During a recent trip down to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I was alerted to the fact that this month is the 45th anniversary of one of the stranger tragedies in aviation. While everyone is familiar with 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson,” when Captain Chesley Sullenberger put his A320 glider smoothly down off the riverbank of Manhattan, suffering no fatalities and earning admiration from the aviation industry and beyond, the ditching of a now-defunct Overseas National Airways DC-9 in the Caribbean did not go as smoothly and possibly set the stage for protocols that saved lives in the US Airways accident nearly four decades later.
It was while speaking with Bill Bohlke Jr., an airline pilot for some 40 years, a flight examiner since 1970, FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award recipient, and CEO of St. Croix-based FBO and charter provider Bohlke International Airways, that I learned of the events on May 2, 1970, when I was two years old. As a St. Croix-based pilot and flight instructor at the time, Bohlke played a key role in the rescue of survivors from the ditching of the aircraft, which was operating as ALM Flight 980.
Unlike Sullenberger’s A320, which was forced down by bird strikes that shut down both engines, the ONA DC-9 had to ditch because of fuel exhaustion, the exact cause of which was still never entirely explained, according to professional pilot, author and journalist Emilio Corsetti III, who wrote the book 35 Miles From Shore on the subject just one year before the Hudson River ditching.
The official NTSB report concluded that “the probable cause of this accident was fuel exhaustion which resulted from continued, unsuccessful attempts to land at St. Maarten until insufficient fuel remained to reach an alternate airport. A contributing factor was the reduced visibility in the approach zone because of rain showers, a condition not reported to the flight.”
In the book, Corsetti weaves a story of an airplane type pushed to the edge of its performance limits on a non-stop route between New York and St. Maarten; confusion in emergency protocols between the ONA flight crew and the ALM cabin crew; a non-functioning PA system; and a possibly faulty fuel totalizer, all of which combined in a “perfect storm” in the days before safety management system (SMS) culture made risk analysis an industry touchstone.
Aware of the aircraft’s shortcomings in range, the operator had pledged to install a 780-gallon auxiliary fuel tank to provide a safety cushion on the new route, but never got around to actually performing the modification before the accident. As the flight reached the destination, poor weather at St. Maarten, combined with inaccurate reporting of such, led to several unsuccessful landing attempts and a brief feint towards St. Thomas. When the pilot-in-command finally made the decision to head for St. Croix, there simply wasn’t enough fuel left in the tanks. Oddly, as Corsetti points out, the NTSB panel did not request the aircraft's maintenance records until several weeks after the accident, an omission that some assert gave the company adequate time to falsify documents regarding the fuel system. With no effort ever made to recover the aircraft, investigators were left with no physical evidence to examine.
According to the testimony of survivors, there was little time to prepare for the ditching. With the PA system down, there was no advice from the cockpit, and the differences in training between the two companies further fueled the confusion in the cabin. Indeed, noted the NTSB, “the effectiveness of the three cabin attendants was reduced because of their lack of knowledge of what was happening and the short preparation time available to them.”
After the twin-engine jetliner ditched with an impact that tore seats from the floor, it stayed afloat for between five and 10 minutes before sinking in 5,000 feet of water. During the evacuation, a life raft was accidentally inflated inside the cabin, blocking one exit.
At his St. Croix airport office when he heard of the accident, Bohlke recruited a makeshift rescue crew, swiftly unloaded one of his father’s charter company Short Skyvans, grabbed a spare life raft and took off. He circled over the ditching site as the men in the cargo area tossed out all the rescue equipment on board to the survivors in the water. As a Coast Guard HU-16 arrived on scene to command the rescue, its crew had difficulty communicating with the San Juan rescue coordination center, so Bohlke, whose wife was expecting the couple’s first child, flew on the amphibian’s wing for several hours more, serving as a radio relay between the amphibian and its base. His daughter was born the next day at the hospital in Christiansted, amid the survivors of the ditching. In the end, of the 63 souls on board, there were 40 survivors, 22 missing and one confirmed dead.
A day later, the tragic events at Kent State University, in which members of the Ohio National Guard fired on a group of antiwar college student protestors, killing four, would wipe news of the ditching from the front pages of the newspapers. Nearly half a century later, the DC-9 named Carib Queen, with its rudimentary flight data recorders untouched, still rests on the bottom of the Caribbean.