A freakish collision kills 150 even when everybody is following the rules
"Tower, we're going down. This is PSA." That terse message from Pacific Southwest Airlines Captain James McFeron was delivered in the flat, cool tones cultivated by professional pilots. It conveyed no more emotion than McFeron had expressed a few moments before in asking for clearance to land. Yet now his 66-ton Boeing 727 jetliner with 135 "souls on board," according to the jargon of the aviation industry, was hurtling out of control at 280 m.p.h. toward San Diego's residential North Park neighborhood. It was already on fire.
"We'll call equipment for you," replied the tower controller at Lindbergh Field in that same business-as-usual manner. The final word from Pilot McFeron: "Roger."
Seconds later, an air traffic control specialist at the airport peered into his radarscope and got his first glimpse of what was happening. As his screen displayed the falling and fragmenting wreckage of two aircraft that had collided at 2,650 ft. three miles northeast of Lindbergh Field, he muttered, "Jesus Christ, an aluminum shower."
The hellish orange flames and oily black smoke that rose quickly into San Diego's sunny but smoggy skies one morning last week signaled the worst air tragedy in U.S. aviation history. At least 150 people died, the first fatalities on PSA's record. They included all 135 aboard the PSA airliner, the two occupants of a tiny 2,100-lb. Cessna 172 that had collided with it, and at least 13 residents struck by aircraft debris or engulfed by the flames that destroyed ten houses.
The accident immediately revived and intensified the concern among aviation safety experts over the rapidly rising number of aircraft now swarming around the most heavily used air routes in the U.S. While scheduled airlines have increased flights by some 6% to meet added business spurred by lower fares, the growth in general aviation has been far more spectacular (see chart, page 20). The newcomers range from business executives flying to conferences aboard $3 million corporate jets, to affluent ranchers surveying their lands, to various weekend wanderers seeking relaxation or adventure. Last week there naturally rose urgent demands for greater separation of the commercial air giants and the pygmies, higher proficiency requirements for private pilots entering major airports and a speed-up in the use of new electronic systems to warn pilots automatically when they are on collision course.
The San Diego collision particularly dramatized the haphazard nature of midair collisions. The evidence collected so far indicates that the veteran pilots in both planes appeared to have been following all proper safety procedures, watchful controllers on the ground had alerted both aircraft by radio of their dangerous proximityand yet they collided. Nearly 100 investigators probed the scattered wreckage and began interviewing some 221 witnesses in an effort to determine just why. So far, this was what they were learning about the San Diego catastrophe: