In Case You Thought Airline Flying Was Always Safe, Consider 1958

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Anyone who knows anything about aviation also knows at least two things about regulations: They’re written in blood and despite the belief that the FAA devises rules on a whim, the so-called tombstone mentality lives on. The bodies come before the rules, usually, and sometimes it takes a while.

But unless we’re reminded of it from time to time, most of us don’t recall or never knew how much carnage it took to reach the current level of airline safety in which accidents aren’t quite unheard of, but have become rare. Here’s a reminder.

My longtime colleague and freelance writer Paul Berge has written a concise and amusing history describing how we went from a universe plagued by accidents and collisions to the safest mode of transportation in the known universe, including trains, buses and pipelines. The piece appeared in a recent issue of our sister publication, IFR magazine.

As depressing as it is to understand how many accidents it took to reform airline safety, it’s just as delusional to imagine the current system could have sprung from the industry fully formed from the outset. When practical air transportation came into its own in the late 1920s and through the decade of the 1930s, the industry was writing rules on the fly, so to speak. The CAA didn’t even exist, much less the more all-encompassing FAA. The Commerce Department sat on the aviation sidelines, concerning itself mostly with air route designation and eventually charting.

The CAA didn’t appear until the eve of World War II, in 1940. People who like to complain about government interference in everything tend to forget that the first air traffic control system was built and operated by the airlines and the government largely neglected oversight until what might be thought of as the Years of the Accidents. Big, gory crashes that made for banner headlines in newspapers, prompting politicians to assure a nervous public that regulation would fix the problem. It often did, too, or at least helped.

Consider one of the bloodiest years of all that you probably don’t even know about: 1958. Within months of each other, two military aircraft collided over Los Angeles, killing 50; an Air Force F-100 speared a DC-7 near Las Vegas, killing 49 more; a T-33 collided with a Viscount over Maryland, adding 61 more souls to the body count.

Can you imagine if such a thing happened in 2017? No, you probably can’t, such is the safety of the modern NAS. And if three such midairs did occur, the fatalities on just one airplane would far exceed the total for all of 1958. Improvements in air traffic control, reporting requirements, training and aircraft technology began to reshape the system. Yet the tragedies kept coming, including the much-publicized Park Slope accident over New York in 1960. As I related in this blog in 2010, that accident had far-reaching regulatory impact that reverberates yet today. It’s the first air crash I remember in vivid detail because the sole survivor—an eleven-year-old from Chicago named Stephen Baltz—was my age at the time. Pictures published after the fact revealed an uncanny resemblance between the two of us. The crash occurred at a time when airports had kiosks selling life insurance to departing passengers, such was the fatalistic sentiment toward air travel. Not that it wasn’t justified. Today, the idea is risible.

Berge’s essay shows how history has a way of coming full circle. He quotes a certain Edgar Gorrel, then of the Air Transport Association. When asked of GA’s place in the then-emerging privately controlled air traffic system, Gorrel said, “Private flying is today a menace.” Even the most nave among us probably can’t believe that sentiment has changed in the 80 years hence.

While I’m touting my friend Berge’s writing talents, let me flog his new novel, just out. It’s called That’s Life, I Guess and is the continuation of the story of barnstorming pilot Jake Hollow, who Berge introduced in his best-selling first novel, Bootleg Skies. Well, so maybe it wasn’t a best seller, but it was a great story by a talented writer. While you're at it, order his Private Pilot Manual, a must-have addition to every aviation library.

Correction: Paul informs me he has a new web site and you can find the new book there. Ignore the previous reference.

Comments (14)

Good stuff.
How soon we forget. One commentator said that the airlines have never voluntarily made any safety improvement, all were mandated for them by regulation or union negotiation. Don't know if that's correct, but Ernie Gann's writings speak of the intense fight the unions had with the airlines to get blinking lights added - rather than just the steady navigation lights - in about 1939.
As for the need for oversight, I was flying freight in the 1970s when the FAA decided to look the other way and let Part 135 freight operators pretty much do as they pleased regarding maintenance and pilot training. The operators crashed all over the landscape until the FAA stepped in and started enforcing the regs.
Second your recommendation on Paul Berge's books - he's one of the funniest human beings I know. I read _Bootleg Skies_ years ago and just picked up and zipped through _That's Life, I Guess_ a couple of months ago. His _Inside the Circle_, set in the late 1930s, is a good look at how tough it was to make it in aviation in the Depression.

Posted by: Rick Durden | September 17, 2017 10:49 PM    Report this comment

Do you know of a book that details the development of instrument flight from the very start?

Posted by: Gareth Allen | September 18, 2017 3:41 AM    Report this comment

Interesting to note, Paul's name is the only name I recognize in the comments section of the 2010 blog post.

My knowledge of the aviation world started around 1995 or so, and even then it was a limited understanding. And I didn't actually start flight training until 2006, so my real understanding of the aviation world really starts at that point. So, I can't speak to how the regulations we have now (at least, those prior to 2006) were shaped, but it seems from the history I've read that the regulations made somewhat more sense then, than what we have now like the 1500 hour rule. That regulation does absolutely nothing to prevent another Colgan Air crash, seeing how both pilots already would have passed that rule. But rules like creating Class-A, maximum speeds, and requiring transponders directly solved some of the issues.

Is it because we are more quick to jump to conclusions these days (somehow, I think that isn't the case), or that we've created so many regulations that adding new, meaningful ones are simply harder (sort of like the "90% done, 90% to go" phrase used in homebuilding, where that last 10% is the hardest)? Or have we become so risk-averse, we'll do anything at all to feel like we're reducing risk?

Posted by: Gary Baluha | September 18, 2017 7:54 AM    Report this comment

I'm always flabbergasted when the response to complaints about regulations includes a canonization of some legislation or institution based on how bad things were before their enactment.

The lesson to be derived from these stories is not to bow meekly to our new overlords, but instead to demand continued improvement. Just as we did not accept the horrible deaths of the past were all necessary, we should not accept the "little deaths" of today are all necessary.

The answer can't always be more regulations and requirements. Add too much safety equipment to an aircraft and it will not fly.

I see a common thread in the news today. Senator Schumer accepts a lie as proof the reenacted law is good. The regionals are short pilots. Volunteers can't accept a cent in reimbursement. It's all about the same thing - incentives matter. Where's the incentive to reduce the sheer bulk of regulations and requirements? Without such incentive, won't the legislators and regulators just keep piling it on?

Let's say airline safety is so good, and tickets so cheap, that we accept the status quo. That's not at all unreasonable. Even I can hold my nose and go along. But that's just the airlines, and the status quo is supposedly threatened by a pilot shortage. The source of those pilots is General Aviation which is in a terrible state. It's not so safe nor cheap.

If we are still primarily training pilots in fifty year old designed airplanes with safety similar to that of a motorcycle, isn't there bound to be some messed up incentive involved?

Posted by: Eric Warren | September 18, 2017 9:19 AM    Report this comment

It wasn't from ATC (or lack of it), but the airline flying disasters from that period that stick in my mind were the Lockheed Electra series of crashes (the four engine L-188 turboprop transport, not Amelia Earhart's plane).

In 1959 and 60 the Electras were dropping out of the sky around the country after its wings departed the fuselage while in the flight levels. The unknown cause was reason enough for the public to refuse to fly on a Electra. By the time the problem was solved it was too late; the market had moved on into the jet age. Turns out the Electra's engine mount and propeller combination went unstable in the thin air and caused a flutter mode that would literally break the wings off in flight, but only while in cruise mode in the flight levels...how diabolical. But the Electra airframe was otherwise a good airplane; it was later used as a basis for the development of the venerable Lockheed P-3 Orion.

Posted by: A Richie | September 18, 2017 9:44 AM    Report this comment

The FAA's problem isn't whether it creates regs "on a whim" or not, but rather that it takes a very narrow and shortsighted view of "this is how things are now" when writing the rules and refuses to revisit the assumptions and circumstances surrounding the rules when they were written. I've been told by FAA regulators on multiple occasions "we agree that doesn't make sense, we don't know why it was written that way, but it was so we aren't going to change it".

The FAA's other problem is that it often tries to achieve a goal through improper means. The "high performance" endorsement., for example, was created to address complex aircraft with more challenging operational characteristics than conventional light aircraft. But rather than phrase the reg in terms of those complex features and performance specs, they chose to use engine horsepower--which makes a freaking *Stearman* a high-performance aircraft, but not Nemesis, which stalls not far below the Stearman's max speed. Witness also the many regulations (finally getting addressed) that specified *how* to achieve something rather than *what* to achieve.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | September 18, 2017 10:40 AM    Report this comment

Considering the history of air traffic management under the airlines and air freight carriers, I find it inconceivable that Congress is actually thinking of turning ATC back over to them. No matter how good their intentions, the system will ultimately end up not where it was intended; to the detriment of both GA and the flying public.

"Those who do not learn from history are cursed to repeat it." (Winston Churchill)

Posted by: John McNamee | September 18, 2017 2:49 PM    Report this comment

In Case You Thought Cars Were Always Safe, Consider 1958.
In Case You Thought Hospitals Were Always Safe, Consider 1958.

Hey, there are a lot of these!
A half century of rapid technological progress might have something to do with it.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 18, 2017 4:08 PM    Report this comment

Robert,
Excellent point on the method vs results regulation. Unfortunately, it's not just the FAA doing this, and theirs isn't the worst kind. Much of it is simply crony capitalism in action. "You must use the patented product only available from my constituent and campaign supporter - insert corporation name here."

Posted by: Eric Warren | September 19, 2017 12:05 AM    Report this comment

In answer to the question, "Do you know of a book that details the development of instrument flight from the very start?",

read Quest For All-Weather Flight, by Tom Morrison, Airlife Publishing Ltd., 2002.

Jay Smith, Oakland, CA

Posted by: JAY SMITH | September 20, 2017 1:44 AM    Report this comment

From Paul's article--"Within months of each other, two military aircraft collided over Los Angeles, killing 50; an Air Force F-100 speared a DC-7 near Las Vegas, killing 49 more; a T-33 collided with a Viscount over Maryland, adding 61 more souls to the body count."

ALL involved a MILITARY aircraft--not civilian. Why are we focusing on civilian regulation?

To be sure, there were a lot more military aircraft in 1958 than there are now. We were buying interceptors like the Century Series aircraft by the thousands--KC-135s and B-52s by the hundreds, and there were a ton of WW II aircraft and Korean-era jets in the Guard units.

With all of these aircraft available, military aviation was far less structured than it is today--just sign out an aircraft, and go for a flight. Then, as now, many military aircraft operated independently of the FAA Air Traffic Control system--often without a flight plan. The military used Ground Controlled Approach (radar) for instrument approaches--the prime instrument for approaches in many cockpits up to the Vietnam era was the ADF. If they did contact ATC, it was often on their own frequencies--civilian pilots didn't have a sense of what military pilots were going to do. Much of that problem still exists today in MOAs, Restricted, and Prohibited areas--but at least, when military aircraft are sharing the airspace today, they are usually in contact with ATC.

The military has "stepped up its game" since 1958 as well. There are far fewer military aircraft, and far fewer flying hours. Every flight is tightly scripted, and detailed mission objectives, flight plans, weather briefings, and safety briefings are required. The requirements are so onerous that it is sometimes difficult to fly more than one training mission a day. Those of us flying in the Southwest see military aircraft refueling at civilian airports, when a military airport with government fuel is located only minutes away. The reason? If the crew and aircraft has to go back to the military base, they have to start the arduous dispatch procedure all over again. It's cheaper and more effective to purchase fuel at retail, even though the facilities and personnel are at the ready at the military base.

It's a good example of well-meaning government over-regulation--and adapting that mindset to GA operations would also mean the death of GA. Don't let it happen.

Posted by: jim hanson | September 20, 2017 1:20 PM    Report this comment

From Paul's article--"Within months of each other, two military aircraft collided over Los Angeles, killing 50; an Air Force F-100 speared a DC-7 near Las Vegas, killing 49 more; a T-33 collided with a Viscount over Maryland, adding 61 more souls to the body count."

ALL involved a MILITARY aircraft--not civilian. Why are we focusing on civilian regulation?

To be sure, there were a lot more military aircraft in 1958 than there are now. We were buying interceptors like the Century Series aircraft by the thousands--KC-135s and B-52s by the hundreds, and there were a ton of WW II aircraft and Korean-era jets in the Guard units.

With all of these aircraft available, military aviation was far less structured than it is today--just sign out an aircraft, and go for a flight. Then, as now, many military aircraft operated independently of the FAA Air Traffic Control system--often without a flight plan. The military used Ground Controlled Approach (radar) for instrument approaches--the prime instrument for approaches in many cockpits up to the Vietnam era was the ADF. If they did contact ATC, it was often on their own frequencies--civilian pilots didn't have a sense of what military pilots were going to do. Much of that problem still exists today in MOAs, Restricted, and Prohibited areas--but at least, when military aircraft are sharing the airspace today, they are usually in contact with ATC.

Posted by: jim hanson | September 20, 2017 1:21 PM    Report this comment

I'm sure the families of those dead passengers took great solace in knowing that it was a military aircraft that killed them, not another machine flown by mere civilian mortals.

The point being that military aircraft today are part of the NAS and thus properly separated where appropriate.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 21, 2017 8:41 AM    Report this comment

We seem to agree that military aviation today is more structured, and more like civil aviation than the Wild, Wild West that military aviation USED to be when these accidents occurred.

We seem to agree that the military now has far better ATC control than they did back when these accidents occurred.

Air traffic control is far better than it was then, and military traffic must now participate with ATC, unless within specific boundaries.

The point was--"why are we using these accidents involving MILITARY aircraft as an indictment of the accident rate of CIVIL aviation?

Posted by: jim hanson | September 24, 2017 2:03 PM    Report this comment

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