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American Airlines flight 166

A series of high profile accidents in the mid-1930s led to safety reform and formalized certification of aircraft dispatchers. The first of these accidents involved a Curtiss-Wright T-32 Condor II, NC-12363, operating as American Airlines flight 166 on December 28, 1934. Newman (2008) states that brothers Ernie and Dale Dryer crewed the flight. They were former barnstormers and friends of Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, and other aviation luminaries. Flight 166’s trip sequence included flights from Boston to Albany, Syracuse, Cleveland, and ultimately, Chicago. One revenue-generating passenger and one dead-heading company pilot boarded at Boston, and ramp agents loaded the airplane with mail and packages (Newman, 2008).

The flight landed at Syracuse without incident, and Ernie Dryer called the American Airlines dispatcher at Albany. The dispatcher briefed Dryer about a blizzard to the west over Lake Erie and Cleveland. The dispatcher cleared the flight to return to Albany, but neither the dispatcher nor the crew realized that the winter storm had moved north. About 35 minutes into the flight, the aircraft lost its radio antenna due to ice buildup, and the right engine started to lose power due to excessive carburetor ice accumulation. The Condor II had no wing deicing system, but it did have propeller deicing capability. In an attempt to manually deice the aircraft, the crew hand-pumped alcohol to the propellers. Chunks of ice slid off the propellers and slapped the fabric-covered fuselage. The pilots lost forward visibility, and with the ice building up on the wings, the aircraft lost altitude. It crashed into a grove of trees, its impact cushioned by tree branches (Newman, 2008).

Newman’s (2008) account describes the amazing overnight survival of the crew and passengers. By morning, they used remaining aircraft battery power and a repaired aircraft radio to inform the dispatcher at Albany that they were alive but required immediate assistance. In the late afternoon, a search aircraft finally spotted the crash site. Dale Dryer suffered a broken jaw; no one else was injured more seriously (Newman, 2008). The Bureau of Air Commerce determined the probable cause to be “the failure of the company to have on duty in the Division Control Office a competent dispatcher in charge of flight control” (Aviation Safety Network, 2018). While the dispatcher did clear the flight to return to Albany directly into the path of a blizzard, it is doubtful as to whether the dispatcher intentionally sent the flight into the storm. More likely, weather reporting and forecasting in 1934 caused an erroneous understanding of the storm’s position. Less than six months later, another weather-related accident sparked public outcry and generated a United States Senate investigation (Serling, 1983, p. 55).