Mystery still surrounds cause of crash

By Steve Korris | Dec 8, 2006

HUNTINGTON – Southern Airways quickly settled wrongful death claims from the Marshall University airplane crash of 1970, but the airline could have contested charges that its negligence caused the crash.

After all, no one ever figured out where to pin the blame.

In rainy darkness, the twin engine DC-9 approached Tri-State Airport 318 feet lower than it should have. It hit trees on a hill, rolled to earth and exploded.

To the last instant, pilot Frank Abbott and first officer Jerry Smith believed they flew at the correct altitude.

The National Transportation Safety Board could not account for the difference between their confident perception and awful reality.

The Air Line Pilots Association argued that Abbott and Smith must have received bad information from their altimeters, but safety board members did not agree.

The safety board found no evidence that both altimeters failed.

Nor would they buy the notion that Smith's altimeter failed and Abbott steered down without checking Smith's calls on his own altimeter.

Audiotape of casual conversation between cockpit and controller only deepened the mystery.

All eyes then turned downward, to the oil refinery on Big Sandy River.

The safety board tried to figure out how a valley full of light might have influenced Abbott's descent.

Abbott had not landed at Huntington, nor had he taken off there the day before.

The safety board wrote, "It is possible that the sighting of these lights, in combination with the knowledge that they were approaching the bottom of the lowest could layer, could have induced the captain to continue the descent below Minimum Descent Altitude in order to see the runway environment at the earliest moment."

They raised a possibility of "a visual illusion produced by the difference in the elevation of the refinery and the airport."

They wrote, "The height above both lights would appear to be about 700 feet, whereas the actual height above the approach lights would have been only 400 feet, due to the 300 foot difference in elevation between the refinery and the approach lights."

They tossed the theory in the dustbin with the rest. They wrote that evidence strongly suggested the crew never saw approach lights or any part of the runway environment.

Besides, they wrote, an illusion would have prompted Abbott to descend more quickly, which did not happen.

That conclusion made no sense. Abbott would not have changed a thing if he expected to find the airport as far below as the refinery.

In fact, for an airport at the refinery's elevation he flew perfectly.

The height difference between the refinery and the airport matches the difference between where he flew and where he should have flown.

The refinery at least accounts for his calm approach. Dropping from clouds, he must have felt secure seeing a sea of light several hundred feet below.

The real culprit in the crash could have been the rugged West Virginia surface, which from the beginning made the airport more dangerous than most.

Airport directors found enough level land for a runway, but not enough level land for antennae that would guide pilots as a last resort.

Most commercial airports offered this "glide scope" as part of the system for landing by instruments.

Three times Huntington airport directors applied for federal funds to squeeze in a glide scope. Twice the Federal Aviation Administration turned them down.

The third application awaited a decision when Abbott hit the trees.

After that, the FAA quickly found a way to give Huntington a glide scope.

The safety board's 1972 report offered the ingenious new arrangement as an example to other airports in rough terrain.

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