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.