By Alexander D. Bevil

The Journal of San Diego History
San Diego History Center Quarterly
Spring 2017, Volume 63, Number 3+4

To those unfamiliar with the San Diego community of North Park, Dwight Street (between Boundary and Nile Streets) is a quiet streetscape composed primarily of unassuming single-story homes. On Monday morning, September 25, 1978, at 09:02:07 hours, however it resembled a Hell on earth

Pacific Southwest Airways Flight 182 to San Diego

Approximately nine minutes earlier, a Pacific Southwest Airlines [PSA] Boeing 727-214 jet airliner, call sign N533PS, entered San Diego airspace just off Encinitas. PSA Flight 182 was a regularly scheduled flight from Sacramento to San Diego with a short stop at Los Angeles. It carried 135 passengers and crew. Command pilot Captain James McFeron immediately radioed the San Diego Approach Control Center at NAS Miramar requesting guidance for the final approach to San Diego’s Lindbergh Field

A radar-equipped civilian air traffic control facility, the San Diego Approach Center was responsible for directing all private and commercial aircraft descending or departing Lindbergh Field or any of the other smaller outlying feeder airports within San Diego County. Expanded and relocated adjacent to the present Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, it is now known as the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control or TRACON.3

Because it was a clear Santa Ana wind morning, Miramar directed Captain McFeron to switch from Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) to Visual Flight Rules (VRF) procedures, and to begin his descent from 11,000 to 7,000 feet.4 Miramar’s direction to utilize Visual Flight

Boundary and Dwight Streets, North Park, 1966. ©SDHC #92:18835-2062.

Rules (VFR) meant that weather conditions over San Diego were clear enough for PSA 182’s flight crew to utilize ground features and landmarks as navigational references. While utilizing VFR, it would have to navigate and manipulate the aircraft utilizing a “see and avoid” approach to visually avoid obstructions, especially other aircraft.5

PSA 182’s assigned flight corridor would take it diagonally across eastern Pacific Beach to Mission Valley, before turning eastward toward El Cajon. At a point over North Park, it would start a slow banking right turn into a western approach paralleling Highway 94 to Lindbergh Field’s Runway 27.6

In addition to Captain McFeron, PSA Flight 182’s cabin crew consisted of First Officer Robert E. Fox, who was piloting the aircraft, Flight Engineer Martin J. Wahne, and four flight attendants.7 A regularly scheduled flight from Sacramento to San Diego, via Los Angeles, 37 of its 128 passengers were PSA employees. Many were off duty flight crews “deadheading,” or flying for free, to San Diego.8

The reason why Flight 182 was acting as a shuttle service for so many PSA employees was because of the recent expansion of its services throughout the state. Due to mandated FAA limitations on working hours, some flight crew personnel were restricted from operating the aircraft on return flights to San Diego. Other PSA employees were Los Angeles area residents commuting to work or planning to attend an operations training seminar at the company’s Lindbergh Field headquarters.

A well-recognized aircraft flying over San Diego at the time, Flight 182’s 10-year-old Boeing 727-214’s distinguishing features included a sleek 153-footlong narrow fuselage, swept-back wings, and two opposing external engines mounted on either side of the rear fuselage below a high “T”-shaped” vertical stabilizer. What appeared to be a tubular engine cowling built into the base of the tail’s leading edge was actually the opening of an “S-shaped” intake duct leading to a third internal tail engine set in line horizontally with the two external engines.10 Like all PSA aircraft, it featured colorful “fruit stripe” fuchsia, orange, red, and white stripes and black-trimmed white PSA logos along its fuselage, with a whimsical black button “nose” and “smiley face” painted under the cockpit.11

Introduced in 1972, PSA’s “Grinningbirds” were synonymous with the company’s self-promoting ad campaign as the “World’s Friendliest Airline.” The epitome of the “Swinging Sixties,” the airline often had been criticized for being “too friendly:” low air fares, comic cabin patter broadcast over the in-flight intercom, and attractive mini-skirt and later hot pants-wearing flight attendants instructed to “make nice” with the male passengers.12

The San Diego-based airline was proud that it did not have a serious accident during its then 29-year-old history.13 There was a close call, however, on January 15, 1969. One of PSA’s Boeing 727-100 airliners flying from San Francisco to Ontario had bumped the right wing of a Cessna 182L aircraft while the latter was climbing to its cruising altitude. The shaken Cessna pilot returned immediately to the San Francisco airport. The PSA pilot, after assessing that the damage was negligible, chose to continue to his intended destination. A post-collision report determined that both pilots had “failed to see and avoid the other aircraft.”14 This incident was chillingly similar to what would take place over San Diego nine years .

Aircraft similar to PSA Boeing that crashed in North Park. ©SDHC #727-214: N533PS.

On September 25, 1978, as Flight 182 descended to 4,000 feet above Mission Bay, Miramar directed Captain McFeron to notify Lindbergh Field’s air traffic control that he was now entering its Terminal Service Area, which would provide him with radar vectoring, sequencing and traffic advisories prior to his landing on runway 27.15 Before transitioning control, Miramar advised Captain McFeron that a Cessna 172 Skylark, call sign N7711G, was heading in his direction.16

Gibbs Flite Center Cessna N7711G

The Cessna N7711G was owned by the Gibbs Flite Center which operated a flight school out of Montgomery Field, a small general aviation airport located four miles northeast of Lindbergh. Inside the Cessna’s cramped 4-seat cabin were David Lee Boswell and Martin Kazy. Although he had only worked at Gibbs for slightly over a year, Kazy, who held a commercial pilot license with single and multi-engine instruments, had worked for several years previously as a certified flight instructor in Ohio. Kazy was instructing Boswell, a 35-year-old United States Marine gunnery sergeant on extended leave from Camp Pendleton. Boswell also held a commercial pilot license with single and multi-engine land rating. He was learning the intricacies of the aircraft’s ILS or Instrument Landing System.17 Once certified, Boswell could land any ILS-equipped aircraft at night or under adverse weather conditions following an airport-emitted radio beam without seeing its runway until just before touching down.18

Although it was the nation’s busiest single runway airport, Lindbergh Field was the only airport in San Diego County set up for ILS certification training. That meant the little Cessna would have to compete with larger commercial aircraft for air space over the airport. Under Kazy’s supervision, Boswell had made several practice landing approaches to Lindbergh Field’s runway wearing a special hooded plastic visor that focused his attention solely on the dashboard-mounted ILS dial.19

Both Cessna N7711G and PSA Flight 182’s Boeing 727-214 were equipped with on-board transponders hooked up to their respective dashboard-mounted ILS instrument gauges that indicated each plane’s heading, altitude and glide path. The transponders relayed information identifying each aircraft’s Call Number and computed air speed and altitude to both Lindbergh and Miramar, the groundbased air traffic controllers. That information, however, was not shared with the approaching aircraft.20

Satisfied with his use of the on-board ILS system, Boswell notified Lindbergh Tower that he was climbing the Cessna away from the airport in a northeasterly direction for its flight back to Montgomery Field. In response, at 08:59:01 Lindbergh Tower instructed him to maintain VFR procedures no higher than 3,500 feet and to contact the Miramar Approach Control Center for further instructions.21 After doing so, at 08:59:57 Miramar told him that they had him on radar at an altitude of 1,500 feet, and reiterated Lindbergh’s directions to stay below 3,500 feet along a northeasterly 70 degree heading.22

The Unfortunate Series of Events

Previously, at 08:59.30, Miramar had notified PSA 182 of “traffic [at] twelve o’clock, one mile, northbound.” Captain McFeron responded, “We’re looking.” Six seconds later, Miramar reported Cessna N7711G (Boswell and Kazy’s aircraft) as “additional traffic” on a northeast course at an altitude of 1,400 feet and climbing. At 08:59:50, First Officer Fox responded, “Ok, we’ve got that other twelve.” This would indicate that there were two smaller private aircraft flying dead ahead and below his aircraft.23

Aircraft similar to Gibbs Flite Center’s Cessna N7711G. Public domain.

Peering through his aircraft’s narrow windshield, at 09:00:21 Flight Officer Fox informed Captain McFeron, “Got ‘em,” after which he radioed Miramar, “Traffic in sight.”24 Miramar then directed Captain McFeron to “maintain visual separation” from any approaching air traffic, and to contact Lindbergh Field’s control tower that he was beginning his final approach.25

It is important to note that to “maintain visual separation” meant that, despite ground radar-based controllers who could provide them with either vertical or lateral separation criteria, the burden of maintaining separation was solely on Captain McFeron and his flight crew. Known as a “see and avoid” situation, they had to maintain constant visual surveillance on the Cessna until it landed or proceeded on a diverging course. Basically, in layman’s terms, they had to keep the Cessna in their sight and not hit it.26

While Lindbergh Control was now responsible for PSA Flight 182’s final approach, Cessna N7711G was under Miramar’s guidance, which, at 09:00:00 directed it to continue to maintain its 70 degree heading under VFR at or below 3,500 feet.27 At 09:00:31, Miramar informed Boswell that there was “traffic at six o’clock [directly behind them], two miles, eastbound; a PSA jet inbound to Lindbergh Field, out of 3,200 [feet altitude that], has you in sight.” Boswell immediately radioed his acknowledgment.28

As PSA Flight 182 began its diagonal transit across Mission Valley, Captain McFeron informed Lindbergh Control that it was beginning its downwind approach. At 09:00:38 the latter acknowledged and advised him that there was “traffic, twelve o’clock, one mile, a Cessna.”29 Peering out the cabin windshield, Captain McFeron asked, “Is that the one [we’re] looking at?” “Yeah,” Fox replied, “but I don’t see him now.” At 09:00:44, McFeron reportedly told Lindbergh Control, “Okay, we had it there a minute ago.” Followed by, “I think he’s pass[ed] off to our right” or “I think he’s passing off to our right.”30

According to later testimony given by the air traffic controller monitoring PSA Flight 182’s approach, he thought he heard Captain McFeron use the word “passing,” which he interpreted as Captain McFeron had observed Cessna N7711G passing to his right. Because the controller believed that the flight crew “knew as much or more about the traffic than I did…,” he “did not relay any further information to him.” All of this helped to seal both aircrafts’ doom.31

There seemed to be a state of confusion among PSA 182’s cabin crew. At 09:00:52 Captain McFeron remarked, “He [the Cessna] was right over there a minute ago.” Twenty seconds later, Fox asked, “Are we clear of that Cessna?” Flight Engineer Wahne responded with, “Supposed to be” while the captain said, “I guess.” An off-duty captain, also in the cockpit, added, “I hope.”32

Perhaps to ease the tension, at 09:01:21 Captain McFeron stated, “Oh, yeah, before we turned downwind, I saw him about one o’clock, probably behind us now.” 33 It has been suggested that Captain McFeron might have been referring to a Cessna 401, call sign N3208Q, that was also conducting ILS approach landings while in radio contact with Lindbergh Field between 08:58 and 09:05. An experienced PSA flight crew, however, should have been able to differentiate between the larger twin-engine, low-wing, six-to-eight-passenger Cessna 401 and the smaller single-engine, high-wing, four-passenger Cessna 172 at close range.34

It is entirely possible that, at 09:01:38, seven seconds after lowering the airliner’s landing gear, Flight Officer Fox’s radio transmission, “There’s one underneath” and “I was looking at that inbound there,” could have meant that he was referring to the Cessna 401 flying along a western heading to conduct practice ILS landings.35 If Captain McFeron had informed Lindbergh Control that he had lost visual contact with Cessna N7711G, the latter would have stopped PSA 182’s descent and told them to hold their position.36

The question remained, where was Cessna N7711G?

According to later ground radar tracking printouts, Cessna N7711G was climbing at 120 mph about 1,300 feet below and ahead of Flight 182. Without informing Miramar, its heading had changed from 70° to 90° due east, which placed it directly in the path of the rapidly descending Boeing jetliner.37 While PSA Flight 182’s deck crew could monitor both Miramar and Lindbergh Field’s control tower transmissions, the Cessna’s on-board radio was only tuned to the Miramar air traffic controllers’ transmissions. If Boswell or Kazy had had access to Lindbergh Field’s transmissions, they likely would have identified their location in relation to PSA Flight 182.38 Since Miramar had informed them that Flight 182 had them in sight, presumably neither felt compelled to actively locate the huge jet airliner bearing down on them.

Visibility was a problem for both planes. During its descent, the Boeing jet airliner was in a “nose up deck approach” which meant that it was almost next to impossible for its flight crew to see the small Cessna flying directly below it.39 The overhead position of the climbing Cessna 172 Skyhawk’s cantilevered wing would have restricted Boswell and Kazy’s rear view.40

At 09:01:28, Miramar’s radar-activated automated conflict alert alarm sounded, warning of an impending collision between the two aircraft.41 Installed only a month earlier, the system gave the ground controller no more than 40 seconds notice to warn the approaching aircraft. Instead of immediately notifying either aircraft of an impending collision, nineteen seconds after the alarm Miramar reportedly only advised Cessna N7711G that there was “traffic in your vicinity, a PSA jet has you in sight [which was erroneous], he’s descending for Lindbergh.” Neither Boswell nor Kazy acknowledged the transmission. Incredulously, Miramar did not inform PSA 182 or Lindbergh Control about the conflict alert warning.42

PSA Plane Crash, 1978. ©SDHC #2016.61.1.

“Tower, We’re Going Down, This Is PSA.”

At 09:01:47.9, just as PSA Flight 182 tipped its right wing down into banked turn roughly 2,600 feet above the intersection of 30th Street and El Cajon Boulevard, it overtook and struck Cessna N7711G with its nose wheel. The 110-ton jet liner hooked and flipped the 2,100-pound Cessna upside down into the airliner’s right wing. The resulting impact tore the Cessna in half, causing one of its internal fuel tanks to rupture and explode along the right wing’s leading edge.43

As the sound of the 175-180 mph impact and explosion reverberated throughout the jet airliner’s cockpit, Flight Engineer Wahne swore. Captain McFeron plaintively muttered “Easy baby, easy baby,” with a hopeful “Yeah” (perhaps from Flight Officer Fox), as Fox struggled to control the increasingly unresponsive aircraft.44

Observers on the ground noted that the small Cessna’s bifurcated tail section seemed to drop “like a rag doll” before landing near the intersection of Ohio Street and Polk Avenue.45 In the crumpled wreckage, police officers found Boswell’s mangled body still strapped to its seat.46 Kazy’s body traveled in the flaming nose section almost 10 blocks further east across the 805 Freeway before the section separated and crashed through a house’s front porch north of Polk Avenue and 33rd Street.47

Inside the stricken PSA jet airliner, at 09:01:51, Captain McFeron asked about the extent of the damage to his aircraft. Flight Officer Fox responded, “It’s bad.” When asked to elaborate, he emphatically stated, “We’re hit, man; we are hit!”48 Three seconds later, Captain McFeron calmly notified Lindbergh Field, “Tower, we’re going down, this is PSA.” Lindbergh Control responded with, “Okay, we’ll call the equipment for you.”49

PSA Flight 182’s true condition made it impossible that it would reach Lindberg Field. According to two now-famous photographs taken by San Diego County staff photographer George Wendt, the impacting Cessna had torn away or damaged about 30 feet of hydraulically actuated control slats and flaps along the starboard wing’s leading edge.50 Used to enhance the aircraft’s lifting and anti-stalling properties at low-speeds, their loss, plus the severing of associated hydraulic and electrical lines, caused the wing to drop.51 Despite the cabin crew’s best efforts to regain control, the aircraft, according to ground witnesses, “just nose-dived to [its] right” trailing a plume of smoke from a fire in its wing root.52

As his aircraft streaked towards the ground at over 300 mph, Captain McFeron’s last known radio transmission to Lindbergh Control was, “This is it, baby.” 53 Seconds before impact, Captain McFeron gave his last command, “Brace yourself.” Followed by someone in the cabin muttering, “Hey baby,” and a plaintive, “Ma, I love yah.”54

At 09:02:07, the jet liner—after traveling some 3,500 feet from the initial mid-air collision point on a heading of about 200 degrees in a right wing-low, nose down attitude—slammed nose-first approximately 80 feet northeast of the intersection of Nile and Dwight Streets. The compressive impact and resulting explosion of thousands of gallons of jet fuel sent a shock wave that registered two miles away on the San Diego Museum of Natural History’s seismograph 3.5 seconds later.55

PSA Plane Crash, 1978. ©SDHC 2016.61.2.

Crash debris. Archives, San Diego Air and Space Museum, #06:01568.

“This Is Not Happening”

Almost immediately, San Diego Fire Department (SDFD) fire crews rushed toward the rising mushroom cloud of oily black smoke.56 Among these was Firefighter John Rankin who along with his partner Steve Smith dealt with a hellish scene of burning homes amid acrid black smoke smelling of kerosene and charred flesh.57 Starting at Boundary Street, Rankin and Smith split up to conduct house-to-house searches along both sides of Dwight Street. While dragging a fire hose along the street, Rankin noticed, “My feet didn’t feel right on what was supporting me.” According to his later recollections, it was as if he were “walking on an unstable mound.” As the smoke cleared, he realized that he was “stepping on maybe thirty bodies piled ten to twelve feet round and about a foot and a half high…just a mound of body parts.”58

A ten-year SDFD veteran, Rankin was hardened to the sight of dead and mutilated human bodies. The PSA crash would test his endurance. While rushing toward a burning house, he stopped in his tracks. In front of him was a tall tree filled with “human bodies strung from the tree like decorations.” Standing transfixed, he “just closed [his] eyes and thought, ‘this is not happening.’” Shaking it off, he entered the house and spent the next two hours putting out fires and conducting additional house-to-house searches.59

Rankin was focused on his job when he met up with Smith at the end of Dwight Street. Rankin paused to look at the still smoldering crash site behind him before exclaiming, “Holy [expletive]! Where did all these people come from?” 60 What Rankin was referring to were hundreds of first responders, civilian, military and religious volunteers who were bravely putting out fires, searching for victims, saying prayers over and recovering bodies, as well as keeping looters or souvenir hunters out of the area well into the night.61

There were conflicting reports regarding looting at the crash site. One day after the crash, the San Diego edition of The Los Angeles Times reported, “five persons were arrested for looting, but officers said others escaped in the confusion.” It quoted SDPD spokesperson Bill Robinson, “People were taking anything they could grab.” Some, according to Robinson, were “seen carrying off armfuls of valuables.”62

Incensed by a Chicago-based, nationwide news broadcast that “battlehardened Marines were guarding the crash site from looters,” San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson ordered his staff to investigate the allegations. Within a month, Robinson recanted, explaining that a police officer who had been involved in transporting prisoners had given him the information at a prisoner-processing center. According to Robinson, police had made between 40 to 43 arrests that day on charges of failing to disperse. There were 3 other arrests for removing aircraft debris, or evidence, from the scene of an accident. No arrest reports charged anyone with looting human remains or damaged homes.63

Neighborhood scene. Archives, San Diego Air and Space Museum, #06:01566.

Volunteers removing aircraft engine debris in front of Nile and Dwight Streets. Author’s collection.

“That’s One of Ours”

After setting up a fire command center at the Sav-On drug store parking lot at University Avenue and 32nd Street, SDFD Battalion Chief Robert Osby jogged seven blocks south to the crash site to ascertain the situation.64 Arriving ahead of most city fire companies, Chief Osby was stunned to see a huge aircraft tail section lying in the street. Recognizing the letters “PSA” on its dorsal intake, he thought, “Damn! That’s San Diego’s airline; that’s one of ours.”65

Because of the aircraft’s speed and steep angle of descent, damage was confined to a relatively small area. As the aircraft exploded, however, it burst like a hand grenade, sending fiery debris-like shrapnel fanning out along a 500-footlong conical lane on both sides of Dwight Street, from Nile to Boundary Streets.66 Chief Osby was surprised to see that, amid the fires and choking black smoke, a U. S. Navy firefighting crew was already on the scene. So was San Diego Police Department (SDPD) Deputy Chief Duke Nyhus who directed the officers and civilians who bravely climbed into burning houses to look for victims. Osby had warned the latter that they were dangerously close to downed electric power lines or pools of raw aviation fuel. Volunteers covered bodies with sheets or blankets and brought pitchers of iced water to first responders laboring in 101-degree heat. Osby yelled at several individuals spraying garden hoses near burning magnesium aircraft parts.67 If sprayed, the latter could react violently to water, causing blinding explosions.68

As the ranking firefighter, Chief Osby met and ordered every additional arriving fire engine company coming down both Nile and Boundary Streets to proceed carefully due to the downed and ruptured power and gas lines. He also did not want any of their vehicles running over any bodies strewn across the streets.69 He later said, “[The fire crews] really didn’t need orders from me—they saw the fires, they saw the hydrants, and they went into action, laying down lines of hoses and beginning to fight the fires.” After encircling and converging upon the fire’s core, they were able to keep the fires confined to Dwight Street.70

Several local radio and television crews broadcast from the site. Among them were journalist John Britton and cameraman Steve Howell. KSDO radio news director Joe Gillespie calmly relayed up-to-date information from the crash site via a two-way car radio to his station’s morning news announcer, Hal Brown. Newspaper reporters, meanwhile, scrambled to write a series of informative and poignant articles in time for the late edition of The San Diego Evening Tribune. The newspaper’s coverage later earned it the Pulitzer Prize. The reports and images shocked the nation and the world.71

Grim Duty

Of the hundreds of law enforcement officers providing perimeter security around a nine-block area, or helping in the search and rescue efforts, fifteen novice SDPD recruits assisted the San Diego County Coroner’s Office in combing through the wreckage for any evidence that could help identify the victims.72 Among these was Gary Jaus. Although he had worked previously at the Clairemont Mortuary, he was shocked at the amount of human disjecta membra amid the wreckage surrounding him.73 According to Jaus,

Only a few bodies were recognizable as human. There were no faces on the bodies. There were few bodies to speak of—only pieces…I was no stranger to dead bodies, but I wasn’t ready to see the torso of a stewardess slammed against a car. 74

George Cassity, a young sailor scheduled for deployment the following day, was among the civilian volunteers. With no other protection than a pair of surgical gloves, he placed small, same-colored flags near dismembered body parts that looked like they might belong to a nearby corpse. He then tagged and placed the body parts in a plastic body bag along with the corpse. At first, he and other volunteers believed that they should treat the body parts with care and respect. However, “It was just too hot [and] there were too many [pieces]” Cassidy said. “After a time they just became objects of a rote task: pick it, identify it, pluck it, put it in a [yellow body] bag [and], zip it up.”75

St. Augustine Roman Catholic High School one-half mile southwest of the crash site. Public domain.

All 135 passengers and crew perished in the crash. The scattered remains also included those of seven North Park residents ranging in age from a 3-year-old at a daycare center to an 82-year-old grandmother in her home.76 Ambulances waiting to transport injured crash victims instead carried their bagged remains about a half mile southwest to the St. Augustine Roman Catholic High School gym building at 33rd and Nutmeg Streets. Originally set up as an emergency command post and Red Cross triage facility, it soon became an overcrowded temporary morgue.77

At the gym, nurses numbered and inventoried each bag’s contents. Priests then said prayers and daubed holy oil on the remains before zippers were closed. The numbered bags were loaded into one of four large refrigerated tractor-trailer trucks parked outside. By nightfall, the trucks delivered some 220 body bags to either the county morgue or private mortuaries. Post-mortem forensic specialists then began the tedious process of identifying the remains.78

Besides the local county coroner’s staff, the forensic investigation team included members of the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, two dentists, and the FBI’s “Disaster Squad,” which compared victims’ fingerprints with fingerprint files sent from the bureau’s Washington, D. C. headquarters.79 Local American Red Cross chapter volunteers looked at post office records and missing person reports. They also interviewed neighbors to make an exact determination of those killed on the ground.80 Once identified, arrangements were made to send the remains to local or out-of-town funeral homes.81

National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] and Boeing forensic investigators combed through the Boeing 727-214’s recovered remains. These were moved to an empty building associated with the General Dynamics-Convair plant at Lindbergh Field. During their initial investigation, investigators discovered pieces of the Cessna embedded in the jet airliner’s nose landing gear, which confirmed that the nose gear had struck the smaller aircraft before smashing into the starboard wing.82

Inside PSA’s Lindbergh Field headquarters building, special financial assistant Don Simonian, along with other staff, responded to a stream of phone calls asking the status of friends or loved ones on board PSA 182. By that afternoon, they were calling the next of kin of all those confirmed dead.83 “Of course our first concern is for the families of our regular passengers,” PSA President William Shimp stated during a subsequent press interview, “but we like to feel we [at PSA] are a family too, and…feel it as a family loss.”84 PSA employees resolutely continued to schedule flights in and out of Lindbergh Field.85

Navy Corpsmen search for remains at the corner of Nile and Dwight looking at part of tail engine marking
point of impact. Author’s collection.


Aerial view of crash scene. Author’s collection.

Family and friends of the seven individuals killed on the ground grieved. Gary Bruce Walker lost his 3-year-old son and his mother. He was one of many victims’ surviving family members who brought a lawsuit against PSA.86 Other North Park residents suffered the loss of their homes. The crash damaged or destroyed about 28 houses. The airline would eventually pay over $5.5 million in settlements to claimants for property damage as well as wrongful death suits.87

Nine people were injured in the crash, most of whom survived by crawling out of the back windows of their burning homes. Some just missed getting hit by debris or bodies hurtling through the air. Two bodies slammed into a car on Boundary Street. When rescue workers removed a torso from the windshield, they were shocked to see the car’s driver, Mary Fuller, still alive. The 33-year-old mother and her eight-month-old son had only suffered minor lacerations to their hands and foreheads, though they were splattered with blood.88

Hidden Wounds

Wounds of another kind affected dozens of police, firefighters, clergy, volunteers, and other first responders mentally shaken from the horrors they witnessed that day. St. Augustine High School priests Father James Clifford and Father John Ranallo suffered shock after what they saw before them.89 As he knelt over a yellow plastic body bag containing what looked like a human being, Father Clifford confided, “John, I don’t think I can do this.” “I can’t either,” said the young priest, “but, maybe we can do it together” They administered last rites at the temporary morgue for the rest of the day.90 They regarded the simple act as “The last touch that can be given to a fellow human being in the name of the family who couldn’t say goodbye to them.” Father Ranallo later confessed that “At least [it] was something we could do when we saw the futility” [of our being there].91

Weeks, months, and years later, many first responders suffered from bouts of melancholia, crying for no reason or waking up from nightmares brought about by what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.92 As one first responder, a uniformed serviceman, noted at the crash site, “Now you know what we went through in Vietnam.”93

Years later, another first responder, SDPD officer Bill Farrar, lamented, I drive by the crash location about once a year.

I usually get out and walk past the rebuilt homes and past the sidewalks and streets where so many died. I get in fresh touch with memories that will never go away. I know that there are many others, just like me, who felt so helpless that Monday. We will never get over it.94

A cloud of shock and depression also affected PSA’s employees and regular customers. Many had personally worked with at least one person on Flight 182. San Diegans who regarded PSA as their regional airline shared their loss.95

Images of the crash remained vivid for eyewitnesses who saw the midair collision, the falling aircraft, and the monstrous explosion that produced a towering column of black smoke from miles away. It also affected those unable to turn away from up-to-the-minute live news reports on their television sets that day.96

The Aftermath

The PSA disaster, the worst crash in United States commercial aviation history at the time, reignited the often-acrimonious debate over the location of Lindbergh Field. Many people demanded that the airport be moved to a less populated area, anticipating that increased air traffic would result in an even greater disaster.97 Opponents, including then-Mayor Pete Wilson, countered that the location of the airport was not the problem. Lindbergh Field is presently in its original location.98 Following a one-year investigation, the NTSB concluded that PSA 182’s cabin crew was primarily responsible for the mid-air collision that led to the crash because they had not notified Lindbergh Control that they had lost visual contact with Cessna N7711G.99

Pressure from flight crew and airline pilot associations, however, compelled the NTSB to reopen the case.100 The Air Line Pilots Association, for example, pointed out a major flaw in the “see-and-avoid approach.” They argued that such an approach frequently produced “erroneous identification by pilots of air traffic reported by controllers.”101 Another critic, J. W. Olcott, proposed in the August 1979 issue of Business and Commercial Aviation that the PSA flight crew had a “significant factor working against them…the subconscious belief that [Air Traffic Control] and the radar environment…would protect them from the catastrophe of a midair collision.”102

While it did not exonerate the PSA flight crew, an amended NTSB 1982 report cited other factors that contributed to the crash. These included the local air traffic controllers’ use of visual separation procedures when radar was available, and their failure to advise the flight crew of Cessna N7711G’s direction of movement. They also noted the improper resolution of the conflict alert warning.103

Conspicuous by its absence from the report was disgruntled former PSA pilot Robert P. Chapman’s prior claim that the NTSB had totally ignored pilot fatigue as a factor that contributed to the crash. A 14-year veteran pilot, Chapman had filed a lawsuit against PSA in 1981 for wrongful termination and emotional distress. He claimed that he was fired after reporting the difficult working conditions that most likely contributed to the PSA flight crew’s mental and physical impairment. Supporting Chapman’s claim was an unsuccessful 50-day strike by PSA pilots seeking improved work schedules.104

San Jose State University biologists also supported the case for pilot fatigue. Professors W. J. Price, a pilot, and D.C. Holley were biological scientists who studied the effects of work on the mind. In a treatise presented at the 1982 International Symposium of Night and Shift Work in Kyoto, Japan, they argued that that PSA’s poor shift scheduling had resulted in chronic sleep and nutritional deprivation. As evidence they cited a remark by Captain McFeron before taking off from Los Angeles. He was overheard saying to a stewardess, “It was a short night…I’m draggin’!” Thirty minutes later he and 143 people were dead, deaths that Price, Holley, and Chapman believed were preventable.105

The Legacy

Like most tragic aviation-related accidents, the crash of PSA Flight 182 led to immediate and long-range improvements to both local and national air traffic control procedures. These included the immediate implementation of a Terminal Radar Service Area around Lindbergh Field, as well as a review and similar upgrade of other national airports. Instead of relying primarily on pilots’ use of the flawed “see and avoid” procedure, air traffic controllers would now use mandatory ground-based positive radar control to monitor and direct all approaching and departing aircraft.106

On May 15, 1980, the FAA established a Class B (Class Bravo) Airspace over Lindbergh Field. Created over several airports in the aftermath of a 1960 midair collision over New York City, a Class B airspace designation provided better separation and control in high traffic areas. By placing this designation over Lindbergh Field airspace, all aircraft flying within it had to be equipped with an operating on-board transponder, making them clearly visible on ground controllers’ radar screens. The San Diego Approach Control at Miramar would be responsible for all aircraft flying within this invisible 30-mile diameter zone between 12,500 and 2,500 feet altitude. Once aircraft got below 2,500 feet, Lindbergh Field’s control tower would take over all landing approach control procedures. Controllers at both facilities were now able to view the same radar picture, which, through the transponders, identified each aircraft by its flight number, altitude, and heading.107

To prevent a reoccurrence of a mid-air collision over San Diego (or any other major US city), the FAA banned all “blind” ILS practice landing and non-ILScertified aircraft from all Class B airspace. Such activities were relegated to smaller “feeder” airfields, like San Diego’s Montgomery and Brown Fields, El Cajon’s Gillespie Field, and Carlsbad’s McClellan-Palomar Airport, all of which were upgraded to facilitate ILS control pilot training.108

Arguably, the most important historical aftereffect of the crash of PSA Flight 182—and an eerily similar mid-air collision between an Aeroméxico jet airliner and a private aircraft over Cerritos on August 31, 1986—was the accelerated development of an effective modern aircraft Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS).109 Early versions of the TCAS had been in development since June 30, 1956, when two commercial airliners collided over the Grand Canyon. But those versions were impractical due to their complexity.110 The current TCAS, introduced in 1987, is now installed in all commercial passenger and most commercial cargo airplanes. Its on-board radar beacon sensors, encoding altimeters, transponders, and computers automatically give pilots direct, immediate knowledge of potential mid-air collisions. It also recommends avoidance maneuvers.111

The crash of PSA Flight 182 also played a role in the development of anticollision technology for automobiles. In 1991, a local San Diego firm, Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems or IVHS Technologies, developed and introduced similar anti-collision technology for automobiles. Known as VORAD (Vehicle On-Board Radar), it works like a police radar gun, emitting low-output microwave signals that continuously scout for obstacles closer than 300 feet ahead of a vehicle. If an approaching vehicle gets too close, the system automatically engages the vehicle’s braking system, thereby avoiding a dangerous collision. First installed in Greyhound buses in 1992, IVHS Technologies’ VORAD has become standard safety components in all modern domestic and foreign-made automobiles operating within the United States.112

Knowing that changes made after the September 25, 1978, mid-air collision over North Park might have contributed to saving thousands of lives since offers some solace to those still scarred emotionally by the loss of family and friends that day. It is difficult for many people to go back to the crash site in North Park. Surviving resident Stanley Cichy reports that the rebuilt neighborhood, “Looks normal again…different, but normal.” On or near the September 25 anniversary date, people often leave signs and flowers, or scrawl the names of the crash victims in colored chalk at the corner sidewalk across from Nile and Dwight Streets. But some eye witnesses, surviving family members and first responders hesitate to attend these impromptu gatherings.113

There is no memorial on Dwight Street to honor the victims, first responders, or volunteers.114 The three bronze memorial plaques dedicated to the crash victims are located some distance from the crash site. The closest is a small plaque sitting in front of a memorial tree planted outside the North Park branch library. The two furthest away are large bronze plaques now on display at a PSA exhibit in Balboa Park’s San Diego Air & Space Museum. The museum rescued one that had been removed from its original location near the entrance to the PSA headquarters building on Harbor Drive after USAir purchased PSA in 1987.115 If a future memorial is built on or closer to the crash site, its design and placement should not intrude upon what is once again a quiet unassuming streetscape. If nothing else, a memorial might acknowledge, and perhaps lessen the trauma that, for some, will never go away.