Feature by Michael N. Kalafatas
What happens when dreams collide?
13, 1923, the first plane touched down on the 1500-foot cinder runway
of tiny Boston Airport, built by the US Army on 189 acres of tidal flats
in East Boston. Two decades earlier the Wright brothers had given flight
to humankinds dream to slip the surly bonds of Earth
and soar among the sun-split clouds. Amazingly, for 37 years Bostons
airport, one of the nations busiest, would never see a single fatality
from a commercial aviation crash. In 1943 the airport was renamed Logan
after a distinguished Boston public servantGeneral Edward Lawrence
Loganwho never flew in an airplane.
In 1890, a New York drug manufacturer, Eugene Schieffelin, released 60 European starlings into Central Park, and 40 more a year later. The experiment was a stunning success: Today there are 200 million starlings in North America, here because of a fleeting reference in Henry IV to the starlings ability to mimic the human voice.
A Feathered Bullet
Like a flight of swallows or an exultation of larks, a collection of starlings is called a murmuration of starlings: They mimic what they hearvoices, telephones, car alarms, barking dogs, other birds; their song more a medley of squeaks, clicks, whistles, and oral interpretations of the world of sound.
A starling weighs only 80 gramsabout the heft of your cell phonebut in fall and winter starlings swarm to enormous numbers, up to a million a swarm, and wheel in flight with military precision. Fast-flying and relatively dense, a single starling can be a feathered bulletwhen swarmed, they are a feathered fusillade. After a days foragingfinding their food on the ground, up to 70 miles awaythey splash clean in water, if they can, and return to their roost at sunset. Before Bostons Big Dig, 160,000 would fly at sunset to a favorite roost on the Tobin Bridge, jostling for a spot and murmuring away at drive-time commuters. Perhaps thats where they were bound that fateful fall day.
On October 4, 1960, a half hour before sunset and before the rise of a blood-red harvest moon, Eastern Airlines 375, a Lockheed Electra Turbopropbound for Philadelphia, Charlotte, NC, and Greenville, SC rose from Runway 9 with 72 souls on board. Among them 15 newly-sworn-in marines en route to training at Parris Island; Philadelphians headed home after a shoe convention in Boston; baseball fans on their way to the World Series in Pittsburgh where the Pirates would play the YankeesArt Ditmar, born in Winthrop, Massachusetts, opening pitcher for the Yanks (hed last only a third of an inning); and an engineer with top-secret plans for a new missile system sealed in a specially-locked briefcase. Ted Williams, who six days earlier bid Boston adieu with a home run in his last at bat, was a near-miss to be on the flight. On takeoff27 seconds into flightthe Lockheed Electra took a fusillade of feathered bullets into three of its four engines. It was a fatal shooting.
Whipped in through air scoops, starlings jammed the jet compressors and blades of the turbines (from turbo, Latin for wheel), whose job it was to spin freelyas jet exhaust roared past themto power the planes propellers and power and cool its compressors. By design a turbo prop is a hybrid, part jet and part propeller, still in use, and efficient and economical in regional air traffic. With a turbo prop, the jet exhaust doesnt directly drive the plane; instead, the jet exhaust powers the propellers that drive the plane. In the 1950s it was my dads job to grind turbine blades to extremely fine tolerances for GEs J-47 engine, used on the F-86 Sabrejetpride of the US Air Force in Korea, with its 14:1 kill ratio over the Russian-built MiG. A slight flaw or disturbance in the balance or free-flow spin of turbine blades could cause a Sabrejet to vibrate to death at 700 mphsending it into the Sea of Japan. Just before the Lockheed Electra was cleared for takeoff, two Sabrejets zoomed off from Logan to chase the shouting wind at 45,000 feet.
In its initial climb off Runway 9, the Lockheed Electra struck the flock of starlings, estimated at 10,000 to 20,000. The planes number 1 engine, the left inboard engine (the one closest to the fuselage on the left side), flashed flame and the pilot shut it down. The aircraft could fly on its three other engines, but then two more experienced a momentary loss of powerthe number 2 and number 4 decelerating the plane to stall speed, causing it to veer sharply to the left in its upward struggle. The left wing then dropped, the nose pitched up, and the plane rolled left into a spin and plunged on the vertical into Winthrop Harbor, nose first. So caught by surprise were the pilot and co-pilot, they never uttered a word to Logan tower. The plane struck the water halfway between the end of Runway 9 and the Winthrop shore, amid pleasure craft anchored 200 yards off the Cottage Park Yacht Clubthe impact so violent the plane burst apart, sending a geyser upward; its tail broke off and hit the water still dry; and all but two passenger seats were ripped from the planes floor. The main section sank in a few minutes in twenty feet of water; the tail floated and driftedhalf-dozen bodies visible withinbefore it too sank a while later. Some Winthrop residents thought theyd heard a sonic boom.
A Crimson Sunset
What followed was the greatest rescue mobilization Boston had ever witnessed exceeding that of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in 1942 when 492 perished and 166 were injured. The first rescuers to reach the site of the downed Electra were owners of pleasure boats from the Winthrop and East Boston shores; dinghies and skiffs pressed into actionboys and men not stopping for oars, snatching up planks as makeshift paddles as they took to the water. Other Winthrop residents slogged through knee-deep mud, trying to reach victims carried their way on currents and new inbound tide. Deep mud proved an ongoing hazard as rescuers struggled to carry the living and dead to dry land; soon unending relays of stretcher bearers slipped and stumbled across the tidal flats.
Young boys suddenly took on the stature of men. They saw death for the first time and they were heroic, wrote Globe reporter Ed McGrath as he described the hellish scene:
Victims floated by in macabre tableau, still strapped to their seats, erect, silent, dead. Crimson sunset and the red of blood streaked the darkening harbor waters. Those who lived neither shrieked nor moaned. They clung in stunned shock to mooring lines of small boats, to debris and to their drifting seats. Boys and men paddled by bobbing dead to reach the living; the waters reeked of fuel oil and gasoline.
Seats continually popped to the surface, bodies strapped in them. One dead woman floated past rescue workers still clutching her purse. Rev. John Burns, an East Boston priest, waded into the bay to give last rites to thirty floating bodies.
The Sounds of Rescue
Hundreds of police, firefighters, and civil defense officers from as far away as Worcester descended on the scene, as well as Coast Guard helicopters and boats, navy ships, medical personnel, and clergy. One hundred and fifty police and civilian skin divers slipped from small craft into the inky freezing water. Divers were ferried by basket from Runway 9 to the dive site by Coast Guard helicopters that returned with the injured. Fourteen and fifteen-year-old boys triaged from small boatsa thumbs up or down to chopper pilots ferrying the living and gravely injured to waiting rescue vehicles. Ambulances lined up 50 deep on the Winthrop shore. Women poured out from Winthrop homes, carrying blankets for victims, or tugging garden carts or pushing wheelbarrows piled high with gallons of coffee and donuts for the mounting brigade of rescue workers. Here again is Globe reporter Ed McGrath:
The sounds of disaster became the sounds of rescuethe plopping frogmen as they struggled through the mud flats that swallowed their feet. . . the sirens, rising in crescendo from every direction . . . the whispered prayers of priests over bodies of the dead and dying . . . the growl of helicopters skimming the bay . . . the impatient orders of rescue teams, trying to bring order to the chaos of arriving and departing apparatus, of descending crowds and armadas of small boats.
The spontaneous heroism and generosity of that dayoffered without a moments hesitationwas not without counter-current: mindless sightseers clogged already crowded drive-time Winthrop streets, blocking rescue vehicles; the East Boston Tunnel finally shut down to all but rescue traffic.
Furiously, rescuers worked against fading October light: they sought the living but mostly found the dead. As night started to fall, the tide began to carry the bodies and debris toward the East Boston shore. Two hundred searcherspublic safety officers and volunteersformed a three-mile human chain from Winthrop to East Boston and waded fully dressed into the chilly waters to shoulder-level. Divers worked through the night in murky to pitch-black water to bring up the dead; as darkness descended, the scene luridly lit by floodlights and low-circling Coast Guard helicopters shining carbon arc lamps.
One teen, John J. Goglia, a pilot and scuba-trained by 16, felt his home shake with the crash. Within the hour, John was in the water, the visibility so poor he had to search for victims by hand, recovering corpses and a few body parts, but no survivors. Decades later, President Clinton would appoint Goglia to two five-year terms on the National Safety Transportation Board, the only member ever to hold an aircraft mechanics certificate. Goglia grew up so near Logan he never used an alarm clock: at 7 AM every day, hed awaken as mechanics started up airplane engines. Circling Logan on his 3-speed Raleigh bike, Goglia fell in love with planes, became an aircraft mechanic, and ultimately one of the nations top crash expertsa scrapper for the public good and a man of unsleeping integrity, fighting passionately for safer planes, safer transportation in general, and more compassionate treatment of survivor families. Dubbed by the media The Patron Saint of Travel Safety, its been said of burly John Goglia, No one has cried more on national television. And, no surprise, protecting aircraft and passengers from bird and other wildlife strikes became his enduring crusade.
Only ten survived the crash of Eastern 375nearly all rescued were unconscious and terribly injured. Sixty-two died, more than in all prior New England commercial crashes combined. With so many deaths, it seems odd somehow that 90 percent of the US mail on the plane was recovered, dried out, and went on to lead a normal life. Federal agents in boats surrounding the salvage scene immediately took custody of the secret missile system plans in the locked briefcase, but the engineer who had carried those plans died.
In a bright, noble, and touching moment, the assistant commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps said of the twelve marines killed, They were just as much marines as I ameven though they were marines for only a few hours. Their parents were told, if they wished, their sons could be buried in dress blues. The first to be buried, Harvey Gorewitz, 18, of Dorchester, a graduate of Boston Technical High School, was laid to rest in dress blues while an honor guard fired a volley of tribute.
At the instant the Lockheed Electra struck the 20,000 starlings, United Airlines, The Nations Number 1 Airline, was interviewing at its office on Stuart Street in Boston for the still-new and glamorous profession of Airline Stewardess; you had to be female, 20, and a high school graduate. What was it like, one wonders, to walk out of that interview into the October twilight and hear news of Bostons first air disaster.
Reaching for the Burning Blue
Until October 4, 1960, Eastern Airlines had flown 40 million passengers two-and-a-half-billion miles without a single fatality. It stretches credulity to believe birds can kill a plane, but thats what happened. It is the outer edge of credulity that Hitchcock explored in his 1963 film The Birds, in which birds attack an idyllic California coastal town: Bodega Bay. The birds attack everyone; even innocent children are not spared. Surely, Hitchcock knew of the spectacular downing of The Boston Electra by 10,000 birds, but his film is based on Daphne du Mauriers 1952 novelette, The Birds. In her story, set on the Cornish coast of England, birds attack a farm family and possibly all of Europe; several planes sent crashing under bird attack. Fiction, like dream, often gives form and visibility to our unconscious life. As we reach for the burning blue, among deep-seated human fears might be that we have unduly intruded upon space God has reserved for othersand that we dread retribution. Why else do the birds of du Maurier and Hitchcock seem to operate out of nursed resentments? The question will be revisited in 2009 when Hollywood releases its remake of The Birds; irony would have it screened aboard some of the 5,000 flights per day, at peak times, over the US.
the Boston tragedy, the FAA took action to develop minimum bird ingestion
standards for turbine-powered engines. The agencys action was spurred
on by Roxie Laybourne of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History who
identified the charred remains and feathers in the jet engines as those
of starlings. In so doing Laybourne launched a new field in which she
became the top expert: forensic ornithology. The aircraft industry strengthened
turbine blades and jet-fighter canopies to withstand bird strikes. Airports
launched campaigns to make airports less inviting to birds: clearing away
vegetation, requiring strict rubbish removal, use of propane cannon and
other pyrotechnics to frighten off flocks; deploying birds of prey, real
and artificial, dog patrols to chase birds away; and, yes, shooting birds
dead. Radar-based systems are being developed to give real-time warnings
to pilots of potential bird strikes, but there are problems of speed of
upload and high resolution of small objects. So many years after The Boston
Electra fell out of the sky, bird and other wildlife strikes remain a
worldwide threat to civilian and military aircraft.
· Wildlife strikes on aircraft are the second-leading cause of aviation-related fatalities; globally, 400 people have been killed and 420 aircraft destroyed, according to a 2003 US interagency report prepared by the FAA, US Air Force, US Army, Fish and Wildlife Service, and other concerned parties.
· The highly respected Bird Strike Committee USA/Canada, which comprises experts from the two governments and the aviation industry, reports that the worlds airlines each year lose one to two billion dollars to wildlife strikes on aircraft.
John Goglia, fighting for passenger air travel safety, told the St. Petersburg Times of Florida that airports and the FAA need to be more aggressive about making areas around airports less inviting to birds. I think it's just a matter of time before we're going to have an event that will make us wish we had dealt with the problem earlier."
Few awaiting flights at airports ever ponder the human impact on wildlife around the airports. But consider this: Harvard neurology professor Allen Counter compared Logan Airport gulls to gulls at quiet Monomoy on Cape Cod; he found Logan gulls go deaf from jet roar, sometimes flying into airplanes because they cannot hear them.
We forget we share skies with avian life we so longed to be like, that we are not alone when we reach for the burning blue. The first recorded bird strike was on September 7, 1905, near Dayton, Ohio; it appears as an entry in the diaries of Orville and Wilbur Wright. A century later, on July 26, 2005, three seconds into launch, the Shuttle Discoverys external fuel tank struck a vulture over Cape Canaveral, Florida, leading to the death of the vulture but no damage to the airship. Its odd that the strike fully came as surprise to scientists at NASA since the Space Center is located in a wildlife refuge, home to turkey and black vultures. A vulture weighs 3 to 5 pounds and stands two to three feet tall; the foam debris that struck the Shuttle Columbia in 2003 weighed only 1.7 pounds and led to loss of the entire shuttle crew on re-entry.
"A bird the size of a vulture can take out the shuttle if you hit it fast enough," says Stephen Payne, a NASA test director. We were asked to make sure we don't hit another vulture on the way up and so NASA introduced battlefield noises and baited traps in an effort to keep vultures far from its Florida launch pad.
Many bird populations worldwide are on the rise (50,000 Canada geese now call Massachusetts home) as is use of planes with only two engines. It is easier is to disable a jetliner with two engines than one with four engines. Of 6,500 planes in our commercial aviation fleet, 6,000 have less than three engines, typically two. Ninety percent or more of new jetliner deliveries are twinjets. The three- and four-engine commercial jets of past servicemothballedgleam in the blazing sun on the Mojave Desert, ghosts of a bygone age of air travel. While the modern huge Boeing 777 has two powerful engines designed to withstand an 8-pound bird strike, nagging safety questions persist. John Goglia, our Patron Saint of Travel Safety, our Rebel with a Cause, notes that a Canada goose weighs sixteen pounds, and so he asks: One 16-pound Canada goose can destroy an engine; can you imagine what a flock of birds can do? Its amazing the clarity of vision a 16-year-old can acquire while searching for corpses in murky water in Winthrop Bay, Massachusetts.
Of the charred bird remains and feathers found in the engines of Eastern Air 375, ShakespeareEugene Schieffelins heromight say such is the stuff that dreams are made of when human dreams collide on a brilliant fall afternoon in New England. He might even add, just maybe, In dreams begin responsibilities.