Memorial plaque to Galaxy Airline passengers, 1985

This is a photo of the plaque at Rancho San Rafael which was stolen the first week of 2014

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PanAmElectra

Two Saturdays ago in this very column we read of the Jan. 21, 1985 flight of Galaxy Airlines 203 that ended in tragedy on South Virginia Street, claiming the lives of all but one of the 71 people aboard.  The column drew more interesting contacts from readers than I anticipated and your questions and comments indicated a need for an unplanned bit of follow-up this morning.

            As that column’s text indicated, the direct cause of the crash was held to be a reduction in power one minute after takeoff, documented by the cockpit voice recorder when the co-pilot advised the tower that he had reduced power due to a vibration and requested an emergency landing. 

            The FAA investigators’ finding was that that power reduction resulted in decay of airspeed below that necessary to control the aircraft as it departed southbound.  They traced the vibration to an air start access door under the wing being left open by the ground crew.  In the final NTSB report the open door was listed as a contributing factor, but not the cause of the crash.  Restated, the open door did not bring the plane down.  Could the Lockheed Electra, even with the door open, have maintained sufficient power to fly above and south of Rattlesnake Mountain and land safely northbound, albeit in the most nerve-wracking and terrifying 90 seconds those 71 souls would ever experience?  Most pilots familiar with the Electra speculated, probably yes. (Some Navy jocks, who fly the P-3 Orion, agree with this; it’s not the first time that door was left open.)

We’ll never know.  The pilots were surely aware of problems shortly after Lockheed rolled out the Electra (1958) that necessitated speed and engine output limitations while some structural members, notably engine mounts, were re-engineered.  They might have perceived the vibration as a manifestation of those old ills and fatally chose throttling back as the cure.

            Why was the access door left open?  The NTSB report found evidence that two or more flight service people on the ground as the engines were being started by compressed air from a cart, got into an “altercation” (that report’s verbiage; others called it a flat-ass fist fight) after they removed the air hose and were thus distracted from closing the door.  The pilots, with engines running, assumed all was hunky-dory and rolled out onto the runway.  We all know that once things start going downhill they tend to keep going that way; did the ground crew’s beef indirectly result in 70 fatalities? Yikes. From several readers: Wasn’t there an open-door warning light on the cockpit panel?  Surprisingly, the NTSB report was silent as to existence of such a device, so I shall be also. Another reader: Wasn’t it an Electra spy plane that made a forced landing resulting in an international political and intelligence brouhaha a few years ago?  Sort of; in 2001 an EP-3 Orion, the Navy’s version of the Electra, was involved in a mid-air get-together with a Chinese MIG and landed intact.  In China.  Whoops.  To the best of my knowledge the Orions are still operational, also flown by NOAA and the U.S. Customs bureau in drug-interdiction service.   And have enjoyed a zillion hours of safe military operation. [I understand at 2011 press time that the Navy’s venerable Orion P-3 “subchasers” have finally been retired. I think NOAA still operates them, and they’re in private service to forest/range fire borate-dropping contractors.]

            Final Electra question, before I lose all my distaff readers by writing about stuff that just plane boring to them.  It’s this sort of phone message that brightens my Saturdays, to wit:  “You screwed up again.  You should do your homework better.  The plane flown by Galaxy Airlines wasn’t an Electra but a Galaxy.  That’s how Galaxy Airlines got its name.” 

Confusion reigns: For 60 years Lockheed named every plane model they ever built – except for the U-2 – after stars in the sky.  Ten years after introducing the Electra, they built the Galaxy, double the length and wingspan, triple the tail height and four times the weight of the Electra, placing it among the three biggest planes ever built (with the Boeing 747 and some Russian-built behemoth) but apparently confusing to this caller.  Had a C-5 Galaxy crashed at 1:03 that morning all of south Reno would have been wide awake.  And that caller’s number on my Caller ID is, oh, nuts; I can’t write that genius’ number in the newspaper. But I’m often tempted to. 

My homework resources, by-the-by, for all this Galaxy ink were The Encyclopedia of Civilian Aviation, the incident’s after-action report to the Washoe County Commission and NTSB accident report DCA85AA010.

The last flight of Galaxy 203

Lockheed L188

 

‘Tis said that when an aviator simultaneously runs out of airspeed, altitude and bright ideas that something will go bump in the night, and that’s exactly what happened at four minutes past the hour of one o’clock on the Monday morning of January 21, 1985.

[NOTE: Take the following two paragraphs with a grain of salt, as the lone survivor of the crash, George Lamson Jr., remembers it differently from these account I developed 28 years ago. I’ll yield to George’s recollection, which follows in italics. Karl, Jan. 5, 2014]

            Galaxy Airlines, a charter carrier, transported an unspecified number of souls from Minneapolis westward early on a Super Bowl weekend.  Some flew to San Francisco and then motored by bus to nearby Stanford, the site of the 1985 Super Bowl.  The remainder stayed aboard to Reno for bus travel to a casino in Stateline.  The airplane, a Lockheed Electra propjet, reportedly made several other flights during that weekend carrying passengers unrelated to the Minneapolis junket.

            Following the game the Stanford contingent traveled by bus to Reno, and a number of them elected to stay at the Hilton, (then MGM) [now Grand Sierra Resort], for a time.  They were the lucky ones. The others rejoined the Stateline group at the airport for passage home.

[OK; that’s how the newspaper text read many years ago. George Lamson recalls that all flew together to SLT, and departed together from RNO, save for two who stayed on at Caesar’s at Stateline. We respect George’s recollection.]

            There were 65 passengers and a crew of six aboard the Electra when it was cleared for southbound takeoff on runway one-six at 1:02 a.m.  It is known that at 1:03 the co-pilot reported a severe vibration in the aircraft to RNO tower, requesting expedited clearance to land with emergency equipment standing by.  Per the flight recorder on the plane he pulled power to reduce the vibration, causing the plane to stall below the airspeed needed to maintain control.  And it is speculative that he then looked for a “black hole” – an absence of ground lights – to aim the doomed aircraft toward for an “unplanned landing” – the FAA euphemism for a crash – without effecting danger to those on the ground.  That hole, if in fact he was in control, was in the area of Del Monte Shopping Center on South Virginia Street.

            The plane, now heading west, initially hit the ground near the old V&T railroad right-of-way, then caromed into a ditch and broke in half, coming to rest in a motor home sales lot adjoining the then-Normark Furniture Store with some debris spilling across South Virginia.  The plane and seven motor homes became instantly involved in a conflagration fed by 12,000 pounds of fuel in the wings.

Sixteen fire engines – firemen, cops and robbers

The emergency response was immediate and massive; records show 16 units from the Airport Authority (who were alerted by the tower with the initial MayDay), Reno Fire Department, and Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District arriving at the scene in short order.  Two sheriff’s deputies investigating a burglary at a store a long block from the crash were virtual eyewitnesses to it, and relayed that this was not a light-plane incident, as one radio transmission had indicated, but a large-scale disaster. They were soon joined by a hundred more deputies, Reno Police and highway patrol officers.  Crowd control became paramount.  South Virginia Street was closed and traffic rerouted to then-rural, two-lane Longley Lane, as it would be for another day to follow.

            The three fire departments protected the furniture store, extinguished the aircraft fire and a number of spot fires in the fields surrounding the site.  Some Sparks Fire Department apparatus were relocated to Reno stations to back up the committed Reno engines; off-duty Reno firefighters manned older reserve equipment and Nevada Air National Guard units covered the Airport Authority’s duties at the airport.  Most the agencies were released by 4:28 a.m.  Truckee Meadows FPD (which would years later to merge with Reno Fire) would remain on the scene for days to follow and later took primary responsibility for the victim recovery. Trustees from the county jail were employed to place opaque masking along South Virginia Street to prevent the slow-down-and-gawk syndrome that impeded traffic when the street was reopened on Tuesday.

            Three passengers initially survived the crash – one was transported by helicopter to St. Mary’s Hospital, which had established the medical administrative command post.  Of those three only one, a then-17-year-old boy [George Lamson] with relatively minor lacerations, would survive.  The victims were removed to a temporary facility at the Washoe County Fairgrounds for identification by a team headed by an FBI unit assisted by local medical and dental professionals.  Washoe Med, St. Mary’s and numerous local social services performed family notifications and inventorying of the victims’ personal property in the days to come.

            In all, 40 governmental agencies participated in the tragedy, some in the minutes, others in the weeks, following the crash.  A grim reminder remained for many years out on Highway 40 West just past the Mayberry intersection: a half-dozen carcasses of burned-out motor homes, relocated there from the site for salvage.   

And the vibration that started the whole sequence down this fatal path?  Speculative on all investigators’ parts, but generally attributed to the airstart-port door – where compressed air is forced into one of the four Allison turboprop engines to get it spinning to then pressurized to start the other – being left open prior to takeoff. [And we’ll explore all this in greater detail in the next chapter.] 

• • •

This yarn was inspired by several references to Galaxy 203 in my book of old columns You’re doing WHAT to the Mapes?, causing two friends to remark that I’d never written a column about the tragedy itself.  So here you have it.  I give attribution to archival Reno Fire Department and RGJ accounts, resources in the Nevada Historical Society and the excellent 46-page post-incident report signed off by Sheriff Vince Swinney, a copy of the NTSB report, Coroner Vern McCarty and Truckee Meadows FPD Chief Gene Leblanc, that night’s incident commander. 

 

Oct. 16, 2005

 

A Reno family’s tribute to the passengers of Galaxy 203

Lockheed L188

A tribute to the passengers of Galaxy 203, that ran in the Gazoo on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. Sadly, the plaque mentioned was recently stolen from the memorial garden at Rancho San Rafael.

“Hi Karl: I read yesterday’s column which was a follow up to your column on Oct. 14 about the crash of Galaxy Flt. 203 here in Reno in 1985. It brought back many memories and I thought I would share with you a personal story involving my family.

“After the tragic crash, my mother and grandmother, Doris Isaeff and Geri Kaufman, had the idea for a permanent memorial of some kind here in Reno for the victims and the lone survivor. They finally settled on the idea of a grove of trees with one tree for each of the 71 people on board the flight that night. They opened a special bank account and asked for donations to purchase the trees and a plaque. I don’t know how much they were able to raise, but with help from Washoe County Parks and Recreation, a grove of trees was established at Rancho San Rafael Park and a plaque was placed there with the names of all the passengers and the flight crew. I don’t think the goal of 71 trees was ever reached, but a very nice grove of trees, most of them evergreens, is still there along with the plaque.

“After reading your column yesterday, my wife and I went to the park today to check out the Galaxy Memorial Grove which is located east of the ranch house off the old entrance road to the park from Sierra St. Over the years some of the original trees didn’t survive, but the grove nonetheless is still a lovely spot in memory of those who perished and the one who survived. If memory serves me correctly, George Lamson, Jr., the sole survivor, was present at the dedication of the plaque, but I don’t remember now the exact date of the dedication. There is probably a newspaper story about it in the RGJ archival files.

“My grandmother passed away almost five years ago, and my mother no longer lives in Reno, but I know they both were very proud of the part they played in helping to create the Galaxy Memorial Grove so that future visitors to Rancho San Rafael Park might remember the events of that tragic night in Reno history.”

Bill Isaeff