Sunday, August 31, 2008
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This is the story of an airliner that crashed near Reading Airport, 62 years ago. Although Reading isn’t really in the coal region of Pennsylvania, it is close enough to for two reasons, it contains some good eastern Pa. history and it satisfies my passion for writing and talking about old prop driven airliners.
The “Star of Lisbon” the name stenciled on the nose of the Aircraft by TWA was the third Constellation to catch fire and crash land in the last 10 months. The first was an Army plane manned by a Pan American Crew and went down near Linn, Kansas in September. Another Connie owned by Pan American lost an engine and just made it into Willimantic, Conn.
In both f these accidents fire had been caused by a broken drive shaft in the cabin pressurizing system requiring all Connies to fly 10,000 feet or below. There were also other incidents involving the Connie. One an engine blazed up as a result of fire in the fuel induction system. All of these incident s were brought under control quickly. This type of problem brought out a new safety device for the Constellation ,in an elaborate fire detection and extinguishing system within the engine nacelles.
"TWA 049 Connie"
The Star of Lisbon
The big silver four engine Model 049 Constellation took of from Reading airport at 11:21 a.m. on a routine instrument training flight for flight personnel of its international Division at Reading, Pa. The flight school consisted of both ground and flight curriculums on the Constellation type aircraft.
The big constellation was owned by Transcontinental and Western Air, later known as TWA. The aircraft NC 86513, known as “The Star of Lisbon” a Lockheed Constellation 049, was manufactured in February, 1946, and had accumulated a total of 959 hours of flying time. The aircraft was equipped with Wright R-3350-35 engines incorporating Hamilton Standard propellers. The total time accumulated by each engine was 597 hours for No. 1, 848 hours for No. 2, 848 hours for No. 3, and 377 hours for No. 4. The time since the last major overhaul was 374 hours for Nos. 1, 2, and 3 engines, and 377 hours for No. 4. During the local training flight at Reading, Pennsylvania, the aircraft total weight was within its maximum gross load limits and the load was distributed with respect to its center of gravity within approved limits.
On board the aircraft were six crew members, lead by Captain Richard Farrow Brown, age 27, of Cocoa, Florida, he was pilot instructor in command of the aircraft. He had accumulated a total of 2,477 hours flying time, of which 196 hours were obtained in Lockheed 049 aircraft. Captain Arthur Normal Nilsen, age 33, Norfolk, Massachusetts, was student pilot, receiving transition training, he had accumulated a total of 5,520 hours, of which approximately 15 hours were obtained in this model aircraft. John Jacob Staufer, age 36, Alexandria, Virginia, was flight engineer and Charles Carmon Semola, age 32, of Arlington, Virginia, was a student flight engineer, receiving familiarization instruction in 049 aircraft. William Eugene Anther, age 29, of Washington, D.C., and Douglas Lee Herrin, age 25, of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, accompanied the flight as assistant first officers. All flight crew personnel were properly certificated and otherwise qualified for their respective duties.
At 11:40 a.m. things went horribly wrong. The Star of Lisbon lost control and crashed in a field about one mile north of the Reading airport. A farmer by the name of George Boeshore was interviewed by Time Magazine and gave this first hand account of the crash. “A plume of black smoke trailed from the plane, then burst into red flame. Farmer Boeshore saw the big craft drop into a glide and head for the field two miles away. It never made it. With a tearing crash the plane ripped into the Boeshores' wheat stubble. It skidded a full 1,000 feet across the road, plowed into another wheat field and crashed into flaming junk. Racing up, George Boeshore found T.W.A. Captain Norman A. Nilsen, thrown clear of the crash, but mortally injured. Another farmer, passing by in his truck, found T.W.A. Captain Richard Brown, dazed by the side of the road, took him to a hospital. He was the sole survivor. In the blazing, gutted carcass of the Lockheed Constellation "Star of Lisbon," four other TWA airmen died.
The Lockheed 049 Constellation, known forever as the “Connie” is a four engine, prop driven airliner built by the Lockheed Aircraft Company . The 049 version came in to being by an order from Transcontinental And Western for a four engine transport having the range of 3,500 miles. The original “Connie” made for the military came out in 1943, and the TWA version in 1945. TWA made its first flight with the 049 on February , 6, 1946. This accident happened only five months after the 049 was in service.
The “Connie” has always been one of my favorite aircraft; it has some of the most flowing lines that you will ever see in an aircraft. I can remember as a kid seeing them at Harrisburg Airport, or flying over head on V30 airway over Pottsville and being able to distinguish the three tails.
Her vital statistics read:
On the day of the accident “The Star of Lisbon” was stationed at the Reading Airport for use in transition training for Constellation crew members in the International Division of TWA. The aircraft had student Captain A.N. Nilsen at the controls, they took of from Reading at 11:21, to practice some instrument approaches. Sitting in the right seat was Instructor Captain R.F. Brown.
Shortly after takeoff from Reading’s Runway 13 witnesses on the ground said the aircraft looked to be about 300 feet in the air and was seen to yaw to the right in a manner that indicated that one of the engines had lost power. Well the one of the engines was throttled back to simulate a power failure on take off, a common training method, pre sophisticated electronic flight simulators. As weird as this sounds the witnesses stated that the aircraft descended to an extremely low altitiude over western Reading and turning about 45 degrees off the runway take off course the aircraft pulled up into a steep climbing attitiude and then resuemd its normal climb out toward the south.
Captain Nilsen climbed the aircraft to an altitude of 3,000 feet and flew to an area approximately four miles east of Reading where Captain Brown requested that they practice some instrument approach procedures.
While flying the approach procedures the crew sensed the smell of burning insulation, puzzled they did not fully recognize what was burning. At 11:37 the Flight Engineer went aft in order to try and find out what the origin of the smell and smoke was. When he opened the galley door, he saw that the entire cabin was engulfed in very dense smoke, he went back to the flight deck and informed the Captain that “The whole cabin is on fire.”
The crew attempted to combat the fire with the fire extingushers located on the flight deck, but were unable to enter the cabin because of the intense heat and smoke. A fast moving smoke quickly filled the cockpit through the open galley door, rendering visibility extremely poor and making it difficult for the pilots to observe the instruments. The student flight engineer opened the cockpit crew hatch in an attempt to clear the cockpit of smoke, however, the opening of the hatch increased the flow of smoke from the cabin toward the cockpit and shortly thereafter it became impossible for Captain Brown to observe any of the instruments or to see through the windshield. The aircraft was now in extreme peril.
Captain Brown opened the window on the right side of the pilot compartment and attempted to fly the aircraft back to the Reading Airport for an emergency landing while descending with the engines throttled and with his head out of the side window. With the increased intensity of the heat and denseness of the smoke in the cockpit, it became impossible for the pilots to maintain effective control of the aircraft. At an altitude of approximately 100 feet, two miles northwest of the airport, Captain Brown withdrew his head from the window and attempted to "ditch" the aircraft "blind". The aircraft contacted two electric power wires strung about 25 feet above the ground, and the left wing tip glanced against scattered rocks and struck the base of the large tree. The aircraft settled to the ground, slowly rotating to the left, as it skidded approximately 1,000 feet across a hay field, causing disintegration of the left wing panel, flaps and aileron. The aircraft continued to yaw to the left and, after having rotated more than 90 degrees, it plunged through a row of trees and telephone poles lining a road bordering the field, coming to rest in a pasture at a point approximately 150 feet beyond the road and pointing approximately 160 degrees from its original heading at the time of initial impact. Gasoline was spilled from the ruptured tanks and fire broke out consuming the major portion of the wreckage. When local farm workers arrived at the scene approximately one minute after the aircraft had come to rest, Captain Brown was observed walking away from the wreckage and Captain Nilsen was seen lying on the ground to the rear of the trailing edge of the right wing about six feet from the burning fuselage. Both pilots were taken to the Reading Hospital where Captain Nilsen died shortly afterwards. The remaining four crew members died in the crash.
Following this accident the C.A.A. Civil Aeronautics Administration ordered that all Lockheed Constellations would be grounded for a period of thirty days. This was the first time a major airliner was grounded by a Government order. This order halted some 2,500 passengers a week in overseas flights and some 4,000 in domestic flights to be grounded causing a lot of money loss to the airlines who flew the “Connie”
An interesting side note to this accident is the fact that the Airline Pilots Association had twice complained to the CAA that their member pilots who flew the “Connie” believed that “The planes were dangerous and unsafe for commercial airline use.” On the other hand, the airline industry rallied behind the “Connie” calling it “The most “outstanding transport plane in the industry’s service.” But both sides agreed that the aircraft should remain grounded until the bugs were found and repaired.
The “Connie “ was a fast, comfortable and easy to handle aircraft, but was to quickly rushed in to production at the end of WW2 in the effort to try and skim the cream off the four engine motor market. Like almost every aircraft, it suffered from operational bugs.
The wreckage of the aircraft was lying approximately one-half mile northeast of the Reading Airport in a pasture, the southwestern extremity of which lay adjacent to the airport. Although extensive disintegration had occurred before the aircraft came to rest, the major portion of the fuselage and wings were oriented toward the north with various parts of the aircraft scattered back along the path of motion for a distance of approximately 1200 feet. A series of scars had been out across the field from the point of initial contract with the ground extending south southeast to the point at which the aircraft came to rest. Indications of a flash fire observed adjacent to the ground path of the aircraft at a point at which gasoline spilled from a ruptured fuel tank and ignited, burning the hay stubble as the aircraft skidded across the field.
The entire empennage had been severed from the fuselage aft of the rear pressure bulkhead. The left wing had disintegrated from the tip inboard to the vicinity of No. 1 engine nacelle before the aircraft came to a stop. Although still attached to the fuselage, the remaining portion of the left wing had been subjected to intense heat and the area forward of the rear spar was almost completely destroyed by fire. The right wing remained relatively intact, however, large areas were burned inboard of the No. 4 engine nacelle. All six sections of the right wing flap and the three inboard sections of the left wing flap were attached and in the retracted position. The right main gear and the nose gear were found in the retracted position. The fuselage was almost entirely consumed by the fire.
Although seriously injured, Captain Brown was able to make three statements concerning the nature of the difficulties encountered in flight and the information provided proved extremely valuable in the conduct of the investigation. He explained that the take-off was accomplished by Captain Nilsen who was under the instrument flying hood and that both right engines were throttled in order to simulate engine failure during take-off. Shortly thereafter, a climb was established using normal climb power on all four engines. After leveling off at 3,000 feet, simulated QDM approach procedures were initiated*. Captain Brown stated further that, immediately prior to starting the approach procedures, he had been requiring Captain Nilsen to maneuver the aircraft with No. 4 engine throttled. Shortly after the smoke was discovered, the flight engineer called out; "Feather No. 4", to which Captain Brown replied that it was No. 3 engine which was "backfiring" and that there was no need for feathering No. 4 propeller. No explanation was contained within these statements as to the association between the alleged backfiring and the fuselage fire, nor were the reasons indicated for the flight engineer's desire to feather No. 4 propeller. At the time the flight engineer had discovered smoke in the cabin, the descent to the field was started. It was the opinion of Captain Brown that he had escaped from the aircraft after it come to rest by crawling through the side window.
Numerous witnesses in the vicinity of Reading Airport were located who observed the flight immediately prior to its crash. Among these witnesses were two pilots of a TWA., DC-3, which was flying in the traffic pattern at the time the accident occurred, and several company personnel who were at the airport and observed the last few moments of flight. All witnesses agreed that the aircraft approached Reading Airport in a relatively steep descent from the northeast and in a shallow left bank, appearing as though a landing was contemplated at Reading Airport. Several of the lay witnesses reported engine noise, which they identified as backfire, and smoke from various portions of the aircraft. The majority of observers, including the DC-3 pilots, observed light smoke streaming behind the No. 3 engine nacelle; other witnesses observed smoke from the No. 2 engine nacelle and, still others, directly behind the fuselage. Among the numerous witnesses from whom statements were obtained, none observed any visible fire while the aircraft was in flight.
Examination of the powerplants revealed no evidence of fire while in flight. Engines Nos. 1 and 2 were torn from their respective wing positions before the aircraft came to rest. No. 3 engine was detached from the aircraft but located within five feet of its normal position. Engine No. 4 was found in its normal position but detached from the wing. Inspection of the remains of the induction systems of all four engine including the thermocouples and the "mitey midget" fire detectors disclosed no evidence of an induction fire. Examination of the power sections and cylinders in all four engines and such pertinent steel parts as the propeller shaft, crank shafts, reduction gears, and accessory drive shafts and gear assemblies revealed no evidence of mechanical failure other than that caused by impact. However, power-plant units Nos. 3 and 4 had been subjected to intense heat as a result of the fire on the ground. Almost all aluminum and magnesium parts were either completely or in part melted or reduced to ashes and much of their steel components bore evidence of intense heat. It is therefore impossible to state conclusively that no malfunctioning had occurred in those engines prior to impact. From the examination of No. 1 engine, however, it was determined that no malfunctioning had occurred in this powerplant while in flight. Nothing was found in the remains of the aircraft to suggest malfunctioning of the control system, the hydraulic system, the fuel system, the oxygen system, or the alcohol system prior to impact. No evidence was disclosed which indicate that the flares with which the aircraft was equipped had in any manner contributed toward the accident. Again it must be remembered that the aircraft had been so badly burned that the condition of parts of the above systems could not be determined in many instances. However, the testimony of maintenance personnel reveals that these systems were functioning normally prior to departure from Reading Airport and the statements of Captain Brown contain no reference to indicate malfunctioning of these systems while in flight. The cabin supercharger and drive shafts had been removed from this aircraft prior to the accident in accordance with instructions from the Civil Aeronautics Administration as a result of a previous accidents which had occurred to this model aircraft
In order to facilitate investigation of the wreckage, a serviceable Constellation was brought to Reading by *** and made available to the Board. The use of this aircraft made it possible to determine more accurately and quickly the relative positions of various components, and to determine their possible location within the wreckage. It was observed that specially designed bolts were installed throughout various parts of the aircraft in order to provide relatively air-tight electrical conductors through the skin of the pressurized fuselage. Three such bolts are located on each side of the forward baggage compartment and lead into each wing root section. These bolts are commonly referred to as through-studs. Inspection of the generator and starter leads and the fuselage through-studs in the forward baggage compartment of the serviceable aircraft disclosed that some of the Irvolite coverings of the cable lugs and studs were severely charred. in view of the fact that high external temperatures- could not have been present in this area, it was obvious that this charring had resulted from internal heating. It was further observed that the glass wool lining of the baggage compartment in the proximity of the through-studs was saturated with hydraulic fluid. Because hydraulic lines pass through the forward baggage compartment, it is apparent that the leakage had occurred front hydraulic line fittings.
The remains of the six through-studs from Aircraft 513 were subsequently located and it was noted that some of them appeared to have been subjected to local burning suggestive of electrical arcing. These studs were sent to the National Bureau of Standards for closer inspection in order to determine their condition prior to the crash. The National Bureau of Standards subjected the six through-studs to extremely detailed study immediately upon their receipt. The conclusions of this investigation established the fact that all of the through-studs from Aircraft 513 contained evidence of arcing and that at least two of these studs were sufficiently burned due to arcing as to have caused a fire while in flight.
All six of the through studs recovered from the wreckage bore indications of intense local heating attributable to electrical arcing. The consumed portion of the three studs illustrated indicate the extensiveness of the arcing (arrows). The localized nature of the burned areas and the sharpness of the threads on the remainder of the bolts dispel the possibility of the damage having resulted from external heating.
Testimony of maintenance personnel disclosed the fact that No. 2 generator had become inoperative during a previous flight and that inspection of the aircraft the day before the accident revealed a generator lead burned away from the cable lug at the generator terminal box. Approximately 10 inches of insulation had burned off the cable from the terminal box rearward. Inasmuch as replacement parts were not available at Reading at the time, all three leads to the box were disconnected and each terminal insulated with friction tape. The three leads were then taped together and secured to the rubber vacuum line to prevent contract with other parts in the nacelle. No other portion of the electrical system was checked. The corrective measures taken by the mechanic were noted on the aircraft log. Testimony of electrical engineers indicates that the corrective action accomplished by the aircraft mechanic might have reduced the system voltage sufficiently to have hampered recharge of the batteries slightly if the No. 2 generator switch were inadvertently placed in the "On" position, but that such a condition could not be regarded as hazardous. Possible reduction in the system voltage could have been averted by disconnection of the equalizer lead in the No. 2 nacelle junction box which, in this instance, had not been accomplished.
Upon the basis of all available evidence, the Board finds that:
1. The company, aircraft, and crew were properly certificated for the flight.
Aircraft 513 departed Reading Airport at 1221 for a local instrument training flight with the student pilot under the hood and, during the course of the take-off, both right engines were throttled to simulate engine failure.
Following take-off, a normal climb was established to 3,000 feet and after leveling off, engine failure was again simulated by throttling of engines No. 4 and 3 in that sequence while the student pilot was still "under the hood."
The operation of the powerplants in the manner indicated above would not have been likely to induce engine malfunctioning nor had it contributed toward the accident in this instance.
Approximately 16 minutes after take-off, the crew members detected an odor resembling burning insulation.
The flight engineer opened the galley door and found the cabin filled with dense black smoke and reported this condition to the captain.
Fire extinguishing efforts were not possible due to the denseness of the smoke within the cabin and the hand fire extinguishers were not discharged in flight.
The flight engineer, upon hearing after-fire from one of the right engines, erroneously associated this after-fire with the smoke in the cabin and requested that No. 4 engine be feathered.
The pilot immediately initiated a descent toward Reading. Airport with all engines throttled.
Hearing the sound of the throttled engines during the descent, ground observers erroneously interpreted normal powerplant after-fire as back-fire.
During the descent, the student flight engineer opened the crew hatch in an attempt to alleviate the smoke condition within the crew compartment.
Opening of the crew hatch increased the rate of flow of smoke from the cabin through the galley door into the cockpit, rendering it impossible for the pilots to observe the flight instruments or to see out through the windshied.
Captain Brown opened the window on the right side of the crew compartment and attempted to fly the aircraft with his head out of this window.
Shortly before contract with the ground, Captain Brown reseated himself in the co-pilot's seat, pulled back on the controls and "ditched" the aircraft "blind".
The aircraft was extensively damaged as a result of impact and, after coming to rest, gasoline and other inflammable materials from ruptured tanks ignited and the aircraft was almost completely consumed by fire.
All six through-studs in the forward baggage compartment contained some evidence of arcing and at least two of these studs were sufficiently burned during flight to have ignited the fuselage insulation.
Inspection of other 049 aircraft indicated that sufficient hydraulic fluid leakage into the forward baggage compartment to saturate the fuselage insulation could be expected in this model.
No Lire or smoke-detectors were located in any section of the fuselage.
The baggage compartments are not readily accessible to the flight crew in flight for purposes of fire control.
No fire-extinguishing equipment was available for use within the forward baggage compartments.
The flight crew was uninformed as to the nature of air flow in the fuselage and the possibilities of controlling such air flow.
It was determined that no possible engine malfunctioning could have contributed to this accident although the absence of engine malfunctioning could not be completely confirmed.
The Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was failure of at least one of the generator lead through-stud installations in the fuselage skin of the forward baggage compartment which resulted in intense local heating due to the electrical arcing, ignition of the fuselage insulation, and creation of smoke of such density that sustained control of the aircraft became impossible. A contributing factor was the deficiency in thc inspection systems which permitted defects in the aircraft to persist over a long period of time and to reach such proportions as to create a hazardous condition.
A Strange story Written after the Crash of the Star of Lisbon