Some of you might remember this horrendous photo. Most of you won’t. But I will always remember it. It captures the final seconds of PSA Flight 182 over the skies of San Diego 40 years ago today. And it was not only a story I covered, but a tragedy I actually predicted and tried to avoid, but my magazine refused to publish. And today, on this sad anniversary, the story behind one of the worst airline crashes in American history is worth sharing — as well as the lessons that were learned and later applied. And then there’s the horrifying epilogue — the transcripts from the cockpit voice recorder of Flight 182 that were later released — and this will also live with me forever.
Back in 1975, when I was a correspondent for Newsweek, one of my beats was aviation (and still is). And one day, a senior captain from Western Airlines approached me as I was leaving his plane in Los Angeles after a flight from Honolulu. He asked to speak to me about a very important story he wanted me to consider. And that story: why he and other pilots felt that San Diego Airport, aka Lindbergh Field, was one of the most dangerous in America. His reasoning: not only was it one of the steepest approaches in America, but it was also the airspace around the airport — not controlled, and loaded with private aircraft. The small planes were not required to identify themselves to air traffic controllers, or to “squawk” — electronically broadcast their altitude and position. As a result, commercial airline pilots were growing more and more concerned about the congested airspace that was essentially uncontrolled — and all of it low altitude traffic in San Diego.
I told him I was interested in the story. He followed up with an invitation to fly with him and some other pilots who were similarly worried. And so, a few weeks later, I boarded a private single engine plane with him, along with a senior pilot from Delta, and one from United, and we flew from Los Angeles to San Diego and shot the approach to Lindbergh Field. I could immediately see his point. There were planes all around us, none of them in contact with controllers. It was, simply, “see and be seen.” Not a comforting environment. It was an accident, the senior pilots explained to me — that was clearly waiting to happen. The probability of a mid-air collision was strong. And no one at the FAA was doing anything about making the necessary rules to restrict this airspace.
I went back and wrote a detailed memo to my editors at Newsweek explaining why we needed to do this story, and perhaps even more important, that I had three senior commercial airline pilots for three major U.S. airlines willing to violate their own company policies about talking with the press, who still wanted to go on record with their warning.
But I got no response from the editors.
Two days later I sent the suggestion again, explaining the significance of not only the story, but also my sources.
Ten days later, on a trip back to the home office in New York, I walked the halls on the 12th floor at the Newsweek building and personally pitched the story to the editors. They said they appreciated my passion and my idea, and would get back to me.
And two weeks later, after I had sent another note to them (no email back then, only telex messages…), I got the following — and disturbing — response from one of the senior editors: “Great suggestion on Lindbergh Field, but the editors here would rather wait until there’s a crash.”
I was speechless. But they had made their decision.
I suggested the story again in 1976, and again a year later. No response. By then, two of the pilots had already retired. And I left Newsweek at the end of the summer in 1977.
And then came September 25, 1978. On that Monday morning 40 years ago today, I was in New York. It was about 1 p.m., Eastern time. I got a phone call from a friend in Los Angeles. “Turn on your TV,” she said. “There’s been a crash.”
PSA Flight 182 was an early morning flight from Los Angeles to San Diego at 8:34 a.m. with 128 passengers. The same route I had flown countless times to cover other stories for Newsweek. The same route I had flown with the three airline pilots. It was a 727, and scheduled for a fast 20 minute flight time, block to block.
It was a clear and sunny day as the three engine jet was on final approach to runway 27 at Lindbergh Field, and had been cleared to land. But the experienced pilots on the PSA jet (the captain had logged more than 14,000 hours of flight time) never saw the small Cessna 172. The Cessna had taken off from Montgomery Field, a small airport about six miles northeast of Lindbergh. Aboard the Cessna was a flight instructor and his student. Both the PSA crew and the Cessna pilot were following “visual flight rules.” The Cessna pilots had neither filed a flight plan nor were they electronically reporting their position — they weren’t required to (the point of my original story suggestion to Newsweek). There was a lot of traffic that day — as there always was — and the staff in the tower at Lindbergh Field was already in radio contact with six other airborne planes.
As the small Cessna was climbing, the PSA jet was descending, preparing to land. And then they collided. The 727 rapidly was overtaking the Cessna and, at just 2,600 feet above the ground, smashed into it, with the right wing of the 727 suffering the most damage. It was bashed in by the Cessna, and the PSA pilots lost control. The collision had ripped away critical parts of the wing. Fuel was ignited from the wing tanks and the 727 was on fire. And it was going down rapidly.
It suddenly banked 50 degrees to the right and dove into a residential neighborhood about three miles north of the airport. No one survived the crash and the raging fire. Seven people on the ground were also killed. And, as I later discovered, I lost a friend on that flight as well.
The epilogue will haunt me forever. In its investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board released the audio transcripts from the doomed 727 (a practice that was stopped following the PSA 182 investigation). Right after the PSA pilot lowered the landing gear, you can hear the recording of the collision. “Whoop,” said the captain. “Oh shit,” said another crew member. ‘Easy baby, easy baby. what have we got?” the captain asked. The first officer: “It’s bad….we’re hit man. we are hit!” The plane started banking right and began to spiral down. The captain: “Tower, we’re going down, this is PSA!” The tower responded that it was alerting emergency crews, but it was way too late.
And then, the fateful final voice recording from the cockpit. “This is it baby….Brace Yourself….” and then, from one of the crew members: “Ma…I love yah.”
The plane impacted at 9:02 a.m.
A week later the next issue of Newsweek hit the stands, with coverage of the PSA story. Imagine my anger when I read it, and its ironic reporting: “The problems at Lindbergh Field have long been known…” I knew that only too well.
It took the NTSB seven months to release the “Probable Cause” finding of this tragedy. Not surprisingly, the NTSB concluded the pilots of the PSA jet failed to see the Cessna. That was the immediate cause. But it was the underlying cause of the collision — the very story I was trying to get Newsweek to do nearly three years earlier — that was responsible. The NTSB cannot make policy. It can only make recommendations to the FAA. And the FAA — finally — and in response to growing criticism stemming from the tragic PSA crash — made policy. It established TCA –or “Terminal Control Areas”– that forbids any plane from flying into the airspace above an airport, unless it is under the direct transponder and radar control of air traffic controllers who have permitted it in the area in the first place.
And so, on this 40th anniversary of a tragedy that most of us have forgotten, a strong reminder of the lessons that need to be learned and applied, not just in aviation safety, but in journalism as well.
By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com