1979 Downeast Airlines crash still on many minds

12:01 PM, Dec 15, 2009   |    comments
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(NEWS CENTER) -- Thirty years ago, Downeast Airlines flight 45, flying from Boston to the Knox County Airport, crashed more than a mile short of the Owls Head runway. Seventeen people died in that crash - the worst commercial air accident in Maine history.

But there was one survivor -- 16 year old John McCafferty. He remained conscious throughout the crash, and despite his injuries was able to crawl out of the wreckage. Rescuers found him on the ground, calling for help.

The National Transportation Safety Board conducted a long investigation into the crash. It found that mistakes by the pilot and co-pilot were apparently the immediate cause.

The plane was flying below FAA minimum altitude. The flaps were incorrectly set, which would cause the plane to descend more rapidly than the crew expected. But investigators also determined that Downeast Airlines itself should bear some of the blame -- stating that the company had a history of exerting "inordinate management pressure" on pilots to complete flights, regardless of weather conditions.

Here is part of the report conclusion:

"...the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the flightcrew to arrest the aircraft's descent at the minimum descent altitude for the nonprecision approach, without the runway environment in sight, for unknown reasons. Although the safety board was unable to determine conclusively the reason(s) for the flightcrew's deviation from standard instrument approach procedures, it is believed that inordinate management pressures, the first officer's marginal instrument proficiency, the captain's inadequate supervision of the flight, inadequate crew training and procedures, and the captain's chronic fatigue were all factors in the accident."

But at least one former pilot for Downeast, Al Ockenfels of Rockport, disputes some of the claims, saying he was never pressured to complete flights, and often diverted to Augusta if the weather in Owls Head was bad.

 John Nance, whose 1986 book "Blind Trust" deailed safety problems in the airline industry, says the Downeast accident was the first time the NTSB investigators looked into airline operations and management as a contributing factor in the accident. He says NTSB procedures changed as a result of this case.

Survivor John McCafferty still lives in Maine, and says he still thinks of the crash nearly every day. But he says the anger he once felt is gone.

"I don't put blame anywhere," says McCafferty. "I don't believe anybnody wanted that crash to happen. It's not my place to blame anybody. I don't hold anybody responsible...I don't want to go through life holding a grudge toward anybody."

Click here to read the NTSB report.



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