Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Ode to the Mojave Glider

Gimli doesn't have the monopoly on "oopses", nor on Boeing-built gliders (BA's Flight 38 landing at Heathrow in January proved that!). Though it is little remembered, Mojave's colorful history has its own such incident. On June 29, 1966 at 8:10 in the morning, a 1960-model American Airlines Boeing 720-023B, registration N7534A, crashed on landing, short of the runway at Mojave. The NTSB report simply says that the "pilot simulated 4 eng. flameout [on] approach with 4 engines in idle thrust position." What the dry NTSB report leaves out, though, local accounts more than make up for.

During the mid-1960s, there was little going on at this airport in the middle of nowhere, and the runways were even used for drying raisins on occasion. When the US Marines left MCAAS Mojave for warmer digs in El Centro, the left behind a really long runway, ideal for airline pilot training, so four engined Boeings were about all the frequented the place. American was one of the carriers to make use of the facilites. Evidently, on this day, there were two line pilots and two check pilots onboard, as well as a pair of Flight Engineers. Supposedly, the B720 and crew were in the vicinity of Oceanside, California, at cruise altitude, when a bit of a wager was made on whether they could make MHV from there with all four engines back at idle (as GoogleEarth crow flies, this is 137 miles). Evidently, about this same time in history, the FAA and American Airlines had done some similar tests to determine the glide range of the B707/720. Whether this had any bearing on the Mojave incident is unknown, but the swagger factor certainly is a possibility. (Assuming a 37,000 foot cruise altitude over Oceanside, a glide ratio of 19.57:1 would be required to reach Mojave, and the 707 family of aircraft are reported to have a 19.5:1 glide ratio with engines at flight idle, 15:1 with no power, so this seems to be a plausible explanation.)

They almost made it, but in trying to stretch out the last bit of glide to the runway, the pilot stalled the aircraft a half mile short of Runway 30 and hit the ground hard, driving the right main gear up through the wing and tearing the number 3 engine off. According to the following day's Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, the only injury was to one of the flight engineers, who suffered a few cuts and bruises. The NTSB blamed the "dual student pilot", saying that he "misjudged distance, speed and altitude." The check pilot was blamed for "inadequate supervision of flight".

A professional house moving company from Santa Barbara was brought in, and the movers did additional structural damage in removing the plane from the field. The aircraft was taken to one of the old wooden hangars which was where Hangar 72, the National Test Pilot School now is, and rebuilding work commenced. Long-time Mojave resident, contractor and pilot Al Hansen loaned the AA crew some heavy equipment, and so got to know the project supervisor well. When asked why they would go to so much effort to rebuild the plane, the answer was that it would take $5 million and 6 months to rebuild it, versus $7 million and 18 months to get a replacement from Boeing. The right wing was replaced with a new unit from Boeing, and thus the bulk of the structural work was in the fuselage center section.

The aircraft reportedly left Mojave in December, 1966 and re-entered service. But its troubles were not yet over. American retired N7534A in July of 1971, and the following March, it went to Middle East Airlines, of Beirut, Lebanon, who registered the aircraft as OD-AFT. On January 1, 1976 the aircraft as Flight 438 was in cruise flight at 37,000 feet and approximately 20nm northwest of Al Qaysumah, Saudi Arabia on a scheduled passenger flight from Beirut International to Dubai, when a terrorist’s bomb detonated in the forward cargo compartment. The aircraft crashed into the desert, killing all 66 passengers and 15 crewmembers on board. The terrorists were never identified.

(Photo credits: top-Harold Morby, KTLA, from the Herald-Examiner; middle-Bill Deaver, Mojave Desert News; bottom-unknown, Mojave Transportation Museum collection. Special thanks to Bill Deaver and Al Hansen for research help. Today's piece is adapted from an article I co-wrote for the Mojave Desert News February 13, 2003 edition.)

MEA Flight 438 at Wikipedia
BA Flight 38 at Wikipedia

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