Flight 46 still sends shock waves

Posted May 01, 2009, at 5:11 p.m.

It can’t really be 30 years ago. Can it?

It can.

On May 30, 1979 a Downeast Airlines DeHavilland Twin Otter smashed into a rock a half-mile short of the Owls Head Airport runway on a night shrouded in heavy fog. The crash killed 17 passengers and crew with only one survivor John McCafferty, then 16.

The Rockland Coast Guard base reported zero visibility that night.

The crash of Flight 46 sent shock waves through the midcoast. Accidents that severe just didn’t happen in the quiet coastal area.

I still remember getting the call that night, that a Downeast commuter plane had crashed. Naturally, I was watching a Red Sox game on television. In the newspaper business, you get a lot of calls, a lot of false alarms. In those days, everyone had a police scanner and would call the BDN when something happened. I assumed it was some Piper Cub that had slid off the runway into the woods around the airport. That happened a lot.

While I was on the phone, I looked toward Mount Battie in Camden, covered by a heavy fog. Certainly, no commuter airline was flying that night. But I dutifully went off to the Rockland office, to find out what really happened.

A call to the airline confirmed what had happened. It was true.

Main Street was cleared by police waiting for the slew of ambulances.

But only a single ambulance roared through Rockland, headed for Penobscot Bay Medical Center. Naturally, the assumption was that only one person was hurt and the rest of the people on that plane were all right.

Finally, after dozens of phone calls to the FAA, Maine State Police and the airline, it was confirmed. There were 17 dead bodies in the wrecked plane.

There was always fog in Owls Head. Some said Owls Head manufactured fog for the rest of the Maine coast. There was the legend that the armed forces created the airport there during World War II to get pilots used to heavy fog.

It was no secret that Downeast Airlines would take chances, dangerous chances. A county commissioner complained about the dangerous practices of the airline only a month before the crash.

It seemed everyone had a story about the close calls at the airport. Many called Downeast Airlines “Treetop Airlines” and swapped stories about landing with trees in the wings. It was always good for a laugh at the coffee shop.

Then, it wasn’t funny anymore.

Frank Feeley, then 67, was the lucky one. He was coming home to Camden from Connecticut that night. He had a ticket for Flight 46, but called the airline for a weather report. They would say that the flight was “possible” because of foggy conditions. He decided to drive home, since he already had a rental car. It wasn’t until the next morning that he learned of the best decision he ever made.

At the eventual National Transportation Safety Board hearings at Kendall Square in Cambridge, some pointed the finger at airline owner Robert Stenger Sr., for causing the accident.

Pilots said they were harassed to fly in borderline weather conditions. One baggage handler testified that pilots James E. Merryman and George Hines wanted to cancel Flight 46 because of the heavy fog and a troublesome vibration in the wing.

When Stenger took the stand, he said there was no request to cancel Flight 46. He added that a lot of the pilots liked to cancel flights so they could stay over in Boston and visit the city’s famed “Combat Zone.”

He said many allegations against him were leveled by pilots “who had a grudge against me. They were all fired by me.” The airline owner denied that the airport routinely falsified weather reports to keep the planes flying and denied testimony that he limited the use of weather balloons to determine the cloud ceiling.

The balloons cost 95 cents.

In the final report, NTSB Chairman James King characterized Stenger as the classic example of the “bad apple” who placed profits and flight schedules above the safety of the passengers and crew. But another member, Janet Goldman said “We could be talking about a profile of the early aviation pioneers.”

The final report said Downeast Airlines “didn’t perform anywhere near to the standards required for public safety.”

In “Blind trust,” a book on the nation’s airline industry, author John J. Nance blamed the fatal crash on Downeast mismanagement, abetted by the feeble Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA “is nothing more than an old toothless tiger on a civil service leash, cowering in the corner, fearful of even growling at an offending airline, lest the poor beast had its leash yanked by the owner in Washington.”

The Portland office of the FAA received complaints about the way Downeast Airlines operated. “They didn’t know how to deal with it, so they didn’t even try. At the moment, the FAA is deaf and dumb with respect to operators who are masters of deceit,” the author said.

Thirty years ago. You wonder if anything has changed.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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