14 August 1968: At 10:28:15 a.m., Pacific Daylight Time, Los Angeles Airways Flight 417, a Sikorsky S-61L helicopter, departed Los Angles International Airport (LAX) on a regularly-scheduled passenger flight to Disneyland, Anaheim, California. On board were a crew of three and eighteen passengers. The aircraft commander, Captain Kenneth L. Waggoner, held an Airline Transport Pilot certificate and was type-rated in the Sikorsky S-55, S-58 and S-61L. He had a total of 5,877:23 flight hours, with 4,300:27 hours in the S-61L. Co-pilot F. Charles Fracker, Jr. had 1,661:18 flight hours, of which 634:18 were in the S-61L. Flight Attendant James A. Black had been employed with LAA for nearly ten years.
At approximately 10:35 a.m., while flying at an estimated altitude of 1,200–1,500 feet (370–460 meters) above the ground, one of the helicopter’s five main rotor blades separated from the aircraft which immediately went out of control, started to break up, and crashed in a recreational park in Compton. All twenty-one persons on board, including the 13-year-old grandson of the airlines’ founder and CEO, were killed.
The Sikorsky S-61 was registered N300Y. It had been the prototype S-61L, serial number 61031. Los Angeles Airways was the first civil operator of the S-61, purchasing them at a cost of $650,000 each. As of the morning of 14 August 1968, 61031 had accumulated a total of 11,863.64 hours flight time on the airframe (TTAF). It flew an estimated 3.17 hours on the morning of the accident.
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 S-61L was powered by two General Electric CT58-140-1 turboshaft engines, each of which was rated for 1,400 shaft horsepower for takeoff and maximum power of 1,500 shaft horsepower 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). 61031 had a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 19,000 pounds (8,618.3 kilograms).
Between 1958 and 1980, Sikorsky built 794 S-61 series helicopters. 13 were S-61Ls.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that most of the helicopter was contained with a small area of Leuders Park. One main rotor blade, however, was located approximately 0.25 miles (0.40 kilometers) west of the main wreckage. This blade is referred to as the “yellow” blade. (The main rotor blades marked with colored paint for simplicity, red, black, white, yellow, and blue.) Analysis found that this blade’s spindle, where it attached to the main rotor hub assembly, had failed due to a fatigue fracture. It was believed that the fracture began in an area of substandard hardness which was present in the original ingot from which the part was forged, and that inadequate shot-peening of the part during the overhaul process further weakened the spindle.
Los Angeles Airways had experienced a similar accident only three months earlier which had resulted in the deaths of all 23 persons on board. (Flight 841, 22 May 1968). L.A. Airways never recovered from these accidents and ceased all operations by 1971.
© 2016, Bryan R. Swopesby