October 1947: New DC-6 Catches Fire in Midair, Crashes 30 Seconds Short of Landing Field

L.A. Times, 1947

L.A. Times, 1947

Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.

America’s first postwar airliner, the DC-6, was given a royal debut in a ceremony March 28, 1947, at Douglas’ Santa Monica plant attended by 15,000 people, including Gov. Earl Warren, Donald Douglas and the presidents of American and United airlines. Two aircraft were parked nose to nose, linked by a ribbon that was cut by a pair of stewardesses, releasing a flurry of helium balloons.

The new luxury aircraft was the keystone of Douglas’ move from wartime production of military planes to postwar commercial aviation. The DC-6 had club-style seating, a pressurized, air-conditioned and heated cabin, flew at high altitude and was 100 mph faster than the craft it was replacing, the DC-4. American even introduced “Skyberth” sleeping compartments on its nonstop flights to New York. President Truman was one of the first to get one to replace his DC-4, and he named the plane “The Sacred Cow.”

In October, three months after United put the DC-6 into operation, a flight from Los Angeles to New York went down in Bryce Canyon, Utah, when a fire broke out in the baggage compartment. The pilot put up a terrific struggle to land the flaming aircraft, but crashed 30 seconds short of an emergency landing field.

A witness said: “It came in fast, trailing a plume of smoke, then nosed into the ground of the plateau and the tail catapulted over the nose and the plane broke into a thousand pieces.” The main debris field was 100 yards by 200 yards, but the bodies of several passengers were 400 yards away. Luggage from the craft was found by cowboys nine miles from the crash and a mail bag turned up 25 miles away.

The victims included the president of Whitney’s department store in San Diego, the managing editor of Look magazine, a professional football player and two young children.

As investigators went carefully through the blackened sagebrush of Bryce Canyon looking for clues, United continued flying the DC-6. Emergency parachute flares containing magnesium were removed from the belly of the DC-6s because they contributed to the fire, as was the fiberglass insulation used to keep the cargo compartment from freezing, on the theory that the fiberglass, although fireproof, acted as a wick for flammable liquids.

A month later, an American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Tulsa caught fire, but the pilot managed to make an emergency landing in Gallup, N.M., with flames leaping from the belly of the aircraft. All DC-6s, including Truman’s “Sacred Cow,” were grounded pending an investigation.

An examination of the Gallup aircraft revealed that in transferring gas from one tank to another to trim the plane in flight, overflowing fuel from a vent pipe was sucked into the belly air scoop for the cabin heater.

The DC-6 was extensively overhauled and put back into operation. Then in June 1948, a United flight from San Diego to New York via Los Angeles and Chicago struck a power line and crashed in Pennsylvania. The victims included nightclub owner Earl Carroll and Beryl Wallace.

“I saw a mass of fire, explosions, plane wreckage and bodies hurtling through the air,” a witness said. “ Flames and smoke flew about 90 feet in the air. The whole scene looked like a living hell.”

Investigators found that the crew activated carbon dioxide tanks after receiving a warning of a fire. Because of human error, the dioxide flowed into the cockpit, leaving the pilots semiconscious and incapable of flying the plane. The original fire warning was false, they decided.

Bonus factoids: Because the press corps covering President Truman had a slower DC-3, they used to leave first and were always overtaken in flight by the president’s DC-4 “Sacred Cow.” When the press eventually got a Lockheed Constellation that outpaced the president, they routinely beat the “Sacred Cow” to its destination and lined up at the airport to ask Truman’s pilot where he had been.

Due to delays in evacuating the DC-6 in Gallup using ladders, Douglas introduced a fiberglass chute that allowed passengers to slide to the ground.

Quote of the day: “Reprehensible, un-American activity.”

Judge Stanley Mosk, dismissing a lawsuit by nine whites to evict blacks from a neighborhood at Arlington Avenue and Olympic Boulevard because of deed restrictions.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1947, Aviation, Transportation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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