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Front Page September 22, 2009  RSS feed

A black day in Buffalo’s history: Braniff Crash revisited

by Vanessa Goodwyn

Flo’s Evan Moore shared first-hand recollections. Flo’s Evan Moore shared first-hand recollections. This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of a tragedy which put Buffalo, Texas in the national headlines. Late in the evening of September 29, 1959, a commercial Braniff airline, Flight 542, was 23 minutes into a brief hop from Houston to Dallas, then scheduled to go to New York. The pilot made a routine radio report as the plane cruised through the warm and humid east Texas sky and a minute later, at 11:08 p.m., the aircraft -- a Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprop -- exploded and crashed about four miles south of Buffalo on the R.E. White farm, leaving no survivors.

According to the report in the Buffalo Press dated Thursday, October 1, the explosion was seen and the crash heard by several local residents. Mr. H. H. Pickens witnessed the explosion and immediately notified the Connally Air Force Base in Waco.

Flo rancher Evan Moore shared some first-hand memories of the incident, although he qualified his remarks: “If I make any mistakes, I’ll lay it to the fact that I’ll soon be 92. Not as clear as it was a year or two ago...” He described the location of the debris as starting out about 1/2 mile from 75 on 831 (“the Ruben Long place”) and winding up on Star Route where the plane hit the ground. “It was beyond Maurice Hester’s place, toward Flo, ‘bout a mile past the first creek. Lawrence Hester lives there now -- CR 212.”

Microfiche copy of The Buffalo Press, 10-1-1959 Microfiche copy of The Buffalo Press, 10-1-1959 Bodies of the 28 passengers and the six crew members were strewn over a large area of land. Moore recalls that local men went out there that night, then the Federal Aviation Agency came and took charge of the scene. Before daybreak local officials and highway patrolmen from across the state started moving the remains of the victims to the Buffalo High School gym, which was set up as a temporary morgue.

Engineers test the Electra model in a wind tunnel in 1960. Archive photo Engineers test the Electra model in a wind tunnel in 1960. Archive photo At dawn on Tuesday morning, 259 soldiers from Fort Hood arrived to start the search, with a Civil Aeronatics Board investigator in charge. Linked by walkie talkie radios and guided by a helicopter, and the soldiers searched an area measuring 1 mile X 2-1/2 miles. The first time through they marked bits of wreckage so CAB inspectors could note its location in relation to other pieces. On Wednesday, the soldiers walked through again, picking up the debris which was taken to Dallas where the CAB experts would assemble a “partial layout” an attempt to determine the cause of the air tragedy.

According to Moore, “There was about a week of body recovery and investigation, and they wouldn’t let people drive past that road.” During the time that the search was underway, the community of Buffalo reached out to those involved in the tragedy. The article in the Buffalo Press stated, “The local ladies set up facilities for serving sandwiches, coffee and cake at the school and were serving relatives and friends of the vicitims and the officers.”

DIAMONDS!

The Press article also reported an interesting sidenote: “A large quantity of diamonds was found at the scene of the wreck and were placed under guard at the Citizens State Bank in Buffalo.” Evan Moore remembered that part of the story, as well, re- calling that they belonged to a diamond saleman who was on the flight. “He had a bag full of diamonds to show and display, and that bag of diamonds was bursted. (Workers) picked it up and put it in on a blanket.” Asked if he thought the clean-up crew would have been tempted to pocket a few of the stones, Moore replied, “Seeing all that stuff, you wouldn’t have a desire to do anything like that...” He did recall, however, that some young men who lived close by were helping gather stuff up later, and “two or three years after, their wives showed up with some beautiful diamond rings!”

Flight 542 was also reported to be carrying 63 pouches of mail, and 63 pouches were recovered.

THE AFTERMATH -

Late September in Texas is still quite hot, and the BHS gym was, of course, without air conditioning in 1959. Mr. Moore recalls that the during the week following the crash, the temporary morgue in the school “kinda fouled up the gym.” His son Leon Moore, who was a student at BHS at the time, confirmed that, adding, “It still smelled in there at the end of the year when we held our Junior/Senior Prom...smelled of formaldehyde.” James Mae Henson was a BHS coach at the time, and he recalls that the airline company later funded renovations to the gymnasium.

VICTIM’S FAMILY SHARES THEIR STORY

Elizabeth Henderson Walley of Mesquite was 13 years old the night her father, Lee Henderson, perished on Flight 542. He was a real estate developer who had been to Houston for a business meeting. The family was alarmed when it became late and he had not returned home. Elizabeth and her younger sister Elaine were sent on to bed, but she recalls hearing the commotion in the middle of the night as law enforcement officers came to deliver the terrible news. “I was awake all night, and could tell from their voices that something bad had happened, but I didn’t get up. I guess I didn’t want to know,” Elizabeth shared. “It is the most vivid memory of that time of my life. Everything changed after that.”

There was not an immediate insurance settlement because Braniff officials initially maintained that the cause of the crash was probably a lightning strike, so Elizabeth’s widowed mother, Majorie Henderson, went back to school to get a teaching degree to support her family.

CAUSE OF CRASH PINPOINTED

Flight 542 was a Lockheed L-188 Electra equipped with four Allison 501-D13 engines. The Buffalo Press reported that it weighed 113,000 pounds and cost $2,121,000 to build. The plane was conservatively designed and had been thoroughly tested. It was manufactured at Lockheed’s California plant and had come off the manufacturing line only eleven days earlier on September 18, 1959, so it had only 132 hours of flight time. All six crew members - two pilots, a flight engineer and three flight attendants - had little experience with the Electra, having only recently completed their transition training.

Weather reports for the date of the crash relate winds ranging from 7.36 to 25.10 mph. No precipitation data was available, but visibility was reported as 14.1 miles. “Severe clear air turbulence” was later looked at as a factor in the crash, but initially, no cause was given for the crash.

Flight 542 took off from Houston 22 minutes later than scheduled, with the delay attributed to a minor mechanical discrepancy with the No. 3 generator. A followup story in the October 8th issue of the Buffalo Press mentioned that a transcript which arrived at the FAA in Fort Worth showed that after being cleared for take-off, the pilot had paused for a period of time at the end of the runway, then took off. The pilot gave no reason for that delay. The accident occurred before the age of “black box” cockpit voice recorders, but the Press article also stated that the transcript showed that in the aircraft’s last known communication, which was at 11:07, the pilot reported mechanical difficulties to company officers in Dallas. That report was a maintenance request on the generator, and routine in nature. There was no indication of the imminent disaster.

After the crash, many of the larger sections of aircraft had landed in a potato field southeast of Buffalo, but the left wing was found a mile away from the potato field. As officials began their investigation of the accident, they determined that the left wing had failed, leading to the general disintegration of the aircraft and a fire. There was no trace of metal fatigue, and no hint as to the cause of the catastrophe. For a period of time, the investigation stalled and the September 29th accident was considered a “fluke” or possibly a lightning strike.

The investigation was stepped up when a second Electra crashed on March 17, 1960 at Tell City, Indiana. Its right wing was found 11000 feet from the crash site, indicating that the plane’s design was at fault. There were still 130 Electras flying commercially at the time, though at reduced speeds, so NASA, Lockheed and Boeing personnel began urgent testing with an elaborate Electra model. They determined that violent flutter had torn the wings off the two planes -- and one engineer suggested that “the Electra had stimulated the catastrophic fluttering through the coupling of engine gyroscopic torques, propeller forces and moments, and the aerodynamic forces acting on the wings.” The engineers labeled the problem “propeller-whirl flutter”.

The engineers were able to duplicate the flutter in wind tunnel simulations with the model. When they tried reducing the stiffness of the outboard engine mounts -- a condition that could possibly have happened due to previous hard langings or violent storms -- the weakened engine mounts would develop the propeller-whirl flutter until the wing fell off. They determined that the fatal resonance could build up and tear the plane apart in thirty seconds. The engine mounts on all the remaining Electras were strengthened and there were no further problems.


Readers Comments

My family bought the 160
Submitted by Paul L Martin (not verified) on Thu, 2015-06-18 14:29.
My family bought the 160 acres just south of Mr. and Mrs. White around 1964-65. Mr. White showed us where the plane crashed and told us the story of the crash, you could still see pieces (small) of the plane. They were very kind people Mr. and Mrs. White.
I was very young but remember
Submitted by mike burrow (not verified) on Mon, 2010-10-18 13:10.
I was very young but remember this crash. The Whites were my grandmother brother and sister in law. I lived in Dallas but my mom and myself were there that night. I remember my grandfather Oliver Horn helped take bodies to the high school all night. I remember the smell of fuel dripping from the trees. I saw the cockpit of the plane in the ground all of the gagues and shattered glass. I remember the clothing hanging from the trees. My aunt still has a Braniff blanket. My grandmothers house was just across the street from the Whites My grandparents had to sell their place. I remember 1959.
Thats probably mostly true.
Submitted by 96flstc (not verified) on Sun, 2010-02-14 17:35.
Thats probably mostly true. Forensic investigation in 1959 was not as sophisticated as today. The accident report concentrated on location of components, trajectory, and numerous witness statements, and who made the last radio call. I see nothing as to specific locations of the 34 victims, seat numbers, personal effects, etc. Item 27 on the hearing agenda was the "casualty list." I have the original aircraft files including the log pages that were aboard the aircraft during the accident. The last entry was made at 2300 by Flt Eng. Longhill. They were cruising at 15,000 ft, 275kts IAS. Outside air temp was +15 degrees. Eight minutes later, at 2307 the aircraft broke apart, At 2308, witnesses reported a "large red-orange fire in the sky." The Lockheed report concludes the fire occurred "at about 15,000 feet". The report states "the fuselage remained intact until immediately prior to its impact in a sweet-potato field 3.2 nautical miles east of Buffalo Texas." At the time of the accident the aircraft had 132:33 hours total time. Yes it was "new". From the Braniff report... "Fourteen body impact craters or indentations were found in the main wreckage area mostly centered around the center section. Lateral direction of body travel varied with location of impact from 280 degrees to 360 degrees. Vertical angles of travel were obtainable from four impact areas and these varied from 33 degrees to 60 degrees from horizontal. Pathologists estimated the body speeds at impact to be in the order of 350-400 miles per hour." Sorry for your loss.
One of my aunts died in this
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 2010-02-03 17:47.
One of my aunts died in this disaster and they said that the remains were burned and torn apart and were unable to be properly identified. Is this detail true? Does anyone have another opinion? Since there was such confusion initially about the cause of the accident, and it happened so many years ago, I was wondering if local people remember such details. I am sure that this event was talked about for some time afterward.
Hi I was there in 1959. I was
Submitted by mike burrow (not verified) on Mon, 2010-10-18 13:58.
Hi I was there in 1959. I was very young but remember that night very well. My grandmother and grandfather lived across the street from the Whites. Mr White was my grandmothers brother. There was no fire. I remember fuel dripping out of the trees. I also remember a lot of clothing hanging from the trees. Buffalo has mostly big tall Pine trees and very sandy soft soil. I remember a rain storm and so does my mother, the weather said it was clear but we thought at first the sounds we were hearing were thunder. I also remember looking into the cockpit which was broken off several feet into the ground. It was about a 25 degree angle. There was water and I remember the dials and instruments. I remember looking at the broken glass and seeing the steering wheels of the plane. My grandfather took parts of bodies to the high school gym all night. I also remember the diamond stories. There was NO fire. One thing that was strange. My grandparents and relatives (Whites) had to see the land and houses to the US government?? I do not know why. The land where the plane crashed is fenced and marked US Property KEEP OUT. ??? I understand it is quarenteed for 99 years??

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