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REDEEMING COUSIN BILLY:
An Elegy for Memorial Day

By Jock O'Connell

jockoconnell@gmail.com


(This is the text of an article published in the Sacramento Bee on Sunday, May 30, 1999.)

By all accounts, the crash of the C-124 Globemaster near Moses Lake, Washington, just before dawn on December 20, 1952, was horrific. Survivors told of a leftward lurch seconds after take-off, a sinking descent until the wing clipped the ground and sent the plane into a cartwheel. An instant later, the impact gave way to a gruesome inferno as the fuel tanks ruptured, spilling 32,000 pounds of aviation fuel and spewing fire on nearly everything and everyone. Intense flames burned for more than two hours, consuming much of the aircraft and melting metal parts into shapeless lumps of steel and aluminum. In the end, 86 of the 115 men on board were dead or dying in what remained of the big, double-decked Air Force transport.

The crash was quite literally a disaster of the first magnitude. It was the worst mishap in aviation history up to that date, as radio news bulletins and newspaper headlines around the country announced. Compounding the sense of national tragedy was the fact that many of those on board were servicemen en route home from the war in Korea.

Several days later, our family gathered in Maine to bury one of those who had perished in the crash, Lt. William N. O'Connell, my uncle Norbert's son. Though I was just five years old at the time, I carry memories of my cousin's funeral that are as crisp as the mid-winter air. The occasion was replete with the mnemonic events that captivate a small boy: the resplendent honor guard the Air Force had sent from Pease AFB in Portsmouth; the crack of rifles fired in salute; the somber ritual of the folded flag. What I was much too callow to appreciate that day was how perversely our family's grief had been defiled by the news, delivered only days earlier, that we were burying the 27-year-old pilot the Air Force had deemed responsible for the entire disaster.

Today, we are accustomed to lengthy investigations into airplane crashes. We've grown familiar with the exhaustive and expensive efforts made to collect and reassemble plane wreckage -- even if it requires diving to the ocean floor or plunging into malarial swamps or impenetrable jungles. But such extensive, meticulous inquiries are not merely products of our peculiarly litigious age. An Associated Press story that ran in the Los Angeles Times following the Moses Lake disaster warned that "crash investigations often take months" as investigators gingerly sift through the wreckage and question witnesses and survivors (if there are any) looking for clues.

In this instance, though, the Air Force was uncommonly swift to judgment. Within hours of the Saturday morning crash, an Accident Investigation Board had been formally empaneled and dispatched to the crash site at Larson AFB in Washington State. By the following Wednesday, the panel had wrapped up its work and officially closed the book on the inquiry.

Then, with an appallingly lack of grace, the Air Force did something unconscionable. It promptly released the panel's conclusions to a callous press. As a result, the entire nation awoke the next morning -- Christmas Day -- to newspaper accounts much like the one that appeared in the New York Herald Tribune under the headline: "Take-Off With Locked Controls Blamed For Crash Killing 86." The damnation of Cousin Billy was lodged in the second paragraph: "By implication, the world's worst flying disaster was attributed to the failure of the plane's chief pilot, 1st Lt. William N. O'Connell, to make a prescribed check of the craft's controls before attempting to leave the ground."

So there it was right under the Christmas tree -- the unwrapped gift proclaiming that Billy's negligence had made him the next worst thing to a mass murderer. Apart from that, Mr. & Mrs. O'Connell, how were your holidays?

What little evidence the Air Force chose to share with the public looked sufficiently conclusive. Billy, the Air Force said, had failed to insure that a mechanism which locked the plane's rudders and flaps while on the ground had been properly unlocked prior to take-off. With the plane's critical surface controls locked, he had taken off in a heavy piece of machinery that, once airborne, was incapable of sustained flight.

The Air Force's account went unchallenged. It was, it must be remembered, an era in which few were inclined to argue with the established order. Vietnam and Watergate were well in the future. In 1952, there was a shooting war in Korea, Josef Stalin was still in the Kremlin, and at home the House Un- American Activities Committee, Sen. Joe McCarthy and others were on the prowl for malcontents. Besides, not to indulge ethnic stereotypes, my aunts and uncles were generally of the sort more apt to ask for another round of Bushmills than for an independent inquiry.

And that proved too bad for Billy. For a closer examination of the Air Force inquiry raises many more questions than it put to rest. Indeed, what happened in those predawn minutes nearly 47 years ago still remains far from evident.

+++

I'm not sure what it was that, in the fullness of time, prompted me to re-examine this painful chapter of family history. But a couple of years ago I began by reading contemporary newspaper accounts of the accident. From the outset, there were aspects of the Air Force inquiry that struck me as quite odd -- not the least of which was the remarkable speed with which it had been concluded.

The plain truth was that by the time of the Moses Lake disaster, neither the Air Force nor the plane's builder, the Douglas Aircraft Corporation, could afford the luxury of a long, exhaustive inquiry. For the Air Force had a very serious problem: Its big transport planes had been falling out of the sky with disturbing frequency.

In the six weeks leading up to the Moses Lake crash, the Air Force had lost ten transport planes along the North Pacific rim between Korea to Montana. Just four weeks earlier, a virtually identical C-124 with fifty-two servicemen on board had vanished on a flight in Alaska. Another 91 lives had been claimed in the crashes of four C-119 Flying Boxcars, manufactured by Fairchild. In all, nearly 300 men had died in accidents involving Air Force transports since November 7.

Disturbed at such an appalling waste of lives, Congress was threatening to hold public hearings, something neither the Pentagon nor Douglas Aircraft welcomed. In particular, serious questions were being raised as to whether the C-124 was a safe aircraft. Noting that a third C-124 had disappeared in 1951 on a flight over the Atlantic, Sen. Richard Russell, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters after Billy's crash: "I think the Air Force should ground these Globemasters until it can definitely be determined whether they are mechanically defective." The head of the House Veterans Affairs Committee voiced exactly the same recommendation.

Under the threat of further unfavorable publicity, did the Air Force exhaust all possible explanations for the crash of the C-124 at Moses Lake? Or did it merely embrace the most convenient explanation -- the one that seemingly accounted for what happened without pointing any accusing fingers at Air Force procedures or aircraft design?

To learn more of what had happened at Moses Lake, I obtained a copy of the report filed by The Accident Investigation Board. It makes for some exceptionally troubling reading.

"The C-124," the report notes, "has one mechanical control handle which locks four separate controls -- the throttles, elevators, ailerons and rudder -- when the plane is parked on the ground. All of these controls are unlocked by moving the control handle through its complete traverse area." Then came the report's principal allegation. "Indications are that in this case the control handle was moved partly but not completely through its full traverse before the take-off and, as a result, the throttle was unlocked, permitting power to be applied, while the surface control locks remained in a locked position. The investigation established that the elevator and rudder control surfaces were in the locked position prior to impact."

This conclusion rests, however, on a liberal dose of supposition. For one thing, the crucial physical evidence was simply lacking. For another, the conclusion was contradicted by most of the eyewitness testimony. But what seemed most extraordinary was that at least one senior participant in the accident inquiry, Major General Victor E. Bertrandias, the Deputy Inspector General of the Air Force, appears to have made up his mind about what had happened even before he arrived on scene to consider the factual evidence.

As for the physical evidence, the full report conceded: "A very intensive search was made in the crash area in an attempt to recover the cockpit control surface lock handle and mechanism. This search was negative." The fire damage on the aircraft itself was very intense and concentrated around the cockpit and forward fuselage. "There was little that could be readily discernible of these parts in the wreckage itself due to the melting down of the structure. There were large solidified parts of melted aluminum alloy."

As for the witnesses -- not only survivors but Air Force ground personnel who helped ready the aircraft prior to take-off -- no one reported anything but a routine, by-the-book operation almost up to the point the plane veered out of control.

The C-124's flight engineer, Master Sgt. Wendell L. Burton, lived long enough to tell investigators that "the C-124's instruments indicated the plane's operation was normal in the takeoff." He did, however, reveal that the pilot had said his gyro had gone out.

Q. Were the controls locked?

A. No, the controls didn't seem to be.

Q. Do you recall who unlocked the controls?

A. Yes, sir. It was the Assistant Engineer.

Q. You're pretty sure it was unlocked before your taxiing down?

A. Yes, sir, I know it was.

Q. No warning horns or lights?

A. No warning horns.

Another crew member, S/Sgt. Joseph Skrzyniarz, was seated in the rear of the aircraft but had a communications link with the flight crew in the cockpit. According to a transcript of his testimony, Skrzyniarz attested that all procedures with respect to the surface controls locking mechanism had been followed. He, too, stated he had heard the pilot saying that "the gyro was out" but was unsure whether this was before or after take-off. At the conclusion of his testimony, Skrzyniarz was asked: "Other than the comments you have already made, do you feel that this take-off was other than normal?" Answer: "I felt that it was normal procedure. Everything was normal."

Of course, there had to be something that was not normal about this flight. Normally functioning airplanes do not crash and explode after take-off. So what was abnormal about this flight, and why didn't anyone -- the pilot, the co-pilot or the flight engineer -- recognize they had a problem until it was too late?

According to the accident report, the pre-flight checklist required the C-124's co-pilot to ascertain that the locking mechanism had been fully disengaged. The report further notes that the actual unlocking was typically performed by a flight engineer. (In this case, Sgt. Burton evidently delegated the chore to one of two student engineers who were accompanying him on the training flight.)

Could it be that Sgt. Burton's last act before succumbing to his injuries was to cover up his own failure to properly supervise a trainee? After all, it would have been his responsibility not only to insure the lock was fully disengaged but also to assure the co-pilot he had done so. Gen. Bertrandias certainly did not disguise his belief that Burton's word could not be trusted. But even if Burton were lying or simply confused, why hadn't anyone else noticed the surface controls remained locked? What about those horns and lights? What about the pilot's statement that the plane's gyroscopes -- so essential in an instrument take-off -- had failed? Had equipment the crew had grown to trust malfunctioned at a very inopportune moment?

Among those questioned by accident investigators was Major Milton W. Byrn, the pilot of a C-124 that took off just 11 minutes before the ill-fated flight rolled down the runway. Byrn was asked about the procedures for disengaging the locking mechanism.

Q. It is our understanding from looking at this system that if the [surface control] locks are on, there is a safety feature in the throttles where you cannot move two of them forward to full open position which precludes the pilot from taking off with the locks on. Do you know that?

A. Yes, sir, you can't move both throttles up on the same side with the locks on.

Q. In this checklist before taxiing...it is required that the controls and tabs be visually checked after the controls are unlocked. How do you do this in the airplane you fly? How do you obtain the check on the controls?

A. I don't do it.

Q. It is not accomplished?

A. No, sir.

As it turned out, Byrn was far from the only C-124 pilot who had been less than completely fastidious about pre-flight safety procedures. In a nasty bit of irony, the C-124 pilots (at least those attached to the 62nd Troop Carrier Wing at Larson AFB) appear to have trusted in built-in mechanical safeguards to such an extent they routinely dispensed with a check of the surface controls which, in the case of the C-124, could only be accomplished by positioning a crew member (known as the scanner) outside the aircraft while the pilot moved the flaps and rudder.

Such confidence likely proved unfortunate. Buried deep in the investigation team's report is clear evidence to indicate that the controls locking mechanism was poorly designed and badly maintained. "Examinations were made on quite a number of C-124 aircraft at this base to determine the operational sequence and functions of the cockpit control surface lock mechanism. Various inadequacies and malfunctionings and inconsistencies were noted in this apparatus." (Emphasis added.) While it would appear that both the Air Force and Douglas Aircraft had some explaining to do, neither understandably had any interest in resolving questions of possible culpability in public. But in fact, as the accident team's report indicates, the crash did hasten steps already underway for a major redesign of the locking mechanism in later models of the C-124 and a similarly major overhaul of pertinent Air Force training manuals.

In retrospect, Gen. Bertrandias' prejudgment of the evidence suggests he may have had prior knowledge that the locking mechanism was subject to malfunction and that he just may have expected a malfunction could cause the very disaster that befell the C-124 at Moses Lake. His successful efforts to shift blame for the accident from the machinery to the men operating it bore the hallmarks of a classic bureaucratic maneuver. But was he guilty of more than a garden-variety institutional cover-up? On this point, there is no hard evidence. Still, let the record show that, no doubt by sheer coincidence, the general found employment upon his subsequent retirement from the Air Force as a corporate vice president at Douglas Aircraft.

+++

The title of world's worse aircraft disaster did not belong to the Moses Lake crash for very long. Just six months later, on June 18, 1953, an Air Force transport crashed just after taking-off from an airport near Tokyo, killing 129 servicemen. The aircraft involved? Another C-124.

The day of the Moses Lake crash, an Associated Press reporter asked Billy's sister her reaction to word her brother had been among those killed. "Somehow we've been expecting it to happen for a long time," she said. "With all those other crashes we thought he'd have to get it sooner or later. That's just the way it is with those fellows. If he was [the pilot], then this thing hangs on his neck. We'd like to know."

What we now know, but what the Air Force did not chose to share with the public at the time, was that there was ample blame to be apportioned all around. A fairer, more conscientious investigation into the accident might have doled out responsibility to numerous parties -- Douglas Aircraft, for designing and building a flawed instrument for controlling the aircraft's ability to stay aloft; the Air Force, for not sharing with its pilots and crews growing suspicions over the integrity of the locking mechanism; and, yes, the crew of this particular C-124 for likely ignoring some vital safety procedures.

Too bad that only one individual, having already lost his life, was alone in forfeiting his good name in the tragedy at Moses Lake.

Copyright 1999 by J. A. O'Connell