In 1970, Overseas National Airways, (ONA), wet-leased a passenger DC-9 to ALM (Antilles Airlines). It was to operate on a scheduled run from Kennedy, (JFK), to Princess Juliana International Airport, (St. Maarten), and return. Wet-lease meant ONA provided the plane, cockpit crew, and fuel; ALM supplied the three-person cabin crew. Most of the route was over water; therefore regulations required the use of a navigator. It was a long non-stop haul for the ‘9; however if the flight plan was followed and the plane step-climbed to its maximum cruising altitude of thirty-five thousand feet, there was more-than sufficient contingency fuel remaining for in-flight holding, should the weather take a turn for the worse, and diversion to San Juan, the alternate airport. Several trips had been made with no incident; the fuel tanks could be filled to capacity since passenger-weight compared to the freighter operation was never a problem.
It was on May 2, 1970 Captain B. D. commanding ALM Flight 980 with fifty-seven passengers and a crew of six pushed back from the JFK ramp at 11:02 AM, bound for St. Maarten, 1467 nautical miles away. His first officer was Harry, an inexperienced pilot, whom he had unsuccessfully tried to terminate. This was Harry’s first flight since the union got him back his job and he was thoroughly intimidated by his captain. (I’m sure Captain B. D. would have preferred almost anyone other than Harry to be in the right seat next to him.) Hugh Hart was the navigator; a solid, fully reliable individual.
Flight 980 lifted off at 11:14 AM, climbing to thirty-one thousand feet; its initial flight planned cruising altitude. Two hours later, passing Ginny intersection, Flight 980 requested deviation due to weather and descent to twenty-five thousand feet. Further, to slow from their planned mach speed of .78 (530 mph) to .72 (500mph). Passing Guava intersection at 2:02 PM, they were twenty minutes behind schedule, estimating landing St. Maarten at 3:00 PM with 6000 lbs of fuel (1 hour) remaining.
At 2:38 they were cleared to descend to ten thousand feet and fly direct to St. Maarten. Ten minutes later they were advised St. Maarten had gone below landing minimums due to rain-shower activities. Captain B. D. requested, and was given, direct to San Juan, their alternate. Barely eight minutes later, St. Maarten reported the weather had improved to, two-to-three miles with scattered rain-showers. Captain B. D. elected to return to St. Maarten and was cleared for the ADF/NDB (Automatic Direction Finder/Non-Directional Beacon) approach.
On the first attempt he was unable to locate the runway due to rain. He made two more unsuccessful approaches; at 3:32 PM he requested direct to St. Thomas at four thousand feet. (St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, is a smaller-but-closer airport than San Juan, Puerto Rico.) At 3:36 hours the situation was desperately serious; Captain B. D. requested and received permission to fly direct to St. Croix, an airport whose runway was probably too small for the DC-9. One minute later a red light on the instrument panel told the crew the right engine was practically out of fuel. The public address system between the cockpit and the cabin failed, so he ordered Hugh to go back to let the cabin attendants know they are going to ditch in the water.
Hugh did the best he could, informing the ALM crew of the emergency and assisting with positioning the big 25-man emergency liferafts. Some passengers couldn’t believe this was happening.
Both engines flamed out; the plane was only seconds from splashdown at 3:46. The cockpit crew failed to sound the emergency cabin alarm, thus warning the flight attendants the plane was getting ready to splash in the water. Unfortunately Flight Attendant Margaret Abraham was standing in the aisle briefing the passengers on how to don their life vests when Flight 980 made contact with the sea. While some passengers assumed the bracing position using pillows to absorb the impact, others were looking out the window, expecting to see a runway. Still others were sitting in their seats without their seatbelts fastened, and incredibly some were still walking down the aisle.
Just before impact Hugh had buckled into the forward stewardess-seat and yelled; “Sit Down!” From the force of contact with the water Margaret was killed instantly when she was launched against the forward bulkhead. Twenty-two more were to die. Fortunately, the remaining thirty-five passengers, and five crewmembers survived by incredible luck. Rescuers were on the scene within an hour and a half. The last person was lifted from the sea one hour and thirty-five minutes after their arrival. The plane sank in 5000 feet of water, becoming the first jet in history to ditch in the open ocean.
Both pilots were terminated. Captain B. D. never flew again as a pilot; Harry rejoined his father’s furniture business. Hugh remained with ONA until electronic boxes finally replaced all the navigators.