Noted journalist covered Nevada’s air disasters
Special to the Nevada Appeal
FALLON – For the past 50 years, Robert J. Serling has been recognized as one of the nation’s most prominent and respected aviation journalists. His specialty was uncovering the causes of commercial and military aircraft accidents, including several that occurred in Northern Nevada.
The older brother of “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling, Robert traveled to Fallon, Carson City, Reno and Lake Tahoe on numerous occasions in his capacity as aviation editor of United Press International (UPI) to research the backgrounds of major airplane crashes that took place in this part of the state.
During some of these trips, he met with me at my newspaper office at the Lahontan Valley News. Serling used our files and back issues, as well as, those of the Nevada Appeal as background materials for his research.
Serling also was the author of 25 fiction and non-fiction books (one of his best novels was “The President’s Plane is Missing,” a Cold War thriller about the disappearance of Air Force One with the president aboard) as well as a great story-teller and adventurer. When I learned of his death last week of cancer at the age of 92 in a Tucson hospice, I paused to reflect upon the good times we had together and the assistance and advice he gave me on the subject of aviation journalism, a field in which I had little experience at the time.
I particularly remember the day in late January 1985 when I picked him up at the Ormsby House hotel in Carson City and drove him to the Reno airport where two or three days earlier a four-engine Galaxy Airlines Lockheed Electra turbojet airliner had crashed, killing 70 of the 65 passengers and six crewmembers aboard.
The only survivor among the 71 was a 17-year-old boy who was thrown clear of the wreckage and landed upright still strapped to his seat hundreds of feet from the crash scene. One of the dead was his father who had been sitting next to him on the charter flight that was returning them to their homes in Minnesota following a week-long skiing vacation at Lake Tahoe.
When Serling and I arrived at the Reno airfield, much of the wreckage still lay adjacent to Highway 395. The plane, which had taken off at 1 a.m. in cold but clear weather, was in the air only briefly before it began shaking violently, lost power and plowed into a furniture store and recreational vehicle parking lot, narrowly missing the Meadowood Apartments complex and the Meadowood Mall.
I had covered three or four aircraft crashes during my newspaper career, and marveled at Serling’s expertise and thoroughness in interviewing airport employees and law enforcement, fire and medical personnel who had responded to the tragedy.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which conducted hearings in Carson City three months later, determined that the probable contributing causes of the accident were the airport’s ground handlers’ failure to properly close an air access door adjacent to an engine on the plane’s right wing and the cockpit crew’s deficiency to properly monitor and correct the airliner’s flight path and air speed at the onset of the shaking and vibrating.
The plane, it was later learned, had been used on flights to transport presidential candidate and famed astronaut John Glenn and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Serling’s subsequent UPI articles about the Reno crash and its causes were widely read, and along with stories he wrote on other plane crashes caused by mechanical malfunctions or pilot errors, resulted in the upgrading of aircraft inspections, maintenance and pilot training.
When I first met Serling in 1985, he was no stranger to Northern Nevada.
In 1964, 21 years before the Reno Electra accident, he had traveled to Reno to cover the Nevada-related crash of a Pacific Airlines Fairchild F-27A airliner that had killed all 44 passengers and crewmembers when it dove into a field in rural Contra Costa County east of San Francisco.
That accident, however, was not caused by pilot error or mechanical problems.
Taking off from Reno at 5:54 a.m. and bound for San Francisco following a stop at Stockton, the twin-engine turboprop’s co-pilot sent a garbled message to ground control “the skipper’s been shot… we’ve been shot… I was trying to help” before plunging 10 minutes later into a hillside near the town of San Ramon.
Civil Aeronautics Board investigators later determined that one of the passengers, 27-year-old Francisco Gonzales, a former member of the Philippine Sailing Team in the 1960 Summer Olympics and at the time of the crash a San Francisco warehouseman, brought down the plane.
Depressed and suicidal because of financial and marital problems, Gonzales had purchased a Smith and Wesson handgun in Reno and told friends and Reno casino employees that he planned to kill himself.
He did just that, shooting the cockpit crew and himself. The plane went out of control, plunged to earth and struck the hillside. Gonzales’ gun and six spent cartridges were found in the wreckage.
This was the first instance in the U.S. of a mass murder-suicide aboard an airliner.
In 1987, a second such incident occurred, also in Northern California, when a passenger shot both pilots and himself aboard a commercial airliner, causing the plane to crash into a sparsely-settled rural area near Cayucos. All 43 aboard were killed.
Robert Serling covered this accident as well.
• David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.