Pacific Northern Airlines Flight 201, Anatomy of a Disaster by Armand Biron Aircraft: Lockheed L-749A Reistration # N1554V
Date: Tuesday June 14, 1960
Being a radar operator on Middleton Island in Prince William Sound, in the middle of nowhere, is not the most exciting job in the world but it does have it's moments.
I was on the midnight to 8:00 am graveyard shift and it was 6:00 am as I sat down in front of the FPS-8 search radar scope for my shift at scanning the skies identifying 'friend or foe' aircraft, as it were. The only sound in operations was the hum of the radar cooling fans and the occasional buzz of a phone line....
It was a cold drizzly morning June 14th, 1960 on the Cordova tarmac, A lone four engine Superconstellation aircraft had just unloaded 52 cannery workers to work in the Cordova cannery for the Salmon season. The aircraft was about to complete the last leg of a flight from Seattle to Anchorage. In the pilot seat was Captain Richard Chamerlain from Federal Way, Washington. The Captain had flown this route for 15 years.To his right in the co-pi;ot seat was Duanne Easterly from Seattle and behind him was Flight Engineer Larry Stewson from Renton Washington. Preparing the remaining nine passengers for take off were Stewardesses, Jo Anne Saylor and Naomi Lee Marts, both 23 of Seattle.
In the passenger compartment were seated Mrs. Julie Odom, 42, of Anchorage who was the wife of a wealthy Anchorage banker and beverage distributor Milton Odom, another was Private James Lucas flying home to Anchorage on a 20 day leave from Ft. Lewis, WA. , Alfred Anderson just completing his junior year at Oregon College of Education in Monmouth, Oregon also , R.A. Mathews of Whittier, CA. and H.L. Costeloe, Oakland, CA. also there were Mrs. Joan Edgeman of Anchorage, her 2 children Mark 4, and William 22 months and her sister Lois Brammer of Puyallup, WA.
It was 6:15 am when PNA Flight 201 lifted off the Cordova runway into the clouds and rain of the Cordova sky..
A similar Lockheed Super Connie sits on the Cordova tarmac on a 'typical' drizzly day
photo taken in 1958 by Bill Price
I noticed a blip on the radar screen which seemed to have originated from Cordova. There was no reason to be concerned as we picked up many flights leaving and going into Cordova. The only flights coming out of Cordova that got us excited were the DC-3's from Cordova Airlines that brought us our mail once a month if we were lucky.
I watched the blip for a while when I noticed it was drifting north of Amber One airway, the main route up the coast. At first I was not too concerned as I waited for the aircraft to make a course correction. When it did not make any correction but rather continued it's northerly drift, I picked up the phone to notify ARTCC at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage. They told me it was Pacific Northern Airlines Flight 201 enroute to Anchorage. I told them that I was concerned as the aircraft was drifting further to the north. Air Route Traffic Control acknowledged. I notified my crewchief, Sgt. Judd as to what was going on.
As we were a military radar station we did not have anything to do with commercial airlines nor were we equipped with Air Route Traffic Control frequencies. The only civilian frequency we had in operations was the emergency frequency of 121.5. (Guard Frequency)
I got on the radio and tried to contact Flight 201 on the emergency frequency but no response. There was no reason for that flight to montor 121.5 as it was in contact with ARTC.
We know this because it had checked in with ARTC when it reached the checkpoint at Hitchinbrook. According to my radar it was north of that checkpoint when it checked in.
As I watched the aircraft to go further and further north of Amber One I continued calling them until, much to my dismay, the blip disappeared from my scope. I knew there was trouble.
Aircraft from Anchorage and Elmendorf AFB were scrambling to search for the missing plane. Late that afternoon an Air Force C-123 spotted the tail of the PNA aircraft sticking out of the snow on the 9,646 ft Mount Gilbert. The pilot said "Life rafts strewn over the mountain side, engines and a part of the tail section bearing the red letter'P' were the only identifiable pieces of wreckage. Apparently it had failed to clear the moutain and hit near the top after which it had slid down about 700 feet.. In Seattle, Pacific Northern Airlines said the site was slightly north of the route the PNA aircraft would normally fly." Mount Gilbert is 28 Nautical miles from the aircrafts' intended route.
Here are some Excerps from the 'Official CAA Aircraft Accident Report.
" "The instrument flight plans of PNA201 were passed on to the USAF Air Defense Radar station located at Middleton Island by the FAA Air Route Traffic Control Center located at Elmendorf AFB, Anchorage, Alaska. This information , which consisted of the type of aircraft, the IFR altitude, the flight plan route and the estimated time of departure was recieved and recorded by the USAF Chief Radar Operator..("That would have been SSgt Judd", my Crew Chief of 'A' crew"). The surveillance operator was immediately advised that an L-749 Constellation would depart Cordova at approximately 0420.
(This never happened which is why I called ARTCC to find out what kind of plane it was and that it was going off course,)
.........."No attempt was made by the Air Defense Radar Controller to contact flight PN201 nor did he notify the Air Direction Center of the hazardous situation as required by the Joint Agreement of July 10 10, 1959. This controller estimated Flight PN201's altitude to be 8000 ft. (I called PN201 on 121.5 many times as this was the only frequency available to operators)
" The radar operators log and testimony indicated that he had the aircraft under radar for approximately 30 minutes." I never testified or was asked anything and if I had been, the report would be a little different. We never had access to Civilian traffic frequencies."
The report further reads; "During the investigation of this accident, the sargeant-in-charge of the radar unit at Middleton Island (That would be SSgt Judd) testified that the radar operator observed a blip on the radar screen for 30 minutes and that he checked with the radar officer. He also observed the blip. However, he did not think in necessary to contact the flight because he assumed the pilot was deviating from his course so as to show his passengers a certain glacier, as pilots allegedly did." (The weather was cloudy and raining. Glacier visibility was not possible!)
I do not recall seeing the Crew chief calling anyone and NO officer ever came in and observed the blip during these 30 minutes. Now I know why I was never interviewed as there may have been a cover up....
Buried in the Snow
A rescue team from the Anchorage Mountain Rescue Coucil was dropped by Air Force helicopter on to the mountain and after a short hike they reached the crash site. The aircraft had disintegrated and there were no survivors. One or two of the bodies were found but no bodies were retrieved.
According to the Reading Eagle; "A preliminary investigation yesterday gave no clue as to what caused the crash. Federal agencies and airline officials said the crew had plenty of rest and the equipment, both in the plane and along the Cordova Anchorage route it was flying was in good shape. Officials here were weighing the question on how to retrieve the bodies."
The Airlines 29 year perfect safety record of flying over rugged Alaska routes ended with the crash. The aircraft failed to clear the moutain by a few hundred feet.
Possible cause of the accident as stated in the report by the Civil Aeronautics Administration:
"The failure of the crew to use navigational aids in establishing in position on Amber 1 Airway, thereby allowing the aircraft to deviate from course and fly over hazardous terrain. A contributing factor was the failure of air defense radar. which had been tracking the aircraft, to notify either ARTCC or the crew that the aircraft was proceeding on a dangerous course."
Note from this author:
I was never interviewed or asked to give a report on this incident and I certainly did contact ARTCC..
I always wondered why I was not interviewed and it struck me that under the AAC Regulation No. 55-33, of the "USAF Advisory and Flight Monitoring Service in Alaska" which states; "Radio frequencies allocated to radar advisory service communications will be monitored by Air Defense radar units as required........"
In operations, the only frequencies available to me was 121.5 Guard frquency which I used,
There were no other frequencies to use.
Also included in the 'Official Report' ;
"The wreckage of PNA 201 was found and positively identified June 14 at 1830 by rescue units who were transported to the site by helicopter. Investigation disclosed that PNA201 struck the 70 degree ice slope of Mt. Gilbert just below the summit at the 9000 foot level. (PNA 201 was cleared to flight level 10, (10,000 Feet,) at approximately 04:47 on a collision path of 255 magnetic. Mt. Gilbert , (elevation 9,646 feet) Mt. Gilbert is located in the Chugach Mountains approximately 50 miles east of Anchorage".
The aircraft hit Mt. Gilbert about 700 feet from the top, about 60 miles east of Anchorage.
Including the flight crew of 5, a total of 14 lives were lost......Armand
A/2c Fowlkes at the FPS-8 and SSgt Judd at the control desk
SSgt Judd at the plotting board in full battle dress.
Operations today, or rather, a few years ago.........