It was Wednesday, December 22, 1954. The flight was 4844-C, a civilian-air-movement-of-military-personnel (CAM). The airplane, a Johnson Flying Service DC-3C, N24320, c/n 20197 was under charter to the Army to fly from Newark, New Jersey, to Tacoma, Washington. All preflight inspections and checklists had been accomplished satisfactorily, along with the proper filing of a flight plan and weight and balance manifest.
Flight 4844C left Newark at 8:38 p.m., with 225 gallons of 100 octane fuel aboard, under visual flight rules, and 23 holiday-bound soldiers.
ACCORDING TO THE MANIFEST
ON THE RAMP AT NEWARK
23 Passengers were boarded on the aircraft.
FUEL ON BOARD
Fuel 170 Gallons of 100 octane fuel. (This is doubtful based on the accident investigation)
The fuel was distributed in equal parts between the two main tanks. According to the manifest.
WEIGHT AND BALANCE
At the time of departure the aircraft weighed 25, 317 pounds within the maximum TO weight of 25, 346.
The load was distributed in accordance with prescribed Center of Gravity computations.
THE ROUTE AND FLIGHT PLAN
Prior to departing Newark, Captain Poe filled with the CAA by telephone a flight plan indicating a flight to be made in accordance with visual flight rules (VFR) to the Allegheny County Airport, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The route to be followed was via Amber 7, Green 3, and Red 21 Airways.
2. The flying time to Pittsburgh was estimated to be one hour and forty minutes, at a true airspeed of 155 knots, with two hours and forty minutes of available fuel.
The first indication of trouble came at 10:20 p.m. when the Pittsburgh tower heard the aircraft calling Altoona, Pennsylvania. When several calls to Altoona went unanswered, the Pittsburgh tower attempted to contact the aircraft. Their efforts were unsuccessful. At 10:22, Flight 4844-C was heard attempting to make voice contact with Westover, a radio beacon station. Pittsburgh again attempted unsuccessfully to contact the aircraft.
At 10:38 the Pittsburgh tower received a call from Flight 4844-C asking if fuel was available at Johnstown, Pennsylvania. They replied that only 91/96 and lower octane was available and indicated that they would contact Allegheny County Airport, the flight’s original destination.
The aircraft commander, Captain Harold Poe did not think he had enough fuel and requested the runway lights be lit at Johnstown Airport. Pittsburgh advised Poe that they would attempt to contact Johnstown by landline. There was no one at the Johnstown Airport and at 10:44, when Poe was over the airport, he attempted to contact the tower.
At 10:47 Poe advised Pittsburgh that he had passed Johnstown and would attempt to reach Allegheny Airport. Pittsburgh gave Poe weather and winds aloft information for Allegheny; clear, temperature 20 degrees, dew point 10, winds south-southwest at 9.
At 10:54 p.m. Pittsburgh contacted Flight 4844-C and gave Poe the Allegheny Tower frequency. Poe then made voice contact with Allegheny tower, advising them he was low on fuel. The tower gave him a straight-in approach.
At 10:57 Poe called to advise the tower he was out of fuel. At the time, the tower observed that Flight 4844-C was two miles from the airport on final approach. Poe advised the tower that he did not think he could make the field.
At 10:58 the tower saw the plane bank to the left, head southward and disappear below the hills.
Poe ditched was one and one-half miles south of the McKeesport, Pennsylvania, bridge and approximately two miles southeast of the Allegheny County Airport. The aircraft came to rest about 35 feet from the west bank of the river at a point which is 600 feet below the elevation of the airport. According to witnesses it floated for a short time and was completely submerged in approximately 15 minutes. Prior to sinking, the current of the river turned the aircraft to the left and slowly moved it approximately 450 feet downstream to a position about 75 feet from the west shore.
Following ditching all the passengers evacuated through two emergency exits, one over each wing. None of the passengers or crew received injuries during the ditching. The last person to leave the cabin was Captain Walker, who estimated that it took approximately seven minutes to get everyone out of the cabin and on the wings or fuselage. Some of the passengers could not swim and the icy waters made it difficult for even good swimmers to reach the shore. Nine passengers and the captain drowned attempting to reach shore.
The CAA concluded that, “The probable cause of this accident was fuel exhaustion brought on by inadequate flight planning…” Contributing factors were inadequate crew supervision and training.
Captain Poe estimated the flying time to Pittsburgh to be one hour and forty minutes. The distance, along the route shown in the CAA flight plan, is approximately 271 miles. To accomplish this in the estimated time would require an average ground speed of 163 knots. With the wind along the route forecast to be from the northwest and west averaging over 17 knots at the planned cruising altitude of 4,000 feet, this ground speed is unrealistic. Under these conditions a reasonable ground speed would be approximately 126-130 knots and would require an average elapsed time of two hours and seven minutes.
The Flight Plan and Log which Copilot Chapman prepared after departure included many mistakes, among which were: Wind directions and velocities different from those that were forecast; a higher . Airspeed than is reasonable to expect for a DC-3 unless flying at higher altitudes; airways which differed from the route filed by Captain Poe; some stations, courses, and radio frequencies that did not agree with either the filed CAA flight plan or the airways shown on the Flight Plan and Log; some errors in ground speed of 13 knots or more; and an estimated total time which exceeded the one hour and forty minutes estimated by Captain Poe. The estimated ground speed used was 148 knots, whereas the actual ground speed made good averaged only 126 knots.
Johnson Flying Services was temporarily prohibited from providing service to the military (the order was eventually rescinded) but they continued to pursue their Forest Service operations. They provided smoke jumpers and aerial spraying using their three DC-3s, one of which was N24320 which they eventually pulled from the river dried out and put back in the air.
©Copyright Henry M. Holden 1997, 2013
For the complete story on the Douglas DC-3 see: “The Legacy of the DC-3″