“This is it, baby!” the last phrase said by the Captain of the Boeing 727 to Lindbergh tower just seconds before the catastrophe that claimed the lives of 144 people. What happened? How did it happen? And could it have been prevented?
It was September 25, 1978, Pacific Southwest Airlines flight 182 left Sacramento for San Diego via Los Angeles, it consisted of 128 passengers and 7 crew members. The pilot in command Captain James McFeron contacted San Diego air traffic control in order to receive guidance for the approach but since it was a clear wind morning, ATC informed McFeron to switch from instrument flight rules to visual flight rules and begin his descent from 11,000 feet to 7,000 feet. At exactly 8:59 am, ATC warned the PSA crew that there is a small Cessna 172 close by. The Cessna was being piloted by 2 licensed pilots, Martin Kazy jr. and David Boswell who was practicing instrument landing system approached under Kazy’s instruction. After the first officer of the PSA flight informed ATC that they had Cessna in sight, ATC asked them to maintain visual separation. It was later revealed that the PSA flight had lost sight of the Cessna and was only speculating where its position was. The conversation in the cabin of the PSA flight 182 after they cleared for landing went like this.
“Are we clear of that Cessna?”, First officer
“Supposed to be”, Flight engineer
“I guess”, Captain
“I hope”, Off-duty captain
Where was the Cessna? Turns out ATC had directed the Cessna to proceed heading 70 degrees but it was later known that the Cessna changed its heading to 90 degrees putting it on the same path as the descending PSA flight. Since ATC thought that flight 182 had the Cessna in sight they didn’t think that there were any problems to report. Visibility was a whole other issue though, since the Boeing was preparing for landing, it had a “nose up deck approach” making it impossible for it to notice the small Cessna, and the Cessna was climbing, blocking Kazy and Boswell’s rear view. At 9:01:28, Miramar’s ATC radar-activated automated conflict alert alarm sounded, warning that there is an approaching collision between 2 planes. After 19 seconds of the alarm going off, Miramar informed the Cessna that there was traffic in their vicinity, that they had them in sight, and are descending to Lindbergh. Unfortunately, neither pilots of the Cessna paid serious attention to the transmission. And regrettably, Miramar did not pass this information to Lindbergh control or flight 182.
As flight 182 was banking, it overtook and hit Cessna 172 with its nose wheel. The Boeing 727 hooked and flipped the Cessna upside down into the airliner’s right wing, tearing the Cessna in half, and causing one of its internal fuel tanks to rupture and explode. Flight 182’s right wing deteriorated, making the plane uncontrollable and formulating it into a sharp right bank, also leading to the start of the fire in the fuel tank.
This was the final conversation on the flight:
“We’re hit man, we are hit!”, the First officer
“Tower, we’re going down, this PSA” Captain
“OK, we’ll call the equipment for you”, Lindbergh tower
“This is it, baby!”, Captain
“Brace yourself”, Captain on the intercom to Passengers
The damage the Cessna dove to the ground, its vertical stabilizer is torn from its fuselage and bent leftward, its debris hitting around 3,500 feet (1,100 m) northwest of where the Boeing 727 went down. 144 people have lost their lives in the accident, the flight’s passengers and crew, the Cessna’s two pilots as well as 7 residents on the ground. Because of the incredible speed, the aircraft was going down in, the scene was horrific, the passengers and crew were dismembered, and the only bodies that stayed intact were of 2 flight attendants, First Officer Fox, and one passenger while captain McFeron’s remains were never identified.
I am sure that while reading this you’ve already identified what were the costly mistakes that led to the crash and already know how it could’ve been easily avoided. From the Captain informing that the Cessna was no longer in sight, the Cessna’s not changing heading or acknowledging Miramar’s warning, to Miramar informing flight 182 or Lindbergh tower of the alarm. Who knows? Maybe if any of those corrective measures were taken, it wouldn’t be today’s deadliest aviation disaster in California and wouldn’t have ended with the heartbreaking last words of someone saying “Ma, I love you”.