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American DC-10 Crashes at O'Hare Killing 273

By Patrick Mondout

At just after 3 p.m. on May 25, 1979, an American Airlines DC-10  crashed shortly after takeoff killing all 271 on board and two on the ground. The left engine fell off Flight 191 on takeoff severing critical control lines and a section of the left wing making a successful return to the airport nearly impossible.

The aircraft rolled over on its back before crashing into an open field just short of a trailer park about 4,600 feet northwest of the departure end of runway 32R at Chicago-O'Hare International Airport, Illinois.

It was later determined American and Continental Airlines were not following the McDonnell Douglas (MD) procedures for removing engine pylons for maintenance (nor were they required to). MD's instructions involved removing the 13,500 pound engines from the pylons (which hold the engines on the wing) and then removing the nearly 2,000 pound pylons. Clever American Airlines (AA) mechanics in Tulsa had figured out how to do it by removing the engines and pylons all at once using a forklift! This nonstandard procedure saved approximately 200 man hours but often damaged the pylons which hold the engine in place.

McDonnell Douglas had sent out an advisory to its customers prior to this accident recommending against this procedure, but they lacked authority to require the airlines to comply.

To ensure no further tragedies, the FAA grounded all DC-10s. Some said this was an overreaction, but during the ensuing inspections, at least six more DC-10s were found to have similar damage (four were American Airlines and the other two belonged to Continental). It was also revealed that two further Continental (which had also adopted the AA procedure) DC-10s had been damaged before the Chicago accident, but the mechanics noticed the problems and repaired them.

American DC-10

An American DC-10 similar to the one involved in this crash, as seen in at LAX in March 1978.

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

 

During the takeoff rotation (when the aircraft noses up and begins flight) of the doomed flight, the left engine and pylon assembly and about three feet of the leading edge of the left wing separated from the aircraft, and because of its thrust, actually flew out in front of the aircraft and over the wing and fell to the runway. Flight 191 continued to climb to about 325 ft above the ground and then began to roll to the left.

The aircraft continued to roll to the left until the wings were past the vertical position, and during the roll, the aircraft's nose pitched down below the horizon. (Notice the direction of the smoke from the wing in the photograph on the upper right. The aircraft is falling and rolling on to its back.)

Flight 191 crashed into the open field and the wreckage scattered into an adjacent trailer park. The aircraft was destroyed in the crash and subsequent fire. Two persons on the ground were killed and two others were injured. An old aircraft hangar, several automobiles, and a mobile home were destroyed.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident was the asymmetrical stall and the ensuing roll of the aircraft because of the uncommanded retraction of the left wing outboard leading edge slats and the loss of stall warning and slat disagreement indication systems resulting from maintenance-induced damage leading to the separation of the No. 1 engine and pylon assembly at a critical point during takeoff. The separation resulted from damage by improper maintenance procedures which led to failure of the pylon structure.

Contributing to the cause of the accident were the vulnerability of the design of the pylon attach points to maintenance damage; the vulnerability of the design of the leading edge slat system to the damage which produced asymmetry; deficiencies in Federal Aviation Administration surveillance and reporting systems which failed to detect and prevent the use of improper maintenance procedures; deficiencies in the practices and communications among the operators, the manufacturer, and the FAA which failed to determine and disseminate the particulars regarding previous maintenance damage incidents; and the intolerance of prescribed operational procedures to this unique emergency.

Source: Adapted from National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report NTSB-AAR-79-17.

American Airlines 191 at a Glance
AirlineAmerican Airlines
Flight number191
Registration NumberN110AA
Crew Fatalities13 of 13
Passenger Fatalities258 of 258
Other Fatalities2 on ground
Total Fatalities271 of 271 + 2 on the ground

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.

 

Share Your Memories!

What do you remember about this crash? Were you a witness? Have you any compelling stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)

Your Memories Shared!

"I was working for Continental Airlines Contract Services in the old International Terminal. I remember sitting in an empty gate area reading when I felt the ground get pounded. Then I heard an explosion. A fellow employee walking by asked me,"Did you hear and feel that"? That's when I got up and walked over to the other side of the gate area and saw a plume of fire and smoke 100 feet tall. We were almost a mile away from the jets point of impact. It was a few minutes before anyone of us was sure it was a jet that had collided with the ground. Weather wise it was a glorious day. Sunny,clear and warm. Much like New York on Sept. 11."

--Kurt Gubitz

"I was 16 years old and my dad was coming home from a buisness trip in Chicago. When I got home, my Mom called us all together and told us that there was a terrible plane crash and that she was not sure whether our Dad was on it or not. We were all in shock with no real emotions at that point because we were not sure. Later it was confirmed and changed all our lives forever. I work in the airplane overhaul industry now and you can bet I take it seriously."

--Fast Eddy

"I was an off duty Chicago Fire Dept. Paramedic assigned to Ambulance 16 at O'Hare. My family and I were headed for Harlem-Irving Plaza, I was west bount on Irving Parl Rd. when we saw the the explosion and the smoke rising in the air. I knew instantly what it was. A plane down with a full load of fuel. I immediately proceeded to the scene, falling in line with police cars ambulances and other fire equipment. We were on the scene in what only seemed like moments. I got my equipment out of the trunck and ran directly to the crash site.

Crash crews already on the scene, were moving in what appeared to be in slow motion. We spread out looking for survivors, THERE WERE NONE! I was a medic in Viet Nam and never in my tours of duty there had I seen, so much death in a confined space. I will not describe the scene any more then that.

We worked for hours tagging and staking the bodies leaving them where we found them until FAA Investigators arrived on the scene.

Then we did what we had to do for the next couple of days.
I will remember Flight 191, It is something one does not easily forget!"

--Anonymous

"I was in the hospital that day watching the news on television. I was in disbelief...after all, engines don't just fall off jet airplanes.
Years later, I studied this crash for a research paper in college, and used John Nance's book "Blind Trust" for my research. I was amazed to learn that the pilots cannot see the wing engines from a DC-10 cockpit, so they had no idea that the engine had actually fallen off the plane. All they thought was that the engine had failed, but as soon as the planebegan to roll to the left, they kept fighting control in what would have been as Nance put it, "a routine engine-out procedure on take-off and fighting a roll that made no sense to them."
That's the eerie part to me...they never even knew what went wrong with the aircraft."

--Susan Kidwell-Housworth

"On the afternoon of May 25, 1979, I was on an airport bus headed from downtown Chicago to O'Hare airport. The traffic along the expressway came to a dead halt. We watched from the bus as dozens of emergency vehicles spead by with sirens blaring and lights flashing, followed by what seemed like every newspaper and television crew in the city. The driver mentioned to someone in the front of the bus that his radio dispatcher said something had crashed on the runway at O'Hare. I thought this was a lousy rumor to be spreading around a bus loaded with people headed to the airport. As traffic began moving again and we approached O'Hare, a pall of black smoke could be seen on the western horizon. When we got to O'Hare I noticed that planes were landing from a direction I'd never seen at O'Hare before and air traffic was very light for a Friday afternoon. It struck me as odd at the time but I still didn't consider that what the bus driver had said was true. I wandered the airport and ended up in the Continental Airlines waiting lounge where maybe 100 people were gathered around a large TV on a pedestal, watching, silent. As I got closer and listened I heard the announcer say that "Chicago now had the dubious honor of being the scene of the nation's worst single plane crash." I asked the guy next to me what had happened and he said "American DC-10. Just over there" pointing out the windows to the west. The crash was the only discussion among traverlers at the airport that evening. As I wandered around waiting for my flight, people on every payphone (no such thing as cell phones then) were talking to their loved-ones about what had happened. Early that evening, my North Central DC-9 lifted off the O'Hare runway heading west and then north and we flew over the smoking remains of the American DC-10 crash. It's as close as I ever want to come to another."

--Bill

"I first heard about this crash at work from customers who came in and mentioned it, everyone seemed to be talking about it. As I recall, this was the first time that a passenger plane crash had been caught on film. It still strikes me as the most bizarre film clip, seeing the plane turned sideways, missing an engine, and fire shooting out from the side. It wasn't until the next morning that I learned that a relative of mine had been killed in the crash. I remember seeing an article in the National Enquirer, or a similar magazine, stating that the actress Lindsay Wagner was supposed to have been on that flight, but she had a bad feeling about it and gave up her seat to a woman (who I believe was my relative) who was desperately trying to get on the flight to reach L.A. in time for a birthday party. There also was an interesting story related to the flight on the TV show "In Search Of" regarding ESP. Prior to the crash, a man had recurrent nightmares for a few weeks about a plane crash accompanied by a strong sense of impending doom and loss of life. He had contacted authorities and accurately described the aircraft type and other pertinent information and they worked with him to try to pinpoint the actual flight. Finally, he had become so overwhelmed with emotions that he had to leave work and that evening he saw the news reports of the crash - the same plane he had been having nightmares about."

--Becool

"I was on that plane the flight before it crashed! I was on my way to basic training, landing in Chicago on American FLT191. I then got onto an Eastern Airlines plane and went on to South Carolina. When I called home to let folks know I had arrived, they were all screaming and at first I couldn't figure out why. "What do you mean, my plane crashed?" I didn't have any idea what had happened until the call home. All they knew was that FLT191 was on my itinerary and that it had crashed in Chicago. Needless to say they were very relieved when I called. It's still sad to me as I can to this day, visualize that flight attendant who was very nice to this scared kid on his way into the world."

--Bob

"I was 8 years old at the time, and lived about 5 miles from O'Hare. I was outside rollerskating with my friend Julie when suddenly we heard the loudest, nastiest thunderclap we've ever heard. We both looked up and couldn't figure it out. How could there be thunder when it was gorgeous out and there wasn't a cloud in the sky? And nasty thunder at that. After dinner, we just sat on her porch staring at each other, unsure how to react to the news that the sound we heard was the sound of nearly 300 people dying. I still hear planes crashing in my nightmares even to this day."

--Sheila Strabley

"I was only about 3/4 miles NE of the impact point. I was an engineer at ITT Telecom in Des Plaines. I remenber hearing or "feeling" a "thud", and a few moments later one of the secretaries came running into the office area screaming a plane crashed at Higgins and Mt Prospect Rd (nearest intersection of impact). That afternoon it took me four hours to get home, when normally it took about 40 minutes."

--Alex Fomin

"I remember that I came inside, saw the TV, and saw what was going on. I immediately called my Mom to come and look. From Dundee we could see the smoke cloud way off in the distance. My Dad worked for the airline at the time of the incident and my Mom called him right away, but his secretary said that he was unavailable. I remember that my Dad didn't come home for a few days afterward. They were setting up make-shift morgues in the hanger. Another friend of the family worked there as well and I recall her speaking to my Mom privately about body parts, stories of family members that left the airport and watched in horror as the plane went down hoping that was not the plane of a family member, etc. Inside stories were very gruesome. I now work for the airline as well and I hope that I or anyone else will never have to go thru a situation like this."

--AA

"This crash happened just after my tenth birthday, and I remember seeing this picture in the papers back then. Through the years, I can't count how many nightmares I've had where I hear the sound of a plane falling, I look up, and I see the same picture as the plane crashes right in front of me. Seeing the picture again now is beyond eery."

--Mark

"We were moving from Mundelein, IL to Fort Wayne, Indiana that day. We saw the plane crash from the highway. I'll never forget the fire and the smoke cloud, I was nine. It being the Midwest plains out there, we could see the smoke cloud for over a hundred miles. Unfortunately, I saw the crash into the Trade Towers on my way to work and it brought back the memories of this flight. Strange how I was witness to both. No, I am absolutely not afraid to fly; human problems caused both. Very, wery sad way to lose loved ones, I guess because the events are so so tragic."

--Anonymous

"I was a Des Plaines policeman and received the call while I was just leaving the station that a plane went down at O’Hare. The first thing I remember arriving was not being able to cross-town because the smoke billowing across the street was so thick. Traffic was completely stopped on both sides, and we were the few of the first that had arrived. Expecting to come across items scattered was not what I found. It was as if everything had been charred or disintegrated. And than some items looked like they were not touched at all by the heat or flames. The worst disaster I ever worked."

--Mike

"I was in Junior High School in Bartlett, Illinois the day that Flight 191 crashed. Bartlett is about 25 miles from O'Hare. I remember leaving school the day of the crash and we could see the smoke from the front of the school! Couldn't figure out exactly what it was, figured it was a house burning a town or two over. When I got home from school the accident was all over the news. That is one day I will never forget."

--Gary Ewing

"If you read a book called "Mysteries Of The Unexplained", there is a guy in that said he had a premonition of that crash. He also said he had nightmares ten nights in a row."

--Anonymous

"I was working in Rolling Meadows about 6 miles from O'Hare. We heard about the crash but I lived north. I remember driving down Lake-Cook Road and just being fixated on the smoke, just thinking about the souls that were consumed in that smoke. "

--Rick

"I was only four when this crash happened and I will never forget it. My mom was a Flight Attendant on that flight and on her way home. My older sister is still afraid to fly and we both have dreams about watching a plane crash over the ocean. Our father is currently a Captain for another airlines and we always make sure that we tell him that we love him before he goes on a trip. 9-11 was the worst, he was in Boston on the runway when it all started to happen and I couldn't imagine it happening again. Everytime I fly I look at the Flight Attendants and wonder what she was like, if any of the older one's new her, if she knew that she was going to die. Losing someone is the worst but sites like this help. I can look back at part of the past and try to understand why."

--Kerry Burns

" I was flying from Madison, WI to Key West, FL with a connection at O'Hare and as our plane was taxiing to the terminal, I saw the American Airlines flight taking off. As I watched, the engine came off over the top of the right wing as described in the story and bounced along the runway. As I and everyone else on that side of the plane watched, the DC-10 initially climbed with an almost normal angle of attack-- and for a moment I recalled that I had been told that multiengine jets could fly on a single engine-- but then the nose went up and the plane rolled to the left, crashing in a huge fireball with a tremendous cloud of black smoke that I could not help thinking looked like a movie special effect. The crew on our plane was in shock, but as soon as we deplaned we heard that it hab been a cargo flight. I headed to the airport bar, as I still had to get on my connecting flight, and only after arriving in Florida did I learn of the true nature of the crash."

--Kent

"I was 8 years old, walking home to our trailer, when I witnessed the plane crash. I lived on Elmhurst Road in the Oasis Mobile Home Trailer Park. I distinctly did two things different that day. 1) I saved the potato chips from my packed lunch to eat on the way home from, 2)the other bus stop I would get off at for the first time. In retrospect, my mom would have been furious to know I did both. But as it happens, the other bus stop was in the back of the trailer park, and my walk home to the front was directly toward O'Hare. I am 33 now, and can still see it vividly in my imagination: Looking down at the chips as my hand reached into the plastic ziploc, and watching them rumble as I heard an explosion. I quickly looked up to see a line of black smoke rising up toward an airplane turned sideways, that was in the process of falling from the sky.

When the plane hit, I could hear the metal twisting along with the biggest explosion I had ever seen at that age. The cloud was enormous and everything stood still. I ran inside our trailer and callled my mom who was still at work, and broke the story. (My early work as a journalist) She interrupted me for a moment, to catch the breaking news on tv. She told me to wait, and she came home immediatley. We walked along Elmhurst road, a 4-6 lane road if memory serves, and saw in the field tons of seat belts and seat cushions. People had crossed the police tape so they could loot whatever valuables they could find. I saw people putting things in their pockets. It was tragic event, but in a weird way, I'm glad I experienced it. (Except for the dreams that I am in a plane as it begins to go down).

I drive alongside Newark Liberty International airport twice daily, and watch every plane I can take off and land, in case I see it again. A coworker told me I had a "Better chance of being struck by lightning" before I saw another plane crash. Fortunatley, I haven't been struck by lightning. Unfortunately though, I did see flight #175 crash into the south World Trade Center the beautiful sunny morning of 9/11."

--BillyD

"I was four years old when this happened and my dad was a Mount Prospect cop. This one of his first major calls he went on. I still have the actual police photos of this crash. "

--Niccie

"I would like to share with you briefly why I am so affected by this. Since I was a young child I've had a passion for flying. I wanted more than anything to fly. I used to spend much of my time watching the airplanes. My father would even park our car near the end of the runways (when we still could) so I could watch the planes. Around the time of the crash, my mother had been occasionally flying in and out of O'Hare mostly on DC-10's with other family members. I spent quite a bit of time at O'Hare at my young age--just before my 8th birthday and the AA 191 crash was exactly on my mother's birthday, May 25th.

In 1986 I had the privilege of flying on a DC-10 both ways--American Airlines from O'Hare to LAX and back. The flight numbers were 181 and 192.

I remember the tragedy like it was yesterday and one night in June last year I suddenly had a nightmare about the crash--as if I saw it directly. Since that time, something has told me that I really need to go the crash site and say goodbye to those lost, like I lost something so dear to me."

--D.Durgin

"I will never forget FLT191. I was 10 at the time and living in Des Plaines. It was 3:00 on a Fri, and my classmates and I were anxious for the bell to ring at 3:20p in anticipation of Memorial Day weekend. Our 4th grade classroom faced south towards O'Hare and I recall glancing out the windows and seeing a silver object briefly glimmer in the sun. Seconds later there was a thick pillar of black smoke. I recall us asking our teacher what it was, and she replied that there was an incinerator burning garbage in the industrial area of Elk Grove Village, towards the airport.

Years later I would wonder if she really knew, and not knowing how to explain it to a classroom of kids, offered up a quick answer. After school, I would come home and find my mom standing in our backyard looking in the direction of the crash. My dad, working only a couple miles from the crash site, would arrive home an hour or so later than usual because of traffic delays. He would later recall the smell of burning flesh and kerosene in the air, even from a couple miles away! I was so shocked by what I had seen that I stayed up all night listening to radio coverage, not able to fall asleep."

--Anonymous

"My father was aboard the plane that crashed in Chicago. He was a neuroradiologist on his way to a medical symposium in Japan. My father was a Taiwanese immigrant who came to the states alone, worked 80 hours a week so he could bring his entire family here, -- all his brothers, sisters, children, wife, mother. At the time of the crash, I was 18 months old, and my three older sisters were 8, 15, and 16. The event was a total eruption in our worlds, and especially for my mother, who at the time didn't know how to write a check, drive a car, or speak English. It is my belief that under such a task, and with the cloud of such a coup de foudre over one's head, one either buckles under the weight of it all, or rises to the occasion. My mother is an amazing woman -- the most amazing person I know. She rose to the occasion , bringing all of us up single-handedly, and putting us through some of the best educational institutions around (Duke, Yale, Berkeley, UVA, UNC). My sisters have their own happy families and lives now. I have come to see that although this disaster was the end of my father's life in this reality, it was the genesis of a whole new life for my mother. She is everything to me. I have only one memory of my father: I can vividly remember riding on the back of a bicycle, in a plastic child's seat, and seeing the back of my father, seeing his legs pedal that thing around our house in Rochester, being scared for my life. It is clear as day in my mind. I also have a memory of my family sitting and mourning at the end of a hall in an airport terminal. . . i was running around and playing, not having any clue that I had just lost my father. I really appreciate the messages on this site; they have filled so many gaps in the attempts to make some sense of my father's death. You know, a couple of them talk about Lindsey Wagner not feeling right about the flight and leaving the plane only to have her seat taken by someone else's loved one, or that guy who had the premonitions of the crash. My mother has often told me that after she kissed my father goodbye, and as he walked onto the boarding ramp, she saw his face turn an intense yellow, and she had a bad feeling about it. She also tells me that she tried to convince my father to take her and my sisters and I with him, and he would have except that he thought I was too young to take. And so my mom credits me as saving our lives. I don't know. I am realizing now that I am still working through a lot of this. I don't want to make this feedback into a therapy session. I guess the last thing I would say is that I believe this disaster occurred for a reason -- I happen to believe that all of the stuff that goes down, like 9-11, or whatever, doesn't just randomly occur. And that the imagery of the phoenix mean much to me, of that mythical creature which dies in flames but is reborn more beautiful than ever. Death has a purpose, and there is meaning in the way the world moves. I missed having a father but I had the most incredible mother a guy could ever ask for. nozomiphoenix@verizon. net"

--Andy


 

DISASTER DETAILS

Notice engine missing on lower wing and smoke trailing away from true heading.

Courtesy of NTSB

Airline: American Airlines

Location: O'Hare Airport in Chicago

Aircraft: DC-10

Date

Total Fatalities: 271 of 271 + 2 on the ground



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