Transport: On Cheat Mountain

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Like the crash of American Airlines' Southerner in Arkansas three months ago (TIME, Jan. 27), most major air disasters leave no survivors to tell what happened. Last week it soon became apparent that the three survivors of the Sun Racer could give no 'useful information. The plane had struck the crest of Cheat Mountain on Chestnut Ridge, westernmost of the Allegheny "hogbacks." Cheat Mountain is nearly 40 miles south of Pittsburgh, and Pilot Ferguson was therefore far off his course. TWA officials promptly declared that the Pittsburgh radio beacon, operated by the U. S. Bureau of Air Commerce, must have been out of kilter.

No love has been lost between the Bureau and TWA since TWA's President Jack Frye charged the Bureau with inefficient beacon operation at a Senate subcommittee hearing (TIME, Feb. 24). The Bureau cracked back last week with strong evidence that nothing was wrong with the Pittsburgh beam. An eastbound plane of another line had ridden it into Pittsburgh the same day without trouble. The TWA plane which landed a few minutes after the Sun Racer was due had come in without difficulty. The Bureau itself checked the beam from its own plane as soon as the crash was reported. After TWA had tested the beam, the company retracted its first accusation, pronounced the signals satisfactory.

It appeared that two beacons were in operation at Pittsburgh. The newer one makes it unnecessary for a pilot to cut off the beam signal for voice communication. The Bureau declared it continued operation of the older beacon at the request of TWA which preferred it to the other one.

It seemed impossible that Pilot Ferguson could have been confused by the two beacons since they were broadcast on different wave lengths. If he knew he was lost he gave no sign. Yet the plane was headed north when it struck, whereas it should have been headed west if Pilot Ferguson thought he was on his course. It seemed possible that, gliding down into what he thought was clear air, he glimpsed the trees, veered, tried to climb sharply, could not do so because of ice on the wings. The 400-ft. swath which the plane cut through the trees indicated that the motors were not idling but had been full-gunned. Said Major R. W. Schroeder of the Department of Commerce: "In my opinion the cause of this catastrophe will never be known."

At Valley Forge Military Academy, flags were half-staffed for the four young victims. After two blood transfusions, Mrs. Ellenstein was considered out of danger. Passenger Challinor died of shock and pneumonia after a leg amputation. TWA announced that in recognition for her heroism Hostess Granger would be sent on a West Indies cruise with her aunt, then promoted her to be hostess on the crack coast-to-coast flight, the Sky Chief.

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