DISASTER: Melon Against a Wall

High over the desert, the bright blue exhausts of United Airlines' Flight 615 burned a flickering path through the predawn darkness. The big DC-6B, newest and fastest plane flying U.S. air lanes, was five hours out of Chicago, westbound for San Francisco. In command was Captain Marion W. ("Ted") Hedden, 42, an old hand at United, with twelve years of spotless service on his record.

At 5:16 a.m., just ten minutes behind schedule, Captain Hedden reported in to the tower at Oakland Airport, and began a standard instrument letdown through the overcast.

Ten minutes later, two unaccountable miles offcourse, the big...

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