I Remember Stephen Baltz

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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.

Comments (11)

thanks for remembering-My 5th birthday was the day after the tragedy, but I remeber nothing of it at the time-I was living in Queens, not far away from Park Slope, and had been to Methodist Hospital over the years from time to time-again not knowing that is where he died-and that there is a small memorial plaque in the chapel, with the 65 cents taht was in his pocket at the time of the crash. His father had placed the coins in the hospital collection box. The sweet boy had been talking to hospital staff and his parents during the night. Incredible poignance to this horific story and it is entirely fitting and proiper that you remind us of it.

Posted by: Unknown | December 20, 2010 11:05 AM    Report this comment

The coverage of this significant anniversary of a terrible accident has been remarkable, especially in the Times. Thanks for bringing to our attention the "On the Media" interview with Wendell Jamieson - a fascinating look behind the scenes at journalism then and now.

Very few pilots today know where these regulatory changes came from - now, thanks to you and the many other authors of this anniversary coverage, they may learn a bit about why things are the way they are in aviation today, and why it is safer to fly!
Thanks for refreshing our memories.

Posted by: Anthony Vallillo | December 20, 2010 1:17 PM    Report this comment

Just as the Times' story reminded Paul, the blog reminds me of a story if I may relate. Back in 1966 I was a caddy at Lansing CC near my Munster, In home working the back nine on a hot, July afternoon when a large, silent shadow passed over us, too fast for a cloud, then a loud 'pop' and slight ground shake. Black smoke rose from somewhere on the front nine so about 20 of us ran to the scene.

A plane, looked like a low wing twin, went down but was not on fire, just smoldering and twisted metal. We got within arms length to discover some blackened parts appeared to be moving, but soon fell still and silent. Later we learned pro golfer Tony Lema and others were on board and all perished. But what I experienced changed me forever. That a pro golfer died on a golf course was the 'caddyrap' until the season ended, and my parents put an immediate halt to my fledgling flying lessons at nearby Lansing Muni. Many years later on my own I was able to earn the PPL.

I don't know if any FAR's were born from that crash, if I recall I think it was fuel exhaustion but not entirely sure. Lot of respect for first responders ever since then - hope the 9/11 heroes get their proper health care, politics be d....

Posted by: David Miller | December 20, 2010 2:07 PM    Report this comment

Paul, great entry here. I was living in Park Slope when I started my flight training, right around the corner from where the DC-8's tail came to rest some 25 years earlier, so I too had focused in on the regulatory and procedural changes brought about by trhis accident. Hey, Merry Christmas, too.

Posted by: Scott Dyer | December 20, 2010 2:13 PM    Report this comment

As a survivor of a 1949 DC3 crash during the Berlin airlift I have remembered the Park Slope DC- 8 accident over the years almost every week since then, whenever I pass Colts Neck, NJ and its VOR on Hwy18 by car . That's where the United Jet crossed with the pilot using the ill chosen word "dump" to describe his approach to Preston Junction, prior to its fatal encounter with the TWA Connie

Posted by: Lothar Zeidler | December 20, 2010 5:55 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for the informative essay, Paul. So many people don't get this stuff anymore; you have done them a service.

When I was a fledgling controller in 1980, the USAF taught us about the crash and these very derivatives.

Posted by: Brian Veazey | December 20, 2010 6:51 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for the link, Rob. I'm surprised the list doesn't have Park Slope, given how much change it sparked.

Scott, seems like lots of people have Park Slope connections. In the podcast I linked, Brooke Gladstone says she lived there, near the corner of Sterling. Small world.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 21, 2010 7:23 AM    Report this comment

As an ATC, I hear comments daily from younger pilots and colleagues about "stupid" rules. Accidents such as this one serve to remind us in the industry that too many of our "stupid" rules arose from such tradgedies. Thanks for the reminder.

Posted by: Jennifer Carr | December 22, 2010 2:13 PM    Report this comment

Paul, Sometime after the collision I met Capt. Bob Johnston,UAL and he said his brother-in-law was co-pilot on the TWA Connie. He said the way the investigators determined the exact collision attitude was when they found parts of his brother-in-laws body in one of the UAL jets engines. He apparently was swept right out of the cockpit into the jet engine. I don't recall what engine. I recall the newspapers said everyone was praying that Little Stevie would recover. It was called The Pillar-of-Fire collision by some papers as some of the debris hit the Pillar of Fire Church. Gene Olsen

Posted by: Eugene Olsen | December 22, 2010 7:12 PM    Report this comment

Paul, you like me had never forgotten Stephen Baltz's name, part of that DC8 came down @ Sterling Place in Brooklin Ny, and I do believe that the Connie came down on the public school on New Dorp Lane in Staten Island Ny.I recalled the day was not the best weatherwise. I do believe that Stephen was listening to an AM/FM radio, which today is a banned iten to be operated onboard an aircraft, because of the harmonics involved with FM having av radio only at the top end of the dial. Terminal speed was another item which evolved from that accident, also 'standard turn rates' get very long radius given the airspeed, which was one of the items, given the very rudimentry equipment BOTH on aircraft & on the ground. Oh how we learn from things from the past. Most people I know do not recall Stepnens name, but I believe it was his 'different' name which probably cause it to remain in my head.

Posted by: Leighton Samms | December 24, 2010 3:38 PM    Report this comment

I remember the time well as I was a senior in high school in Summit, NJ at the time. One of our favorite football players, Darnell Mallory who had graduated the previous year was coming home from college for Christmas. He was a passenger on one of the planes. His loss was keenly felt by all in Summit. I believe there were over a dozen Summit residents on those planes. Becoming a pilot later I have a copy of the accident report for that day which reports the shortcomings of the ATC systems which led to many safety changes that survive today.

Posted by: Noel Anderson | December 27, 2010 8:56 AM    Report this comment

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