• U.S.

DISASTER: A Flash Like Lightning

3 minute read

At New York’s La Guardia Field, there was a smear of haze across the half moon; the summer night air was warm and humid. Most of the 55 passengers who crowded into the belly of the big, silent, high-tailed DC-4 were vacation-bound. At Northwest Airlines’ special night-aircoach rates they could fly to Minneapolis for $47, or to Seattle, the end of the line, for $111—and only over night. Youngsters, husbands and wives, stenographers and a Roman Catholic priest (who had boarded the plane at the last minute) fastened their seat belts as the four engines sputtered to life.

As Pilot Robert C. Lind climbed westward away from Manhattan, the moon turned pale and then went out behind thick clouds. Three hours later, after he had crossed blackened Lake Erie and passed the lights of Detroit, he could see the flickering glow of lightning ahead on the horizon, the cold front the weather maps had predicted.

Just before 11 p.m. he reported on course over Battle Creek, Mich.; a quarter-hour later, when he was starting across Lake Michigan into the storm, he asked air traffic control for permission to drop a thousand feet from his assigned 3,500-ft. altitude. CAA said no, there was too much traffic already running at the lower level. Neither Pilot Lind nor the 57 others aboard was ever heard from again.

As hours passed, friends and relatives of the passengers waited at the Minneapolis airport, desperate and weary. Alarms went out; planes and ships headed out into the storm, to criss-cross Lake Michigan, looking for wreckage. Close to the hour when the Northwest aircoach was due over Milwaukee, a woman on the Michigan lake shore near Benton Harbor had heard a plane roar low, thought she saw a burst of flame over the water. A retired Navy captain reported the same thing—a flash that rivaled the lightning, “flames for a number of seconds—nearly a minute, then light smoke in the lightning’s glare.” He took a quick bearing on the explosion, made a sailor’s guess of a distance of 20 miles.

For the next two days, an armada of boats and planes scouted his bearing and the general path the DC-4 should have taken. Storm static scrambled radio contact between the search parties; mist and night fog hampered visibility. But toward the end of the second day, not far from the Navy captain’s fix, the Coast Guard came on an oil slick and scraps of tangled metal. Close by floated a piece of blue blanket bearing the stencil “N.W.” and bits of human bodies—all that remained of U.S. commercial aviation’s worst air disaster.

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