On November 30, 1947, at approximately 2:25 p.m., an Alaska Airlines C-54A (DC-4) en route from Anchorage, Alaska, goes off the end of the runway when landing at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The aircraft crosses a 229-foot buffer zone, plunges over a 24-foot embankment, collides with a moving automobile, and bursts into flames. Seven of the plane's 28 occupants and a passenger in the automobile are killed in the crash. Another airline passenger will succumb to injuries on December 25, 1947, bringing the final death toll to nine. It is only the second plane crash (the first with casualties) at Sea-Tac Airport, which has been in limited service since 1944 but is not yet completely finished -- it will not be dedicated as Seattle-Tacoma International Airport until 1949. An investigation by the Civil Aeronautics Board and Civil Aviation Administration will determine the crash was caused by pilot error rather than an equipment malfunction or structural failure.
A Workhorse in War and Peace
The Douglas C-54 Skymaster was the military version of the DC-4 passenger aircraft, developed in 1938. The Skymaster began service with the U.S. Army Air Corps (now the U.S. Air Force) in February 1942, shuttling passengers and cargo across the North Atlantic between the U.S. and Great Britain during World War II. The transport, considered large in its day, was approximately 94 feet long with a 118-foot wingspan, powered by four 1,450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2000 Twin Wasp engines. At a cruising speed of 207 m.p.h., the C-54 had a range of 4,200 miles and could accommodate up to 80 passengers.
The Douglas Aircraft Company produced 1,163 Skymasters that served the air force and the navy until 1975, when the model was fully retired. Another 79 DC-4s were produced after the war for commercial air carriers, and many war-surplus C-54s were purchased for commercial use at nominal prices; they would haul passengers and freight well into the jet age.
Fighting the Weather
On Thursday, November 27, 1947, Alaska Airlines C-54A-1-DO (DC-4), registration no. NC91009, left Anchorage for Seattle with a scheduled refueling stop at Yakutat, Alaska. The crew members were Captain James E. Farris, pilot; First Officer Richard F. Whitting, copilot; and Reba E. Monk (1924-1947), flight attendant. The plane arrived at Yakutat and remained grounded for two days due to bad weather. It departed for Seattle early on Saturday morning on November 29, with a refueling stop scheduled at Port Hardy, British Columbia. Just before arriving at Port Hardy, however, Farris received information that the weather had deteriorated and all landing facilities along the route to Seattle were either closed or forecast to close. The aircraft then landed at Annette Island near Ketchikan to wait for favorable flying weather.
At 10:41 a.m. on Sunday, November 30, Flight 009 departed for Seattle, with Portland and Eugene, Oregon, designated as alternate airports. The ceiling at Boeing Field (now formally King County International Airport) was reported be indefinite to 500 feet with visibility one mile. At approximately 2:00 p.m., Flight 009 began an instrument approach to Boeing Field but aborted landing due to limited visibility. The C-54 returned to an altitude of 1,500 feet and prepared for an instrument approach to Seattle-Tacoma Airport, some six miles south of Boeing Field, from the northeast.
When first observed by Sea-Tac's air-traffic controllers, the plane was at approximately 500 feet altitude and flying at an angle to the approach end of the 5,611-foot runway. The pilot attempted to line up for landing, but by then the plane was well beyond where it should have been. It finally touched down 2,748 feet along the runway and, without any apparent deceleration, ran off the end, crossed over a 229-foot turf-covered buffer zone, and plunged down a 24-foot embankment. At the bottom of the embankment the left landing gear and left wing were severed, spilling a large amount of aviation fuel over the area. The aircraft collided with an automobile at the intersection of 188th Street S and Des Moines Way (now Des Moines Memorial Drive) and came to a halt. The spilled fuel soon ignited, enveloping the wrecked plane and automobile in flames.
The automobile destroyed by the C-54 was occupied by Ira H. Vanvolkenburg (1906-1994) and Stella Pearl Jones (1903-1947), a 44-year-old blind widow. They were traveling north on Des Moines Way, approaching S 188th Street, when Vanvolkenburg first spotted the plane descending over the embankment. Its right inboard engine struck the front of the vehicle, pushing the car's motor under the dashboard and hitting Vanvolkenburg in the knees and shins. When he regained his senses, the car was laying on its left side, its right door was missing, and Jones was gone. Vanvolkenburg managed to climb into the back seat, kick out the rear window, and escape onto the highway. The gasoline exploded a minute later, and he took cover in the roadside drainage ditch to avoid being burned.
Meanwhile, passengers managed to open the cabin door on the left side of the fuselage and the two emergency exits over the wings and scramble to safety. The gasoline fire was intense, necessitating a mad dash through the inferno into open ground. Twenty-three of the C-54's occupants made it out alive, all suffering from varying degree of injuries and burns.
Emergency equipment arrived from Sea-Tac Airport within minutes after the crash. Fire and rescue teams and equipment from Boeing Field and the Seattle Fire Department were also dispatched to the scene. The gasoline fire was quickly smothered with foam and the survivors cared for until medical aid arrived. Ambulances, volunteer firefighters, police, sheriff's deputies, and state patrol officers soon appeared en masse. The survivors were taken to hospitals in Seattle and Renton for medical attention.
Two victims died while inside the plane wreckage and four died shortly afterward at New Renton Hospital. Stella Jones was ejected from the automobile and burned to death on the highway. An eighth casualty was the flight attendant, Reba Monk, who was critically burned while leading passengers through the flames to safety. She died at New Renton Hospital early on the day following the crash.
Except for shock and abrasions, Vanvolkenburg was uninjured. A concerned citizen drove him to Stella Jones's home at 17125 12th Avenue S, where he was a lodger. He had the unpleasant task of informing Stella's father, Samuel Jones, 76, and her 9-year-old son, William, of the bizarre tragedy. King County Coroner John P. Brill Jr. (1909-1971) said it was the first automobile-airplane fatality in the history of the county.
On Thursday, December 11, 1947, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) opened an official investigation into the crash. A two-day hearing was held at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle, during which a panel of four CAB officials heard testimony from some 35 witnesses about the facts and circumstances surrounding the accident. According to testimony from Captain Farris and First Officer Whitting, the accident had been caused by the failure of the hydraulic brakes upon landing. Furthermore, the emergency air-brakes and nose wheel failed to function and the runway was wet and slippery.
However, a detailed inspection of the hydraulic system by CAB engineering experts determined that the hydraulic and emergency air brakes had been operational at the time of landing and were not a factor in the accident. The instrument approach to the airport, as observed by air-traffic controllers in the tower, had been irregular and the aircraft had not been properly aligned for landing. The pilot had been forced to make a hasty "S" turn and a rapid descent to align the flight path with the runway and to reduce excessive altitude. When the airplane first made contact with the runway it was in a left turn, and the left wing was so low that those who observed the landing thought that it would strike the ground. The first point of touchdown was made 2,748 feet beyond the approach end of the runway and the plane then continued to glide an additional 711 feet before all four main landing-gear wheels and the nose wheel were on the ground. The C-54 was traveling at more than 100 miles per hour at touchdown and required at least 2,000 feet of breaking to come to a complete stop. The plane became partially airborne after leaving the end of the runway, crossed over the 229-foot buffer zone and crashed and burned on the Des Moines Highway, striking Vanvolkenburg's car.
The official CAB Accident Investigation Report, dated May 20, 1949, concluded: "The Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the landing of the airplane too far from the approach end of a wet runway and at a speed too great to accomplish a full stop on the runway" ("Alaska Airlines ..."). Alaska Airlines discharged Farris shortly after the accident and the CAB assessed a penalty of $1,000 against him for violating certain civil air regulations.
The crash's final victim was John A. Lathanan Jr., who died of severe burns at New Renton Hospital on Christmas morning, 1947, bringing the final death toll to nine. Reba Monk, the flight attendant, had worked for Alaska Airlines for just five months before the plane crash. Her remains were sent to family in Santa Monica, California, and were buried at Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in that city. Carved on her large marble headstone are the words: "Heroine Air Hostess" and "She Gave Her Life to Save Others."
Leslie W. Howe, 33, Spokane
Jonas E. Johnson, 44, Palmer, Alaska
Gordon Johnson, 21 months, Palmer, Alaska
Stella Pearl Jones, 44, Seattle (automobile passenger)
John A. Lathanan Jr., 41, Fairbanks, Alaska (d. Dec. 25, 1947)
Reba Elizabeth Monk, 22, Seattle (flight attendant)
Ole Ring, 53, Edmonds
Fred L. Smith, 20, Tacoma
Mary Virginia Stitsworth, 33, Seattle