Rank and records error meant difference between life and death in 1952 plane crash

December 6, 2012 

Peter Callaghan’s article (TNT, 12-3) about the crash of an Air Force transport at McChord in 1952 ago brought back memories.

When it happened, I was in the Air Force stationed at Ladd Air Force Base in Fairbanks. My tour in Alaska was over, so my wife and I were returning to McChord Air Force Base.

We were both scheduled to leave on that flight. The day of departure, I was informed that my wife, Dee, had been bumped off the list of passengers because I didn’t have enough rank. I was still on the list, so I decided to send her home on Pan Am the next day but take the transport flight myself that evening.

I had already sent a telegram to my parents in South Tacoma that we would be coming to McChord on Nov. 28. I thought I would send them our new plans when I got her departure time.

In the process of getting cleared for transfer, a clerk found an error in my record. They had me listed as single, not married, on one of the forms. He said I would have to go back to our squadron office and have the form retyped before he could he authorize me to leave.

I told him I was scheduled to leave that evening and because it was late in the day our office would be closed. He said it wasn’t his problem. Bitching at the Air Force, I left and went back to barracks to get some of my belongings.

The next morning, we turned on the radio and learned the Air Force flight to McChord – our flight – had crashed in Tacoma. Dee and I were stunned. We would have both been on that flight if I hadn’t had a record mistake and she hadn’t been bumped.

My parents still thought we’d been on it because I hadn’t sent them our new plans. My wife’s parents lived in Bremerton and got the news from my parents. They were all in shock.

The crash site was not far from my parents’ house. My Dad was compelled to drive over there, and what he saw was horrible: bodies burning, still strapped in their seats.

McChord would not release the names of the passengers, but my mother managed to have someone patch her into an Air Force line directly to Ladd. I was in our squadron office that next morning having my records retyped when one of the phones rang. I was able to assure her we were both still alive.

I was later hired by the Civil Aeronautics Administration, which became today’s Federal Aviation Administration. I was, strangely enough, sent to McChord RAPCON (Radar Approach Control). The CAA took over control of the radar and the surrounding air traffic control, but the Air Force kept control of the GCA (Ground Control Approach), whose controllers who talked pilots in to the runway when it was fogged in.

One night I was working the evening watch and happened to mention the 1952 crash to a GCA controller. Amazingly, he told me he was one of the controllers on duty that night talking the Alaska flight into McChord.

He said every thing had been perfect on the GCA approach. The radar had showed him directly on the center line and correct glide path.

But the pilot didn’t trust the GCA. He couldn’t see anything through the fog, so he decided – when he was too low – to abort the approach and go to an alternate airport. The controller told me he would have touched down on the runway with no trouble.

Bob Hofferber, retired manager of the terminal radar control center at Sea-Tac Airport, lives in Gig Harbor.

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