Disaster averted: Remembering a near-tragedy on Pearl Harbor Day 1952
December 6, 2006
When Nevadans commemorated the 65th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many were not familiar with a potentially disastrous airliner crash that occurred in Northern Nevada on that same date 54 years ago.
It was in the early evening of Dec. 7, 1952, when airports at Carson City, Silver Springs, Reno and Fallon received the news: a TWA Super Constellation with 40 aboard was in dire trouble and seeking an airfield to crash land.
Commanded by Capt. Irving Kravitz, the aircraft with five crewmembers and 35 passengers had originated at Idyllwild Airport in New York, stopped at Chicago and was en route to San Francisco when two of its engines failed as it flew over Lovelock.
“At an altitude of about 16,000 feet, complete power losses were experienced in number three and four engines, and an emergency was declared,” according to FAA reports and Ralph M. Pettersen, a nationally-respected aviation authority and writer on the history of the Super Constellation aircraft.
The weather on that Sunday in December was bad, with poor visibility, heavy snow and winds, and Capt. Kravitz at once sought an airport to land his crippled plane.
The fields at Reno, Stead and Carson City were shrouded in fog and too far off, so he had to decide between the Silver Springs field, which at that time was a military practice airport operated by Stead Air Force Base, and the Naval Auxiliary Base’s field at Fallon, which today is known as Naval Air Station Fallon.
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The captain chose to crash land at Fallon, where the visibility was better, the winds at only 5 mph and a large complement of fire apparatus and rescue personnel were available.
At 6:53 p.m., the Constellation, flying on two of its four engines, touched down at 150 mph at NAS Fallon’s 7,000-foot runway.
Eyewitness Jon H. Richardson, a U.S. Marine Corps enlisted man on temporary duty at Fallon, recalls the landing.
“Because of the two engine failures, the pilot had no hydraulics for the brakes so when he landed he drifted over to the right where there was a large pile of dirt or sand.
“He got so far over that the wing hit the pile and sheared off at the fuselage. The wing flipped upside down and slid for a ways, and the fuselage (the central body portion of the plane containing the cabin, crew and passengers) went ’round and ’round in a very large shower of sparks,” Richardson said.
The plane then came to a stop on the runway about 100 yards from the torn-off wing, “but the amazing thing is, there was no fire,” according to Richardson.
Navy fire trucks were alongside the aircraft within seconds applying fire extinguishing foam, the main cabin door was quickly opened, and because the plane’s wheels were torn off during the landing, the cabin sat upright on the ground, allowing passengers to leave quickly in a matter of about two minutes, states aviation expert Pettersen.
“Somebody on the base had three or four school buses sent to the scene, and the Navy had to give up two parts of their barracks, one for women and one for men. All the passengers stayed overnight, and TWA sent a plane the next day to pick them up. And if I remember correctly, they also had some Greyhound buses for those who didn’t want to fly,” says eyewitness Richardson.
Both Pettersen and Richardson say it is “amazing” that no one aboard the airplane was killed or injured.
Equally amazing is the fact that the aircraft was repaired and returned to service. Following the crash landing, engineers from Lockheed Aircraft Corp, which manufactured the plane, traveled to Fallon and made the repairs in a temporary hanger they erected.
The Super Constellation was flown by TWA for a further eight years, when it was leased to Worldwide Airlines. In 1962, it was leased to South Pacific Airlines and then sold to Florida State Tours in 1964.
By 1968, the plane was stored in derelict condition in Miami and scrapped shortly thereafter.
The failure of the two engines over Lovelock on Dec. 7, 1952, was blamed on a faulty hydraulic system, a situation which plagued other TWA Super Constellations during that era.
Ten years before the Fallon crash landing, TWA had suffered another and deadly crash in Southern Nevada. On Jan. 17, 1942, a TWA DC-3 with 22 aboard crashed into 8,700- feet Table Mountain 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas during a heavy snowstorm. All were killed on impact.
Among the dead was 33-year-old film actress Carol Lombard, wife of actor Clark Gable.
Lockheed Aircraft Corp. built a total of 856 Constellations, of which 331 were used by the military. The first model of the aircraft was built in 1939, and the last in 1958. Two were used by Gen. Douglas MacArthur (his was named Bataan) and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who named his the Columbine.”
The Constellations were phased out in the early 1970s, when jet aircraft replaced the slower piston-driven planes, and today about 50 Constellations are in existence, with seven or eight in flyable condition.
• David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News. He wishes to thank Ralph Pettersen and Jon Richardson as well as the staff of the Churchill County Museum for their assistance in researching this story.