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60 years later, survivor recalls plane crash

60 years later, survivor recalls plane crash

Stewardess Pearl Ruth Moon shot a final glance at the children on her flight before pushing toward her own seat and the hope of safety. She had taken a chance by getting up to secure the children.

» Actual | Monday, January 2, 2012 • Air News Times
They had been sleeping but now appeared to be the most terrified as Continental Charters Flight 44-2 shook violently at low altitude just 38 minutes into its late-night trip from Pittsburgh to Buffalo.

At age 24, Moon was already a veteran stewardess. She immediately realized that the pilots and their plane were in serious trouble.

Within seconds of reaching her seat in the tail of the Curtiss C-46 passenger plane, two extra pilots on the flight jumped out of their front seats and stormed into the cockpit, insisting that they knew how to save the plane. Moon heard loud arguing and cursing among all four pilots in the cockpit and at the cockpit door. She gripped the arms of her seat as the passengers cried out in fear.

"I felt the first jerk, and I looked out the window, and I said, 'Oh, my God, what is this?'" Moon recalled during a recent interview in a North Carolina nursing home. "And then, it was over, just like that."

It took about four seconds and 933 feet of smashing, grinding, scraping, tossing and turning before it was over. The giant, twin-engine plane, once billed as the largest passenger plane in the world, mowed through the treetops of Bucktooth Ridge in the tiny farm community of Napoli, about 60 miles south of Buffalo.

The crash occurred six decades ago this past week.

Twenty-six of the 40 people on board Continental Charters 44-2 (no relation to the current Continental Airlines) were either killed or died soon after. The 14 survivors, including Moon, had been sitting in the aft section that twirled over and over until landing in a snowdrift.

They were stranded on that wooded mountaintop for two days and nights before rescuers were directed to them.

Moon clearly remembers the sickening feeling when she realized she was still alive in the frozen snow and the absolute blackness of the night. She saw a light in the distance and, along with another survivor, discovered that it was a flashlight that had been turned on during the crash. They used it to find even more survivors -- and to determine how many people were dead.

The only sound was the rustling wind and the creaking and hollow knocking of the bare branches. Survivors were trapped in the wreckage, the air was freezing cold, it was pitch black and death was all around them.

Moon, the only crew member to survive the crash, thought she, too, would die on the mountain. Sobbing from her painful memories of the crash 60 years earlier, Moon recently described finding the body of a 3-year-old girl, Judy Frankel, of Pittsburgh, in a tree. She found a 14-month-old baby, Jeffery Evans of Morgantown, W.Va., in the snow. He appeared to be sleeping, she said, but within minutes he died in her arms.

"It was a baby, and I picked him up and took off my coat and wrapped him up and ... I'm sorry," she said.

She could not continue.

Most of the survivors had serious injuries that prevented them from helping to organize a survival plan. But two of the men among the survivors, George Albert, a restaurant owner from Miami, and William Bischof, a Navy lieutenant from Johnstown, Pa., helped her move the injured passengers away from the plane and any danger of fire.

Moon said her flight attendant training, which consisted mostly of reading a Continental Charters company book, helped her with a critical decision: She determined that the passengers must stay near the wreckage and together. She credits Bischof for convincing the group to move several yards away from the wreckage where they were able to start a small fire in an old metal trash can they found in the woods.

 In the freezing cold, with little food and no idea where they were, the 14 survivors huddled around their small fire and waited for the help they believed would come right away. They thought search planes and rescuers would arrive within a few hours.

What they didn't know was that they would spend two days and nights in the cold on the mountain and that no one had any clue where they were.

 Pearl Moon was not supposed to be working on Dec. 29, 1951. It was her regular day off. She was called in to work by her Continental Charters, known in the days parlance as an "irregular" or "unscheduled" airline that used war surplus airplanes.

Such airlines offered drastically reduced fares on infrequent flights on various routes.

 The flight from Miami to Pittsburgh was uneventful, Moon said. But they were late in arriving in Pittsburgh because of minor mechanical problems that had delayed their ultimate departure from Miami.

A gate agent in Pittsburgh suggested they load the 29 passengers waiting in Pittsburgh for the return trip to Miami, into the plane for the Buffalo leg of the flight, and then fly directly from Buffalo to Miami to make up the lost time. The pilot, Victor A. Harris, 28, and co-pilot, Hans E. Rutzebeck, 33, agreed.

Moon recalled hearing Harris and Rutzebeck talking about the need to get to Buffalo quickly and wanting to fly under visual flight rules to accomplish their hasty schedule. Flying a visual flight plan to Buffalo required a direct, low-elevation route between the two cities. An instrument flight plan required an indirect route and a further delay in Pittsburgh for refueling.

The pilots did not take on any fuel in Pittsburgh, according to the official crash investigation report issued by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). The investigators also determined that the flight crew did not make an attempt to obtain a weather briefing from Flight Advisory Service for the route from Pittsburgh to Buffalo.

However, when one of the pilots called in a visual flight plan for Buffalo, a weather forecaster volunteered information that a visual flight plan was not possible because of poor weather at high elevations on mountainous ridges along the way.

At 9:47 p.m., Captain Harris lifted the former military transport plane off the runway at the Allegheny County Airport and headed north.

Three other Continental Charters crew members also were on board the plane. Veteran pilot Clarence Joseph Webber, 38, and co-pilot Gus Athas, 25, both of Miami, were scheduled to fly the plane from Buffalo to Miami. Stewardess Delores Beshears, 21, of Miami, also was aboard to work on the return flight.

Weather conditions on the night of Dec. 29, 1951, over northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York dictated an instrument flight from Pittsburgh to Buffalo was necessary for safety. Under instrument rules, the typical flight path would have been northwest to Lake Erie and then along the lakeshore to Dunkirk and into Buffalo.

Instead, the visual flight path the pilots selected took them directly north from Pittsburgh over the highest elevation in Pennsylvania and through the western foothills of New York's Allegheny Mountains.

Despite the low-elevation flight, the plane should have been able to clear the hills and small mountains along a direct route. But by the time the plane crossed the New York State border, it was already approaching 11 miles east of its true course for Buffalo and in a direct line with the higher elevations of the Allegheny foothills.

 The four pilots, three stewardesses, and 33 passengers were headed blindly into a small range of ridges, mountains and hills in western Cattaraugus County with elevations ranging from 1,860 feet at Hoxie Hill to 2,425 feet at Shutts Mountain. The crash occurred on an unnamed peak of Bucktooth Ridge at 2,380 feet elevation in the small farm town of Napoli.

The crash investigation report indicates that Continental Charters flew this route without considering it to be mountainous terrain. Witnesses at Steamburg and Onoville later reported the plane was flying so low they could see the lights in the cabin windows.

 Fight for survival

 The survivors of the crash had set up their makeshift camp about 100 yards away from the wreckage of the aft section of the plane. They had struggled to carry the injured passengers to their small fire, beneath a parachute they had stretched out for a tent.

On the morning after the crash, Bischof and Albert walked off through the snow in an attempt to find help. After about a mile, the Navy officer and Miami restaurant owner turned back. The deep, wet snow was too cold for their unprotected feet, and Bischof was slightly injured. They resigned themselves to spending another night atop the mountain.

Moon described the second night as the most painful. She was severely cold, tired and hungry, and even more afraid that she would die on the mountain.

"It was black outside, and it was so cold," she said.

They argued about who would die first as they ate oranges and drank instant coffee, made from melting snow over the small fire. They forced each other to stay awake for fear that they would not wake up and would freeze to death.

 The next morning, the survivors heard a train whistle in the distance. It renewed their spirit, and they devised a plan to go for help. Moon said that she took clothing from suitcases in the wreckage and wrapped Albert's feet so he could continue walking through the deep snow.

Bischof was too weak to go with Albert on this second attempt to get help. So, with his feet wrappings, Albert tramped off through the snow in the direction of the train whistle.

Newspaper accounts indicate that Albert was exhausted by the time he reached the nearest road, Sawmill Run, after tramping through deep snow off Bucktooth Ridge. He walked two miles downhill on Sawmill Run Road, and came to the Charles and Ruby Bryant farmhouse.

Mrs. Bryant was outside at the time, disposing of the family's Christmas tree. When she first saw Albert, she thought he had been out celebrating New Year's Eve early.

 John Bryant recalled that his mother brought Albert into the farmhouse where Bryant, his mother and his older brothers listened to the incredible story of the plane crash. The Bryants hadn't even heard the news about a missing plane. Their radio was not working during these last few weeks of the year.

The older Bryant boys started for the scene of the crash right away, while Albert stayed behind to report the crash with the Bryants' telephone.

"[My brothers] Rod and Stuart both put on winter gear and headed immediately for the crash site on foot, traveling overland through the woods," John Bryant recalled. "They were among the first to get there and helped carry out survivors."

In a call to the Cattaraugus County Sheriff's Department, Albert relayed the details of the tragic events.

"It wasn't long before Sawmill Run, and especially our house, was in chaos, with rescue personnel, newsmen, thrill seekers and traffic," Bryant said. "All the reporters wanted to use our telephone."

 Uphill from the Bryant house, the Herrick farm was also besieged with rescue workers. They got to the crash site from the farm and used the family's crawler-tractor to carry out survivors and the dead.

News reports ascribed different names for the first person to arrive at the crash scene. Whoever it was, he was witness to a horrible sight. Aside from the survivors huddled around the fire, bodies lay strewn about the woods and in the wreckage, cast along nearly a thousand feet of mountaintop. Survivors cried at the first sight of rescuers.

Someone snapped a photograph of the small band of passengers, cramped beneath a parachute, gripping blankets and coat collars to their chins to ward off the cold wind.

All 14 survivors were rushed to Salamanca General Hospital where nurses and doctors were waiting. It was a monumental task for such a small community. Newspaper photographers were eventually allowed into the hospital to take pictures and interview the survivors in their beds.


The crash was an event that changed the small Cattaraugus County communities for many years.

During interviews with the few people still alive who remember the crash, some said there were feelings of guilt among local residents that they didn't hear the crash, especially when word got out about the three children who died. And, it shocked the nation just as commercial aviation was beginning.

 The crash of Flight 44-2 was actually the third of four C-46 passenger plane crashes in 1951. To help alleviate the concerns of air travelers, on New Year's Day 1952, CAB Chairman Donald Nyrop traveled to the scene of the Continental Charters crash for a personal inspection.

Aware of the impact his visit would have on the public perception of air travel, Nyrop immediately announced that the cause "did not appear to be mechanical or structural failure of the airplane."

Within days of the crash of Flight 44-2, President Harry Truman sent a letter to Nyrop, requesting new safety rules on uncertified airlines.

The final CAB report concluded the cause of the crash was "the captain's poor judgment in attempting a flight by visual reference during instrument weather conditions."

 Continental Charters later adopted new rules prohibiting use of automatic pilot during instrument weather conditions, and while climbing and descending.

 The crash of Flight 44-2 also led to new federal airline safety regulations. On March 10, 1952, the board required that night visual flights on passenger planes in large aircraft be conducted only on designated routes and between airports equipped with radio communications. The days of the nonscheduled airlines loading up their passenger planes and taking off on their own terms, virtually unregulated, were over.

Timothy W. Lake is a 30-year veteran of newspaper, radio and television news reporting. A native of upstate New York, Lake's grandfather, David G. Shenefiel, Town of Napoli highway superintendent in 1951, was called upon to help clear a path for rescue teams to carry out the victims and survivors of the crash. Lake is currently the primary news anchor at NBC 10 in Philadelphia.

Buffalo News

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