March 3, 1977 Milt, Dick, and I picked up a dash-63 from a maintenance check accomplished by Lufthansa at Frankfurt airport. We ferried it over to Paris where Willard, Jess, Sam, and a loadmaster were waiting to take it on a twelve-hour round-robin through Africa. Milt generously let me fly the left seat for the one-hour flight. We both commented to each other about the plane having no follow-up problems after completing the routine check-up. (It was not unusual for planes to come out of these checks with a list of minor squawks.) We agreed the Germans did a fine job although it had been after nine in the evening before they released the plane to us.
Checking into the hotel we passed the outbound crew in the lobby and in addition to the normal pleasantries, told them the plane seemed to be in excellent condition. John Willard mentioned this would be his last trip before retiring due to the age-sixty rule. It would be our turn to fly the same route when they arrived back in twelve hours. I remember belting down a couple of expensive scotches at the hotel bar after dinner before hitting the hay. It was going to be an easy daylight flight for us; I didn’t envy Willard and his crew having to work all night.
The ringing phone woke me up. Obviously there was a wrong number; it was still dark outside. I’d left a wake-up for 7:30 in the morning; I was ready to chew some ass for this screw-up. I answered with a cranky, “Hello.”
“Hi Dave it’s Milt; the plane crashed in Niamey.”
“What?” was my shocked reply.
“Willard and the engineer are dead, Jess and the loadmaster survived.” Milt’s voice was flat, just stating facts.
“Jesus! What happened?” This couldn’t be happening – something’s wrong.
“I don’t know. Our Paris rep. just called me, I’m not sure Kennedy knows about it yet – I’ll call them after you hang up.” Milt was really shook up
“Yeah, sure, have you called Dick?” I asked.
“How about you ringing-up Dick, and the loadmaster while I try to contact Kennedy dispatch? I’ll meet you downstairs in half an hour.” Saying goodbye I turned on the light, it was 5:37 in the morning.
After brushing my teeth, I slipped on a shirt and pants and headed down to the dining room. Dick and the loadmaster were already there with a big pot of strong coffee. Joining them, I poured myself a steaming cup. “What happened, Dave?” Dick asked.
“I don’t know – they just crashed. I hope Milt has learned more.”
The three of us drank our coffees with little conversation while we waited for Milt to show up. He arrived about fifteen minutes later with the news the plane had landed about a quarter mile short of the runway. The cockpit had broken away from the main fuselage; the force of the crash had torn Willard and the engineer’s seats from the floor and while still strapped in their seats they were thrown outside onto the ground – neither survived. Totally disoriented, Jess stumbled out of the cockpit before passing out in the tall grass surrounding the accident. The loadmaster remained strapped in his seat until the rescuers arrived. He got away with a splinter-break on his leg. It was odd; the deaths were diagonally across from each other, instead of fore-and-aft or left-and-right.
“Dave, did you notice anything unusual about the plane when you flew it last night?” Milt wanted reconfirmation.
“No, it handled fine. Everything worked as it should have. Remember how we commented about it?”
“Yeah. I wish I’d flown it last night; maybe I could have detected something.” Milt was our former chief pilot, at one time heading the union. He was an excellent pilot with a strong background. In a way I wished he had flown the leg too.
Dick addressed Milt, “The plane was in first-class condition. I did the walk-around, being extra-careful because of the Lufthansa check; I didn’t find one screw out of place.”
We all wondered what in the hell could have happened. Willard and Jess were both excellent pilots, Sam Barilla, the engineer was reliable and experienced. Later, we learned the weather may have been a factor, it was blowing sand. When Jess reported the outer-marker inbound, he requested that the tower turn up the runway light to full intensity.
The next day, Bill Burks, George Flavell, and Bob Ramage showed up to take command of the investigation. Bill represented the company, George the pilot union, and Bob the FAA. After interviewing us they flew down to Niamey, which is the capitol of Niger, an impoverished country in the middle of Africa. When they arrived on the scene they found that scavengers had already started to work raiding the cargo. The cockpit voice recorder had been destroyed by the resulting fire. French authorities took over the investigation as Niger was once their colony and the spoken language was French. They took the Flight Data Recorder to Paris for analysis; it divulged nothing meaningful. Jess was recovering in the hospital. His mind had blanked out the crash; he didn’t remember a thing except reporting the marker inbound. The loadmaster was not a pilot, so he had little to contribute, except Willard was flying and they may have started a go-around just before the plane pitched up to crash.
Since the plane came to rest three hundred feet short of the runway Paris chose to officially call it a case of “Pilot Error.” Fully ninety-percent of all aviation accidents are identified as “Pilot Error,” it’s a convenient catch-all phrase letting everybody off the hook except the pilot, who most-times is dead.
Because of the sandstorm and the fact the airport was on the top of a cliff, George thought wind-shear may have been the problem. This made far more sense than the French rush to judgment. Jess volunteered to take sodium pentothal (truth serum) in the hope he might recall something. The Airline Pilots Association’s chief flight surgeon felt that was excessive and unnecessary. The accident became one-more never-to-be-solved mystery listed under, “Pilot Error.”
Had it occurred twelve hours later Milt, Dick and I would have been the crew. Fate – luck – the-roll-of-the-dice – whatever you call it, the three of us dodged a bullet. It’s probably why I’ve never gambled for money; When the chips were down, I always wanted all the luck I could get in the cockpit.