On January 7, 1953, a cargo plane belonging to The Flying Tiger Line clips a tree near the summit of Squak Mountain in eastern King County during a wind and rain storm. The plane explodes and plunges into a pasture in a valley two miles south of Issaquah, exploding again on impact. All seven people on board the plane are killed.
A Routine Flight
The Flying Tiger Line was an air cargo line that got its name from the Flying Tigers fighter unit of World War II. Ten pilots returning from the war started the line in June 1945 and for the next four years carried air freight by contract. In 1949 the line was awarded the nation’s first commercial air cargo route, and its growth accelerated. The Flying Tigers (as they were known) also played a major role in transporting troops and supplies to Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953).
On Wednesday afternoon, January 7, 1953, Flying Tiger Flight 841 left Burbank, California, en route to Seattle to pick up military personnel; from there the flight was to continue to Salt Lake City and Chicago. The plane landed briefly in San Francisco, then continued on an uneventful flight for Seattle’s Boeing Field. The plane, referred to in the press as a DC-4, was actually a Douglas C-54 Skymaster, a military version of the DC-4. It was a four-engine cargo plane, weighing 26 tons and measuring more than 93 feet long, with a wingspan exceeding 117 feet. Though the plane was not carrying cargo this trip, it was carrying seven passengers: four crew members, which included a stewardess who was “deadheading” (hitching a ride) to Seattle, as well as a young woman and her two young sons, en route to Salt Lake City via Seattle to meet her husband, who was also a Flying Tiger pilot.
Weather conditions in Seattle that evening were blustery and rainy, with conditions deteriorating as the evening wore on. At 8:30 p.m. Boeing Field reported south-southeast winds at 22 m.p.h. with gusts to 30 m.p.h. The plane, flying on instruments through the clouds, was in communication with controllers on the ground and reported it was descending. Typically, the plane would have flown east of Renton and then swung west and crossed the southern end of Lake Washington to make its approach into Boeing Field from the south.
Instead, and for reasons which were never known, the pilot deviated from the normal flight path. He was probably not aware of it, and neither were the air traffic controllers in Seattle, who in 1953 did not yet have radar. At 8:50 p.m. the pilot reported he was descending through 3,000 feet, then shortly after the crew acknowledged their clearance to contact Boeing Tower for landing instructions. This was the last communication from the doomed plane.
Squak Mountain rises 2,024 feet just south of Issaquah. At about 8:55 p.m., one witness, Clifford Clark, noticed the plane flying north at a low altitude and reported that “the motors sounded in good shape.” But then, seconds later, the plane struck a tree and exploded at an elevation of about 1,620 feet on a ridge on the eastern flank of Squak Mountain. Clark said, “I saw the flash and heard the explosion. Then the whole mountain was lighted by flames” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 8, 1953, p. 6).
The plane immediately nosed straight down into a vertical dive, plunging nearly 1,500 feet to the valley floor, crashing straight on its nose. It crashed in a cow pasture on land owned by Vincent Herlihy two miles south of Issaquah, about a quarter mile west of the Issaquah-Hobart Road. The plane smashed into the ground with such force that it hurled three of the plane’s propeller blades 500 feet away from the point of impact. The crash created a crater 138 feet long and more than 10 feet deep, which filled with mud and debris. The force of the crash buried the plane’s engines into the ground, and the remnants of the 93-foot long fuselage “accordioned into about 18 feet of shattered aluminum” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 9, 1953, p. 8). Upon impact, the plane exploded again.
Mike Herlihy, 15, and his father, Vincent, were in their living room of their home as the blazing plane streaked toward earth. Mike heard the noise, looked out a window, saw the plummeting plane and shouted at his father. They raced outside just as the plane roared into the ground. As they ran toward the plane it exploded, shooting flames several hundred feet into the air. "The whole heavens lit up," affirmed the Herlihy's neighbor, H. J. Hart, who was awakened from a nap by the crash and witnessed its immediate aftermath (The Seattle Times, January 8, 1953, p. 16).
At the Scene
The King County Sheriff's office and Washington State Patrol were soon on the scene, but the fire was so intense for the next several hours they could not approach what was left of the plane. Finally they set up emergency floodlights and established a continuous armed guard by the wreckage and waited.
Later that night and again at daybreak the next morning reporters and photographers from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times descended on the crash site, photographing the still-smoldering wreckage and interviewing young Mike Herlihy while he milked a cow. Other investigators -- from The Flying Tiger Line, Civil Aeronautics Board, and the AirLine Pilots Association – soon arrived. Some of these investigators combed the eastern flank of Squak Mountain from base to summit in search of clues. The plane’s rudder and a few other smaller pieces were found on the mountain, and other pieces were found scattered through the Herilhy’s pasture. It was four days before the wreckage cooled enough that heavy equipment could be brought in to lift the plane and search for human remains.
Investigators eventually determined that the "flight's deviation from the established approach procedure to Boeing Field" (Aviation Safety Network) caused the accident. Ironically, the flight’s pilot was considered one of the Flying Tiger’s most experienced pilots.
In the years following the accident, the line continued to grow and in 1980 became the world’s largest air cargo carrier. In August 1989, FedEx Corporation purchased The Flying Tiger Line.