Last Flight of the Flagship “San Antonio”


By Henry M. Holden

American Airlines Flagship “San Antonio,” NC21746, c/n 2104, DC-3-208A, was delivered to the airline on Feb. 23, 1939. It had served unremarkably throughout the war, remaining with the civilian fleet. On January 5, 1947 it took its last flight.

This is the remarkable story of the Flagship “San Antonio”, called American Flight 203. It was scheduled to fly from LaGuardia Airport to Nashville with several interim stops, began prosaically with a 5:34 P.M. departure.

Captain John Booth, had three and a half hours of fuel in its tanks. The LaGuardia-Baltimore leg was completed routinely, and Booth intended to add fuel at the next stop, Washington National Airport. What he and everyone else hadn’t counted on was an unexpected blizzard that hit the entire eastern coast just as he departed Baltimore, shutting down every airport between New York and North Carolina. It was only forty miles between Baltimore and Washington but in the time it took to cover that short distance, the cloud cover dropped 7,500 feet as heavy snow swept in.

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One view of the Flagship San Antonio (via C. Grady Cates)

 

Incoming traffic to National Airport began to back up, and Air Traffic Control (ATC) told the pilot to hold over Anacostia (Naval Air Station). At this point all radio communications began to deteriorate. Precipitation static began to interfere with transmission and reception. The captain decided to return to Baltimore to refuel; By this time, Baltimore was backing up and they were in the process of landing a flight of military aircraft who had declared a low fuel emergency. Booth and his passengers were number 12 for landing. Communications continued to deteriorate as the storm intensified. Booth was now unable to hear any of the ground stations, and they could barely make him out. Flight 203 was now in serious trouble, but it would get worse.

Booth was luckily able to contact an American Airlines DC-4 flying somewhere above him at approximately 10,000 feet. He advised the DC-4 captain of his situation and asked him to get the weather at Philadelphia, Flight 203’s alternate airport for just such a situation, and relay it to him.

The reply was not good. Philadelphia was getting pounded with heavy snow and visibility was almost zero. What about LaGuardia? “Almost as bad” relayed the DC-4 captain, “but there was still a small window of visibility.”

Booth decided to try for LaGuardia. He continued to head north until he estimated he was directly over New York. He discovered conditions had deteriorated badly. He was unable to raise the ATC. With communications and visibility now zero he decided to try to raise the company dispatcher.

He was in luck! But the dispatcher had more bad news; LaGuardia was closed to all traffic. Booth was beginning to worry. He was down to forty five minutes of fuel. Booth asked the dispatcher what was the closest and open airport. The dispatcher with reluctance in his voice said there was nothing open within his fuel range. Booth now had a serious problem.

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The fact that there was fuel exhaustion probably save the passengers from almost certain death. (via C. Grady Cates)

 

He virtually did not know where he was, his fuel was quickly being depleted and he had no contact with air traffic control. This is the point when airline captains earn their pay. He had a command decision to make. It may no doubt also be a life and death decision.

He had several choices but none of them were attractive: He could land someplace and risk running out of fuel over New York City; he could ditch off Long Island either in the Long island Sound or to the south in the Atlantic Ocean; or he could find a flat area and attempt a crash landing. The option for ditching in the water was quickly ruled out. No one would survive more than a few minutes in that frigid water.

Booth was down to 30 minutes of fuel and still somewhere over New York City. His altitude was about 2,000 feet. Not much margin there either if the engines quit. He could not risk going higher and using more fuel. Booth headed southeast to find the beach. What he found at 300 feet was the Atlantic Ocean. The copilot suggested they drop a flare. The flare revealed an angry, choppy water (they were over the Atlantic Ocean).

They turned on the landing lights and estimated they could not see more than 40 feet ahead of them. By now the auxiliary tanks and one main tank were dry. The two engines were still running but sucking fumes from the one remaining main tank.

A few minutes later the copilot informed the captain that the fuel was reading zero. Remarkably the engines were still running. The captain decided it was time to ditch and a moment later the beach showed up in the glare of the landing lights. Since there was no cabin P.A. system in the airplane the passengers were unaware of just how critical the flight had become. Immediately the captain began to fly south so he was out over the ocean before letting down to 300 feet. He banked the airplane and made one pass when the engines began to sputter. When he saw the water, he did a 180 degree turn and flew north hoping to see land. When the beach came in view he made a 90 degree turn and landed–just as one engine ran out of fuel!

With the gear up he plopped the airplane down onto the beach. On impact the right wing dipped and dug into the snow and sand causing the airplane to slow quickly but also causing a violent turn to the right. The captain was hurled into the windshield causing his teeth to tear through his lower lip. The copilot was thrown into the control yoke which penetrated his eye and driving it deep into his eye socket. A moment later the airplane came to a stop with only the sound of creaking metal and howling wind surrounding them. There was no fire, after all there was no fuel to ignite.

The passengers, all 12 of them were shaken but unhurt. Nobody had any idea where they were. Booth asked two passengers to each walk one in each direction down the beach to look for help. The flight attendant and another who was deadheading both nurses ministered to the pilot and copilot. Booth then tried the radio again. It worked! He raised someone but never found out who it was. He was told to hold his mic button down so they could get an ADF bearing. A few minutes later the voice came back telling him they were on the south shore of Long Island in the vicinity of Jones Beach.

A few minutes later, a Coast Guard truck pulled up. One of the passengers had stumbled on the Coast Guard Station. The Coast Guard station officer had called the only number he had for American Airlines (reservations) and advised them that one of their airplanes had landed at Jones Beach. The reservations clerk replied very authoritatively that American Airlines did not service Jones Beach. The officer replied, “Well you do now!”

Reprinted from the DC-3/Dakota Journal Spring 1997

POST SCRIPT

NC21746 was sold for scrap, and the captain was awarded American Airlines’ Distinguished Service Award for bravery, and he retired as a senior captain in 1975. The copilot, Tommy Hatcher, suffered from double vision for several months but went on to fly for another 33 years, retiring as a captain in 1980.

©Copyright Henry M. Holden, 1997, 2013

 

For the complete story on the Douglas DC-3 see “Legacy of the DC-3″

 

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