The Next Page / Plane Down: 60 years after the crash of Pittsburgh-Buffalo Flight 44-2

Sixty years ago last month, a Continental Charters plane took off from Pittsburgh, bound for Buffalo -- and crashed in Cattaraugus County, killing 26 passengers. The 14 survivors were trapped on a small mountain in the snow for two nights. The crash was a


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Pearl Ruth Moon shot a final glance at the children on her flight before pushing toward her own seat and the hope of safety. She had taken a chance by getting up to secure the children. They had been sleeping but now appeared to be the most terrified, as Continental Charters Flight 44-2 shook violently at low altitude just 38 minutes into its late-night trip from Pittsburgh to Buffalo on Dec. 29, 1951.

At 24, Ms. Moon was already a veteran stewardess (to use the era's term). She immediately realized that the pilots and their plane were in serious trouble.

Within seconds of reaching her seat in the tail of the Curtiss C-46 passenger plane, two extra pilots on the flight jumped out of their front seats and stormed into the cockpit, demanding that they knew how to save the plane. Ms. Moon heard loud arguing and cursing between the four pilots. She gripped the arms of her seat as the passengers cried out in fear.

"I felt the first jerk and I looked out the window and I said, 'Oh, my God what is this?' And then, it was over, just like that!"

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It took about 4 seconds and 933 feet of smashing, grinding, scraping, and tossing and turning before it was over. The giant, twin-engine plane -- once billed as the largest passenger plane in the world -- mowed through the treetops of Bucktooth Ridge in the tiny farm community of Napoli, N.Y. It happened 60 years ago during a winter warm spell that produced a wet snow pack and a thick noise-cancelling fog.

No one on the ground heard the crash.

Passengers described a "sickening lurch" to the right as the plane broke into pieces. Newspapers in 1952 described the aft cabin as "doing a giant cartwheel." Twenty-six of the 40 people on board were either killed or died soon after. All 14 survivors, including Pearl Ruth Moon, were sitting in the aft section that twirled over and over before landing in the snow.

The survivors huddled and waited for search planes and rescuers they thought would come right away.

Little did they know that they would spend two days and nights in the cold on the mountain before being rescued.

And they certainly could not grasp that this plane crash would launch national reform of air safety.



Memories that still sear

Six decades later, Ms. Moon is believed to be the only survivor of Flight 44-2 still alive. She remembers her sickening feeling when she realized she had been thrown clear and was uninjured in the snow. She saw a light in the distance and, along with another survivor, discovered a flashlight that had been thrown from the plane. They used it to search for other survivors and the dead.

Shock set in. Her fellow crew members were all dead. And many of the survivors were seriously injured. Some were trapped in the wreckage. They were on a wooded mountaintop in the snow. The air was freezing cold. The night was pitch black. She thought they would all die on the mountain.

Trembling from her painful memories, the now aged, thin and emotionally fragile Pearl Moon sat in her North Carolina nursing home recently and tearfully described finding the body of 3-year-old Judy Frankel, of Pittsburgh, in a tree. She found 14-month-old Jeffrey Evans, of Pittsburgh, in the snow. He appeared to be sleeping, she said, but within minutes he died in her arms. "It was a baby and I picked him up and took off my coat and wrapped him up and ... I'm sorry."

She could not continue.

It was Navy Lt. William Bischof of Johnstown, and Miami restaurant owner George Albert who helped her move the injured passengers away from the plane, fearing a fire.

Ms. Moon said her flight attendant training (which consisted mostly of reading a Continental Charters company book) helped her formulate a critical decision: the passengers must stay near the wreckage and together. She credits Lt. Bischof for insisting they move to where they could safely start a small campfire in an old metal trash can they found in the woods.


How it all started:

Pearl Moon was supposed to be off that day. She was called in to work by Continental Charters (which was no relation to the present Continental Airlines) and agreed to the 10 a.m. round-trip flight, from Miami to Buffalo with stops in Pittsburgh each way, because she believed she would return home that night.

However, their final departure was delayed until 3:40 p.m. because of minor mechanical problems. It set off a chain of events that would lead to the fatal disaster. Weather conditions that night required an instrument flight from Pittsburgh to Buffalo via the Lake Erie shoreline. Instead, the visual flight path chosen by the pilots took them over the western foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. Investigators later determined that company information provided to the pilots did not consider this area to be mountainous.

Ground observers at Sarver, Rimersburg and Sheffield reported hearing a low-flying airplane in foggy weather. Witnesses in the New York towns of Steamburg and Onoville reported the plane was flying so low they could see the lights in the cabin windows.

By the time the plane crossed the state border, it was already 11 miles east of true course for Buffalo.

The four pilots, three stewardesses and 33 passengers were headed blindly into the ridges, mountains and hills in western Cattaraugus County, N.Y., with elevations ranging from 1,860 feet at Hoxie Hill to 2,425 feet at Shutts Mountain. The crash occurred on an unnamed peak of Bucktooth Ridge at 2,380 feet.



After the crash, the survival

Ms. Moon, Lt. Bischof and Mr. Albert struggled to carry the injured passengers away from the wreckage to an area beneath a parachute they had stretched out for a tent. One of them, Thomas Patterson, 21, of New Castle, Pa., was badly hurt. They managed to get him into a wool coat, wrap his head wound with strips of clothing and place him near their small campfire.

On the morning after the crash, Lt. Bischof and Mr. Albert walked off through the snow to find help. After about a mile, they turned back. The deep, wet snow was too cold for their unprotected feet and Lt. Bischoff was slightly injured. They resigned themselves to spending another night on the mountain.

The second night was described by Ms. Moon as the most painful. "It was black outside and it was so cold," she said. They contemplated who would die first as they ate oranges and drank instant coffee, made from melting snow over the small fire.

The next morning they heard a train whistle in the distance. It renewed their spirit to go for help. Ms. Moon said that she took clothing from luggage and wrapped George Albert's feet so he could continue walking through the deep snow.

Lt. Bischof was too weak to go, so Mr. Albert tramped off alone in the direction of the train whistle.

Nearly exhausted, Mr. Albert finally came to the Charles and Ruby Bryant farmhouse on Sawmill Run Road. Mrs. Bryant was outside, disposing of the family's Christmas tree. When she first saw Mr. Albert, she thought he had been out celebrating New Year's Eve early.

Her son, John Bryant, recalls that after listening to the incredible story of the plane crash on the mountain above their farm, his older brothers started for the scene right away while Mr. Albert stayed behind to report the crash with the Bryants' telephone.

"[My brothers] Rod and Stuart both put on winter gear and headed immediately for the crash site on foot, travelling overland through the woods. They were among the first to get there and helped carry out survivors. I was 15 and my mother wouldn't let me go," John Bryant said.

The Bryants hadn't even heard the news about a missing plane and a massive search for it from Pennsylvania to Canada because their radio was broken. "It wasn't long before Sawmill Run, and especially our house, was in chaos, with rescue personnel, newsmen, thrill seekers and traffic. All the reporters wanted to use our telephone," Mr. Bryant said.

Ms. Moon said the remaining survivors cried at the first sight of rescuers.

Someone snapped the first photograph of the small band of passengers, cramped beneath the parachute, gripping blankets and coat collars to their chins to ward off the cold wind. There is a look of absolute desperation on their faces.

George Albert, Blairsville High School graduate and war veteran, was immediately portrayed as the hero of the crash. Pearl Moon said all the reporters were men and that her role in the crash was never recognized. "They didn't give any credit to what I did, but that's OK," she said, with resignation.

Ms. Moon also confirmed that George and Elizabeth Albert had traded seats on the plane because Mrs. Albert was cold in the back of the plane. The seat exchange proved to be a fatal decision for Mrs. Albert and one that haunted George Albert for the rest of his life.

On her own, Ms. Moon said, she later visited families of some of the crash victims. She said those were the saddest moments of her life.


Epilogue: A new day for air safety

The crash of Flight 44-2 shocked the nation. It was among four C-46 passenger plane crashes within a year.

To help alleviate the fears of air travellers, on New Year's Day, 1952, Civil Aeronautics Board Chairman Donald Nyrop travelled to the scene of the Continental Charters crash for a personal inspection. It was a first for a CAB chairman and he announced that the cause "did not appear to be mechanical or structural failure of the airplane."

Continental Charters was a "nonscheduled airline," which used war surplus planes and was subject to fewer safety regulations than the major airlines. Crashes among these airlines were numerous. The resulting headlines reached the White House and within days of the crash of flight 44-2, President Harry Truman sent a letter to Nyrop requesting new safety rules on uncertified or nonscheduled airlines.

The final CAB conclusion for the cause of the crash was "the captain's poor judgment in attempting a flight by visual reference during instrument weather conditions."

Continental Charters signaled the errors of its flight crew within days of the crash. The company adopted new rules that required use of navigation instruments at night. It also prohibited use of the automatic pilot during instrument weather conditions, and while climbing and descending.

The crash of Flight 44-2 also led to new federal safety regulations. On March 10, 1952, the CAB required that night visual flights on passenger planes in large aircraft be conducted only on designated routes and between airports equipped with radio communications.

The days of the nonscheduled airlines loading up their passenger planes and taking off on their own terms, virtually unregulated, were over.


Timothy W. Lake ( tjlake@verizon.net ) is a 30-year veteran of newspaper, radio and television news reporting. His late grandfather, Napoli highway superintendent David G. Shenefiel, was called upon to help cut a path up the mountain to rescue the survivors and carry out the dead. Mr. Lake is a primary news anchor at NBC 10 in Philadelphia. First Published January 8, 2012 5:00 AM


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