vertically to the ground. The crew radioed, “L.A., we’re crashing. Help us.”

At 5:51 p.m., Pacific Daylight Time, Flight 841 crashed on Alondra Boulevard near Minnesota Street in the city of Paramount. The aircraft was completely destroyed by the impact and post-crash fire. All 23 persons on board were killed.

The crash scene of Los Angeles Airways Flight 841, along Alondra Blvd, Paramount, California, 22 May 1968. One main roto rblade can be seen protruding from a building's roof, nearby. (Unattributed)
The crash scene of Los Angeles Airways Flight 841, along Alondra Blvd, Paramount, California, 22 May 1968. One main rotor blade can be seen on a building’s roof, nearby. (Unattributed)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation determined that the probable cause of the accident was a failure of the black blade’s lead/lag hydraulic damper or a loss of effectiveness of the white blade’s damper. The reason for this failure was not determined.

Captain “Jack” Dupies was a veteran pilot with Los Angeles Airways, having worked for the airline since 1953. He had a total of 12,096 flight hours with 4,208 hours in the S-61. First Officer Herrington had a total of 872 flight hours with 589 hours in helicopters. He had joined Los Angeles Airways in January 1968.

Sikorsky S-61L N303Y, s/n 61060, was completed in June 1962. At the time of the crash, it had accumulated 11,128 total hours on the airframe. It had undergone a complete 2,400-hour overhaul approximately 6 months earlier.

The Sikorsky S-61L was a civil variant of the United States Navy HSS-2 Sea King, and was the first helicopter specifically built for airline use. The prototype, N300Y, first flew 2 November 1961. It is a large twin-engine helicopter with a single main rotor/tail rotor configuration. Although HSS-2 fuselage is designed to allow landing on water, the S-61L is not amphibious, having standard fixed landing gear rather than the sponsons of the HSS-2 (and civil S-61N). The S-61L fuselage is 4 feet, 2 inches (1.270 meters) longer than that of the HSS-2. The S-61L is 72 feet, 7 inches (22.123 meters) long and 16 feet, 10 inches (5.131 meters) high, with rotors turning.

The main rotor has five blades and a diameter of 62 feet (18.898 meters). Each blade has a chord of 1 foot, 6.25 inches (0.464 meters). The tail rotor also has five blades and a diameter of 10 feet, 4 inches (3.149 meters). They each have a chord of 7–11/32 inches (0.187 meters). At 100% r.p.m., the main rotor turns 203 r.p.m. and the tail rotor, 1,244 r.p.m. The main rotor turns counter-clockwise, as seen from above. (The advancing blade is on the helicopter’s right side.) The tail rotor turns clockwise, as seen from the left side. (The advancing blade is below the axis of rotation.)

N303Y was powered by two General Electric CT58-140-1 engines. The CT58 is an axial-flow free-turbine turboshaft engine with a 10-stage compressor section and a 3-stage turbine (2 low- and 1 high-pressure stages). The -140-1 is rated at 1,400 shaft horsepower for takeoff and 1,500 SHP for 2½ minutes, with one engine inoperative. The compressor turns 26,300 r.p.m. (100% N1) and the power turbine, 19,500 r.p.m. (100% N2). The CT58-140-1 is 1 foot, 8.2 inches (0.513 meters) in diameter, 4 feet, 11.0 inches (1.499 meters) long and weighs 350 pounds (158.8 kilograms).

The helicopter’s main transmission was rated for 2,300 horsepower, maximum.

The S-61 has a cruise speed of 166 miles per hour (267 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling is 12,500 feet (3,810 meters). The maximum takeoff weight is 20,500 pounds (9,298.6 kilograms).

Between 1958 and 1980, Sikorsky built 794 S-61 series helicopters. 13 were S-61Ls. As of September 2013, two remained in service.

Diagram of Sikorsky S-61L rotor head. (NTSB)
Diagram of Sikorsky S-61L rotor head. (NTSB)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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19 May 1934–18 May 1935

Tupolev ANT-20 eight-engine civil transport. (Tupolev)
M.M. Gromov

19 May 1934: Soviet test pilot Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gromov made the first flight of the Tupolev ANT-20 Maxim Gorky. This was the largest airplane of its time. Designed by Andrei Tupolev to carry 72 passengers, the giant airplane was operated by eight crew members.

Used primarily as a Soviet propaganda tool, it also carried a powerful broadcast radio station, a printing shop, and loudspeakers.

Constructed of corrugated sheet metal for rigidity and strength, the ANT-20 was 107 feet, 11¼ inches (32.899 meters) long, with a wingspan of 206 feet, 8¼ feet inches (62.998 meters) and height of 34 feet, 9¼ inches (10.598 meters). Its empty weight was 62,700 pounds (28,440.2 kilograms) and the maximum takeoff weight was 116,600 pounds (52,888.9 kilograms)

Tupolev ANT-20 six-engine civil transport. Two additional engines would be added later. (Tupolev)

The ANT-20 was powered by eight liquid-cooled, supercharged, 2,896.1-cubic-inch-displacement (46.928 liter) Mikulin AM-34FRN single overhead cam (SOHC) 60° V-12 engines, rated at 1,200 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m., each. They drove two-bladed propellers. Two of the engines were mounted above the fuselage, in a push-pull configuration.

This photograph shows the corrugated sheet metal used for the skin of the ANT-20's wings and fuselage.
Corrugated sheet metal was used for the skin of the ANT-20’s wings and fuselage.

Maxim Gorky had a maximum speed of 137 miles per hour (220.5 kilometers per hour), a service ceiling of 4,500 meters (14,764 feet) and a range of 750 miles (1,207 kilometers).

Just 364 days after its first flight, 18 May 1935, Maxim Gorky crashed following a mid-air collision during a formation flight over Moscow. 45 people were killed.

The ANT-20 flies over Red Square with an airplane off each wing.
M.M. Gromov, 1917

Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gromov was born 24 February 1899, at Tver, about 110 miles (180 kilometers) northwest of Moscow. He was the son of Mikhail Konstantinovich Gromov, an “intellectual” who had studied medicine at Moscow University, and Lyubov Ignayevna Gromov, a midwife. The family were of the nobility, but poor.

The younger Gromov attended the Resurrection Real School, and then the Moscow Higher Technical School for Aviation. He graduated in 1917. Gromov was taught to fly by Boris Konstantinovich Welling, a pioneer in Russian long-distance flights. After working as a flight instructor, Gromov began test flying. He became the chief test pilot for the Tupolev Design Bureau. By the outbreak of World War II, he had test flown twenty-five different airplanes.

In 1926, Gromov made a non-stop long-distance flight in a Tupolev ANT-3, from Moscow via Berlin, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Prague, Warsaw and back to Moscow. The flight took 34 hours. In 1934, he flew a Tupolev ANT-25 12,411 kilometers (7,712 miles) in a closed circuit over 75 hours. For this accomplishment, he was named a Hero of the Soviet Union.

From 12–14 July 1937, Gromov set a world record for distance in a straight line, flying an ANT-25 from Moscow to San Jacinto, California, a distance of 10,148 kilometers (6,306 miles).¹ The duration of this flight was 62 hours, 17 minutes.

n March 1941, Gromov became the first director of the Flight Research Institute at Zhukovsky, southeast of Moscow. The Institute was later named the M.M. Gromov Flight Research Institute, in his honor.

In 1942, during The Great Patriotic War, Gromov commanded the Soviet long range air forces on the Kalinin Front. He next commanded the 3rd Air Army, 1942–1943, and the 1st Air Army, 1943–1944. In 1945, he returned to test flying.

Colonel General Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gromov, 1946

Following the War, Gromov continued to work in the aviation industry, but following a disagreement with the Minister of Aviation, Pyotr Vasilyevich Dementiev, over the issue of quality vs. quantity and the safety of the test pilots, he retired. Later, he entered politics and was twice elected to the Supreme Soviet.

During his military career, in addition to the Gold Star Medal of Hero of the Soviet Union, Colonel General Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gromov was awarded the Order of Lenin four times, the Order of the Red Banner (four), and the Order of the Red Star (three). He died 22 January 1985.

¹ FAI Record File Number 9300

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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18 May 1961

Commander Jack L. Felsman and Ensign Raymond F. Hite, Jr., in the cockpit of their McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II.
Commander Jack L. Felsman and Ensign Raymond M. Hite, Jr., in the cockpit of their McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II. (United States Navy)

18 May 1961: Operation SAGE BURNER, one of a series of record-setting flights intended to commemorate the 50th anniversary of United States Naval Aviation, ended tragically when a McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II, Bu. No. 145316, crashed during a low-altitude supersonic speed run at the White Sands Missile Range near Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

Commander Jack Lee Felsman and Ensign Raymond Maxwell Hite, Jr., were killed and their Phantom was destroyed when a pitch damper failed, which resulted in Pilot Induced Oscillation. The uncontrolled oscillations became so severe that the Phantom’s airframe was subjected to 12 gs, causing it to break apart in flight. Both engines were torn from the airframe and the airplane’s fuel exploded.

SAGE BURNER, McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II, Bu. No. 145316
SAGE BURNER, McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II, Bu. No. 145316. The object on the centerline hardpoint appears to be a Mark 43 weapon.
Sage Burner, McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II, Bu. No. 145316
McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II, Bu. No. 145316 with B-61 bomb on centerline hardpoint.

A video clip showing the inflight break up can be seen on YouTube at

Jack Lee Felsman was born 4 April 1923, the second of two children Charles Edward Felsman, a farmer, and Vera McKay Felsman.

Felsman entered the United States Navy 12 December 1942. He was trained as a pilot and commissioned an Ensign, United States Navy 4 September 1943. He was promoted to Lieutenant (j.g.), 1 February 1945. He was promoted to Lieutenant, 15 July 1951, and to Lieutenant Commander, 1 August 1956. Felsman was married to the former Miss Hallie May McKay.

Commander Felsman’s remains were buried at the Rock Island National Cemetery, Rock Island, Illinois.

Raymond Maxwell Hite, Jr., was born 3 December 1927 in Los Angeles County, California, the son of Raymond Maxwell Hite and Elizabeth Ball Hite. Ensign Hite’s remains were interred at the Roselawn Burial Park, Martinsville, Virginia.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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16 May 1977

Sikorsky S-61L N619PA
New York Airways’ Sikorsky S-61L, N916PA. (Photograph by Stefan Sjögren, used with permission.)

16 May 1977: At approximately 5:32 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, New York Airways Flight 971, a Sikorsky S-61L helicopter, landed at the Pan Am Building rooftop heliport (JPB) in New York City. Flight 971 had originated at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and carried 20 passengers and a crew of three. The helipad was 855.23 feet (260.67 meters) above Sea Level.

In the cockpit’s right seat was Captain Lee G. Richmond. Captain Richmond had 11,721 total flight hours with over 9,000 in helicopters and approximately 2,200 in the Sikorsky S-61. He had worked for New York Airways since 1964. The co-pilot was First Officer John F. Flanagan had worked for NYA for about five weeks. He had 1,768.4 flight hours with 1,339.2 hours in helicopters. Both pilots had flown 3 hours, 33 minutes on 16 May. Flight Attendant Lammie Chevalier had been employed by NYA for four years.

A Sikorsky S-61L hovers over the Pan Am Building heliport. (Unattributed)
A New York Airways Sikorsky S-61L hovers over the Pan Am Building heliport. (Pan Am)

Captain Richmond taxied the S-61 into position on the 131-foot × 131-foot (39.9 × 39.9 meters) concrete helipad. While parked at the gate, Richmond kept the rotors turning at 100%, keeping the cyclic control centered and the collective full down (negative pitch). The Automatic Flight Control System (AFCS) was engaged. Flanagan kept his left knee against the collective pitch lever to ensure that it remained full down. Flight Attendant Chevalier stood inside the passenger cabin, supervising departing and boarding passengers.

The return flight to JFK was designated Flight 972.

Aerial photo of the wreck of Flight 972 atop the Pan Am Building, 16 May 1977. (Neal Boenzi/The New York Times)
Aerial photo of the wreck of Flight 972 atop the Pan Am Building, 16 May 1977. (Neal Boenzi/The New York Times)

2 minutes, 21 seconds after touch down, at approximately 5:35 p.m., the right main landing gear of the helicopter failed and the S-61 rolled over to the right. All main rotor blades struck the concrete helipad. Four passengers who were waiting to board were struck by the blades and killed. One of the blades, 28 feet, 10 inches (8.787 meters) long and weighing 209.3 pounds (94.9 kilograms) flew out over the building’s railing and fell alongside the building before crashing through an office window on the 36th floor. The main rotor blade broke into two segments, one of which fell to the street below, striking a pedestrian and killing him. Additional pieces of the main rotor blades were found up to four blocks north of the Pan Am Building.

Wreck of S-61L N619PA at the Pan Am Building rooftop heliport, 16 May 1977. (Unattributed)
Wreck of S-61L N619PA at the Pan Am Building rooftop heliport, 16 May 1977. The Chrysler Building is in the background. (Unattributed)

The helicopter assigned to Flight 971/972 was a Sikorsky S-61L, s/n 61427, registered N619PA. At the time of the accident, the helicopter had a total of 6,913:15 hours on the airframe. Just 7 hours, 22 minutes had elapsed since the last major inspection.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation determined that the probable cause of the accident was: “. . . the fatigue failure of the upper right forward fitting of the right main landing gear tube assembly. Fatigue originated from a small surface pit of undetermined source. All fatalities were caused by the operating rotor blades as a result of the collapse of the landing gear.”

The NTSB determined that the flight crew had performed correctly, and that the aircraft was properly certified, maintained and operated. The Board speculated that the four boarding passengers would have been killed by the helicopter rolling over, even if the engines had been shut down and rotors stopped.

Sikorsky S-61L N619PA lies on its right side at the Pam Am Building heliport, May 1977. The Empire State Building is in the background. (Unattributed)
Sikorsky S-61L N619PA lies on its right side at the Pam Am Building heliport, May 1977. The Empire State Building is in the background. (Unattributed)

A similar accident had occurred when a Los Angeles Helicopters Sikorsky S-61L suffered a fatigue fracture of its right landing gear and rolled over at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in 1963. This accident had resulted in a change in the material used to manufacture the parts.

The Sikorsky S-61L was a civil variant of the United States Navy HSS-2 Sea King, and was the first helicopter specifically built for airline use. The prototype, N300Y, first flew 2 November 1961. It is a large twin-engine helicopter with a single main rotor/tail rotor configuration. Although HSS-2 fuselage is designed to allow landing on water, the S-61L is not amphibious, having standard fixed landing gear rather than the sponsons of the HSS-2 (and civil S-61N). The S-61L fuselage is 4 feet, 2 inches (1.270 meters) longer than that of the HSS-2. The S-61L is 72 feet, 7 inches (22.123 meters) long and 16 feet, 10 inches (5.131 meters) high, with rotors turning.

The main rotor has five blades and a diameter of 62 feet (18.898 meters). Each blade has a chord of 1 foot, 6.25 inches (0.464 meters). The tail rotor also has five blades and a diameter of 10 feet, 4 inches (3.149 meters). They each have a chord of 7–11/32 inches (0.187 meters). At 100% r.p.m., the main rotor turns 203 r.p.m. and the tail rotor, 1,244 r.p.m. The main rotor turns counter-clockwise, as seen from above. (The advancing blade is on the helicopter’s right side.) The tail rotor turns clockwise, as seen from the left side. (The advancing blade is below the axis of rotation.)

N619PA was powered by two General Electric CT58-140-2 turboshaft engines, each of which had maximum power rating of 1,400 shaft horsepower for takeoff and 1,500 SHP for 2½ minutes. The main transmission was rated for 2,300 horsepower, maximum.

The S-61 has a cruise speed of  166 miles per hour (267 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling is 12,500 feet (3,810 meters). The maximum takeoff weight is 20,500 pounds (9,298.6 kilograms).

Between 1958 and 1980, Sikorsky built 794 S-61 series helicopters. 13 were S-61Ls. As of May 2017, two remained in service.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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17 March–12 May 1964: Joan Merriam Smith

Joan Merriam Smith, with her Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P, photographed 23 January 1965. (Los Angeles Public Library, Valley Times Collection)

At 1:00 p.m., 17 March 1964, Joan Merriam Smith departed Oakland International Airport, on California’s San Francisco Bay, on what would be the first leg of an around-the world flight. Her first stop would be Tucson, Arizona, approximately 650 nautical miles (1,200 kilometers) to the east-southeast.

Mrs. Smith intended to follow the easterly route of Amelia Earhart, who had departed from Oakland on both of her attempts at the around-the-world flight. The first try, 17 March 1937, was a westerly route, with a first stop at Hawaii. The second try, 2 June 1937, was an eastbound route.

The two routes were planned to take advantage of seasonal weather patterns.

Mrs. Smith wanted to follow Earhart’s eastbound route, but by leaving in mid-March, she put herself at a disadvantage with respect to the weather she would encounter as she traveled around the Earth.

Unlike Earhart, who had two of the world’s foremost navigators in her flight crew, Mrs. Smith would fly alone, her only companion a small teddy bear. She would navigate by pilotage and ded reckoning, and by using radio aids such as non-directional beacons (NDBs) and VHF omnidirectional ranges (VORs).

Joan Ann Merriam Smith loading a teddy bear into her 1958 Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P. Note the auxiliary fuel tank in the cabin. (Calisphere)

Forecast adverse weather caused her to leave Tucson for her next stop, New Orleans, Louisiana, at 2:00 a.m., 18 March. Dodging the weather, she was forced to make an intermediate fuel stop at Lubbock, Texas. She finally arrived in New Orleans at 4:00 p.m. that afternoon. After another early morning start, she flew on to Miami, Florida, on 19 March.

A detailed story of Joan Merriam Smith’s flight is told in Fate on a Folded Wing, written by Tiffany Ann Brown.¹ Her route followed Earhart’s eastward across the United States; south over the Caribbean Sea to South America; then across the South Atlantic Ocean; Africa, Asia, and finally, to the Pacific Ocean, where Mrs. Smith’s route diverged from Earhart’s.

Smith’s itinerary:  Across the United States from Oakland, California, to Tucson, Arizona; Lubbock, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Miami, Florida. Then over the Caribbean Sea to San Juan, Paramaribo, Natal; east across the South Atlantic to Dakar, Gao, Fort-Lamy, Al-Fashir, Khartoum, Aden. From Africa, Smith headed into South Asia: Karachi, Calcutta, Akyab, Rangoon; and then Southeast Asia: Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta, Surabaya, Kupang; Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia; and Lae, New Guinea. From here, Smith deviated from Earhart’s route across the Pacific Ocean by flying to Guam instead of Howland Island; then Wake Island; Midway Island; Honolulu, Hawaii; and, finally Oakland.

Mrs. Smith’s flight was troubled by adverse weather, leaking fuel tanks, out-of-calibration radio equipment, a recalcitrant autopilot, problems with the hydraulic and electrical systems, and a heater that would not work. And weather. . .

She arrived back at Oakland International at 9:12 a.m., on 12 May 1964, having flown approximately 27,750 miles (44,659 kilometers). The total duration of her journey was 55 days, 20 hours, 12 minutes. She had flown 35 legs on 23 days. Mrs. Smith wrote that the circumnavigation had taken a total of 170 flight hours, with 47 hours on instruments and 26 hours of night time.

Joan Merriam Smith is credited with having made the first solo circumnavigation of the Earth by the Equatorial route, and the longest solo flight.

Joan Merriam Smith with her Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P, “City of Long Beach.” (UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library)

The airplane flown by Joan Merriam Smith was a Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, serial number 23-1196, U.S. registration N3251P, which she had named City of Long Beach. The red and white airplane was manufactured by the Piper Aircraft Corporation at Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, in 1958. It had been purchased by the State of Illinois Department of Aeronautics to use checking state-owned aeronautical facilities. When the the state acquired a faster aircraft, the Apache was sold in November 1963. The Federal Aviation Administration issued a registration certificate to Mrs. Smith on 30 December 1963.

The Piper PA-23-160 Apache E was a 4-place, twin-engine, light airplane with retractable tricycle landing gear. It was 27 feet, 2 inches (8.280 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 0 inches (11.278 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 1 inch (3.073 meters). The airplane had an empty weight of 2,230 pounds (1,011.5 kilograms) and maximum gross weight of 3,800 pounds (1,723.7 kilograms).

Joan Merriam Smith’s 1958 Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P, “City of Long Beach.” (Les Clark/Photovault.com)

The Apache E was powered by two air-cooled, normally-aspirated, 319.749-cubic-inch-displacement (5.240 liter) Lycoming O-320-B horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder overhead valve (OHV) engines with a compression ratio of 8.5:1. The O-320-B is a direct-drive, right-hand tractor engine, rated at 160 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. The O-320-B is 2 feet, 5.56 inches (0.751 meters) long, 2 feet, 8.24 inches (0.819 meters) wide and 1 foot, 10.99 inches (0.584 meters) high. It weighs 278 pounds (126.1 kilograms). The engines turned two-bladed Hartzell constant-speed propellers.

N3251P’s engines were modified with Rajay Co., Inc., Turbo 200 turbochargers.

Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P. (Detail from image at Fate on a Folded Wing)

The PA-23-160 had a cruise speed of 150 knots (173 miles per hour/278 kilometers per hour) and maximum speed was 159 knots (183 miles per hour/295 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 17,000 feet (5,182 meters).

During a flight from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Long Beach, 9 January 1965, the cabin heater in the nose of the Apache caught fire. With the cabin filled with smoke and gasoline fumes, and unable to reach any airport, Mrs. Smith crash-landed the airplane in rocky terrain in the Ord Mountains, southeast of Barstow in the high desert of southern California. After it has slid to a stop, N3251P continued to burn and was largely destroyed. Mrs. Smith and her passenger, Willam Harry Eytchison, were slightly injured.

At the time of the accident, N3251P had just under 3,000 hours total time on the airframe (TTAF), and less than 400 hours on new engines (TSN).

The burned out wreck of Joan Merriam Smith’s Piper PA-23-160 Apache E, N3251P. (Image from Fate on a Folded Wing)

Joan Ann Merriam was born 3 August 1936 at Oceanside, Long Island, New York, U.S.A. She was the daughter of Arthur Ray Merriam, Jr., a railroad office stenographer, and Ann Marie Lofgren Merriam. The family relocated to Wayne, Michigan, where Joan attended Jefferson Junior High School and Wayne High School.

Joan A. Merriam, Wayne High School, 1952. (Spectator)

Joan’s father died at the age of 43, New Year’s Day, 1952. She and her mother then moved to Miami, Florida. Flying from Detroit to Miami aboard a Lockheed Constellation, Joan was allowed to visit the flight deck and speak to the crew.

The airline flight sparked an interest in aviation. She began taking lessons at the age of 15. Joan learned to fly at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute, then located at at Tamiami Airport. She first soloed an airplane at the age of 16 years. On 7 November 1953, shortly after her 17th birthday, she was issued private pilot certificate. Special permission was obtained from the FAA for her to take the written exams for commercial pilot before she turned 18.

Joan graduated from Miami Senior High School in 1954.

The prototype Cessna 140, NC77260, circa 1946. (Cessna Aircraft Company)
“JOAN MERRIAM Pretty Pilot” (23 December 1953)

Mrs. Merriam gave Joan a Cessna 140, a single-engine light airplane, making her one of the youngest people in the United States to own an airplane. Joan said that her mother was “the bravest passenger,” as she practiced all of the maneuvers required for a commercial pilot’s license. By the time she was 18, she earned a commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating, and a flight instructor certificate. She began instructing at Tamiami. She flew charters from Florida to Texas, living in that state before moving to Panama City, Florida. On her twenty-third birthday, the earliest that she was eligible, Miss Merriam was issued an airline transport pilot certificate (ATP) by the FAA. She had flown nearly 5,000 hours.

Miss Merriam would later own a Piper Cub modified for aerobatics, a second Cessna 140, and a Cessna 172.

In the fall of 1955, Miss Merriam married Harold MacDonald, a student in aeronautical engineering. She worked as a flight instructor for Avex, Inc., at Tamiami Airport. Mr. and Mrs. MacDonald soon divorced.

Joan Ann Merriam, circa 1958.

In 1960, Miss Merriam was living in Panama City, Florida, where she was employed as a pilot for West Florida Natural Gas Company, one of very few women who flew as corporate pilots at the time. (Contemporary newspapers reported that she was “one of three women corporation pilots in the country.”) Reflecting the sexist attitudes of the time, news features often described her as a “blue-eyed platinum blonde,” and made mention of “her personal aerodynamic attributes.” In an interview, Miss Merriam said that a major reason preventing more women from executive flying were, “executive’s wives, and executive’s secretaries.”

She had met Lieutenant (j.g.) Marvin G. (“Jack”) Smith, Jr., U.S. Navy, in 1958. Lieutenant Smith was executive officer of USS Vital (MSO-474), an Agile-class minesweeper homeported at Panama City. She moved to San Leandro, California, and worked as a contract instrument flight instructor at Oakland International Airport for the Sixth United States Army, which was then based at the Presidio of San Francisco.

Miss Merriam and Lieutenant Smith were married at Monterey, California, 23 September 1960. The couple later moved to Long Beach, where Lieutenant Commander Smith’s next ship, USS Endurance (AM-435), was homeported.

Prototype 1960 Cessna 182D Skylane, c/n 51623, N2323G. This airplane is very similar to that flown by Joan Merriam Smith on 17 February 1965. (Cessna Aircraft Company)

In February 1965, Joan Merriam Smith was flying for Rajay Industries out of Long Beach, California. (Rajay was a turbocharger manufacturer which had supplied the turbos for Mrs. Smith’s Apache.) She had been conducting functional and reliability tests on a modified Cessna 182C Skylane, N8784T. The airplane was owned by the V. E. Kuster Co., of Long Beach, a supplier of oil field equipment.

The flight test plan for 17 February 1965 called for the Cessna to be flown at altitudes between 5,000 and 23,000 feet (1,524–7,010 meters). Mrs. Smith was flying. Also on board was her biographer, Beatrice Ann (“Trixie”) Schubert.

Smith was flying across the San Gabriel Mountains, which divide southern California’s coastal plain from the high desert. The highest peak in the range, Mount San Antonio, which was not far east of her course, rises to 10,046 feet (3,062 meters).

The San Gabriel Mountains of southern California, viewed from the south in winter. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Witnesses said that the airplane had been flying normally, estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000 feet (305–610 meters) above the mountainous terrain, when the right wing folded back along the fuselage. The airplane, with the engine revving, went into a dive and crashed into the north slope of Blue Ridge, a few miles west of Wrightwood, California, 10–12 seconds later. There was an explosion and fire.

Joan Merriam Smith and Trixie Ann Schubert were killed.

Investigators found that both wings had failed outboard of the struts. The outer wing panels, both ailerons and the left elevator were located approximately 1½ miles (2½ kilometers) from the point of impact. Examination showed that the aircraft had suffered severe loads. “There was no evidence of fatigue or failure of the aircraft before the inflight structural failure.”

The Civil Aeronautics Board reported the Probable Cause: “The pilot entered an area of light to moderate turbulence at high speed, during which aerodynamic forces exceeding the structural strength of the aircraft caused in-flight structural failure.” According to the CAB, the Cessna 182 had an airspeed in excess of 190 miles per hour (306 kilometers per hour) when it entered the area of turbulence.

Her remains were interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Cypress, California.

(Scott Wilson/Find a Grave)
Harmon Aviatrix Trophy (NASM)

For her accomplishment, Joan Merriam Smith was posthumously awarded the Harmon Aviatrix Trophy for 1965. At a ceremony held in the Indian Treaty Room of the Executive Office Building, 15 December 1965, the trophy was presented to her husband, Lieutenant Commander Marvin G. Smith, Jr., by Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Mrs. Smith had intended to attempt an altitude record with the turbocharged Skylane. On 20 July 1965, her husband, Marvin G. Smith, set the record at 10,689.6 meters (35,070.9 feet), flying a Cessna 210A Centurion with an IO-470 engine.²

TDiA would like to thank Ms. Tiffany Ann Brown for suggesting this subject, and for her invaluable contribution.

¹ Fate on a Folded Wing: The True Story of Pioneering Solo Pilot Joan Merriam Smith, by Tiffany Ann Brown. Lucky Bat Books, 2019.

² FAI Record File Number 9977 (Class C, Sub-Class C1c: powered airplanes, takeoff weight 1000 to 1750 kg).

© 2020, Bryan R. Swopes

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