Memorial Day

May 27, 2024

IT WAS THE FRIDAY of Memorial Day weekend, 1979. I was in seventh grade, and a diehard airplane buff. It was a warm and sunny afternoon, and I was sitting in the dining room of the house I grew up in when the phone rang. It was a friend from school. He told me to turn on the television.

It had been a sunny day in Chicago, too, when just after 3 p.m. American Airlines flight 191, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 with 271 people on board, roared down runway 32L at O’Hare International Airport, headed for Los Angeles. Just as the plane lifted off, its left engine broke loose. The entire engine, which weighed about eight thousand pounds, together with its connecting pylon and about three feet of the wing’s leading edge, flipped up over the wing and slammed back onto the runway.

As the engine ripped away, it severed hydraulic lines, releasing the hydraulic pressure that held the wing’s leading edge slats, deployed to provide critical lift during takeoff, in place. The slats then retracted, causing the left wing to stall. The plane rolled sharply to the left and plunged to the ground, disintegrating in a trailer park just beyond the airport perimeter.

Everybody aboard was killed, along with two people on the ground. With 273 fatalities, the crash of flight 191 was, and remains, the deadliest air disaster in U.S. history.

Descriptions of the accident are jarring enough. But we can see the horror, too, quite literally. Because a man named Michael Laughlin captured what might be the most haunting aviation photographs ever taken: a sequence of pictures showing the stricken jet literally sideways in the sky, in the throes of that ghastly twist to the left. And then the explosion. I don’t have permission to republish the photos here, but Google will oblige your queries.

When pylon cracks were found in several other DC-10s, the entire U.S. fleet was grounded for several weeks by the FAA. American, United, Northwest, Western and Continental were forced to pull their DC-10s from service. Foreign carriers were banned from flying DC-10s into the country.

NTSB investigators would eventually lay most of the blame on faulty maintenance practices, but design flaws played a role as well. Loss of those hydraulic lines should not have permitted the wing slats to unlock and retract, and the stall warning system lacked a critical redundancy. As it was, the pilots never realized their jet was stalling. Had they understood, aerodynamically, what was happening, it’s possible the catastrophe could’ve been averted. The NTSB also cited a lack of FAA oversight of air carrier maintenance protocols.

I’d flown with my family on an American DC-10 on a vacation to Bermuda only two months before O’Hare. In the photo below you can see my mother (in pink), my sister (yellow), and my grandmother (gray), climbing the airstairs on the Bermuda tarmac. It’s possible — who knows — this was the same jet that would plummet to earth on May 25th.

The DC-10 had a checkered past even before O’Hare. In 1972, the horrific crash of Turkish Airlines flight 981 outside Paris was blamed on a faulty cargo door and a poorly reinforced cabin floor. McDonnell Douglas had hurriedly designed a plane with a door that it knew was defective; then, in the aftermath, they tried covering the whole thing up. It was reckless, maybe even criminal.

The plane’s reputation was such that some people refused to ride on them. This included one passenger booked on AA 191 who, learning that the flight would be operated by a DC-10, switched his travel plans at the last minute, effectively saving his life.

After the 191 crash, American began swapping out the “DC-10 Luxury Liner” decals from the plane’s nose, replacing them with a more generic “American Airlines Luxury Liner.”

So where am I going with this? I’m not sure, to be honest. But here on the 45th anniversary of flight 191, on Memorial Day no less, the story feels important.

And it hardly needs saying that what happened to the DC-10 reminds us in no small way of the ongoing drama of Boeing’s 737 MAX. The similarities are uncanny: multiple crashes, a grounding, a manufacturer accused of negligence and shoddy design.

In the case of the DC-10, fines were paid, lawsuits were settled, technical fixes were put in place. The plane soldiered on and McDonnell Douglas regained the public’s trust (mostly; the 1989 United crash in Sioux City was another black eye). Time works wonders that way. How things will pan out for the MAX, and for Boeing, remains to be seen.

For a thirteen year-old airplane nut in Boston, the most exciting thing about the FAA grounding in ’79 was a temporary influx of exotic airplanes into Logan. For a month carriers would substitute other types. United’s DC-10 to Chicago became a 747 — the only 747 I’d ever seen in that carrier’s livery. Swissair brought in DC-8s, Lufthansa sent 707s. And so on. New planes, new colors. I couldn’t get to the airport fast enough.

You can always count on a kid, I guess, to find a silver lining in something so awful as a plane crash.