Plane crashed near Des Moines fifty years ago

Fifty years ago next week, my mother told me, or I heard her tell someone else, that one of our neighbors, a pilot, had died when a commercial plane crashed between Des Moines and Maury Island

April 2, 1956, was typical of those gray, low-overcast but calm-and-dry Seattle days. I was 14 years old and we lived near Three Tree Point in Burien.

Northwest Orient's Flight 2 was scheduled daily between Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Washington and New York, with intermediate stops in Portland and Chicago.

Flight 2 left the gate on time at 8:06 that morning and was climbing to 2,000 feet when, just as the flaps were retracting at 1,000 feet and 145 knots airspeed, the 59-ton aircraft (including cargo) started to vibrate.

The plane rolled left and started losing altitude over the water.

From takeoff to Capt. Robert Heard's final decision to ditch his plane in Puget Sound, approximately four minutes had elapsed.

As the luxury airliner passed over Point Robinson within a few feet of the lighthouse, Heard made his final descent, ditching on relatively smooth water with no abrupt change in speed.

The water landing was magnificent, all things considered, although one engine broke free.

Passenger John R. Hall remembered that the stewardess suggested “we all take our shoes off, and we did.”

He said one of the passengers asked about life rafts. The stewardess said that since this was a domestic flight there were no life rafts or life jackets on board. Another stewardess suggested using seat cushions.

Later, she would say that her emergency training apparently had paid off. She'd been told that seat cushions would float and could be used as temporary rafts.

Everyone was calm and there was an orderly exit.

Passenger John Boesflug, who felt the buffeting before they ditched, was sitting near an emergency exit. He kicked it out, then aided the two nuns sitting behind him as they got out onto the wing.

The nuns then prayed out loud while the other passengers waited their turn to exit the plane.

William Takabayshi and his wife, Lillian, each grabbed a seat cushion and went out the exit Boesflug had opened. He said they tried to stay out of the water as long as possible, but when the wing started sinking they had no choice.

They would remain in the water about 20-30 minutes.

Perhaps the first on the ground to notice ill-fated Flight 2 was Robert Shipley at his cabin on Maury Island. The unusual sound of a low-flying aircraft had taken his attention away from the breakfast he was cooking.

When Shipley looked outside and saw the crippled plane pass by overhead, “I knew she was going down.” He ran out the door and watched as she hit the water.

Shipley then raced down to the shore and spent agonizing minutes trying to get his boat motor started. An apparent clogged fuel line cost him precious time in getting underway.

(He would discover later that he had forgotten to turn off the stove and came back to a blackened mess.)

At the Point Robinson light station farther down the beach, the crew on duty witnessed what Shipley saw.

Seaman George Kracher got on the radio and called for emergency response. He would remain at his station and help direct the rescue operation from that vantage point.

Between Sea-Tac's teletype and Seaman Kracher's radio call for help, the 83-foot Coast Guard Cutter CG-83527 from Tacoma and two Air Force amphibian SA-16 aircraft were promptly dispatched and about to join the rescue.

Meanwhile, Boatswain's Mate Robert Patrick and Engineman W. L. Kringbaum, who saw the plane land in the Sound, ran to get their motorboat underway.

Another outboard motorboat at the lighthouse was commandeered by Arthur Smith and his son Robert for their part in the rescue effort.

Across the Sound at Des Moines -- much farther away from the plane than Maury Island -- brothers Norm and Walter Bergseth and their friend James Peltzer had seen the ditching. Norm had a 14-foot speedboat and the three of them ran to it and set out for the wreckage sight.

While the rescuers were on their way, passenger Nelson Walstrom hung onto a wing tip until the plane sank, then floated about 35 minutes until he was towed to shore by a small boat.

Helen Wilkins, another passenger, remembers that when the wing began to sink they climbed up onto the cabin. Mrs. Wilkins and her son Lester were floating on one of the cushions when the plane finally went under.

They feared being sucked under as the tail rose above them and the plane sank into Puget Sound, but remained in the water another 15 minutes until they were rescued.

Shipley lost an estimated 10 minutes getting underway in his motorboat, but was still the first civilian on scene.

He could see the passengers on the wings and others floating in various directions but what concerned him immediately as he turned the boat toward the wreck were five or six people trying to swim the half mile or so to shore.

The water was typically 44 degrees this time of the year and Shipley didn't think they would make the distance, so he swung his boat toward them first.

He stopped and pulled them, one by one, onto his small boat. This took time as he would lean out and grab each passenger, being careful not to tip the boat over, pull them aboard, then head toward another.

Shipley estimated that at one time he had six people in his small boat, leaving him with about two inches of freeboard. He thought they would all go swimming.

The water temperature was a factor and time in the water a matter of survival. "If I'd been in there another five minutes I wouldn't be here," passenger Boespflug said later.

Air Force Capt. Walter Johnson's plane was in the air when alerted that the Stratocruiser had gone down, and he and his crew were the first to land at the crash site a couple of minutes after it sank. The second SA-16 would land a few minutes later.

Patrick and Kringbaum estimated they had arrived within three minutes and had been picking up survivors when the first SA-16 landed. They unloaded their first boatload of six passengers and headed out to pick up more.

R. L. Peterson said he was in water about half hour, clinging along with Odd Rasmussen to the side of the Patrick and Kringbaum skiff, which was loaded with women and children. They went to the second SA-16 and one of them was transferred to the Coast Guard cutter.

Bergseth arrived on scene as the Coast Guard Cutter was retrieving a body. It had taken them a while to travel the two and a half miles from Des Moines and by then most of the passengers and crew were accounted for. So they helped retrieve mail sacks and luggage and other floating debris from the plane.

Another boat ran out of fuel; Bergseth transferred fuel to it from a reserve tank.

All of the passengers got out of the plane alive, although two later died.

The body of a male flight attendant was never found. Ironically, the plane crashed on his 27th birthday.

Passenger Alten Kearl called his father-in-law from a hospital, asking for some clothes. This he did.

On the way home, Kearl found his ticket for Flight 2 in his wet suit pocket. They stopped at Sea-Tac and with a straight face but with a great deal of underlying humor, Kearl presented himself and the ticket at the Northwest counter and asked for a refund.

The lady behind the counter looked at the ticket and as the blood drained from her face she struggled to get to the office behind the counter.

Out came several official types and attorneys and fired question after question at Kearl -- the first of the passengers and crew to make it back to the airport.

Kearl said later that a settlement had been made to the passengers and, without divulging details, noted that it seemed satisfactory at the time.

After an investigation, the Civil Aeronautics Board concluded the flight engineer closed the cowl flaps when he thought he was opening them and opened them when he thought he was closing them.

Cowl flaps wrap around each engine and are supposed to be full open prior to takeoff, then closed for takeoff.

Editor’s note: Bruce R. Black is a free-lance writer living in Sugarloaf, California.

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