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Friday, March 1, 2013

Question the Queen City: Charlotte's biggest aviation disasters

Posted By on Fri, Mar 1, 2013 at 1:34 PM

Editor's note: In this series, local author David Aaron Moore answers reader-submitted questions about unusual, noteworthy or historic people, places and things in Charlotte. Submit inquires to

After reading your response to the question about Charlotte's old Douglas Municipal Airport, it made me start to wonder - has Charlotte experienced many airplane crashes? - Bill Dukes, Gastonia

When one considers how many planes have taken off and landed in Charlotte since the very first airport opened in 1936, the Queen City has an excellent record of aviation safety. So in the grand scheme of things - and to answer your question - no.

There have been a number of small private and military planes that have crashed over the years, more often than not due to pilot error. After extensive research, I've compiled the top four, beginning with the least disastrous.

4. Piedmont Airlines Flight 467

It was a rainy Saturday evening on Oct. 25, 1986. As the Boeing 737, en route from Newark, N.J. to Myrtle Beach, S.C. was attempting to make a routine stopover in Charlotte. After initial touchdown, it skidded 300 feet off the runway, crashed through a fence, and slammed nose-first into an embankment that supported a railroad track. The airplane was a complete loss. There were no fatalities in the accident, though among the 119 passengers and crew onboard, three sustained serious injuries and 31 others suffered minor injuries.

The pilot, who was seen crawling through the cockpit window after the crash, told a television reporter on the scene that the brakes had failed. According to a National Transportation Safety Board report, "the probable cause of the accident was the captain's failure to stabilize the approach and his failure to discontinue the approach to a landing that was conducted at an excessive speed beyond the normal touchdown point on a wet runway."

Piedmont Airlines Flight 467, seen here after slamming nose-first into railroad tracks 440 feet past the runway.
  • Charlotte Fire Museum
  • Piedmont Airlines Flight 467, seen here after slamming nose-first into railroad tracks 440 feet past the runway.

3. US Airways Express Flight 5481

On Jan. 8, 2003, the Beechcraft 1900-D twin engine turboprop, bound from Charlotte to the Spartanburg/Greenville airport, took off amidst clear skies and light winds at 8:50 a.m. Thirty-seven seconds later, it crashed into a US Airways hangar, bursting into flames. All 21 people onboard were killed. Seconds before the crash, crew members of the small craft contacted the tower to declare an emergency, but the plane crashed so quickly there was no time for them to give any further details. The Safety Board later concluded the cause of the accident was due to mechanical malfunction and a heavier load of passengers and luggage than the plane was designed to carry.

2. USAir Flight 1016

On the evening of July 2, 1994, the DC9 took off from Columbia, S.C., for a short 35-minute flight to Charlotte. Including flight crew and passengers, 57 people were on board. While attempting to land during a violent thunderstorm at approximately 6:40 p.m., the pilot of the jet failed to receive a wind shear warning issued by aircraft control because the plane was operating on a different frequency.

As 1016 began approach, the captain became immediately aware they were facing imminent danger and attempted to abort the landing. While struggling to climb, the plane took a dive to the right, descending rapidly. At 6:42 p.m., it came down in a field barely under 900 yards from the runway. Crashing through a fence and several trees, it broke into four pieces, much of it strewn across a field and Wallace Neel Road. Parts of the rear section of the plane slid into the carport of a privately owned home. Thirty-seven individuals died in the crash, with 14 others suffering serious injuries.

1. Eastern Airlines Flight 212

Shortly after 7:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, Sept. 11, 1974, the DC9-30 crashed about three miles short of runway 36 at Douglas Municipal Airport. Carrying 78 passengers and four crew members, the flight was en route from Charleston to Chicago with an intermediate stop in Charlotte.

Attempting to make a landing using instrument approach in dense ground fog, the aircraft, traveling at over 200 mph, clipped numerous trees, snapping its wings and rupturing fuel tanks. That sent 13,000 pounds of jet fuel spewing to the ground and caused a fire. After sliding through densely overgrown woods and into a ravine, it broke into pieces and finally came to a rest, cabin doors largely blocked by the surrounding thicket of trees. Crew and passenger count totaled 82, and only 13 survived the initial impact. Three more would die later from severe burn injuries.

According to a report in the Florence Morning News, survivor Robert Burnham of Charleston said he thought he was thrown from the plane as it crashed.

"We were coming in and the pilot seemed to pick up power. It was real foggy. I felt one wing tip go down and then it hit some trees and I felt heat," Burnham said. "I must have been thrown out of the plane. I got up, looked around and started running toward the woods." Rescue workers would find bodies and survivors scattered hundreds of yards from the plane, and pieces of clothing in the brush and trees.

A report released by the Safety Board on May 23, 1975, concluded that the accident was caused by the flight crew's lack of altitude awareness and poor cockpit discipline.

According to the cockpit voice recording, Captain James E. Reeves and first officer James M. Daniels were engrossed in conversation and apparently paying scant attention to landing procedures:

Captain: "Right. I heard this morning on the news while I was... might stop proceedings against impeachment [of the president]"
[sound of altitude warning beep]
Captain: "...because you can't have a pardon for Nixon and the Watergate people. Old Ford's beginning to take some hard knocks..."
First Officer: "We should be taking some definite direction to save the country. Arabs are taking over every damned thing."
First Officer: "...The stock market and the damned Swiss are going to sink our damned money, gold over there..."
Captain: "Yes, sir, boy. They got the money, don't they? They got so much damned money."
First Officer: "...Yeah, I think, damn if we don't do something by 1980, they'll [presumably 'the Arabs'] own the world."
Captain: I'd be willing to go back to one... to one car... a lot of other restrictions if we can get something going."

Five seconds before impact, the captain said, "Yeah, we're all ready. All we got to do is find the airport." The flight officer replied, "Yeah." A half second later they both shouted, and the DC9-30 crashed and exploded.

The crash remains the worst in Charlotte's aviation history.

Moore is the author of "Charlotte: Murder, Mystery and Mayhem." His writings have appeared in numerous publications throughout the U.S. and Canada.

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