A Little Quiet Recently

My fault.   Mostly just getting caught up with the daily life of an adjunct professor and occasionally doing some teaching.   We’re into the 1960s next week, which means about three weeks of the semester remains and then into the long-ish summer break.  I do have a little prep work for the Fall Semester, in which I assume I’m still teaching.

In the meantime.   I want to pause and remember that we have just passed the 20th Anniversary of the crash of ATL-98 Carvair N83FA in Griffin, Georgia on April 4th. On that day I actually did sit back for a moment and took a moment for prayer and reflection.    I never for a moment imagined that a blog article which was born from reading a John Le Carre novel and thinking “huh?” would generate so much interest.  Looking at the WordPress statistics for the blog, it always seems to get a couple of hits most weeks. I was touched and honored to have received comments from Kris Whittington, son of pilot Larry Whittington who was killed in the crash of N83FA, and recently Vanessa Presley, who as a child in Griffin saw and heard the crash and who suffers from the after effects to this day.  My deepest thanks to everyone who contributed to expand a little piece of aviation history here.

HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip board an ANA C-54 (VH-INY) at Western Junction, Tasmania. Feb 20, 1954. This C-54 would seven years later be converted into a Carvair which, with the registration N83FA, would crash on take-off at Griffin, Georgia in April 1997


My research project,  the history of B-24J-1-FO  42-50535  “Joplin Jalopy” got a boost this month.  For some reason an article appeared in the Joplin Globe a couple of weeks ago (which I have managed not to read) but which, I am told, listed the correct number of operations the Jalopy flew.  This would then indicate that someone read some of the research material I forked over to the globe in 2006.     Shortly afterwards I received an email from Ray Foreman from KODE12  TV in Joplin  (Hi Ray!)  who had seen my January 2016 post commemorating the anniversary of the start of the now defunct “Joplin’s Bomber”  blog.   Apart from being a military aviation history enthusiast Ray has some connection with the Joplin Civil Air Patrol so I hope to have a chat with him, and them in the near future.  This has been a timely prod not to let all that information  go to waste.

B-24 Joplin Jalopy

B24J-1-FO 42-50535 “Joplin Jalopy” – 506BS / 44BG

I was relating all of this to one of my colleagues at Pittsburg State who then said “you ought to write this up for a journal article”  (in one of the local academic journals) ,  so given a long enough period of rest  I may actually do that.

In the meantime I will continue to be fascinated by little snippets that float into my field of vision from the world of aviation.


N83FA / VH-INY – A Brush With Fame.

Dedicated readers (of which I’m sure there is one) will have noticed a lot of posts about C-54s and Carvairs. One example in particular caught my attention. It was first known by Douglas as construction number 10365 when it was built in 1944. This aircraft had a variety of military and civilian identities before its demise in a crash in Georgia (USA) 1997.  A good potted history of the aircraft can be found at http://www.aussieairliners.org/dc-4/vh-iny/vhiny.html  A much more detailed history (with the exception of its service in Australia) can be found in William Patrick Dean’s nearly exhaustive book on the Carvair – see the bibliography for more details.

The Aussie Airliners website notes that VH-INY (as 10365 was at that time) was one of two C-54s which Australian National Airways set aside for the Royal Tour of Australia in 1954 (the other being VH-ANB). I wondered if any pictures existed of the Queen with either of the Skymasters and ‘INY in particular.  Standard image searching turned up nothing. After a while I had a look on Trove, the catalogue of the National Library of Australia, and I hit the jackpot.  

HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip board an ANA C-54 (probably VH-INY) at Western Junction, Tasmania. Feb 20, 1954 http://catalogue.statelibrary.tas.gov.au/item/?id=AB713-1-2859

HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip
board an ANA C-54 (probably VH-INY) at Western Junction, Tasmania. Feb 20, 1954

Her Majesty visited Tasmania on February 20th, 1954, and a couple of pictures in the State Archives of Tasmania show two Skymasters which flew her and the Royal Household back to Melbourne. One of the photos shows her waving to the crowd from a very highly polished C-54 as she was leaving Western Junction in Tasmania. The aircraft registration letters VH-IN are clearly visible. – so if the other aircraft was ‘ANB then this must be ‘INY.

These are the catalogue records and URLs for the other images I found.

In addition to the royal connection,   It is also possible that when 10365 was serving with Matson Airlines in the late 40s as N58003, she may have been flown by the American author Ernest K. Gann, who was a pilot with Matson at that time.  Patrick Dean makes the point that Gann had an interesting scrape in another of their C-54s and wrote about it his autobiographical work Fate is the Hunter.

So that’s interesting. I don’t suppose that anyone at Aviation Traders or indeed any of its subsequent owners or pilots had much idea that 10365 had carried British Royalty or may have been flown by a famous author. These little details make research just a little bit more personal.

Visual Memory

I was working on an illustration of N83FA following some other research this afternoon, and happened to cover the GIMP window I was using with my web browser.  Something else clicked in my mind as a result.

Here’s what I saw:

My desktop with the nose of a Carvair poking out from underneath the web browser

My desktop with the nose of a Carvair poking out from underneath the web browser

It was the size of the nose and position of the cockpit. I knew I’d seen it before.

And I had – back in my collection of paperbacks.  It was the cover illustration of Adam Hall’s spy adventure The Tango Briefing (London: Collins, 1973 – my paperback is Fontana, 1975).  The Tango Briefing is one of the “Quiller” series of novels about the eponymous British spy. In this case he must examine a missing British commercial transport aircraft which has just been located in the North African desert.

Cover of The Tango Briefing by Adam Hall

Cover of The Tango Briefing by Adam Hall – Illustration by Chris Foss, from goodreads.com for purpose of illustration / identification.

Adam Hall was another pseudonym of the prolific British author Trevor Dudley-Smith (1920-1995). also known as Elleston Trevor, (author of Flight of the Phoenix).  The paperback cover illustration is the work of British artist and illustrator Chris Foss, who illustrated a number of paperbacks in my collection.  Chris Foss might not have used a Carvair for a reference in this case, but you can see how my mind worked.

Carvair N83FA Crash: Griffin, Georgia, April 1997

Serendipity is a weird thing.  Having read The Honourable Schoolboy, I wanted to see if there was any factual basis for Charlie Marshall flying round South-East Asia in a Carvair. I  looked at Wikipedia and found that an Australian Carvair had been abandoned at Pnomh Penh in 1975.    I also read this:

"Perhaps the best-known Carvair crash was the one at Griffin in April 1997, 
where on its takeoff run the (fifth production) Carvair suffered catastrophic 
engine failure, failed to become properly airborne, and crashed into a vacant 
Piggly Wiggly supermarket past the airport perimeter, killing both pilots.”

I don’t know why this caught my imagination but it did. I know next to nothing about Griffin, Georgia. But something made me want to follow up just a little.

The accident happened on Friday, April 4, 1997 at 00:16. The aircraft was registered as N83FA. It was originally built in 1944 as a C-54A and was the fifth Carvair to be converted by Aviation Traders in 1961. The  crew had filed a flight plan from Griffin-Spalding County Airport to Americus, Georgia apparently to pick up a load of car parts for onward transportation to Rockford, Illinois. 12 miles from Rockford is the  Chrysler Belvidere Assembly Plant, which was producing the Dodge Neon at the time.

What happened that night, according to the NTSB reports, is this:

"During the airplane's takeoff roll, about 3/4 down the 3,700 foot runway, 
a witness reported that the color of the #1 exhaust flame changed from 
blue to yellow, accompanied by an audible change in the engine power level. 
The nose of the airplane yawed left and the left wing dipped. Directional 
control was regained and the takeoff continued. Skid marks were found about 
650 feet before the departure end of the runway that continued about 1360 feet 
to an abandoned grocery store impacted by the plane. About 315 feet before the 
building, the left wing contacted a privacy fence, and a utility pole, resulting 
in a fire at the disrupted left wing main fuel tank. A pilot/mechanic who helped 
dispatch the airplane observed that the elevator was free as it taxied. 
Fire damage to all engines precluded a detailed post crash examination of 
essential fuel and ignition systems"

The reports from the NTSB (incident number ATL97FA057) are available from the NTSB website  (PDF format)

Factual Report http://www.ntsb.gov/aviationquery/GenPDF.aspx?id=ATL97FA057&rpt=fa
Probable Cause  Report http://www.ntsb.gov/aviationquery/GenPDF.aspx?id=ATL97FA057&rpt=fi

Griffin – Spalding County Aiport

The aircraft was using runway 14,  which runs diagonally from top left to bottom right of the map. From the descriptions and statements in the NTSB report, the crew apparently decided to try and abort the take-off  when the number 1 (port outer) engine failed.

The pilot who flew the aircraft two days previously (with the co-pilot who was killed on this night) knew the procedure for an engine failure on take-off and reported that a braking manoeuvre in this event was not part of the aircraft operations manual.  The previous pilot and co-pilot agreed that the most dangerous element of the flight was the take-off from Griffin-Spalding County. For whatever reason the crew on the 4th April flight attempted to abort the take-off. The toxicology report on the co-pilot indicated a level of a substance found in over-the counter antihistamines in the bloodstream very much in excess of the normal dose, which may have lead to his inability to react appropriately.  The fact was noted in the NTSB’s probable cause report.

The Carvair then skidded off the end of the runway, crossed the road which runs past the end of the runway and ended up crashing into the abandoned supermarket.  If you look closely at the map , there is a small shopping centre on the opposite side of Zebulon Road, and on zooming in,  you can see that the retail unit on the north side of the shopping centre has been demolished, leaving an empty pad.  The Google image was taken in 2008, 1o years after the crash.

It’s a very sad story and any loss of life is regrettable.  Looking at the map it is fortunate that the Carvair did not swerve further on the aborted take-off run since there is clearly a residential area to the east of the airfield.  That the supermarket was empty and abandoned also prevented further loss of life that night.

Carvair – Notes on Research

Whenever doing a project like this, I am reminded of the old Johnny Nash song “More Questions Than Answers” – which includes the line “The more I find out, the less I know.” This certainly applies here.

I am taking a look at the accident mentioned on the earlier Carvair post which happened at  Griffin-Spalding County Airport, Georgia in 1997.  The aircraft concerned was the fifth Carvair to be converted by Aviation Traders Ltd. in the UK. At the time of the crash it wore the US civil registration N83FA.

It’s a sad story and I don’t want to let my trainspotting activities detract from the fact that two men lost their lives in unfortunate and regrettable  circumstances back in 1997.

What I have found out about the aircraft itself  while looking around through the available information on the Web is:

 Silhouette of the Douglas C-54.

Silhouette of the Douglas C-54. Green, William and Gerald Pollinger. The World’s Fighting Planes (McDonald: London 1954)

  1. It started life as a Douglas C-54A-15-DC Skymaster (c/n 10365). The “DC” suffix indicates it was built at the Douglas Field / Orchard Place factory in Des Plaines, Illinois (now the site of Chicago O’Hare International Airport).  It was delivered to the USAAF in August 1944 with the AAF Serial 42-72260 and transferred to US Navy as R5D-1 BuNo 50843 on the same day.
  2. There are at least a dozen pictures of this very aircraft at various stages of its life.
  3. It had a very chequered career between its construction in 1944, its conversion to a Carvair in 1961/2 and its demise in 1997.
  4. The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) documents relating to the crash are available on the NTSB website.
  5. In the history there is a certain amount of confusion between this specific aircraft and another Carvair, which bore the registration N89FA.  This doesn’t seem to have been helped by someone in England painting a ‘3’ instead of a ‘9’ in the second aircraft’s registration number when both were sold in the 1970s.
  6. There is a book documenting the individual history of each of the 21 Carvairs. Dean, William Patrick. The ATL-98 Carvair: A Comprehensive History of the Aircraft and All 21 Airframes. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.

I also looked at some Google Map and Google Street View images to get a sense of the place where the accident happened.

Starting with a C-54

While I was looking for some writing inspiration I picked up John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy. (By the way this is going to be a blog with a Bibliography so please feel free to check!)

The ‘Honourable Schoolboy’ is Jerry Westerby –  English journalist and sometime agent for SIS, MI6 or in John le Carré’s world, “The Circus.”  Westerby is sent to Hong Kong to track down the recipient of  large sums of money which are emanating from the Soviet Union.  At one point during a picaresque odyssey in which he seeks to maintain his journalistic cover, through the closing scenes of the Vietnam War  he is  in pursuit of a supposedly dead American pilot named Tiny Ricardo.  Westerby encounters Ricardo’s partner,  a Chinese-Corsican Opium addict called  Charlie Marshall,  flying a beaten-up Carvair around Laos and Cambodia.  It seemed such an oddly specific  choice of aircraft, but from what I remembered it seemed logical, if unlikely.

This is what a Carvair looks like:

Carvair at Christchurch, New Zealand, 1977
By Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand via Wikimedia Commons
(CC-BY-2.0) http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0

To quote and precis some Wikipedia text: “The actual conversion of the original aircraft entailed replacing the forward fuselage with one 8 feet 8 inches (2.64 m) longer, with a raised flightdeck to allow a hinged nose door to open sideways. It also entailed more powerful wheel brakes and an enlarged tail,  The four Pratt & Whitney R-2000 engines were unchanged.

The prototype conversion first flew on 21 June 1961. Twenty-one Carvairs were produced in the UK. The final three aircraft were delivered to Ansett-ANA, (Australia) which supplied its own DC-4s to ATL for conversion. One of the two aircraft still flying in June 2007 was an ex-Ansett airframe. A second Ansett aircraft was abandoned at Phnom-Penh in 1975.”

John Le Carre’s research was, after all, spot on. 🙂

It seemed also that some Carvairs made their way across The Pond.  Wikipedia says:

“Of the 21 airframes, eight were destroyed in crashes

  • Rotterdam, Netherlands, 1962
  • Karachi, Pakistan, 1967
  • Twin Falls, Canada, 1968
  • Miami, Florida, 1969
  • Le Touquet, France, 1971
  • Venetie, Alaska, 1997
  • Griffin, Georgia, 1997
  • McGrath, Alaska, 2007

Perhaps the best-known Carvair crash was the one at Griffin in April 1997, where on its takeoff run the (fifth production) Carvair suffered catastrophic engine failure, failed to become properly airborne, and crashed into a vacant Piggly Wiggly supermarket past the airport perimeter, killing both pilots.”

Well not best-known to me at all, but I wanted to have a further look.  More on this in a future post.