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


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.