Aircraft Accidents and Lessons Unlearned XLIX: Three Elizabeth Accidents

Three Accidents in Elizabeth, New Jersey

Between December 16, 1951 and February 11, 1952 – a fifty-seven-day time span – Elizabeth, New Jersey became the center of unwanted attention, indeed the unwanted recipient of tragedy. The three Elizabeth accidents were unique to each other for their Root Causes. However, as dissimilar as the accidents were from each other, positive outcomes could not have come about if not for the coincidence of location and the briefness of time.

On December 16, 1951, a Miami Airlines (no recorded flight number) C-46F aircraft crashed soon after takeoff. The accident was investigated by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), who could not determine causes, Probable or Root. At two and a half miles from Newark Airport (EWR), the aircraft descending to 200 feet, the wings rotated ninety degrees to the ground. With almost zero forward speed, the aircraft plunged, striking a home and a brick building before it came to rest on a bank of the Elizabeth River.

On January 22, 1952, American Airlines flight 6780, a Convair CV-240, crashed on approach into EWR; the cause was undetermined, but believed to be engine or propeller related. The weather that afternoon at the airport was: ceiling at 400 feet; visibility three-quarters of a mile; light rain and fog. The aircraft, during final approach, stayed left and high of the glide path, eventually moving right of the glide path. At five seconds after the last approach advisory, American 6780 disappeared, “…  from both the azimuth and elevation screens of the ten-mile precision scope.” American 6780 crashed in the city of Elizabeth, at the corners of Williamson and South Streets; the aircraft’s descent led to impact with buildings.

On February 11, 1952, National Airlines flight 101, a Douglas DC-6, crashed following takeoff out of EWR. The climb-out was normal until the point the aircraft passed the Newark Range Station where it was observed to, “… lose altitude suddenly and veer slightly to the right”; this was blamed on an in-flight reversal of the number three propeller at high power and the subsequent feathering of the number four propeller. These conditions, plus the low altitude at which they occurred, made recovery impossible. The Captain reported to Controllers that the aircraft lost an engine and was returning to the field. The aircraft struck an apartment house near the intersection of Scotland Road and Westminster Avenue in Elizabeth.

With three separate operator accidents occurring within ten miles of each other and in such a short period of time, the focus naturally turned towards the common factor: air traffic control (ATC). However, all three CAB accident reports eliminated ATC as a suspected cause early in the investigations. ATC’s procedures were normal, they did not deviate from routine operations. Neither aircraft was misdirected; ATC did not err, blindly routing an aircraft into an inescapable trap. Finally, moments before each crash, conversations were routine; the language and directions showed no elevation in urgency; ATC maintained communications until the aircraft discontinued transmissions.

Today, commercial aviation accidents involving buildings are rare. Air France 4590 hit a hotel because the pilots had no directional stability to veer; American 587 fell onto a Belle Harbor, New York neighborhood; Emery 17, fighting to maintain longitudinal control, struck a wingtip on a building, short of the runway. In each instance, the aircraft struck the building(s) as a consequence of the accident’s root cause having already occurred; impacts with the buildings were unavoidable.

If the three accidents occurred in separate states or isolated cities – not localized in Elizabeth – the accidents’ consequent effects, namely the building strikes, may never have been noticed. These confined ground events came to President Truman’s attention, who asked military strategist and B-25 pilot, James Doolittle (famed orchestrator of World War II’s Doolittle Raid) to examine the Elizabeth accidents and report on the hazards of United States’ airports operating in close proximity to civilian communities. Doolittle’s report, The Airport and Its Neighbors, co-written with Charles F. Horne, Administrator of Civil Aeronautics and Jerome C. Hunsaker, Department Head of Aeronautical Engineering for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was submitted on May 16, 1952. It was a study to, “… recommend action to alleviate certain immediate problems inherent in the present location and use of airports …” Their aim: “…  to propose policies and procedures designed to insure sound and orderly development of a national system of airports, to safeguard the welfare of the communities and to meet the needs of air commerce and the national defense.”

The report was broken into six sections: Part I, The Airport and Its Neighbors; Part II, Aviation – a National Asset; Part III, The Airport as a Local Problem; Part IV, The Airport as a National Problem; Part V, The Airport in the Community Plan and Part VI, A Survey of National Airport Policy. It was published when Hawaii and Alaska were not yet States; the Chicago Convention convened only six years prior and jet airliners began replacing piston aircraft, needing longer, more sturdy runways. It was essential to lay out the changing situation.

The first four Parts introduced aviation as a necessity of commerce. In the 1950s (up to the early 1970s) airlines were regulated; ticket prices made flying a luxury and aviation safety was a work in progress. Aviation was fueling business and providing jobs. The authors confirmed that aviation was a permanent fixture; as the new kid in town, commercial aviation would establish itself, much like air cargo in the 1970s and unmanned aerial vehicles today. Aviation was dependent on airports; very few airlines, e.g., Pan Am, landed at marine terminals, like LaGuardia’s. Airport proximities to housing and manufacturing were a growing concern that, like Elizabeth, demonstrated the need for solutions.

Parts Five and Six spelled out a need to plan for development; not to leave airport futures to chance but to practicality – and safety. Research for Planning, Airport Responsibilities, Zoning and other strategies were necessary to reconcile airport expansion with civilian population growth. In the 1950s, suburbia was still a young concept; the report was concerned more about the demands of the times: cities.

In the report, the point of community encroachment was made, “Many communities are approaching an impasse arising from limitations to safe operation on existing airports combined with a physical inability to improve or extend them because homes or factories have been built close to the runway ends;” even sixty years ago real estate was getting tight. During the War, airfields sprouted up amidst communities. As the report stated, airports of every size and purpose created closer ranks between airports and nearby communities. Military facilities and ground obstructions were not the only congestion; aircraft approach and takeoff lanes got closer as well.

The commission made two suggestions for zoning: “(1) That certain extensions or over-run areas be incorporated in the airport itself, and (2) that larger areas beyond such extensions be zoned for proper authority, not only to prevent the erection of obstructions that might be harmful to aircraft, but also to control the erection of public and residential buildings as a protection from nuisance and hazard to people on the ground.”

These last five Parts of the report were the justification, the arguments. The tactic of the report was generated in the second section of Part I: The Recommendations. Doolittle, Horne and Hunsaker wrote twenty-five Recommendations for the President to act on in his Federal capacity and to sell to the forty-eight states and assorted territories. These recommendations established the direction both airports and neighboring communities would take, including the control of airspace over these areas. Airports would now be certified; air traffic control would be improved.

The first recommendations spoke to the funding of airports, government responsibilities; took more practical approaches to planning and what airports needed to operate safely near communities. The second group of recommendations focused attention on airport zoning, namely what could be built, how high and how close to airports, with special emphasis on runway approach/departure paths. The third set of recommendations addressed what affected safe flight, such as: crosswind equipment, runway lengths, air navigation aid installations, raised circling and maneuvering minimums. The fourth recommendations set concentrated on airports’ effects on neighboring communities, e.g., minimizing test flights; limiting commercial and military training over congested areas; focusing on noise reductions and training pilots to decrease nuisance factors. Recommendation 25 attended to the transition of helicopters in civil use.

The report brought airport concepts decades forward; even though airports would evolve over the next sixty years, the foundations of airport safety were outlined in The Airport and Its Neighbors. Today, there are several airport categories: Commercial Service (Non-Primary and Primary Service), Cargo Service, Reliever and General Aviation (National, Regional, Local, Basic and Unclassified); some are controlled, some are not. They progress, changing with the times and technology. But they owe their valuable role to tragedy. A reminder that when we learn what needs … what must … what demands to be learned, we make effective changes that improve safety for years to come.