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PSA crash at 40: A page of San Diego history ‘written in blood’

Sept. 25, 1978 _ Shortly after the plane crash a man used a garden hose to extinguish flames on Dwig
A man man uses a garden hose to extinguish flames on Dwight Street in San Diego after the 1978 plane crash. (Joe Holly / San Diego Union-Tribune)

At 9 a.m. on Sept. 25, 1978, rookie flight attendant Kate Fons was at work aboard San Diego-bound PSA flight 182.

Martin Kazy Jr. and David Boswell were practicing landing approaches at Lindberg Field in a Cessna 172.

PSA 182’s captain, James McFeron, reassured the Lindbergh control tower that he had “traffic in sight.”

In less than two minutes — at 9:01:47 — PSA 182 and the Cessna would collide in midair, 2,600 feet over San Diego’s North Park neighborhood.

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The impact ripped apart the smaller plane and damaged the jet’s right wing. Both aircraft fell from the sky, slamming into residential streets, showering residences, cars and pavement with airplane parts, corpses and flames, destroying or damaging 22 homes.

There would be 144 dead: seven on the ground, the Cessna’s two occupants and all 135 aboard the jet.

“It was awful,” said Verna Huger, now 85, who opened her front door to find a neighboring house ablaze, smoke and ash choking the sky.

Tuesday was the 40th anniversary of the PSA crash. For those who were there, the memories remain vivid.

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“I spent 30 years in the naval reserve and was deployed four times to the Persian Gulf,” said Dr. Jerry Wisniew, who worked in the temporary morgue established that day. “I saw a lot of trauma, but nothing like what I saw with that airplane crash.”

The disaster cast a long shadow. Wrongful-death lawsuits tied up courtrooms for months as relatives sued the federal government, Pacific Southwest Airlines and Gibbs Flying Service, the flight school that operated the Cessna and employed Kazy.

And the crash would change aviation in San Diego. An investigator fought for revisions to the official National Transportation Safety Board report, leading to new rules governing flights operations here.

Among aviators, there’s a grim saying: “Aviation regulations are written in blood.”

In the air

In the doomed jet’s flight recording, a key exchange takes place in the cockpit roughly half a minute before the collision.

“Are we clear of that Cessna?” asks First Officer Bob Fox.

“Supposed to be,” replies Flight Engineer Martin Wahne.

“I guess,” says McFeron.

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“I hope,” says Spencer Nelson, an off-duty PSA pilot hitching a ride to San Diego.

In fact, they were rapidly bearing down on the plane. The initial NTSB report focused on PSA’s failure to track the Cessna.

That was a grievous error, said Stephen K. Cusick, who was a naval aviator before becoming a flight safety expert — though “pilot error” is too simplistic an explanation.

“People think it is binary, either you crash or you land safely and that’s it,” Cusick said. “But it’s not like that. … A pilot must use every means to mitigate safety problems, i.e., to close all the holes in the Swiss cheese.”

The Swiss Cheese theory of accident avoidance argues that every person and system is fallible. Disaster is avoided by recognizing inherent weaknesses and countering them, sealing the “holes” in the “Swiss cheese.”

Catastrophic failures occur when holes in numerous slices overlap. That’s what happened over San Diego 40 years ago, said Cusick.

“The Swiss cheese holes,” he said, “kept opening up.”

PSA 182 originated as an early Sacramento-to-Los Angeles flight, then continued from L.A. to San Diego. On that fall morning, Santa Ana winds had blown away the usual marine layer. This may have been the first slice of Swiss cheese: the glare in that cloudless sky impeded visibility.

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Another slice: Air traffic controllers stressed “see and avoid,” relying on pilots to visually track other planes and keep a safe distance. Whatever the men in the PSA cockpit thought they saw, it wasn’t the Cessna safely passing the jet.

Another slice: Nineteen seconds before the collision, an alarm blared in the San Diego Approach Control Facility at Miramar Naval Air Station, while an instrument panel blinked the letters “CA,” meaning “Conflict Alert.” The alarm had been automatically triggered by radar showing the flight paths of PSA 182 and the Cessna converging.

Neither aircraft was warned, though. The system had been commissioned just seven weeks earlier and already averaged 13 conflict alerts a day — and in every case pilots had taken steps to avoid calamity without any nudging from the control tower.

Another slice: For unknown reasons, the Cessna veered off its approved course, turning into the path of the descending PSA 182.

Another slice: Almost a minute before the collision, PSA’s message to an air traffic controller was unclear.

Was it “Think he’s passing off to our right,” or “Think he’s passed off to our right”? The former would indicate that the airliner could see the smaller plane.

“PSA said he had the aircraft in sight, then the controller relaxed and didn’t worry about it anymore,” Cusick said. “There are a lot of blind spots out there — you see something for a moment and then you lose track of it. And the Cessna couldn’t see because the PSA was coming down on top of him.”

More slices piled up: The Cessna was yellow, hard to see if you were gazing down on roofs and roadways; PSA may have mistaken another small plane for the Cessna; PSA’s crew was preparing to land, a busy time aboard an airliner.

Moreover, they were preparing to land in San Diego.

“Lindbergh Field is a dangerous airport anyway.” Cusick said. “You’ve got a very steep glide slope coming down the hill. It’s very tight.”

Four seconds after the moment of collision, the men in the cockpit can be heard realizing that a tragic mistake had been made.

“What have we got here?”

“It’s bad.”

“Huh?”

“We’re hit, man, we are hit.”

On the ground

The Cessna disintegrated on contact with the jet, a Boeing 727-124.

Steve Howell, covering a nearby press conference for the local NBC affiliate, trained his camera upward and caught fragments of the Cessna — and what looked like a body — falling. One of the Cessna’s occupants smashed through a roof over the porch of a home on Polk Street; the other was still in the cockpit when it hit the pavement.

Hans Wendt, then the chief photographer for the county of San Diego, also was nearby. He snapped PSA 182 tilted at a sickening 50-degree angle, its right wing in flames.

During the jet’s 17-second descent, the voices in the cockpit reflect chaos, fear, resignation.

“This is it baby.”

“Bob.”

“Brace yourself.”

“Hey, baby.”

“Ma, I love yah.”

Below the stricken airliner, Cheryl Walker had just delivered her 3-year-old son, Derek, to the daycare center in Nancy Stout’s home.

PSA 182 sliced the roof off a house on Nile Street and exploded onto the intersection of Dwight and Nile.

The force of the impact killed everyone aboard the jet. Three engines, landing gear, portions of the wing, body parts and other debris burst from the 727, then fell as a fiery rain. Some houses caught fire; others, including the one occupied by Stout’s daycare center, were ripped by shrapnel.

Stout and her 4-year-old son, Robert, were killed, as were the Walkers.

Huger, whose house is less than half a block from the crash site, saw her neighbor’s house to the south engulfed in flames. There were fires all around her home.

On Boundary Street, Officer P.L. Thornton came upon a sedan that had crashed when a body fell through its windshield.

“The glass just exploded and everything inside was covered with bits of glass and blood,” Thornton told a reporter. “We thought everybody was dead.”

But when the police pulled the torso aside, they found the driver — Mary Fuller of Lakeside — and her infant son. Cut by the glass, they were bleeding but alive.

Preventing more casualties was Vernon Franck’s job. With three fellow Seabees, he had sped from Coronado to North Park to help. Stationed at the end of an alley, he was ordered to prevent people from getting closer to the fires.

“I remember stopping a woman who was pleading with me that her mother’s house was burning,” he said. “We can see it roaring up, just totally exploding, ripping right behind us and you could feel the heat.”

As billowing black clouds rose over North Park, Deirdre Kavanagh Bramberg did not realize she had lost a friend.

The year before, she and fellow University of San Diego freshman Kate Fons “did all the good, fun freshman things — we went down into the canyon with the fraternity guys, had kegger parties,” Bramberg said. The coeds talked of how they would change the world. Or perhaps see the world, as Fons decided to leave college and become a PSA flight attendant.

“She thought she could travel all around the world and have this fabulous life,” Bramberg said.

Fons was 20 when she went down aboard PSA 182.

At St. Augustine High, the gym was commandeered as an emergency morgue. Wisniew, who volunteered as a team physician at the Catholic school, raced over to lend a hand.

The first body bags arrived around 10 a.m., Wisniew remembered, and the charred corpses were still hot. Trying to identify the bodies, he looked for scars, tattoos, earrings. The most obvious clues — drivers licenses, credit cards, articles of clothing — had been destroyed.

“Most were naked,” Wisniew said. “The force of the impact had blown everything off them. And then there was the fire.”

With other doctors and nurses, Wisniew worked into the night. As the day wore on, there were fewer bodies and more grisly relics.

“This is all I could find,” said one apologetic volunteer, handing Wisniew a jawbone.

Less than 24 hours after the accident, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board began scouring the scene.

The team interviewed witnesses, pored over maintenance records, listened to the tapes from PSA 182’s cockpit voice recorder, quizzed air traffic controllers, questioned everyone involved in Lindbergh Field’s flight operations.

Two months after the accident, the board convened a five-day public hearing. Testimony was gathered from Federal Aviation Authority officials and members of the Airline Pilots Assn., among others.

Dated April 20, 1979, the official report found a “probable cause of the accident”: “The failure of the flight crew of Flight 182 to comply with the provisions of maintain visual separation clearance, including the requirement to inform the controller when they no longer had the other aircraft in sight.”

The report listed other “contributing factors,” but the bulk of the blame was placed on the men who had died in PSA 182’s cockpit. It was adopted by a 3-1 vote.

The dissenter was Francis H. McAdams, a former World War II naval pilot and lawyer. His six-page dissent acknowledged that the airliner’s crew was partially to blame — but so were “the inadequacies of the air traffic control system.” He blasted the “see and avoid” system and slammed the decision to ignore the alarms blaring in Miramar’s San Diego Approach Control Facility.

The NTSB board majority, McAdams noted, “for some unknown reason” ignored the Cessna pilot’s decision to abandon its flight plan and veer into the airliner’s path. PSA 182 hadn’t even been told which direction the Cessna was traveling in, “a critical omission” the majority did not mention.

Still, the majority’s findings prevailed — until August 1982, when the board was persuaded to adopt McAdams’ positions in total.

In the courtroom

Jury selection in the first crash-related lawsuit began Nov. 5, 1979. The husband and daughter of Rosalia Lococo, a PSA 182 passenger, sought $750,000 to $1.4 million in damages from Pacific Southwest Airlines and Gibbs Flying Service.

More than 70 similar cases would be heard over the next year, and most were wrapped up as quickly as this one. The four-day trial ended in a $200,000 award.

Month after month, judges and juries were asked by bereaved relatives to set a price on the loss of loved ones. The sad calculus took into account the victims’ ages, professions, earnings potential, dependents and a range of unstated factors.

Pam Colarich, 23, an archeologist at the dawn of her career? $150,000.

Lee H. Thompson, 36, a La Jolla developer, whose wife was pregnant with their sixth child when he died? $3 million.

Azmi David Taha, 16, a Vista High school junior? $76,000.

Today, aircraft entering the area above San Diego International are more closely monitored before entering the “control zone” for a landing.

The air traffic controller “takes responsibility for you,” Cusick said. “He knows where you are.”

Another critical reform is the Traffic Collision Alert and Avoidance System, first adopted by the FAA in 1981.

“Let’s say PSA and a Delta jet get too close to one another,” Cusick said. “The TCAS automatically tells one plane to pull up and go right, the other to drop down and go left.”

Most of the people now living in the neighborhood moved there after the PSA 182 crash.

In 2001, one man bought a bungalow on the 3600 block of Nile Street. “This was my first house,” said the buyer, a surveyor. “I drove over there one evening … when I noticed the disparity in the architecture.”

That’s when it hit Franck — he had been there before, as a 19-year-old Seabee, surrounded by a scene of death and destruction.

“When I’m asked where this house is, I say over in North Park, where the plane went down,” he said of the place he has kept as a rental since his family outgrew it. “And people know.”

peter.rowe@sduniontribune.com

Rowe writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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