In a Place that Doesn’t Exist…
The Crash of TWA Flight 514
Near Mount Weather, Virginia
December 1st, 1974
Mount Weather started its service to the United States near the turn of the
Twentieth century – the site of a National Weather Bureau facility where
balloons and box kites were sent up to observe weather conditions. In February
of 1929, President Calvin Coolidge expressed interest in converting the
buildings of Mount Weather Observatory to a summer White House. But the next
President, Herbert Hoover, nixed the idea - preferring instead to use the
presidential yacht, the Mayflower, to relax.
In 1936, it came under the control of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, which began to
dig an experimental mine into the mountain 100 yards below the surface along an
east-west axis. The tunnel, which extended a scant quarter-mile and measured 7
ft. wide by 6 1/2 ft. high, provided the opening for what would, in 1954, be
expanded by the Army Corps of Engineers under the code name ‘Operation High
Point.’ Tunnel roofs are shored up with some 21,000 iron bolts driven 8 to 10
feet into the overhead rock. The entrance is protected by a guillotine gate, and
a 10 foot tall by 20 foot wide 34-ton blast door that is 5 feet thick and
reportedly takes 10 to 15 minutes to open or close, all leading into a massive
underground complex of offices and living quarters.
Completed in 1958, the underground bunker includes a hospital, crematorium,
dining and recreation areas, sleeping quarters, reservoirs of drinking and
cooling water, an emergency power plant, and a radio and television studio which
is part of the Emergency Broadcasting System. A series of side-tunnels
accommodate a total of 20 office buildings, some of which are three stories
tall, while an on-site 90,000 gallon/day sewage treatment plant and two 250,000
gallon above-ground storage tanks are intended to support a population of 200
for up to 30 days. Although the facility is designed to accommodate several
thousand people (with sleeping cots for 2,000), only the President, the Cabinet,
and Supreme Court are provided private sleeping quarters.
Established in 1959, and located in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Berryville,
the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center is a civilian command facility in
Virginia, some 55 miles from Washington, D.C., and is used as the center of
operations for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Also known as the "High Point Special Facility", the facility has become a major
relocation site for the highest level of civilian and military officials in case
of national disaster, playing a major role in U.S. continuity of government (per
the Continuity of Operations Plan), and also the location of a control station
for the FEMA National Radio System, a high frequency radio system connecting
most federal public safety agencies and U.S. military with most of the states.
The only full-scale activation of the facility came on 9 November 1965, at the
time of the great Northeastern power blackout.
The remoteness of the facility makes for limited access – only via Virginia
State Route 601 (also called Blueridge Mountain Road) in Bluemont, Virginia. The
road also provides utility services to the facility – its umbilical and only
connection to the outside world. That, and the occasional aircraft that would
Trans World Airlines Flight 514 departed from Indianapolis, Indiana, at 8:53 in
the evening, bound for Washington-National Airport, DC (DCA), with an
intermediate stop at Columbus-Port Columbus International Airport (CMH), Ohio.
Arriving in Columbus at 09:32, the Boeing 727 – registered by N54328, powered by
3 Pratt & Whitney JT8D-9A and with 85 passengers and 7 flight crew members
aboard – departed CMH at 10:24 in the evening.
But, twelve minutes into the flight, at 10:36, the Cleveland Air Route Traffic
Control Center (ARTCC) informed the crew of Flight 514 that no landings were
being made at DCA because of high crosswinds, and that flights destined for that
airport were either being held or being diverted to Dulles International Airport
(IAD). The captain of Flight 514, Richard I. Brock, communicated with the
dispatcher in New York and advised him of the information he had received.
Brock, 44, was hired by Trans World Airlines on December 5, 1955. He served as a
flight engineer until March 1, 1967, when he qualified as first officer on the
Convair 880. He qualified as first officer on the B-727 on June 19, 1969, and
was upgraded to captain on the Boeing 727 on June 23, 1971. He was also
qualified as a rated first officer on the Boeing 707.
The dispatcher, with Captain Brock's concurrence, subsequently amended Flight
514's release to allow the flight to proceed to Dulles. At 10:42, Cleveland
ARTCC cleared Flight 514 to Dulles Airport via the Front Royal VOR, and to
One minute later, the controller cleared the flight to descend to FL230 and to
cross a point 40 miles west of Front Royal at that altitude. Air traffic control
reasonability of the flight was then transferred to the Washington ARTCC and
communications were established with that facility at 10:48. In the meantime,
the flight crew: Captain Brock, his first officer Lenard W. Kresheck, and flight
engineer Thomas C. Safranek, discussed the instrument approach to Runway 12, the
navigational aids, and the runways at Dulles, and Brock turned the flight
controls over to Kresheck, while the staff of four flight attendants - Denise A.
Stander, 22, Jen A. Van Fossen, 22, Elizabeth H. (Stout) Martin, 23, and Joan E.
Heady, 23 – served the passengers.
Amongst the 85 passengers aboard Flight 514 were U.S. Army Brigadier General
Roscoe C. Cartwright, 55, who was one of the first blacks to attain the rank of
general in the Army, who had retired in September of 1974 after a 33-year
military career. Traveling with him was his wife, Gloria. Also aboard was James
Applewhite, a legislative assistant to Representative Andrew Young of Georgia,
and Applewhite’s wife and their 3-year-old son.
When radio communications were established with Washington ARTCC, the controller
on duty affirmed that he knew the flight was proceeding to Dulles. Following
this, the flight crew of Flight 514 discussed the various routings they might
receive to conduct a VOR/DME approach to Runway 12 at Dulles.
At 10:51, the Washington ARTCC controller requested the flight's heading. After
being told that the flight was on a heading of 100 degrees, the controller
cleared the crew to change to a heading of 090°, to intercept the 300° radial of
the Armel VOR, to cross a point 25 miles northwest of Armel to maintain 8,000
feet, "...and the 300° radial will be for a VOR approach to runway 12 at
Dulles." He gave the crew an altimeter setting of 29.74 inches for Dulles, which
the crew acknowledged. After this, Brock and Kresheck continued to discuss the
VOR/DME approach to Dulles.
At 10:55, the landing preliminary checklist was read by flight engineer Safranek
and the other crewmembers responded to the calls. A reference speed of 127 knots
was calculated and set on the airspeed indicator reference pointers. The
altimeters were set at 29.74. The crew then again discussed items on the
instrument approach chart including the Round Hill intersection, the final
approach fix, the visual approach slope indicator and runway lights, and the
airport diagram. At 10:59, Brock commented that the flight was descending from
11,000 feet to 8,000 feet. He then asked the controller if there were any
weather obstructions between the flight and the airport. The controller replied
that he did not see any significant weather along the route, and Brock replied
that the crew also did not see any weather on the aircraft weather radar.
At 11:01, the controller cleared the flight to descend to and maintain 7,000
feet and to contact Dulles approach control. Twenty-six seconds later, Brock
started a conversation with Dulles approach control and reported that the
aircraft was descending from 10,000 feet to maintain 7,000 feet, and also
reported having received the information "Charlie" transmitted on the ATIS
broadcast. The controller, Merle W. Dameron, replied with a clearance to proceed inbound to Armel
and to expect a VOR/DME approach to runway 12, and then also informed the crew
that ATIS information “Delta” was current and read the data to them. The crew
determined that the difference between information Charlie and Delta was the
altimeter setting which was given in Delta as 29.70 inches. At 11:04, the flight
reported it was level at 7,000 feet.
"Cleared for Approach"???
Five seconds after receiving that report, the controller said, "TWA 514, you're
cleared for a VOR/DME approach to runway 12," which was acknowledged by Captain
Brock. The Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) recorded the sound of the landing gear
warning horn followed by a comment from Brock that "Eighteen hundred is the
Kresheck then said, "Start down."
Safranek said, "We're out here quite a ways. I better turn the heat down." At
11:05:06, the captain reviewed the field elevation, the minimum descent
altitude, and the final approach fix and discussed the reason that no time to
the missed approach point was published.
At 11:06:15, Kresheck commented that, "I hate the altitude jumping around. Then
he commented that the instrument panel was bouncing around.
Brock countered, "We have a discrepancy in our VOR's, a little but not much." He
continued, "Fly yours, not mine." At 11:06:27, Brock discussed the last reported
ceiling and minimum descent altitude. concluded, "...should break out."
At 11:06:42, Kresheck said, "Gives you a headache after a while, watching this
jumping around like that," and later, "...you can feel that wind down here now."
A few seconds later, Brock said, "You know, according to this dumb sheet it says
thirtyfour hundred to Round Hill --- is our minimum altitude." The flight
engineer then asked where the captain saw that and Brock replied, "Well, here.
Round Hill is eleven and a half DME."
Kresheck said, "Well, but ---"
And Brock retorted, "When he clears you, that means you can go to your ---"
An unidentified voice said, "Initial approach”, and another unidentified voice
Brock said "Initial approach altitude."
Safranek then said, "We're out a --- twenty-eight for eighteen."
An unidentified voice said, "Right, and someone said, "One to go."
At 11:08:14, Safranek said, "Dark in here."
Kresheck stated, "And bumpy too."
At 11:08:25, the sound of an altitude alert horn was recorded. Brock said, "I
had ground contact a minute ago."
Kresheck replied, "Yeah, I did too."
At 11:08:29, the first officer said, "...power on this.... "
The captain said "Yeah --- you got a high sink rate."
"Yeah," the first officer replied.
An unidentified voice said, "We're going uphill," and Kresheck replied, "We're
right there, we're on course."
Two voices responded, "Yeah!"
Captain Brock then said, "You ought to see ground outside in just a minute --
Hang in there boy."
Safranek said, "We're getting seasick."
At 1108:57, the altitude alert sounded. Then Safranek said, "Boy, it was ---
wanted to go right down through there, man," to which an unidentified voice
Then Safranek said, "Must have had a hell of a downdraft."
At 1109:14, the radio altimeter warning horn sounded and stopped. Safranek said,
"Boy!" By this point, the Boeing 727 was beginning to graze tree tops as it
continued to descend downwards.
At 11:09:20, Captain Brock said, "Get some power on." The radio altimeter
warning horn sounded again and stopped. At 11:09:22, the CVR recorded the sound
of impact – as the airplane impacted a rocky outcropping on the west slope of
Mount Weather, Virginia, at an altitude of 1,670 feet. Numerous heavy components
of the aircraft were thrown forward, upward of 900 feet, of the outcropping.
A Prompt Response...
When the Dulles tower lost radar contact with the plane about 11:10 a m
local authorities were notified to begin a search. Two state troopers found the
wreckage almost immediately, hampered by
driving ram, fog and winds gusting up to 40-50 miles an hour.
Rescue workers found the woods littered with broken bodies,
blazing debris and splintered timber. The only identifiable parts of the shattered silver jet were part of its tail, emblazoned in red with the letters
"TWA" and one section of the fuselage with four window frames intact.
officers reported they had sealed the crash site on orders of Federal security
agents from Mount Weather.
"It looked like something out of a World War II movie," said
John Emig of the Loudoun Times-Mirror, one of those who got through the picket. "As the'
plane crashed it cut trees in half. All you could see were pieces of plane
and trees, small fires, gray smoke and haze. It hit just west of (Virginia) Route 601, cut a swath through
the trees for at least 100 yards, hit a rock bank about six feet high right at
the road, and went up into the woods at least another 100 yards."
A mile and a half from the crash site, the facility
was not damaged, but the crash caused a temporary disruption of the Emergency
Broadcast System, the Government’s network for informing broadcast stations of
nuclear attacks. The plane did, however, cut power lines around the secret
center of the Army interagency communications unit near the crash site, causing
the teletype machines in 25 news and telephone company offices across the
country to start transmitting garbled copy. Also, the facility's underground
main phone line was severed, by phone service to Mount Weather was restored by
C&P Telephone within 2½ hours after the crash.
The flight is also of note in that it drew undesired attention to the Mount
Weather facility, the then-linchpin of plans implemented by the United States to
ensure continuity of government in the event of a nuclear war. A spokesman
started a furor when he “politely declined to comment on what Mt. Weather was
used for, how many people worked there, or how long it has been in its current
“People who went to the rescue noticed much more than the federal government
would have preferred,” said former FEMA Director Julius W. Becton, Jr. “The
rescue crews found it mighty strange that cars were parked in the middle of
nowhere near the mountaintop, and that was how the cover was blown for Mouth
Weather, which is a classified, underground shelter for a sizeable number of
people near the Pennsylvania border.”
The National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) accident investigation was
split in its decision as to whether the flight crew or Air Traffic Control was
responsible. The majority absolved the controllers as the plane was not on a
published approach segment. The dissenting opinion was that the flight had been
radar vectored. Terminology between pilots and controllers differed without
either group being aware of the discrepancy. It was common practice at the time
for controllers to release a flight to it's own navigation with "Cleared for the
approach", and flight crews commonly believed that was also authorization to
descend to the altitude at which the final segment of the approach began. No
clear indication had been given by controllers to flight 514 that they were no
longer on a radar vector segment and therefore responsible for their own
navigation. Procedures were clarified after this accident. Controllers now
state, "Maintain (specified altitude) until established on a portion of the
approach", and pilots now understand that previously assigned altitudes prevail
until an altitude change is authorized on the published approach segment the
aircraft is currently flying. Ground proximity detection equipment was also
mandated for the airlines.
In the end, the NTSB determined that the probable cause of the accident was the
crew's decision to descend to 1,800 feet before the aircraft had reached the
approach segment where that minimum altitude applied. The crew's decision to
descend was a result of inadequacies and lack of clarity in the air traffic
control procedures which led to a misunderstanding on the part of the pilots and
of the controllers regarding each other's responsibilities during operations in
terminal areas under instrument meteorological conditions Nevertheless, the
examination of the plan view of the approach chart should have disclosed to the
captain that a minimum altitude of 1,800 feet was not a safe altitude.
The NTSB also said contributing factors were the failure of the FAA to take
timely action to resolve the confusion and misinterpretation of air traffic
terminology although the Agency had been aware of the problem for several years,
the issuance of the approach clearance when the flight was 44 miles from the
airport on an unpublished route without clearly de- fined minimum altitudes, and
the inadequate depiction of altitude restrictions on the profile view of the
approach chart for the VOR/DME approach to Runway 12 at Dulles International
The NTSB’s findings were denounced by the Air Line Pilots Association, which
“accused the FAA of mismanagement and said that real cause of the crash was the
failure to warn the crew of the obstacle hazards.”
A Legacy of Safer Flight...
The worst air disaster of 1974, TWA Flight 514 was mentioned in the closing of
the second chapter of Mark Oliver Everett's book “Things the Grandchildren
Should Know”, as well as the crash, its aftermath, and its repercussions are the
subject of "Sound of Impact: The Legacy of TWA Flight 514" by Adam Shaw.
Massive improvements in airline safety resulted from the investigation of TWA
Flight 514’s crash. The NTSB discovered that, in October of 1974 – only 6 weeks
before the mishap - a United Airlines crew had very narrowly escaped the same
fate, during the same approach, and at the same location.
United Airlines had, however, recently instituted a internal reporting program -
the Flight Safety Awareness Program. The program encouraged crew members to
report anonymously any incident they felt affected safety. The United pilots
involved in the October incident reported the occurrence to their company
program, and highlighted the ambiguous nature of the approach. News of the
potential pitfall spread throughout United, and the FAA was notified of the
However, there did not exist at the time any generally accepted method to assure
the broad and expeditious dissemination of this information to flight crews and
dispatchers, and the NTSB commented that, based on the United incident, and the
TWA 514 accident, there was the need for a national incident reporting system.
As a result, the FAA set up, under the auspices of NASA, the Aviation Safety
Reporting System in May of 1975 as a confidential, non-punitive incident
reporting program run by a neutral, yet governmental, third-party.
Guidelines for communication between pilots and air traffic controllers have
been clarified for operating on “unpublished routes” and new pilots are drilled
on what “cleared for approach” actually means. Ground warning systems that sound
an alarm at higher elevations are now mandatory on carrier aircraft.
Two small American flags hang horizontally from a small granite plaque listing the names of the crew and passengers who died that Sunday morning.