Different attitudes 60 years ago and a plane crash

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07 Dec 2023, 11:04 am

A Weather Related US Airline Disaster – 60th Anniversary

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We are quickly approaching the 60th anniversary of the worst disaster in Maryland history with the crash of Pan American Airways Flight 214 . Here is a tragic story that would be extremely unlikely to occur in 2023 !

“MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY” Clipper 214 out of control. Here we go.” These were the final words of a “resigned” pilot of Pan Am flight 214 on the evening of December 8, 1963.

In his 22 years with Pan Am, Captain George F. Knuth had 17,049 hours total flying, with 2,890 hours flying a Boeing 707 but there was nothing he could do after a bolt of lightning struck the plane and triggered an explosion resulting in catastrophic damage. The event was a tragedy indeed but there were more tragedies exposed in the days and months following the crash.

At 8:24 p.m. the plane left Baltimore for (what was supported to be) a short flight to Philadelphia. There were 73 passengers and 8 crewmembers on board.

At 8:42 p.m. The crew was advised to go into a holding pattern while it was over Delaware due to rain and gusty winds.

At 8:50 p.m. The crew was advised to hold their approach until 9:10 at an altitude of 5,000 feet. and that was acknowledged (“Roger, no hurry,”).

At 8:58 p.m. An ill-fated message from the captain “MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY. Clipper 214 out of control. Here we go.”

Pan Am Flight 214 crashed at 8:59 p.m. about two miles east of Elkton, Maryland. Witnesses around the accident area described the weather as cloudy, with light rain falling, and lightning.

It seems so unreal now because there are so many planes struck by lightning but the CAB determined that the probable cause of this accident was lightning-induced ignition of the fuel/air mixture in the No. 1 reserve fuel tank with resultant explosive disintegration of the left outer wing and loss of control.

The bodies of all persons aboard the aircraft were recovered and identified. Toxicological examination of the flight crew showed no evidence of alcohol in their systems or elevated carbon monoxide levels. Carbon monoxide tests of the victims also indicated no elevated levels. The flight crew was physically qualified for flight according to FAA and Pan American records.

A Different Type Of Tragedy
Another factor to keep in mind was the overall mental state of the nation since this event took place a little more than two weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In this case, many family members heard about the crash from media sources such as radio and television or phone calls from friends or relatives that had heard about it.

An article from cecildaily.com (The Whig) told the stories of some of the victim’s family members. One son of a crash victim heard the news over the radio. “My dad’s brother came to the house and tried to comfort all of us. No one from the airline came to us or offered us assistance. We relied totally on friends and family.” “I had one English teacher who talked to me and tried to offer words of comfort, but there was no counseling for me or the other students in the school like there is now.”

News of the crash and the name of the pilot was broadcast on a local TV station. That is how the wife of the pilot (Elizabeth Knuth) heard about it while she was at a neighbor’s house. One of the other neighbors, a doctor, gave her a sedative and walked her back home. They then broke the news to the pilot’s 16-year-old daughter, Carol.

Members of the Airline Pilots Association then arrived overnight to guard the house against the press.

Carol remembers the lack of support systems to help her and the rest of her family cope.

“There was no one at school to help. I seem to remember something about the airlines sending people to our house to keep the press out. There were quite a few press people at our house because my father was the pilot. My older sister came home from college in Wisconsin. She helped my mother.”

In 1963, there were no grief counselors for relatives and loved ones of victims of catastrophic events, let alone school or workmates. Overall mental health wasn’t a priority in those days and many of the families never experienced closure.

The tragedy of the aftermath didn’t stop there. Remember the crash victim’s son that we talked about earlier. After returning to school, he received a sympathy note from a classmate. The note indicated that she was thinking about him and his family in their time of grief.

One of his relatives was a reporter at a local newspaper and wanted to write a story about the sympathy note after interviewing him and the classmate. The classmate was African-American.

Sadly, following the publication of the article, the phone of the crash victim’s family kept ringing with hate calls, The son was criticized for having black friends and associating with black classmates.

A Time For Closure
Ten years ago on December 8th, 2013, fifty years after the Pan Am 214 crash, family members were invited to a “remembrance ceremony” at the Cecil County Historical Association in Elkton, Maryland. The event was hosted by the Singerly Fire Company.

The family members were able to talk with each other, console each other (albeit fifty years later) and scan through materials related to the crash.

There was also a commemorative tribute at the site of the crash on Delancy Road.

There are sources information dealing with this event for families or anyone from the general public to look over at the Historical Society of Cecil County.

Epilogue
We are now in an age when an airliner can survive a lightning strike. Lightning strikes will usually leave small burn marks or holes at the entry and exit point.

As a result of the crash of Flight 214, the (FAA) ordered lightning discharge wicks (or static discharger) to be installed on all commercial jets flying inside U.S. airspace.

Lightning is able to move along the skin of the airplane without doing damage.

As for social issues, there has been much progress made over the past 60 years. Procedures for the notification of next of kin before the release of the victim’s names have been in place for a long time.

There has been significant progress regarding the mental health and mental well being for family members of mass casualty victims like this. Changes in attitudes toward race have also been made.

One could present a strong argument that much more needs to be resolved, however.


In high school and college during the 1970s classmates died under tragic circumstances and there was no concept of grief counselors. Today if a person dies under tragic circumstances there are all sorts of impromptu memorials both online and at the site the tragedy happened. Back then unless a person was serving in uniform maybe a scholarship was set up but there was no public memorials for the average person.

I talked about this before but when I was in college a girl apparently hitchhiking on her way back to her dorm was abducted and murdered. It was also this time of the year. There was still some leftover glamour about hitchhiking from the beatnik and hippie eras. As it turns out there were 17 reported incidents of students being threatened or molested just in prior two months. Reported is the key word. There most likely were a lot more incidents that were not reported as there still was a big stigma about being a victim of a sex crime. I did not find out about this until recently while goggling the incident. Today we rightfully fear many negative aspects of our social media world. It should be noted that because of social media that amount of sex crimes in that short a period of time in one location could never be covered up.

The parents of the co ed were not told she was missing for over a day. Probably the only reasons the crime was solved and the girls body found buried in the snow because 1. Her father was a priest and one of his congregants worked for the hugely popular newsmagazine 60 Minutes. 2. The incident co occurred with other incidents in town. The going assumptions to a missing coed in 1977 were she is an adult not a child. 2. She ran away with some guy that had good drugs.

One thing noted in the article that has not changed is that the press are vultures. As it turned out that night a student ran over and killed another student in front of the same house that the girl had visited before being abducted. It was originally thought a that another student that hung himself that night was going to a party at that house. The media went crazy, “haunted house”, “haunted campus” etc. The residents had to flee.

I do not want you to take from the above that we were callous. These things were handled more quietly and privately then.


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