Sunday, January 08, 2012

Plane Down: 60 years after the crash of Pittsburgh-Buffalo Flight 44-2 Continental Charters

Timothy W. Lake is a 30-year veteran of newspaper, radio and television news reporting. His late grandfather, Napoli highway superintendent David G. Shenefiel, was called upon to help cut a path up the mountain to rescue the survivors and carry out the dead. Mr. Lake is a primary news anchor at NBC 10 in Philadelphia.

First published on January 8, 2012 at 12:00 am

Dawn Brahaney photo
Wreckage from the crash.

Sixty years ago last month, a Continental Charters plane took off from Pittsburgh, bound for Buffalo -- and crashed in Cattaraugus County, killing 26 passengers. The 14 survivors were trapped on a small mountain in the snow for two nights. The crash was a big deal to journalist Timothy W. Lake -- it happened a few miles from his grandparents' farm. And the crash had a greater impact: It launched a new era of airline safety.

Pearl Ruth Moon shot a final glance at the children on her flight before pushing toward her own seat and the hope of safety. She had taken a chance by getting up to secure the children. They had been sleeping but now appeared to be the most terrified, as Continental Charters Flight 44-2 shook violently at low altitude just 38 minutes into its late-night trip from Pittsburgh to Buffalo on Dec. 29, 1951.

At 24, Ms. Moon was already a veteran stewardess (to use the era's term). She immediately realized that the pilots and their plane were in serious trouble.

Within seconds of reaching her seat in the tail of the Curtiss C-46 passenger plane, two extra pilots on the flight jumped out of their front seats and stormed into the cockpit, demanding that they knew how to save the plane. Ms. Moon heard loud arguing and cursing between the four pilots. She gripped the arms of her seat as the passengers cried out in fear.

"I felt the first jerk and I looked out the window and I said, 'Oh, my God what is this?' And then, it was over, just like that!"

t took about 4 seconds and 933 feet of smashing, grinding, scraping, and tossing and turning before it was over. The giant, twin-engine plane -- once billed as the largest passenger plane in the world -- mowed through the treetops of Bucktooth Ridge in the tiny farm community of Napoli, N.Y. It happened 60 years ago during a winter warm spell that produced a wet snow pack and a thick noise-cancelling fog.

No one on the ground heard the crash.

Passengers described a "sickening lurch" to the right as the plane broke into pieces. Newspapers in 1952 described the aft cabin as "doing a giant cartwheel." Twenty-six of the 40 people on board were either killed or died soon after. All 14 survivors, including Pearl Ruth Moon, were sitting in the aft section that twirled over and over before landing in the snow.

The survivors huddled and waited for search planes and rescuers they thought would come right away.

Little did they know that they would spend two days and nights in the cold on the mountain before being rescued.

And they certainly could not grasp that this plane crash would launch national reform of air safety.