1945 Airplane Crash

Date / Time: Wednesday, January 10, 1945 / 4:10 a.m. Operator / Flight No.: American Airlines / Flight 6-001 Location: McClure Canyon, near Burbank, Calif.

Details and Probable Cause: “Flagship Douglas,” an American Airlines twin-engine Douglas DC-3 (NC25684), departed New York City on the morning of Tuesday, January 9, on a cross-country flight designated “The Sun Country Special” and bound for the Lockheed Air Terminal at Burbank, with stops along the way at Washington D.C.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; Dallas and El Paso, Texas; and Phoenix, Arizona.

While the plane was en route, company ground personnel neglected to obtain and transmit regular weather updates to the pilot, which would have alerted him to the fact that conditions at Burbank were were varying between “marginal” and “below minimums” due to the dense fog and poor visibility present at the Lockheed Air Terminal.

Upon arrival over Burbank at 4:06 a.m. on the morning of January 10, the cockpit crew attempted an instrument approach to the airport that was unsuccessful due to the foggy conditions. The “missed approach” procedure for the runway the DC-3 was attempting to land on calls for an immediate, climbing right turn over the departure end of the runway and, upon reaching 3,500 feet, radioing a request for further instructions from the company ground station.

However, upon its missed approach, the plane overflew the runway, made a left turn, and vanished into the fog. The pilot in command then radioed controllers that he could not maintain visual ground contact and would be diverting to an alternate airfield to the north at Palmdale, where weather conditions were improved.

It was at this point in time that the captain apparently began the standard “missed approach” procedure -- but only after the plane had already made a left turn. By deviating from the prescribed standard “missed approach” procedure -- making a left turn first -- the subsequent right, climbing turn that the plane performed now put it directly on a course into the Verdugo Mountains that rise beyond Burbank.

Two minutes later, while flying blindly through the thick fog, the DC-3 crashed, exploded and burned on a ridge of McClure Canyon of the Verdugos, approximately 2-3/4 miles northeast of the Lockheed Air Terminal. All 21 passengers -- 17 U.S. Army members and four U.S. Navy personnel -- were killed, as was the aircraft’s crew of three: the pilot, first officer and stewardess. The plane remained overdue at Palmdale and missing until around 9:30 a.m. when the fog lifted and personnel with binoculars in the Burbank control tower sighted the wreckage on the distant mountain ridge approximately 1,034 feet above the elevation of the airport.

The Civil Aeronautics Board’s report on the accident noted that “the possibility of an accident became a potentiality” when American Airlines ground personnel failed to obtain and transmit important weather information to the pilot -- a situation that the board believed “constitutes negligence on the part of the company.”

But the board also felt that this factor did not relieve the pilot from his responsibility of conducting a safe flight even though it did place him in a disadvantageous position. In its final conclusion, the CAB found the probable cause of the accident to be “the pilot’s attempt to use the standard ‘missed approach’ procedure after having followed another course up to a point where it was impossible to apply this procedure safely.”

Los Angeles, Jan. 11 -- (U.P.) -- From blackened military insignia and other identifying marks, Army and airline officials today sought to identify the burned bodies of 24 persons killed when an American Airlines passenger plane crashed in the foothills after turning away from the fog-shrouded Burbank airport early yesterday.

The victims included 18 Army men, three sailors and three crew members. All apparently were killed instantly, when the plane plowed into the slope and exploded, investigators said. The plane bound from New York, was due at the airport shortly after 3:39 a.m.

At 4 a.m., the pilot, Capt. JOSEPH RUSSELL McCAULEY, 34, reported to the Burbank control tower and was advised that fog limited visibility.

Headed For Palmdale.

With sufficient gasoline for an additional three and a half hours, McCAULEY elected to try landing at an emergency field at Palmdale, 60 miles away, rather than attempt a Burbank landing. The plane was not heard from again. Six hours later the fog lifted temporarily and the wreckage was sighted from the control tower. Search parties were delayed another two hours in reaching the scene by the brush-covered terrain and mist.

Lockheed Test Pilot JOE TOWLE, the first to arrive at the wreckage, located just five miles from the airport, reported all the occupants dead. A small brush fire had been started by flames from the smouldering wreckage, but had burned out.

Scattered Wreckage.

Chunks of the silver ship were scattered over the hillside. Pieces of tail and wings and one section of the fuselage had been tossed clear of the flames.

Civil Aeronautics Administration Inspector ROBERT V. KEELER said that the plane appeared headed on a roundabout northeastward route through the rugged San Gabriel mountains. The most traveled route was through Mint Canyon.

The dead crew members in addition to McCAULEY were: ROBERT G. ELTNER, 24, co-pilot, and LILA A. DOCKEN, 22, stewardess. All were from Burbank.

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