TWA flight 6
The Bronson Cutting accident
Serling’s (1983) narrative of Transcontinental & Western Airlines (TWA) flight 6 discusses similarities with the crash of American Airlines flight 166, including weather reporting and forecasting errors and radio communication issues (p. 55). This first fatal crash of the Douglas DC-2 occurred on May 6, 1935, near Kirksville, Missouri. 5 of the 13 people on board died (Rimson, 1998). One of the fatalities was Senator Bronson Cutting of New Mexico (Serling, 1983, p. 55). Had it not been for Senator Cutting’s presence on the flight, the accident would probably have been forgotten. The flight consisted of two airplanes flying the scheduled route together. The first flight departed approximately 30 minutes prior to the second (Serling, 1983, p. 54).
Senator Cutting boarded the second airplane of the flight in Albuquerque, heading for Kansas City. The DC-2’s faulty radio transmitter received only the daytime company frequency, but the flight departed at night. The flight’s captain, Harvey Bolton, elected to depart because Weather Bureau reports called for clear skies along the route. The radio’s continual issues made it impossible for the flight to respond to the dispatcher, who finally told Captain Bolton to continue to Kansas City as the first airplane of the flight had just landed there despite poor visibility and low ceilings. In the 30 minutes it took for the second airplane to fly to Kansas City, the weather dropped below landing minimums. Once flight 6 arrived over the airport, it had less than 45 minutes of fuel on board. TWA’s worried meteorologist phoned a nearby oil refinery to ask them to “ignite extra gas so Bolton might spot the flames” (Serling, 1983, p. 54).
Haueter, checked the weather at Kirksville, an emergency airport 120 miles northwest of Kansas City. Kirksville was below landing minimums, so Haueter advised flight 6 to proceed to Burlington, Iowa, the next available airport. Unfortunately, Burlington was 250 miles away, and flight 6 did not have enough fuel for 250 more miles. Captain Bolton headed toward Kirksville and attempted to descend through the overcast to make visual contact with the ground. Visual contact occurred only a few feet from the ground, and the DC-2 slammed into a 60-foot embankment and immediately flipped over (Serling, 1983, p. 54).
Serling (1983) describes the chaotic investigations after the accident:
"The Department of Commerce…was literally investigating itself and proceeded to lay most of the blame on everybody but itself…The only criticism levied against the government was the Weather Bureau’s inaccurate forecast and its failure to advise Flight 6 that Kansas City minimums had dropped below legal limits." (p. 55)
The specific “contributory causes” cited by the Board included “failure of TWA ground personnel at Kansas City to expeditiously redispatch the airplane to a field where better weather existed when it became apparent that the ceiling at Kansas City was dropping” (Rimson, 1998). Rimson (1998) states that TWA soon rebutted the findings of the Department of Commerce Investigation Board, and the Senate hearings included testimony from R. W. Schroeder, Chief of the Air Line Inspection Service. Schroeder testified: "…the accident started to happen when the pilot, still only a half hour out of Wichita enroute to Kansas City and knowing he was without two-way radio communication, first encountered instrument meteorological conditions. Yet both TWA's Captain and dispatcher sanctioned continuation into the weather and a fruitless attempt to land at Kansas City before attempting to continue on to a suitable alternate landing field." (Rimson, 1998)
The major outcome of the Bronson Cutting accident was the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, establishing an independent Air Safety Board for accident investigation and an independent Civil Aeronautics Authority (Serling, 1983, p. 55). It also highlighted the importance of better weather forecasting resulting in a more timely and correct information flow between both pilots and dispatchers.