The Crash of British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines Flight 304
|The "Resolution", as seen from a period postcard|
Delivered to BCPA on November 26th, 1948, the "Resolution" was often chartered from BCPA to ANA to provide extra capacity at peak times.
And thus, on the evening of October 28th, 1953, the "Resolution" left Sydney on its bi-weekly run of the "Southern Cross" route. After the traditional stops in Fiji and Canton, the plane arrived in Honolulu.
With a flight of nine and a half hours ahead for the plane, the flight crew switched, and Captain Bruce Dickson took command of the plane. With over 10,000 hours of experience in the air, the 34 year old had flown this route for BCPA for several years.
Captain Dickson and his first officer and co-pilot, Frank Campbell, 28, checked the weather on the route, and learned that there were no adverse flight conditions for their route, or in the San Francisco Bay area. However, there was a low overcast layer, obstructing visual reference with the ground, and so an instrument approach in Milles Field, the airport at San Francisco, was going to be required. With over 100, combined, of such approaches flown into Mills Field by the flight crew, they was no worries as the "Resolution" flew east towards the continent at 10:59 PM
Behold the Gremlins...
Shortly after departure, however, the mood in the cockpit changed. Only three minutes after takeoff, the flight crew radioed the Honolulu tower requesting permission to return to the airport, citing that they were "having a little trouble with one of the props." With permission granted by the tower, the airplane returned and, as they over flew the field, claimed that the relay was then working okay and stated a "desire to continue flight." The request was granted, and the "Resolution" resumed its flight eastward, racing towards the sunrise.
A sketch, made for the CAB, showing the relationship between the various approach beams into Mills Airport, and the crash site of the "Resolution"
The following morning, nine hours later, and on the other side of the world, the "Resolution" neared the coastline of California. Captain Dickson contacted San Francisco Air Route Traffic Control (ARTC) and, at 8:07 AM., he was cleared to descend from his altitude of 11,500 feet, in accordance with Visual Flight Rules and to maintain at least 500 feet above all clouds, which Captain Dickson acknowledged. Several minutes later, at 8:15, Flight 304 reported that it was starting to descend and at that time was given the San Francisco weather report.
At 8:21 AM, the Western Air Defense Force radar identified the "Resolution" as the plane approached the shoreline, and air traffic control cleared the plane "to the San Francisco ILS Outer Marker via the Half Moon Bay Fan marker direct to the San Francisco Outer Marker. Maintain at least 500 feet above all clouds. Contact San Francisco Approach Control after passing Half Moon Bay Fan Marker. Cloud tops reported in the Bay Area: 1,700 feet."
Eighteen minutes later, at 8:39, the "Resolution" advised air traffic control that they were over Half Moon Bay, 500 feet above the clouds,, and listening on 278 kilocycles. Approach Control acknowledged the transmission, and cleared the DC-6 for the ILS approach into Mills Field on Runway 28.
The only problem, however, was that the "Resolution" was actually several miles south of their reported position.
At about 8:42 AM., the flight reported in, "Air Pacific Easy, Roger, southeast, turning inbound". It was the last transmission from the "Resolution". Three minutes later, at 8:45 AM, a call from the air traffic control to the "Resolution" went unanswered. Destined to arrive at the airport any moment, the plane had gone silence.
Shortly after the loss of radio contact, at 9:26 AM, four Coast Guard aircraft, including a PB-1, a variant of the B-17 "Flying Fortress", were dispatched from the nearby Air Station at San Francisco, to search for the plane. At 10:10 AM., nearly an hour and a half after the crash, the Coast Guard aircrew aboard the PB-1, piloted by Lt. Commander Donald M. Reed, located a single column of smoke rising from the densely-packed Redwoods on the southwest side of Kings Mountain, west of Redwood City.
Flight 304 and the "Resolution" had crashed, tearing a path of destruction in the forest below, and igniting several fires with the remaining fuel.
At the same time, San Mateo Times' photographer Ray Zirkel, using a private plane, located the wreckage of the Australian airliner on a fog and smoke shrouded hillside south of Skeggs' point, just at the same time it was spotted by Coast Guard. Twice driven off by military search planes, Zirkel succeeded in making a third run over the wreckage to return with the first aerial photos of the tragic crash, flying 300 feet off of the deck.
Zirkel described the wreck: "The sight was one of absolute devastation. Nothing moved, only great chunks of twisted, unrecognizable debris lay over the mountainside. The only thing, that was left resembling a plane was a buried, torn wing. Apparently more wreckage was buried in the forest which we couldn't see. Nothing was recognizable as a human being."
The headline, as it read, of the local San Mateo Times on October 29th, 1953
|Wide aerial view of the crash site & burning forest||Close-up aerial of the crash site|
|Emergency workers at the crash site||Workers removing bodies from the crash site|
Beyond the Hope of Rescue...
An Air Force H-19 helicopter from Hamilton Field, with a medic aboard, landed in a clearing about a quarter mile from the tragedy scene and the doctor and airmen forced their way through the undergrowth to the flaming craft, only to discover that there were no survivors among the 19 aboard. Dozens of small fires broke out in the heavily wooded area, and San Mateo County firemen and volunteers stopped the blazes before they got out of control.
The first ground-based rescue team was led by Deputy Sheriff Joe Kimball, accompanied by reporters and San Mateo Times staffers Jack Russell and Virgil Wilson. At 12:45 that afternoon. a bulldozer tore its way through the first of the underbrush to built a road to the crash site. The rescue operations were being led by Police Chief Stanley Wood of Redwood City. Also among the first to reach the scene was Belmont police officer James Winters, who brought an ambulance into the flat.
A crew of 14 county firemen were at the scene throughout the night guarding against a sudden danger of flare-ups of the several fires. Tanker trucks were brought to the plateau, and four bulldozers were put into action in an effort to cut a trail around the fire The blaze raged through stands of second growth redwoods and, because of the extreme ruggedness of the terrain, several bulldozer trails were abandoned when further passage became impossible.
The terrain the plane crashed in was so rough that one newspaper cameraman, Leonard Bass of the San Francisco Examiner, tripped and fell, rolling down a cliff, severely injuring his head. Several other rescuers suffered ill effects of heavy smoke cuts and bruises in trying to climb hand over hand down the difficult hillside. Ropes were also used to aid rescuers.
|William Kapell, sitting at a piano|
Out, Brief Candle...
Among those aboard were pianist William Kapell, considered by some to be the most promising American pianist of the post-World War II generation. At the age of 20 he was the youngest person ever to win the Town Hall endowment series award and in that same year,1942, made his first appearance as soloist with the New York Philharmonic orchestra. He had made concert tours throughout the United States and South America, and had spent that summer in Australia, where he played 37 concerts in 14 weeks, appearing in Sydney, Melbourne, and regional cities such as Bendigo, Shepparton, Albury, Horsham and Geelong. His last concert, in Geelong, was on October 22nd, one week before the crash. He was only 31.
Before he boarded the plane for home at Sydney, Kapell had told Australian reporters "This is goodbye forever—I shall never return, " as he felt he had been handled unfairly by some critics.
Click here to see the crew and passenger list of BCPA Flight 304
A temporary morgue was set up in the National Guard Armory building in Redwood City. Seventeen of the bodies were found the first day, the other two found the following morning. At the armory, two doctors and dentist set to work last night to identify the bodies. The dentist, Dr. Donald Allen of San Carlos, made dental charts. The two physicians were Dr. A. C. Ladd and Dr. Seth Smoot, both of San Francisco. Jewelry was of little use in identification, according to County Coroner Paul Jensen said, because most of it had been melted into unrecognizable globs by the Intense heat.
The flight was also carrying airmail to the United States, and only 9 pounds, 5 ounces, of it was recovered, gathered up by officers of the San Mateo County Sheriff. Of this mail, 135 pieces were found to be undamaged, and 208 pieces were declared damaged. These damaged covers were, before being forwarded on to their final destinations, marked with a cachet reading, "Damage due to Air Mail Interruption near Half Moon Bay., Calif. -- Oct. 29, 1953"
Small fires would continue to flare up for nearly a week after the crash near the site, damaging a total of 60 acres of timber.
Finding the Cause...
At 12:45 PM, Earl Mitchell, the head of the Oakland branch of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), arrived at the crash site to take personal charge of the investigation into the cause of the crash. The investigation found that the weather above and below the fog belt near Half Moon Bay was clear, and visibility was good both in the instrument approach area and at the airport itself.
But the fact that ground visibility was obscured by fog necessitated an instrument approach. It was determined that the plane was not where the pilot said it was, despite acknowledgment and the position repeated back to the ATC. The CAB listed the official probable cause of the crash was the failure of the crew to follow prescribed procedures for an instrument approach.
After the Facts...
After the crash, BCPA ran into financial difficulties and was liquidated in May of 1954. BCPA's remaining three DC-6 aircrafts were sold to TEAL (now Air New Zealand) and its trans-Pacific route was taken over by Qantas.
Today, the crash site is part of the "El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve", which now includes the "Resolution Trail", named for the plane. Debris from the plane can still be seen beside this trail.
In 1985, University of Maryland named its annual piano competition and festival "The William Kapell International Piano Competition & Festival", in honor of William Kapell. The event, once held annually, now occurs every four years, and is hosted by the 'Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland', to celebrate the piano, pianists and piano music in its many forms.
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