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Fifty years ago, two DC 7s crash in Southeast Alaska eight months apart; Had different outcomes



July 27, 2013

Ketchikan, Alaska - A half century ago, two identical passenger planes performing identical missions crashed in the waters off Southeast Alaska.

One plane, with 102 people on board, successfully ditched in the waters off Sitka with no loss of life.

Eight months later, the other plane crashed in Dixon Entrance with the loss of all 101 people on board and remains one of the most mysterious crashes in American aviation history.

Both jets were DC-7s belonging to what was then Northwest Orient Airlines but were chartered by the US Military Air Transport Service to ferry personnel and their families from McChord Air Base in Tacoma, Washington to Anchorage’s Elemendorf Air Force Base.

jpg Fifty years ago, two DC7 crash in Southeast Alaska eight months apart; Had different outcomes

A photo example of a Douglas DC-7
Historical photograph courtesy Boeing

The first crash happened in October of 1962.

Captain Vinton Hansen was in charge of Northwest Airlines DC-7C, registration number N285, flight number 293, when it took off from McChord Air Base at 8:58 in the morning on Oct. 22, 1962. On board were 95 passengers and seven crew members. Nearly all were either members of the military or their dependents.

The first three hours of the flight to Elmendorf were uneventful. But just before noon, when the aircraft was south of Sitka, Hansen reported a loss of power in engine number two. The DC-7C was one of the last four-engine propeller jets.

Then Hansen reported that the prop of the second engine was “overspeeding” in an uncontrollable manner. It was decided to ditch to plane in the open ocean. The plane descended to 500 feet and the Coast Guard and other agencies were alerted.

A Coast Guard helicopter from the Annette Air Station was on site by the time the DC 7 came down. The helicopter pilot, Lt. James Glasser, told the Associated Press after the crash that the number two engine appeared to be on fire and smoking as the DC 7 came down.

The plane landed in 6 to 8 foot waves at just off Biorka Island. The DC-7 stayed afloat for a little under 25 minutes and all the passengers and crew were safely evacuated into five life rafts with only six minor injuries, the most serious being a broken foot, according to the Associated Press.

David Irons was a crewman on the helicopter and described the scene after to the ditching to Sitka KCAW radio in 2011.

“They all climbed out on the wings and got into life rafts,” Irons said. “There was a baby that swallowed sea water in the bottom of one of the rafts. The only injury in the whole thing. And the baby turned out fine.”

Lt. Glassser reported the entire plane was evacuated in between 2 ½ and 3 minutes.

Several other eyewitnesses told the Associated Press after the crash that the evacuation of the plane was “text book.”

Flight Attendant Kathryn Ollinger reported there was no panic.

“All the passengers did exactly what we told them to,” she said after the crash.

Flight Attendant Ruth Fullerton told the Associate Press that everyone was life rafts before the water in the cabin was knee high.

The plane then sank in several hundred feet of water and was not recovered. Investigators later said the probably cause of the overspeeding propeller was a “failure in the blower section of the number two engine.”

Unfortunately, there would be no witnesses or probable cause when the second DC-7C crashed eight months later in Dixon Entrance.

Northwest Airlines Flight 293, N290, under the command of Captain Albert Olsen, took off from McChord Air Base at 7:52 a.m. on June 3, 1963. On board were six crew members and 95 passengers.

Once again, nearly all the passengers were members of the military or civilian military workers on their way to Elmendorf Air Base.

Once again, the early part of the flight was uneventful.

Then at 10:06 am, as the DC passed over the northern part of the Queen Charlotte Islands, the crew requested a change in altitude from 14,000 to 18,000 feet.

Flight controllers radioed back that there was “traffic” - another jetliner at 18,000 feet about a minute south of the DC-7  and suggested the plane go to 16,000 feet and hold but heard nothing further from Flight 293.

When there was still no contact an hour later, the Coast Guard was alerted and began searching Dixon Entrance.

At about 7:30 that night floating debris was located in the ocean 180 miles southwest of Annette Island. Overall, just about 1,500 pounds of debris was recovered along with several bodies. The rest  of the plane was estimated to be in 8,000 feet of water.

“The debris included books, personal belongings, seats with the belts buckled, an NWA menu and postcard, insulation from the plane, three uninflated life rafts and dozens of pieces of twisted, broken metal,” the Associate Press reported the next day, adding that investigators said the plane had clearly hit the water with a “great impact.”

Because so little of the plane was recovered, it was impossible to determine what caused the crash. The crash continues to vex investigators a half century later.

It was one of five crashes discussed by aviation safety expert Lester Reingold in an article called “Cause Unknown” in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space magazine in September of 2010.

“Something catastrophic occurred, but what?” Reingold wrote. “The answer lies under more than 8,000 feet of water in the Gulf of Alaska. The report on the crash of Flight 293 is a slim document. The investigation chronicled the seemingly innocuous prelude to the flight: Aircraft mechanical condition, crew qualifications, and the like all seemed to be in order.”

Reingold said the recovery of so little debris also hampered efforts to get an answer.

“Investigators conducted as much analysis as they could - determining, for example, that there was no indication of an in-flight fire or explosion,” Reingold wrote. “The degree of fragmentation suggested that the aircraft hit the water at high speed. And the deformed shape of the seat backs indicated that the fuselage came down nearly inverted. The pattern of floating wreckage showed that the airframe probably remained intact until impact.”

Reingold wrote that the report looked at possible reasons the pilots requested the altitude change such as icing or turbulence, but in the end, the Civil Aeronautics Board concluded it could not reach a conclusion. There was no finding of probably cause.

According to the Associated Press, the only thing left was the stories of those that died in the crash.

“They included a mother and her four daughters ... a Red Cross supervisor ... a former school teacher recalled to duty ... a soldier, his wife and daughter ... a girl student ... and a stewardess who probably wouldn't have been on the plane if the airline had known she was married,” the Associated Press reported a few days after the crash. “Seven family groups apparently were wiped out or left with only one surviving parent as a result of the crash. Passengers included the wife and four children of M. Sgt. Michael Almose; the wife and four children of Airman Robert D. Scott and the wife and two children of Airman Robert E. Smith.”



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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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