What The Rest Of Us Were Doing That Night 30-years Ago
Down Around Midnight, a new book about the June 17, 1979 crash of Air New England Flight 248 by Robert Sabbag came out this month. Flight 248 ran from LaGuardia, NY, to New Bedford and then on to Hyannis. Sabbag was a passenger on flight 248 the night it crashed in the woods of Camp Greenough in Yarmouthport while on approach to runway 24 at Barnstable Municipal Airport. Of the 10 people onboard the DeHavilland Twin Otter (DHC-6-300) that night only one was killed – the pilot, Captain George Parmenter.
I read the 214 page book in an afternoon. Sabbag has his facts right, and of course the events that took place in the passenger cabin onboard the aircraft that night and in the woods after the crash, only he and a few others would know. Among his injuries, Sabbag suffered a broken back and pelvis as the twin otter hit the trees at 140 mph and ripped through the woods for 300 feet.
The first officer suffered sever life-threatening injuries and many of the passengers were seriously hurt. Shortly after the aircraft came to rest, according to the author, the emergency power failed, leaving the survivors trapped inside the fuselage, with the exits jammed closed by trees and brush, bleeding, some unconscious and soaked in jet fuel.
The book goes into the detail of that night from the perspective of some of the passengers. Others preferred not to reopen the 30-year old wound. Even with his broken back Sabbag managed to help kick open one of the rear doors enough for the passengers to get out and for those unconscious to be passed through to others outside. Miraculously, one of the passengers who had not fastened his seatbelt was launched through the front windshield of the aircraft, landing in the woods, and was still able to help with the more seriously injured people.
Reading Sabbag’s story leaves the reader wondering if he is not trying to make a case for PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), although the other passengers he spoke with admitted that they had put the accident behind them and Sabbag himself was back on an airplane as soon as his recovery allowed.
The first responders interviewed, mostly Yarmouth Fire Department, handled the rescue with all possible speed and professionalism, although most admitted finding the downed aircraft and reaching it in the dark and thick woods was a tremendous challenge. It wasn’t until a 19-year old woman passenger, who went for help and was picked up on Route 6 arrived at the Barnstable Airport that the picture became clear.
I worked for Air New England for nine years doing a variety of things, mostly in flight operations. I moved from dispatching to crew scheduling shortly after the airline acquired Fairchilds (FH227’s) from Delta Airlines. I was working the night of June 17, 1979 in crew scheduling, two others were on duty in the adjoining flight control or dispatch office.
At the time Air New England had somewhere between 500 and 600 employees. It was a big family, everyone knew one another. With deregulation the company grew fast and so to did the presence of unions. By 1979 ANE was saddled with five unions with ALPA, the Airline Pilots Association being one. It seemed that there was always something going on between management and one or more of the unions.
Sick calls were always an issue. At the time the airline had probably 175 pilots and a couple of dozen flight attendants.
I don’t recall the scheduled departure time for Flight 247 that night, which was the leg from Hyannis down to LaGuardia, but it was running late because of the weather. Captain Parmenter had been on duty since earlier that morning and was scheduled to finish his trip in Hyannis. The aircraft was scheduled to make the final round trip of the night to New York with a fresh crew.
Reserve crews had a contractual two-hour window to report once assigned a trip. Two hours before the scheduled departure on Flight 247 it was clear that I wasn’t going to find a captain.
I walked into flight control two hours before the scheduled departure of 247 and told the dispatcher that I couldn’t come up with a captain and that we would probably have to cancel the trip. Fog was forecast to roll in later and already fog banks were visible over the water to the south.
I had one last option, so I asked him to give me a minute. I put in a call to the chief pilot and explained the situation.
I knew that Captain Parmenter was legal to fly the late round trip to NY. As a company vice president he was not a member of ALPA and not subject to the contractual flight and duty time restrictions. We would be within the FAA regulations as specified in Part 135 to have him fly one more trip.
I was told by the chief pilot to explain the situation to Captain Parmenter once he got onto the ground in Hyannis and ask him to fly the final flights.
That didn’t sit well with me. George Parmenter was an ex-marine, and while those of us that knew him understood that down deep he was a generous, caring and well-intentioned, hard working guy, if you pissed him off, you knew that you were in for a verbal dressing down that only a marine could deliver. More importantly, he was not a line pilot; he was management and wasn’t accustomed to flying those long days. He was in his 60’s and hadn’t expected to be in an airplane at all Crew scheduling woke him up early that day and asked him to fly.
I explained the situation to the dispatcher and we agreed that we’d post a delay on the flight to allow the captain a chance to get out of the airplane for awhile and have some dinner if he agreed to take the last trip.
I then called the Hyannis station and explained the plan to one of the ticket agents. I asked him to have George call when he came in off the inbound flight.
When the captain did call, I explained the situation and as expected George exploded. He wanted to go home and rightly so. He had already put in a long day. I told him that taking the trip was entirely his option; I wasn’t in a position to assign the trip to a vice president of the company.
He asked what the alternatives were and I told him that we would cancel the final round trip.
Passengers were in the terminal waiting for the departure of Flight 247 to NY and according to Sabbag’s book, they included Senator Ted Kennedy. Maybe George saw the senator and realized how badly this would reflect on the company if we changed the delay into a cancellation.
Within the context of going up one side of me and down the other, like any good marine drill instructor, George said he’d take the trip. I suggested, you didn’t tell Captain Parmenter, that he take time to have some dinner, but George was eager to get going. He wanted to get down to NY and back.
With my ears still ringing, but understanding George for the man he was, I went into dispatch and told them Parmenter would fly it and that he wanted to get off the ground as soon as he could. George knew the Cape and he knew the fog was probably going to roll in.
Once Flight 247 departed, we got the few remaining flights in the system put to bed and turned to the weather printers, focused on the route from NY to Hyannis.
The offices had quieted down; all of the staff had gone for the night. There was just me and the two dispatchers. They monitored Flight 247 into NY and the turnaround as it became Flight 248 coming home. I worked on filling holes in the schedule for the next day. The best we could do was to cover the early flights. I knew if the morning crew scheduler couldn’t pull in a favor, I was going to be in another fix the next afternoon.
I heard them say in the next room that New Bedford had gone down, meaning that fog had closed the airport. It happened before 248 departed NY allowing the ANE agents at LaGuardia to remove those New Bedford bound passengers. The dispatcher commented that now he could come directly to Hyannis, saving some time. His alternate was Boston, which we used as often as possible as we had station personal there. We told the people in Boston to standby in the event we had to send 248 their way.
The RVR, or runway visual range on runway 24 in Hyannis was indicating a half mile, with a 200 foot vertical obscuration as Flight 248 arrived back in the area. We had been though this hundreds of times before over the years. As long as the fog didn’t blow across the runway and lower the RVR, the airport was at minimums and Flight 248 could begin his approach.
About 15 minutes out 248 called on the company frequency with his ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival) alerting us and the gate agents. Air traffic control at Boston Center had handed 248 off to Otis Approach as he crossed Buzzards Bay. About five miles out Otis turned 248 over to the Hyannis Control Tower which issued a weather advisory and landing instructions. Of course, we weren’t privy to the ATC communication, but from their perspective it was pretty routine. We double checked with our Boston station making sure they were standing by, because if he missed the approach, he’d be heading their way.
Whenever something traumatic like this happens, time becomes warped. Later in interviews with the FAA and NTSB when they asked for specifics it was nearly impossible to nail down the minutes. When 248’s ETA arrived and he hadn’t, the station called looking for information. No sooner had the dispatcher hung up the phone when another rang; it was the Hyannis Control Tower. He advised us that Otis had lost contact with Flight 248 about two miles from the end of runway 24, did we wish to declare an emergency. We did immediately. As Otis Approach worked to pinpoint the missing airplane, the tower went into action notifying emergency personnel. We instituted our own emergency procedures and frankly, all hell was breaking loose.
The gate agents at the Hyannis station wanted information. We didn’t have it. Otis was working on the coordinates and local first responders were on their way to the Yarmouthport, Camp Greenough area. The Hyannis tower called again. They were now sure Flight 248 was down about two miles off the end of runway 24. They briefed us on what they were doing and we advised them of our efforts. The Hyannis gate agent called again looking for, almost pleading for any information. One of the agents on duty at the Hyannis station that night was the fiancée of the first officer. People awaiting those onboard 248 were looking for answers. The problem was no one had any. ATC could only confirm that the aircraft was down. We could only wait on the first responders, who tore into the thick dark woods of Camp Greenough like a tornado. Their problem was they didn’t know exactly where the plane was. The emergency lighting had gone out and fortunately the aircraft did not burn. It was buried in the darkness of the trees.
The first definite information anyone had about flight 248 was when the young woman, who had reached the mid-Cape, walked into the airport.
Like the friends and relatives that were waiting at the terminal for flight 248, we too reached a point where all we could do was wait. At that point it was up to the fire and police rescue personnel in the woods. We had two friends onboard, the pilot and co-pilot, but didn’t know the identities of the other eight passengers as that information had quickly been sealed in NY, Hyannis and at our reservations center in Boston. And then there was the agent at the ANE Hyannis ticket counter that night who was engaged to marry the first officer. She wanted to know, but no one had any decisive information. It was enraging to wait, but the difficulty in finding the plane and removing the survivors was turning out to be frustratingly time consuming. It wouldn’t be until word came back from the first responders that anyone knew fully the situation two miles off runway 24.
We all came back to work the next day, and the next, but it wasn’t the same. It was the first time as an airline that we had experienced a fatality and so much serious injury. Everyone was in shocked disbelief that something like this could happen. The sick calls let up as we tried to carry on surrounded by NTSB and FAA officials pulling records and asking questions. As a company we were very concerned about the passengers and co-pilot. Our representatives at Cape Cod Hospital provided continuous reports. We went over and over with investigators the events of that night reliving it a least once or twice a day. Within days everyone had a pretty good idea of what had gone wrong, however, it took about two years for the NTSB to issue their report.
Some of the things that took place that night and in the ensuing days will never be known. It was an unfortunate accident for which ANE accepted responsibility and expressed regrets over the impact the event had on the lives of those onboard Flight 248.
But, that PTSD that Sabbag speaks of, in whatever form it may manifest itself, wasn’t reserved only for the passengers and surviving crew member. Family members suffered. Many of those from the company that were there that night suffer the same reminders that 30 years has failed to completely erase. Because we were part of ANE at the time, maybe it wasn’t supposed to effect us as well, but it did. Maybe Mr. Sabbag should have considered the long lasting effects of that night on more than just the passengers and first responders. What about the dispatcher that released and monitored the fight or the crew scheduler that talked with the captain about taking the flight after a long day? What about the air traffic controller who saw the blip representing human life vanish from his radar, or the ticket agent who was waiting for her fiancée? How about loved ones of the captain or friends and fellow pilots? Mr. Sabbag chose to focus his book on the passengers as that is what he was and it is the angled from which he can best address the accident. Readers of Down Around Midnight should be aware, that many carry the emotional scars of that night when everything went so wrong. Many people who lived through that night carry those scars in memory of those killed or injured and they will last a lifetime.
Air New England, a regional airline at one point serviced cities from Columbus, Ohio, to Baltimore/Washington to Albany and New York City and throughout New England. The airline discontinued operation in 1981.
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.