On December 20, 1952, a U.S. Air Force C-124 cargo and troop transport plane lurches to the side shortly after takeoff from Larson Air Force Base in Moses Lake. The left wing tip hits the ground and the plane explodes in fire. A total of 87 passengers and crew die. It is, at the time, the highest death toll in aviation history.
Most of the passengers were Air Force personnel from Korea or Northwest bases, catching a ride home for Christmas in a program called Operation Sleighride. The plane, a C-124 Globemaster, was enroute to Kelly Air Force Base near San Antonio.
According to eyewitness reports, the plane made a sharp left turn immediately after takeoff, causing the left wing tip to hit the ground. The plane then broke up and caught fire, just north of the runway. Some of the 121 passengers escaped by running out of the rear of the plane. But most of the people in the cavernous main passenger compartment and cockpit were caught in the wreckage and fire. Rescue teams worked for hours to look for survivors and recover bodies. At first the death toll was thought to be 92; that number was later reduced to 87.
A subsequent investigation showed that the crash was caused by “locked” controls at takeoff, but whether this was pilot error or mechanical malfunction is still in dispute. It was, at the time, the worst disaster in aviation history. It was, however, surpassed only six months later when another Air Force transport crashed near Tokyo, killing 129. That, too, involved a C-124.