Lessons Not Learned From The Past (Part 1)
Guest Editorial written by David H. Marion — It has been said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Certainly in the case of seaplanes, when a hard lesson is taught, it should be heeded and remembered. The consequences of not doing so are often tragic.
On September 2, 1978, Antilles Air Boats Flight 941 from Christiansted harbor in St. Croix to Charlotte Amalie harbor in St. Thomas in the U. S. Virgin Islands crashed into the ocean less than a mile south of Water Island, about 2 miles short of its intended destination – a water landing area in the “cut” between Water Island and St. Thomas and the seaplane base in the inner harbor of Charlotte Amalie just across from the northwest end of Hassel Island. The flight was being operated using N7777V, a 1945 Grumman G-21A “Goose” (c/n B-111) and it was piloted by none other than Antilles’ founder and president, Charles F. Blair, Jr.
Charlie Blair was a dashing, almost “Hollywood” example of a pilot. He had learned to fly as a reserve officer in the U. S. Navy. In the late 1930’s, he was an active airline pilot flying for United Airlines and then on far-flung international routes for American Export Airlines and its later iteration, American Overseas Airlines. He was a senior captain and instructor pilot, and when World War II started, his experience was considered very valuable. In addition to training more pilots for the war effort, he also utilized his long-distance, transoceanic flying experience in the Naval Air Transport Service. After the war when his former company AOA merged with iconic carrier Pan Am, he became a senior line captain there too.
Also after the war ended, Blair indulged himself in a bit of barnstorming. He bought a bright red P-51 Mustang that Hollywood legend Paul Mantz had used for air racing. Blair eventually re-named it Excalibur III and used it to set several long-distance records, first flying it non-stop from New York to London by harnessing the jet stream. His next record-setting trip was from Bardufoss, Norway to Fairbanks, Alaska, in the course of which, Blair’s red Mustang became the first single-engine aircraft to fly over the North Pole. It was a feat for which President Truman awarded him the Harmon Trophy – and caused that bright red Mustang to end up hanging from the ceiling of the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum.
In the early 1950’s, Blair resigned his reserve commission in the Navy but then turned around and became a colonel in the Air Force Reserves. He was eventually promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for repeating his earlier Polar flight in something faster – leading a flight of two North American F-100 “Super Sabres” from England back across the top of the world to Alaska. He also continued to fly for Pan Am through most of the 1960’s. Before he retired from Pan Am in 1969, he started his very own seaplane airline, Antilles Air Boats Inc. in the U. S. Virgin Islands, in 1963, with just $5,000 USD, a few other employees, and his first of many Grumman G-21A “Goose” amphibians.
Many people who followed or read about his career thought that Blair had some kind of magic touch – and it was confirmed by his actual Hollywood connections. In 1968, he married legendary screen actress Maureen O’Hara. Through her he also became close friends with another Hollywood legend, the one and only John Wayne. After marrying Charlie Blair, O’Hara established de facto residency in St. Croix, basically splitting most of her time between there, Ireland, and Hollywood for years to come.
Charlie Blair’s golden touch, luck, or whatever you want to call it ran out that September day in 1978 in the sea just off of Water Island. Based on the NTSB report that was released on June 28, 1979 (AAR-79-09) it was all pretty much of his own doing. Charlie Blair died in the water that day – and so did three other passengers who were entrusted to his care. Even so, seven other passengers, including three children (presumably including the 13-year old boy who was riding in the co-pilot’s seat in the cockpit with Blair) were able to survive the crash.
The fateful flight from St. Croix to St. Thomas was the fourth flight of the day for N7777V and for Blair. It was determined that it had accumulated about 2 ½ hours of flight time that morning. As it approached St. Thomas from the south, the number 5 cylinder on the left side exploded off of the engine and in doing so knocked the streamlined engine cowling (cover) off of the airplane. The survivors later told investigators that the broken engine cylinder dangled from the engine and that the pilot (Blair) “feathered” the left prop to try to eliminate extra drag on the dying engine.
It was also determined that Blair pushed the throttle up on the other (i.e. right) engine per Standard Operating Procedure for such an emergency. Nominally, any twin-engine airplane, even one as old as a Grumman Goose, is supposed to be able to fly and maintain altitude on only one engine in such a situation. It is actually supposed to be able to climb to a higher and safer altitude, even if only barely. However, in spite of the full power on the right engine, the crippled Goose could not maintain altitude and fell toward the water at 300 to 400 feet per minute.
By all accounts, Blair was an incredibly skilled and uncommonly experienced pilot. His logbooks recorded over 42,000 hours of pilot time in the air – including over 5,000 hours just in Grumman Gooses. He was also type-rated in several iconic airliners of the era, including the Lockheed Constellation and the Boeing 707, and also in the ultimate Sikorsky “Clipper” – the model VS-44A flying boat as well.
With his vast amount of experience, Blair apparently believed that he could use the reduced drag and cushion that an airplane experiences in “ground effect” to keep his crippled Goose in the air – instead of trying to make an open-ocean water landing in seas that were reported to range from 5 to 8 feet. (The Goose is rated to be able to handle waves only up to 3 feet.) In any case, he was wrong – and he was wrong principally because he had effectively stacked the deck against himself.
After the crash, the subsequent official investigation determined that numerous factors worked against Blair and his Goose that day. Because the “blown” cylinder knocked the cowling off of the left engine, it was estimated that the missing engine cowling caused an approximately 10% increase in aerodynamic drag on the airplane. It was also determined that while the right engine was quite capable of delivering full rated power (450 hp.) the propeller on the remaining good engine was itself not “airworthy” – having been “dressed” or filed excessively to remove corrosion and “fix” the edges of the propeller blades that had been severely eroded by salt water spray (a common and persistent problem for almost all propeller-driven seaplanes.)
Because of improper maintenance, the blades on the right propeller had been filed down until they were smaller than they were allowed to be. They also had been incorrectly re-contoured in the process; their original airfoil profile altered in such a way as to reduce their operational efficiency. As a result of the unairworthy propeller, it was calculated that thrust on the right side of the crippled Goose was reduced by a factor of 12%.
Several months prior to the crash of N7777V, it had been modified by means of a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) that had been developed by a different Goose-equipped airline, one which operated in Southern California on the popular route out to Santa Catalina Island from the harbor in Long Beach in the Port of Los Angeles. That STC was primarily a paperwork exercise; without any structural or other actual physical changes to the airplane itself, it was allowed to operate in excess of its original certified gross weight of 8,000 lbs. by a factor of almost 10%.
While the STC legally allowed operation of the Goose up to a maximum gross weight of 8,750 lbs. (which was comparable to the 8,700 lb. standard weight limit routinely used by the U. S. Navy for its model JRF-5 variants of the Goose*) per company policy Antilles Air Boats chose to limit its own G-21A aircraft to 8,500 lbs. At the time of its take-off from St. Croix 18 minutes earlier, it was calculated to have weighed about 8,269 lbs. Although the accident aircraft was well below its legal weight limits per the STC in question, when its left engine failed, it was still operating in excess of its original certification weight limit – with one dead engine, extra drag from a missing cowling, and reduced thrust on the “good” right engine because of an “unairworthy” (i.e. actually “bad”) propeller on that same side.
(*Which is exactly as what c/n B-111 was built in January 1945 – as US Navy JRF-5 Bureau of Aeronautics serial no. 84816; it was converted into a civilian model G-21A only after the war.)
Apparently because he believed he could keep the crippled Goose in the air using “ground effect” within 20 or 30 feet of the surface of the water, Capt. Blair, ignored his own company policy and never executed a “controlled” landing in the water. Blair never turned the airplane into the wind in order to reduce the effective ground speed for a landing. He also never reduced power on the right engine as he struggled to keep the Goose in the air. Instead of slowing to a normal landing speed of about 80 to 90 mph (Vmc = 90 mph) the aircraft apparently hit the water at about 110 mph with essentially maximum asymmetric thrust.
(Editor’s Note: In January 2009, when Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger fatefully put his Airbus A320 airliner (US Airways Flight 1549) into the Hudson River in New York City after an unprecedented double-engine failure due to bird strikes, there were no fatalities whatsoever – because the pilot realized in time that his ONLY option was to commit to the water landing while he still had sufficient control of the aircraft.)
Blair’s Goose reportedly bounced off the waves two or three times, but it eventually dug the left wingtip and float deep into the water and the whole aircraft cart-wheeled. Witnesses, including the pilot of another AAB Goose (N48550) flying in the area, reported that the aircraft ended up upside-down in the water with major structural damage and it quickly sank in about 85 feet of water. Captain Blair also reportedly never warned his passengers to prepare for the emergency landing in the water.
Only one passenger later remembered any kind of pre-take-off briefing by the pilot on the subjects of emergency exits, flotation, and so forth. None of the passengers even so much as attempted to find or use the life vests that were stored under each seat. They survived mostly because they were ejected from the cabin still in their seats when the roof and right side of the aircraft broke away and the seats and seat frames separated from the cabin floor. Most of them were swimming or being held up by other passengers when a variety of boats in the area reached them.
The pilot and the three passengers who died all exhibited signs of physical trauma, were probably knocked unconscious, and they drowned. Whereas the passenger seat belts in the cabin all held, the 69 year-old pilot’s seat belt broke loose and he had no shoulder harness to restrain him during the crash. The aircraft was not equipped with any in the cockpit.
The FAA investigation uncovered and the subsequent NTSB report recounted a seemingly impossible list of maintenance and operating discrepancies or failures on the part of the pilot, his maintenance staff, Antilles Air Boats Inc. as a whole, and another company also owned by Blair as well – Caribbean Airmotive Inc., the engine shop which supposedly certified the engine that failed. The findings of the FAA investigation and the recommendations of the NTSB as put forth in their report no. AAR-79-09 – i.e. the specific “lessons” that should have been learned once and for all time – will be addressed in my next segment.
Dave Marion is the Technical Content Editor at Seaplanemagazine.com. As A&P and IA with more than 30 years of experience in aircraft maintenance, he is also a Commercial Pilot with Airplane, Single & Multi-Engine Land, and Instrument ratings. He has a BA from Colgate University in 1984 and also graduated cum laude from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (DAB) with a BS in Aviation Technology in 1990. He can be reached along with all of the editors via E-Mail: [email protected]