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DC-9 Ditches in Atlantic Ocean

By Patrick Mondout

On May 2, 1970, a Overseas National Airways aircraft leased* to Antilliaanse Luchtvaart Maatschappij (ALM; a.k.a. Antillean Airlines) crashed when it ran out of fuel near St. Croix, Virgin Islands.

ALM Flight 980 departed Kennedy International Airport in New York on a nonstop flight for St. Maarten, Netherlands Antilles. After making three circling approaches in poor weather, the crew decided to land elsewhere and and the DC-9 headed for St. Croix. Unfortunately, they no longer had enough fuel for such a journey.

By the time the crew realized their situation it was too late to turn back; the aircraft descended to the ocean and the DC-9 was ditched once the fuel was exhausted. Captain Balsey D. DeWitt advised purser Wilford J. Spencer they were low on fuel, and to prepare the cabin for ditching. 

The purser understood this to be a precautionary measure and assumed that further instructions would be given if a ditching were necessary. Steward Tobias Cordeiro and stewardess Margaret Abraham demonstrated how to put on the lifevest as the purser made the announcement over the cabin public address (PA) system. (The cockpit microphone for the PA system was inoperative, and as a result no direct instructions were given from the cockpit.)

ONA DC-9

Here is the actual DC-9 which crashed landed in the ocean that day. It is seen here in Houston in June 1966.

Image courtesy of John Stewart. Find more of his photos at Airliners.net.

 

All three cabin attendants assisted individual passengers as necessary. Some passengers could not remove the lifevests from the pouch under the seat, and others were unable to don the vest properly. Navigator Hugh H. Hart was sent back to the cabin to assist with preparations for ditching, and he helped the purser move the 25-person raft from the forward coat closet, on the left side of the aircraft, to the galley area directly opposite on the right side.

"Sit Down!"

The steward was also in the galley area securing the galley equipment when the navigator suddenly was aware that impact was imminent, and shouted for everyone to sit down. The steward sat down on the raft, facing aft, and the navigator and purser sat in the aft-facing jumpseat on the forward cabin bulkhead. They were unable to fasten their seatbelts prior to impact. Several passengers and the stewardess were still standing, and at least five others did not have their seatbelts fastened at impact.

The reactions of passengers ranged from those who used pillows in various "crash positions" to those who looked out the window, assuming that the aircraft was completing an overwater approach to the runway at St. Croix.

Following impact, the purser and the navigator attempted to open the forward main passenger loading door, but found it to be jammed and inoperable. These two crewmembers then moved to the galley area where a third crewman, the steward, had already opened the galley exit door and at least one passenger had made her escape through the galley door. The three crewmen attempted to free the raft from the galley equipment which had spilled to the galley floor. They had just been joined by first officer Harry E. Evans in this effort when the raft inadvertently inflated. The inflated raft pinned the first officer to the galley bulkhead, and prevented the other crewmembers from entering the main cabin area. The first officer did not recall how the liferaft became inflated or how he became free from the position in which it pinned him. These four crewmembers exited through the galley door.

The captain was aware of the difficulties in the galley area, and entered the water through the cockpit window. He swam to the left overwing exits, opened them from the outside, and assisted two passengers out of the aircraft. The captain then glanced through the cabin for additional passengers but saw none. Most of the passengers exited through the aft right overwing exit, which was opened by a passenger who was seated next to it. The navigator found an emergency escape slide floating in the water and, with the help of a female passenger, inflated it.

The first officer, who had no lifevest, climbed on top of the slide and assumed command of the main group of survivors who gathered around the slide. Belts and ties were used to provide additional hand-holds for the people.

   
 

U.S. Coast Guard HU-16

 
   

Courtesy of the US Coast Guard

   
 

The ditching site was confirmed on radar with the assistance of a Pan American flight that diverted for that purpose. Other fixed-wing aircraft orbited the area until the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, and Marine Corps arrived.

Although none of the five 25-person rafts on board the aircraft was deployed, several rafts were air-dropped at the ditching site. The U.S. Coast Guard HU-16, an amphibian aircraft, dropped two rafts but both fell too far away to be reached. In addition, a Skyvan dropped two rafts in the area. The captain swam to one raft and the navigator reached the other, but neither was able to maneuver his raft back to the main group.

Recovery of the survivors by helicopter began approximately ninety minutes after the ditching, and the last survivor, the first officer, was picked up about 1 hour later. In summary, 11 survivors were picked up by the two U.S. Coast Guard HH-52A helicopters, 26 survivors were rescued by a U.S. Navy SH-3A helicopter, and the remaining three survivors were picked up by a U.S. Marine Corps CH-46 helicopter.

Twenty-three persons, including two infants and stewardess Margaret Abraham, did not survive.

Investigation

Every flight carries extra fuel in case it needs to be diverted to an alternate airport. The crew was not made aware of the prevalent visual conditions prior to arriving and spent too much time attempting to land before diverting, making a successful landing at their alternate impossible.

The NTSB believed more would have survived had their been better crew coordination before the ditching the aircraft (which sank to about 5,000 feet and was not recovered).

NTSB Recommendations

The Board recommended that actions be taken to improve passenger safety through adequate warning, proper briefing, standardized seatbelts, and more accessible stowage of lifevests for emergencies. It also recommended priority action in the establishment of a VHF communications link between San Juan and St. Maarten. Lastly, it recommended that the FAA reassess the standards pertaining to certification of flotation equipment used aboard aircraft.

*Lease called for an ONA aircraft and flightcrew, and an ALM cabin crew.

Source: Adapted from National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report NTSB-AAR-71-8, adopted March 31, 1971.

 

Antillean 980 at a Glance
AirlineAntillean
DateMay 2, 1970, 3:49pm
Flight number980
Registration NumberN935F
Crew Fatalities1 of 6
Passenger Fatalities22 of 57
Total Fatalities23 of 63

Air Safety References:
Bartelski, Jan. Disasters in the Air: Mysterious Air Disasters Explained. Airlife Publishing: England, 2001.
Beaty, David. The Naked Pilot: The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents. Airlife Publishing: England, 1996.
Cushing, Steven. Fatal Words: Communication Clashes and Aircraft Crashes University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1997.
Faith, Nicholas. Black Box: The Air-Crash Detectives-Why Air Safety Is No Accident. Motorbooks International, 1997.
Gero, David. Aviation Disasters: The World's Major Civil Airliner Crashes Since 1950. Sutton, 2003.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 1). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1995.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 2). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1996.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 3). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1999.
Krause, Shari Stamford. Aircraft Safety: Accident Investigations, Analyses & Applications. McGraw Hill, New York, 1996.
Macpherson, Malcolm. The Black Box : All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts Of In-flight Accidents. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
Macpherson, Malcolm. On a Wing and a Prayer: Interviews with Airline Disaster Survivors. Perennial, 2002.
Owen, David. Air Accident Investigation, 2nd Edition. Motorbooks International, 2002.
Stewart, Stanley. Emergency! - Crisis on the Flight Deck, 2nd Edition. Airlife Publishing, England, 2003.
Walters, James M. Aircraft Accident Analysis: Final Reports. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2000.
Wells, Alexander T. Commercial Aviation Safety, 3rd Edition. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2001.

 

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Your Memories Shared!

"My mother died on this plane and I think it was totally irresponsible of the pilots to run out of gas in the middle of the ocean. My father was a survivor, he did not have his seatbelt on, my mother did. Just a sad story."

--Anonymous


 

DISASTER DETAILS

An Antillean DC-9 similar to one involved in Flight 980.

Image courtesy of AirNikon. Find more of his photos at Airliners.net

Airline: Antillean

Location: 30 miles from St. Croix, Virgin Islands

Aircraft: McDonnell Douglas DC-9-33CF

Date: May 2, 1970, 3:49pm

Total Fatalities: 23 of 63



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