There are many Beatles connections in our culture, including movies, TV shows, books, fashion and even the news. Most of them are upbeat, but occasionally a connection exists with a tragic event. Thirty years ago, on July 9, 1982, Pan Am Flight 759 crashed shortly after takeoff in New Orleans, killing all 145 on board and eight people on the ground.
BEATLES CONNECTION TO TRAGIC AIR PLANE CRASH
The weather in New Orleans on July 9, 1982, was described as freakish. While afternoon thunderstorms are common in the summer months, this one seemed different. It was more intense and accompanied by strong winds and lightening.
As Pan Am Flight 759 sat on the runway at New Orleans International Airport, Captain Kenneth McCullen ran through abort takeoff procedures with his first officer. He mentioned that takeoff could be “heavy” and instructed his co-pilot to “let your airspeed build up on takeoff.” McCullen was an experience pilot who recognized the potential dangers posed by the storm, but had no idea of what would be waiting for him at the end of the runway.
It was Friday, and many of the passengers were looking forward to a weekend of gambling in Las Vegas. As sheets of rain battered the Boeing 727, some of them must have been apprehensive about the weather. But none of them knew they were gambling with their lives just by being on the plane.
Earlier the flight crew heard the tower advise an incoming plane of low level windshear in the northeast quadrant of the airport. The first officer asked the tower for a wind check and was told that there was low level windshear in all quadrants and that the front appeared to be passing over right now. “We’re right in the middle of everything.”
At 4:08 pm Flight 759 began heading down the runway into gusty variable winds and heavy rain. Takeoff appeared normal, but the plane was unable to climb past 100 to 150 feet as it encountered a violent downburst of windshear pushing it towards the ground. About a minute later one of its wings clipped a tree. The jet then hit a powerline and plowed into a row of houses, exploding on impact.
First responders included police and medics, although it quickly became apparent that there would be no survivors on the plane and that there would be casualties on the ground. Nick Congemi, who at the time was a part-time Kenner policeman and a Pan Am employee, recalled that it “was like a bomb had landed in the middle of our city…it was like walking through hell. You’re walking through this fire and mayhem.”
Although the death toll included all 145 aboard the plane and eight on the ground, a policeman found a 16-month old baby girl alive under an overturned crib. The miraculous survival of the child was the only bright spot of the tragedy.
The subsequent investigation into the cause of the crash led to increased awareness of the dangers of windshear. As a result, airports now have sophisticated equipment to detect windshear.
The Beatles connection to Flight 759 is that the plane involved in the crash was named Clipper Defiance. Pan Am had a practice of naming its airplanes. When a plane was taken out of service, its name was often reused. The first Clipper Defiance was a Douglas DC-4 (number N6104C), which was placed in service in 1946. After the plane was retired, Pan Am gave the name to one of its new Boeing 707 jets (number N704PA) in 1959. It was this Clipper Defiance that brought the Beatles to America for the first time on February 7, 1964. The last and tragic Clipper Defiance was a Boeing 727 (number N4737), which was placed into service in 1980.