On a clear, unseasonably hot morning on September 25, 1978, residents of San Diego’s North Park neighborhood were getting their days underway — not realizing they were soon to be in the center of what would become the deadliest plane crash in California history.
Pacific Southwest Airlines flight 182, a Boeing 727 inbound from Sacramento after a stop in Los Angeles, collided with a Cessna being piloted by a student undergoing instrument flight training, killing all 137 people on both planes as well as 7 more on the ground. As with most air disasters, there was no one root cause, but rather a series of problems and events which led to the catastrophe.
The crew of PSA 182 lost sight of the Cessna and failed to report the loss of visual contact to air traffic control. Air traffic control was not blameless either, for they failed to use radar to maintain clearances and relied on the pilot’s visual separation. Finally, the Cessna pilot, for reasons unknown, deviated from his assigned heading and did not report the course change to ATC.
As a result of the crash the NTSB made major changes to how traffic was handled around San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, including installing Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) at other, smaller airports in the area which allowed students and private pilots to practice instrument landings at local airports with far lower traffic loads. This and other collisions and near misses in the next decade would lead to the development of the Traffic Collision and Avoidance System, or TCAS, which alerts pilots to possible collisions and provides instructions for avoiding them.
In addition to being the deadliest crash in California to this day, PSA 182 would also hold the title of the deadliest aviation accident in the US, but for less than a year. On May 25, 1979, American Airlines flight 191 would crash outside Chicago, killing 273, becoming the worst — a record that fortunately has yet to be superseded. – AJW
Toll 147 as Planes Collide
San Diego Disaster Worst US Crash
San Diego — A packed Pacific Southwest Airlines jet and a student pilot’s rented plane collided head-on Monday, and both planes crashed in flaming fragments into a populous residential area. Officials said at least 147 persons were killed in the worst air disaster in US history.
The pilots of both planes were given air traffic advisories that they were in the same area, and both pilots acknowledged that they had the other plane in sight, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Bruce Chambers said in Los Angeles. The National Transportation Safety Board was analyzing cockpit and control tower tapes.
Burning debris from the Boeing 727 rained down and ignited at least nine wood-frame houses and two businesses. Parts of burned bodies dropped onto rooftops and into streets. The neighborhood’s mostly elderly residents tried to douse the flames with garden hoses, sending clouds of gray-black smoke billowing over the area.
The FAA said none of the 135 persons aboard PSA flight 182 from Sacramento survived the collision. PSA had originally reported that 136 persons were aboard the jet. Both persons in the rented Cessna 172 were killed.
At least 10 persons on the ground were killed by falling bodies and debris or the resulting fires. At least nine others were treated at local hospitals.
The burning wreckage gutted half a block of homes.
Bill Gibbs, president of the Gibbs Flying Service here, said the Cessna carried a student pilot and his flying instructor. Gibbs said the student, Marine Sgt David Boswell, 35, had a license to fly, but was being instructed on instrument landings. He had been given his approach pattern by local controllers, and “he was just where he was supposed to be,” said Gibbs.
The instructor was identified by Gibbs as Martin Kazy, 32.
As it is common practice when students are learning to fly by instruments, Boswell’s vision was intentionally blocked at the time of the collision but the instructor had full vision and complete access to the plane’s controls.
The PSA Boeing 727 was on a flight from Sacramento with a stop in Los Angeles, one of the airline’s busiest commuter runs. The weather was clear with 10 miles visibility when the 9:03am collision occurred at 3000 feet altitude three miles east of downtown Lindbergh Field, the jet’s destination.
“You can’t believe it,” said WT Bradbury, a policeman on the scene. “Parts of bodies were sticking into a wall. You don’t know how far the wall went because you couldn’t see through to the other side because of smoke and flames.”
“There were pieces of bodies everywhere. I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen anything like it. I hope I never see anything like it again.”
Burning Bodies Land ‘All Over The Place’
San Diego — People in this city’s Northpark area were stunned and shocked Monday after a Pacific Southwest Airlines 727 jet and a small airplane collided, strewing charred bodies and fiery wreckage across streets, alleys and rooftops.
Several persons saw a man try to bail out of the small plane, but his fate was unknown.
Michael Guss, an ambulance attendant who happened to be in the area, said a woman and her baby were killed when a body fell through the windshield of their car.
“A woman and a baby were getting into a their car,” the shaken Guss said later. “One body went through the windshield and killed the woman. Then there was a baby and it was crushed. The baby was dead.”
Residents used garden hoses to douse the flames after the wreckage set at least nine houses and two businesses on fire. Priests roamed the streets, administering final rites.
Hedda Prowl said the crash sounded “like a sonic boom.”
“People came to help… turning on hoses,” she said. “But it was obvious there was nothing we could do to help any of those people on the plane.”
Navy Lt George Farrell saw the crash and said the tailspin that sent the craft smashing into the ground is called a “graveyard spin” in the Navy, because a plane usually crashes before the pilot can regain control.
“They hit head-on,” said Farrell. “It was unbelievable.”
Dwane Gallegos, a 20-year-old grocery clerk who was on his way to buy a wedding ring, said, “It was coming right at me.
“Pieces of the plane came flying through my side window and windshield,” he said. “I heard a loud noise first. I looked up and there was a big hole in the right side of the (plane’s) body, back near the tail.”
“It could have been much worse,” said Father Bonica. “There are at least two schools and several churches in the neighborhood.”