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707 Collision

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707 Collision

Today marks 57 years since a mid-air collision between two US airliners that took place over the town of Carmel in Putnam County, New York. Caused by a combination of pilot error and optical illusion, there were remarkably few fatalities, given how serious such collisions can be. Let's take a look back at what happened.

The more heavily loaded of the two aircraft that were involved in the mid-air collision over Carmel on December 4th, 1965 was a Boeing 707 operating for Trans World Airlines (TWA). According to the Aviation Safety Network, it bore the registration N748TW, with showing that it had been built in April 1962.

The two aircraft came together at 16:19 local time. The collision arose partially due to an optical illusion as the two aircraft approached radio-based navigational aid known as the Carmel VORTAC. As they did so, the TWA Boeing 707 flew at an altitude of 11,000 feet, while the Eastern Super Constellation was at 10,000 feet.

However, the First Officer of the Super Constellation believed the aircraft to be at the same altitude, and, thus, on a collision course. This was caused by the cloud tops' up-slope effect creating the aforementioned optical illusion that indicated as such. Believing a collision to be imminent, the aircraft's crew began to climb.

However, with the Eastern aircraft being the lower of the pair, this took it into what was a genuine collision course with the TWA Boeing 707. Despite attempted evasive maneuvers by the TWA crew that saw them roll their aircraft to the right and then to the left, the pair collided, with the 707's wing striking the Constellation's tail.

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Trans World Airlines, Inc., Flight 42, (TW 42), a Boeing 707, N748TW, and Eastern Air Lines, Inc., Flight 853, (EA 853), a Lockheed 1049C, N6218C, were involved in a midair collision over the Carmel, New York VORTAC while en route to the New York City area at approximately 1619 e.s.t., December 4, 1965.

As EA 853 was approaching the Carmel VORTAC on a southwesterly heading, the first officer saw TW 42 at his two o'clock position. Because he believed the jet was at his altitude and on a collision course he called "Look Out" and grasped the control wheel to assist the captain in a pull up. At approximately the same time, the captain of TW 42 observed EA 853 at his ten o'clock position on what he believed to be a collision course. He rolled into a right turn and pulled back on the yoke. He decided this maneuver would not clear EA 853 and he, assisted by his first officer, attempted to reverse the turn by rolling to the left and pushing on the yoke. The aircraft collided at an altitude of approximately 11,000 feet m.s.l.

The Board determines the probable cause of this collision accident was misjudgment of altitude separation by the crew of EA 853 because of an optical illusion created by the up-slope effect of cloud tops resulting in an evasive maneuver by the EA 853 crew and a reactionary evasive maneuver by the TW 42 crew.

EA 853 subsequently reported maintaining 10,000 feet and radar identity was confirmed by New York ARTCC. At approximately 1618, the New York ARTCC recorded on a flight progress strip that EA 853 was passing the Carmel VORTAC. At 1621 the flight initiated a MAYDAY distress call and advised that they had been involved in a midair collision. See Attachment No. 1.

Testimony and aircraft records indicated that there were no carry-over airworthiness items at the time TW 42 departed San Francisco nor were any en route discrepancies entered on the flight log prior to the collision.

The surviving first and second officers of EA 853 stated that prior to the collision there was no malfunction of the aircraft. The first officer stated that as the flight approached the Carmel VORTAC, their airspeed was 205 to 210 KIAS[3] and that they were flying level at 10,000 feet indicated altitude. Just prior to reaching the Carmel VORTAC, the flight was flying in and out of the tops of a "fluffy" cloud deck, the tops of which were estimated to be approximately 300 feet above their altitude. Although EA 853 was flying toward the sun this was not a factor as far as visibility was concerned. Neither sun glasses nor glare shields were being utilized.

Several passengers aboard EA 853 stated they felt a definite pullup followed by impact. The passenger estimates of the time interval between the pullup and the impact varied from one to several seconds. None of the passengers were able to establish the time of impact. One passenger aboard EA 853 saw the jet prior to impact. He was attempting to take a picture through a window on the right side of the aircraft when TW 42 appeared approximately 45 degrees to the right of EA 853. He attempted to take a picture of the jet but said he was prevented from doing so when EA 853 pulled up and started a left turn. Following the impact the aircraft entered a tight left spiral, entered the clouds, and then recovered below the clouds. The captain of EA 853 made announcements to the passengers regarding the midair collision. They were briefed on preparation for an emergency landing and a few seconds prior to the landing were told to brace themselves.

Statements of crewmembers of other aircraft in the general area of the Carmel VORTAC near the time of the collision indicated that there was a solid overcast whose ragged tops were between 10,000 and 11,000 feet. Visibility was unrestricted above this cloud layer.

Thirteen passengers aboard TW 42 recalled flying on top of a solid cloud layer prior to and at the time of the midair collision. A few of the thirteen recalled puffs of clouds that extended up from the cloud layer and they estimated these to be fifty to a few hundred feet above the layer of clouds. Eleven of the passengers aboard TW 42 stated they were in the clouds at the time of the collision.

A majority of 24 statements from EA 853 passengers indicated the flight was flying over a solid overcast just before the collision. They estimated that their height above this overcast was from 100 to 1,500 feet. A few of the passengers stated they were flying through puffs of clouds just prior to the collision.

When TW 42 was approx1mate1y 42 miles northwest of the Carmel VORTAC, control was transferred from the New York ARTCC high altitude to the low altitude sector, and the crew was instructed to descend to 11,000 feet and given the JFK altimeter setting of 29.63. TW 42 reported at 11,000 feet at 1617:30 approximately one minute before the collision.

Less than a minute later the crew of TW 42 advised another New York ARTCC controller at the same sector that they had been in a collision with another aircraft. Emergency procedures were initiated and TW 42 was radar vectored for an approach to runway 31L at JFK. A successful landing was accomplished at 1639:43.

The volume of traffic operating in the area of the collision was described by the New York ARTCC controller as light to moderate. JFK radar was operating satisfactorily with good target presentation on a radar display free of clutter. No traffic information was given to either crew and none was required since a standard vertical separation minimum of 1,000 feet was being provided. Pilot reports indicated that this separation existed. Radar monitoring service was being provided as the flights progressed toward the Carmel VORTAC.

During the time prior to collision, the seat belt sign aboard EA 853 had been on. At collision, passengers reported a jolt and change of attitude followed by an altitude loss and varying degrees of recovery. The captain advised passengers that there had been a collision, that he was unable to control the aircraft and that they should prepare for a crash landing. Passengers were advised by a stewardess to remain seated, fasten their seat belts, and read the emergency instruction cards in the seat back pockets. The captain was again heard over the cabin address system and stated the aircraft was definitely out of control and that a crash landing would be made. He advised everyone to remove sharp objects from their pockets and to fasten their seat belts tightly. Just prior to impact, the captain announced: "Brace yourselves!"

During the investigation, tests were conducted by Eastern Air Lines with a similar airplane from its fleet to determine the climb performance of the airplane, duplicating as closely as possible the conditions prevailing at the time of the midair collision. Cruising at an altitude of 10,000 feet, a rapid pullup was made by the crew. A motion picture camera was used to record time and altitude. During three practice runs made, it was determined that the time to climb to 11,000 feet was 10.8 seconds, 14.2 seconds, and 10.2 seconds, respectively. It was believed that under actual emergency conditions, a slightly greater rate of climb could have been obtained or exceeded than that obtained in the tests.

The primary device used to provide orientation with respect to the horizontal and vertical planes, depth, and distance is the eye. Experiments[8] have been conducted to determine the effect of pilot warning indicators on the ability of pilots to discriminate between aircraft observed on collision and non-collision courses. These experiments revealed that as the miss vector[9] decreased, the decision that a collision course existed increased. 041b061a72


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