PSA disaster 40 years ago today triggered changes that make flying safer

This is one of the most difficult and painful posts I’ve written.

Today is the 40th anniversary of an air disaster that changed U.S. commercial aviation forever. You're probably not conscious of it if you don’t live on the West Coast, especially if you were not alive at the time. But it had a far-reaching impact on your personal safety nevertheless.

On Monday, September 25, 1978, about 9:02 a.m. Pacific Time, Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182, a Boeing 727, collided with a single-engine Cessna while attempting to land at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field airport, sending both aircraft plummeting to the ground and wreaking unimaginable destruction and devastation on a sleepy residential community.

144 souls lost their lives that day, including all the occupants of both aircraft and seven people on the ground, two of them children. A number of homes were destroyed. In terms of loss of life, it was the worst-ever commercial air disaster in U.S. history at the time.

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Why does it have meaning for me? I lived in San Diego as a pre-teen and young teenager in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. I flew in and out of Lindbergh Field quite a few times, at the time the busiest single-runway airport in the United States. The PSA tragedy left an indelible mark on this glorious Southern California city that remains to this day.

San Diego was experiencing hot, dry “Santa Ana” weather conditions the day of the crash. I well remember those annual, suffocating Santa Ana winds that would sweep in every September, then mercifully depart and bring back the idyllic weather that makes San Diegans the envy of just about everyone everywhere.

PSA Flight 182 was nearing the end of a “short hop” from L.A. to San Diego, the home base of the now-defunct Pacific Southwest Airlines. Several dozen passengers were PSA crew members and employees. I never flew on PSA that I can recall, but it was supposedly a laid-back flying experience born out of the freewheeling ‘60s and ‘70s, with hip pilots and sexy flight attendants (I’m only relating what I’ve read, honest to God).

As Flight 182 was descending over the clear baby-blue San Diego skies that morning, two pilots in a small private Cessna were doing training maneuvers in the vicinity, at a lower altitude. It may seem strange to us now that this would be allowed near a major commercial airport, but at the time Lindbergh Field was the only local airport where private aircraft were allowed to perform such maneuvers.

Perfect storm of breakdowns

What happened next was a “perfect storm” of human error, miscalculation, and miscommunication.

No small part of the ensuing catastrophe was due to the fact that Flight 182 was communicating with air traffic control at Lindbergh Field, while the Cessna’s pilots were in contact with air traffic control at Miramar Naval Air Station. This likely helped set the stage for the tragic events about to unfold.

At some point the PSA flight crew was alerted to the fact that there was a small Cessna in the area. They were told to look out for it and maintain visual separation; this “see and avoid” was standard aviation practice at the time, making it the responsibility of the larger aircraft’s pilots to maintain distance from the smaller one.

The Cessna’s occupants were also informed at some point by their traffic controllers that there was a jet in the vicinity somewhere above them.

No one yet had any reason to be even remotely concerned. This was routine, everyday stuff to pilots and controllers.

But there was also a second Cessna in the sky near Lindbergh Field that morning, further off in the distance, which was spotted by the PSA crew. This was not the same Cessna they had been alerted to, but it likely contributed to the ensuing confusion.

The actual Cessna they were told to watch out for was some distance below and slightly in front of them. It’s unclear as to whether it was actually in their blind-spot. What is clear is that the pilots of the Cessna, for some reason, decided to veer slightly from their approved flight path, without informing air traffic control.

The PSA pilots did not inform ATC that they had lost sight, or never had sight, of the Cessna. Possibly mistaking the second Cessna for the one, the first officer communicated: “I think he passed off to our right.” The traffic controller who heard this mistook it for: “I think he’s passing off to our right,” indicating that the pilot at that moment had the small aircraft in view.

Believing the PSA crew had everything under control, Lindbergh ATC stopped monitoring the two aircraft, which were now on a fatal collision course as the PSA continued descending.

Meanwhile, at Miramar ATC, an alarm system suddenly went off, warning that the two planes were dangerously close. But no one at Miramar acted on the alarm or notified the aircraft to change course, supposedly because these alarms went off routinely all day long and nothing ever happened.

This was not to be one of those times.

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According to the flight recorder, one of the cockpit crew asked a co-pilot, “Are we clear of that Cessna?” Seconds later, the 727’s right wing slammed into the little plane, breaking the Cessna into pieces and setting the wing ablaze at 2,600 feet. The jet’s hydraulic system shut down and the pilots lost control, radioing Lindbergh, “We’re going down.” The 727 went into a nosedive, trailing fire and smoke across the clear morning sky, and slammed into the North Park neighborhood, scattering fuselage and body parts and transforming the intersection of Dwight and Nile Streets into Hell on earth.

The crash and explosion sent up great clouds of black smoke that could be seen all over the city and beyond. Neighborhood residents who were fortunate enough to survive, and first responders, described a scene of unspeakable horror. Over 22 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, as well as vehicles.

The Santa Ana heat, hovering near 100 degrees, combined with the burning jet fuel to create almost unbearable conditions for fire crews and other rescuers. Civilians rushed to the scene as well to try to help out however they could, or merely to gawk. A nearby parochial school transformed its gym into a makeshift morgue, and priests said prayers over the bodies.

The carnage they witnessed still affects surviving responders to this day.

 

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A National Transportation Safety Board report issued the following year placed the brunt of the blame for the collision on the PSA crew for failing to notify ATC they had lost track of the Cessna. However, a revised NTSB report three years later spread the blame around more evenly among all the players involved: PSA, the Cessna pilots, and air traffic control of both air stations.

What is so heartbreaking is if even one of the events of that September morning had not happened, all those people might not have died. If there had not been a second plane in the vicinity that was mistaken for the Cessna. If the PSA pilots had informed ATC they couldn’t see the plane. If the Cessna had not deviated from its course. If air traffic control had acted on the warning alarm.

Intersection of Dwight and Nile in North Park, 2010.

Intersection of Dwight and Nile in North Park, 2010.

Forty years later, the North Park neighborhood has fully recovered, the victims are mourned and remembered, and life in San Diego and America carries on. No one chancing upon this tranquil residential enclave would imagine it was once a scene of horrific death and destruction.

What has not carried on are the aviation rules in place in 1978 that allowed such a calamity to happen. The PSA disaster, along with a similar mid-air collision over Los Angeles in 1986 involving an AeroMexico jet and a private plane, led to new and better safety procedures.

Gone is the “see and avoid” rule for commercial aircraft landing at major airports. Air Traffic Control is now solely responsible for keeping aircraft separated and guiding planes coming in for landing.  No longer may private aircraft perform practice maneuvers near major airports, but instead must do them at facilities miles away from where commercial jets are landing.

Most importantly, the PSA crash contributed to the implementation of the Traffic Collision Alert and Avoidance System (TCAS), which is now installed on all U.S. commercial aircraft and automatically warns pilots when they fly too close to other planes. TCAS tells a pilot to increase or decrease altitude as the situation demands.

As a result, there has not been a major mid-air collision in the United States in decades. Commercial aviation is now safer than it has ever been. To that extent, those 144 souls didn’t perish in vain.

As San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Peter Rowe relates in his excellent article on the crash anniversary, “Aviation regulations are written in blood.”

On this 40th anniversary, let’s remember the lives lost on that other late September day so long ago, the loved ones left behind, and the victims and responders on the ground. We are all safer today because of what happened to them.

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All photos courtesy of the San Diego Air and Space Museum, except North Park intersection photo which is copyrighted 2010 by Chloe93 (Wikimedia Commons).

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