Fifty Years Ago – Two Planes Collided Over Brooklyn

By | December 16, 2010

On December 16, 1960, United Airlines Flight 826 crashed into a church in Park Slope, Brooklyn. While no memorial marks the spot, it was, at the time, the worst aviation disaster in American history. The crippled plane set fire to ten apartment buildings, the ironically named Pillar of Fire church, a funeral home, a Chinese laundry, and a deli. Six persons on the ground died as a result.

The United Airlines DC-8 , enroute to Idlewild Airport(now JFK) from Chicago-O’Hare, collided with a TWA Super Constellation, which was inbound as Flight 266, from Dayton and Columbus to LaGuardia,  in heavy cloud cover. All 84 passengers were killed. There was a sole survivor, an 11 year old boy Stephen Baltz, who survived the crash, but succumbed to his injuries a day later. He gave the only description of the crash. “I heard a big noise while we were flying. The last thing I remember was the plane falling.”

The TWA flight disintegrated as it spiraled down, and crashed into an empty field on Staten Island, killing all 44.

The investigation, which marked the first time an aircraft black box had been used to provide details in a crash, indicated the DC-8 was 12 miles off course. It was meant to be circling “Preston”, a point near South Amboy, New Jersey. According to radio tapes released to the press at the time, the controller at LaGuardia tried, but failed to warn the TWA flight of the approaching jet. United called into question the proper functioning of the Preston beacons, and the fact that, as was standard procedure, the tracking of the DC-8 was discontinued while it was in the holding pattern. Radar tracking would not be resumed until the aircraft left the holding pattern, as it was too difficult to identify individual planes in a holding pattern.

It was the worst disaster since 1956, when a different United and TWA collided over the Grand Canyon killing 128 people, which led to the creation of the Federal Aviation Authority.

The Wreckage of United Flight 826 - December 1960

A larger memorial is set to be unveiled at Green-Wood cemetery, where there will be a memorial service. Richard J. Moylan, president of Green-Wood Cemetery said, “Scattered throughout New York, there are thousands of memorials and monuments honoring people, deeds and events that have left indelible marks on our city. However, for the 134 souls who died on the morning of Dec. 16, 1960, when United Airlines Flight 826 and TWA Flight 266 collided over the skies of New York, there has never been a fitting commemoration.” The engraved eight-foot tall memorial will stand near the gravesite where the remains of the unidentified victims were placed.

The death toll of aviation can seem overwhelming. While we remember that the accidents of yesterday lead to the safety improvements of today, we should never forget those who tragically lost their lives.

The flight number 826 is currently used by United on flights from Sydney to Los Angeles. In December 28, 1997, United Flight 826 was a Boeing 747 flying from Tokyo-Narita to Honolulu when it hit severe turbulence, resulting in the death of a passenger.