I Remember Stephen Baltz
I was just a kid of 10 when a United DC-8 and a TWA Constellation named Star of Sicily collided over Staten Island on December 16th, 1960, raining debris and bodies over a neighborhood in Brooklyn called Park Slope. It would be an accident of many firsts—the first passenger jet crash in the U.S., the first use of flight recorders in an investigation, the largest major crash in a metropolitan area and the largest loss of life to date. It was also the first time television news covered a major crash and that is, I'm sure, how I learned about Stephen Baltz. I never forgot his name.
Stephen, then 11 years old, had been aboard the United DC-8, traveling alone from Chicago to meet his grandparents in New York. Improbably, he was thrown from the burning wreckage and recovered from a snow drift. Badly burned, he survived for only a day, but he was the only passenger aboard whom a curious public learned anything about and that wasn't much. For a young kid, it didn't take much imagination to identify with the horror he endured. I distinctly remember our family going to Catholic Mass on that Friday night to pray for Stephen. His memory would come up again and again as my life unfolded.
What I couldn't understand is why it came up last week, on the 50th anniversary of the crash. Although the mainstream media likes to cover anniversaries, air crashes don't necessarily rise to the top as story ideas. This one did because the New York Times decided to essentially re-report the story a half century later, interviewing witnesses and survivors on the ground and seeking eye witness accounts on its Web site. In this engaging interview on On the Media, the Times' Wendell Jamieson explained how (and why) the Times fashioned the coverage.
For me personally, the details of this crash recurred throughout my reporting career because of how it reshaped the system. Although few pilots or passengers may remember it—nor should they—old hands in the FAA and the air safety community do. A decade ago, I was writing some flyspeck article about instrument procedures and the subject of holding pattern speed and sizes came up. The FAA procedures maven I was talking to knew it was connected to the Park Slope crash, but he was too young to remember it directly or to recall Stephen Baltz's name. But I did.
I remembered him again in researching the origins of ATCRBS-the ATC secondary radar beacon system that we now take for granted but which didn't exist in 1960. Radar separation was rudimentary, with controllers gathered around flat table radar displays, pushing plastic shrimp boats with hand-written data on tags. Mode-C altitude reporting didn't exist, so they relied on pilot reports for altitude, not to mention position reports and estimates. This was considered a factor in the crash and directly or indirectly pushed the FAA's Project Beacon, which ultimately gave us modern transponders and secondary radar.
Every flight instructor quizzes his charges on FAR 91.117—indicated airspeed limits below 10,000 feet and speed to maintain within four miles of an airport. This rule emerged directly from the Park Slope accident. The DC-8 was instructed to hold at a fix over New Jersey then called Preston, but it blazed past the clearance limit at more than 300 knots at 5000 feet, covering the distance to the edge of LaGuardia's approach airspace in under three minutes.
Preston intersection was formed by the intersection of two radials and the post accident investigation revealed inconsistent reports on whether both VORs were functioning correctly. Some pilots said they were, others raised doubts. But one of the DC-8's VOR receivers wasn't working, a malfunction not reported to ATC, thus we have FAR 91.187 requiring equipment outage reports. Related to that, by 1961, the FAA required turbojets to have DME aboard, because with a single VOR, the DC-8's crew was overwhelmed in trying to calculate position manually, given the jet's speed. Later, FAR 91.215 came along—the transponder rule—which owes its origins indirectly to developments following the Park Slope crash. Similarly, the notion of positive control airspace, what we now know as Class A airspace—evolved from the growing reliance on radar separation and secondary radar that Park Slope forced.
When I was an airplane-crazy kid in 1960—just as Stephen Baltz was—I had no clue about any of this. My understanding of it would gel over a lifetime of involvement in flying, instrument instruction and writing about the minutia of how the ATC system works and how it has evolved. Although I was always able to associate a name with the origins of that evolution, I never knew much about the kid I so identified with. Thanks to the Times' story, I do now.