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. 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, Pa., to Buffalo, N.Y.
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 demanding that they knew how to save the plane. Moon heard loud arguing and cursing between 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.
The wreckage of Continental Charters Flight 44-2, bound for Buffalo from Pittsburgh, is seen on Bucktooth Ridge in the town of Napoli in the aftermath of its Dec. 29, 1951, crash. Twenty-six of the 40 people on board the plane were either killed in the crash or died soon after. The 14 who survived spent two long nights in the woods before help arrived.
Photo by Dawn Brahaney
The tail section of Flight 44-2 and the crash swath through trees are seen on Bucktooth Ridge following the crash.
Photo by Dawn Brahaney
The first photo of survivors at the scene shows them hearing instructions from a rescue leader, left.
Stand-by pilot C.J. Webber was one of two auxiliary pilots who charged the cockpit trying to prevent the crash of Flight 44-2. Pearl Moon believes that if Webber had been flying the plane on the night of Dec. 29, the crash would not have occurred.
Webber family photo
Chairman Donald Nyrop became the first CAB boss to make an on-the-spot investigation when he visited the scene of the crash of Flight 44-2. Nyrop died in 2010 at 98.
Local rescue crews used a farmer’s crawler-tractor and wagon to carry survivors down the mountain.
''I felt the first jerk and I looked out the window and I said, 'Oh, my God, what is this?' And then, it was over, just like that!''
In reality it took about four seconds and 933 feet of smashing, grinding, scraping and 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 during a winter warm spell that produced a wet snow pack and a thick noise-canceling fog.
No one on the ground heard the crash.
A native of Upstate New York, Timothy W. Lake is a 30-year veteran of newspaper, radio and television news reporting. Lake's grandfather, David G. Shenefiel, was Town of Napoli highway superintendent in 1951 and 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.
At nearly full throttle and thrusting about 200 miles per hour, the propellers of the engines snapped off the top of the first tree at 60 feet above the 2,380-foot ridge. Within a second the plane must have dipped, because it dove through the next two trees at 50 feet off the ground, spewing wingtips, windshield glass, instruments and thin strips of metal skin across the snowy ridge. At 400 feet beyond first impact with the trees, passengers described a ''sickening lurch'' to the right as another tree was sheared. At 637 feet, accident investigators reported, the plane broke into pieces. The engines were hurled 100 feet away. The left wing broke off the plane. Newspaper reports from 1952 described the aft cabin as ''doing a giant cartwheel.''
Twenty-six of the 40 people on board the plane were either killed or died soon after. The 14 survivors, including Pearl Ruth Moon, were sitting in the aft section that twirled over and over until landing in a snowdrift.
Six decades later, Moon clearly remembers her 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 thrown from the plane and turned on during the crash. They used it to find even more survivors. They also used it to search for the flight crew and to determine how many people were dead.
Moon said she was absolutely shocked. The pilots and her fellow stewardess were all dead. She was the only active crewmember alive. Gone were the deafening roar of the engines and the bumping of the turbulence. The only sound now was the rustling wind and the creaking and hollow knocking of the bare branches. Survivors were trapped in the wreckage, they were on a wooded mountaintop in the snow, the air was freezing cold, it was pitch black, and death was all around them. She thought she, too, would die on the mountain.
The four arguing pilots were killed instantly when the cockpit disintegrated around them. Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph reporter Ed Bell described the cockpit. ''The pilot's compartment was embedded in the base of a tree. Rescue teams used rope to raise the wreckage and extract (a) body. It was still strapped in (the) seat, arms raised as if to protect against the impending crash.''
Two men passengers sitting together were nearly decapitated, a woman whose son would become the hero among the survivors was impaled with a piece of cabin metal, and the body of another stewardess was found hanging from the wreckage still strapped in her seatbelt.
Sobbing from her painful memories of the crash 60 years earlier, the now aged and emotionally fragile Pearl Moon sat in her North Carolina nursing home and tearfully 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 could not continue. (Newspaper reports in 1952 described the child as a three-year-old girl. However, Moon said it was a baby boy that died in her arms, not a girl.)
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, Navy Lt. William Bischof of Johnstown, Pa., and Miami restaurant owner George Albert, helped her move the injured passengers away from the plane. They were concerned about fire because fuel was leaking from the plane. Moon said her flight attendant training, which consisted mostly of reading a Continental Charters company book, helped her formulate a critical decision. She determined that the passengers must stay near the wreckage and together. However, she credits Lt. 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.
CALLED IN TO WORK
Pearl Moon was not supposed to be working that day, Dec. 29, 1951. It was her regular day off. She was called in to work by Continental Charters and agreed to go because other crew members of the unscheduled flight wanted to be off work the next day to attend a ball game. Moon also believed the morning flight, from Miami to Buffalo with stops in Pittsburgh each way, would have her back home in Miami Springs late that night. Moon had been named senior stewardess for Continental Charters on July 25, 1951. She was the daughter of Walter and Ina Moon and grew up near Greensboro, N.C., where she first worked as a waitress in hotels before becoming a stewardess. She never married and had few commitments, so she was available to work on Dec. 29, when she got the call to report to Miami International Airport for the flight.
The one-day trip was met with trouble from the beginning. Flight 44-2 initially took off from Miami at 10 am. However, the plane circled the Miami airport several times before returning for minor mechanical repairs, later described as a problem with the emergency brake. It delayed their ultimate departure until 3:40 pm and set off a chain of events that would lead to the fatal disaster.
During her only personal media interview in 60 years, Moon described the flight from Miami to Pittsburgh as uneventful. As was typical for airplanes of the era, Moon said the noise from the twin-engines was deafening and that the plane yawed frequently during bouts with turbulence. Moon was the senior stewardess on the flight. Her assistant was Delores H. Harvey, also from Miami. Because they were so late arriving in Pittsburgh, a gate agent suggested they load the 29 passengers who were waiting in Pittsburgh for the trip to Miami, into the plane for the Buffalo leg of the flight, and then fly directly to Miami from Buffalo to make up the lost time. The pilot, Victor A. Harris, 28, and co-pilot, Hans E. Rutzebeck, 33, agreed. Moon recalls 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.
According to the official crash investigation report issued by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), the pilots did not take on any fuel in Pittsburgh. 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.
'ACE PILOT' NOT AT THE HELM
At 9:47 pm, Captain Harris lifted the former military transport plane off the runway at the Allegheny County Airport near Pittsburgh, and headed north. Moon said the only thing unusual about the flight was that three little children were on board and they went to sleep.
Three other Continental Charters crew members were also on board the plane. Veteran pilot Clarence Joseph Webber, 38, known as C.J., 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, was also scheduled to work on the return flight.
Moon said the young crew referred to Capt. Webber as ''the old man,'' for his experience and gentlemanly demeanor toward the others. After 60 years of reflection on the most tragic event of her long life, Moon remains convinced the plane would not have crashed if Webber had been in command and at the controls.
C.J. Webber had begun flying as early as 1931 near his home in Madison, Wis. While earning his pilot's license, he flew in air shows that were popular in the 1930s and known as ''barnstorming'' events. At the start of WWII, Webber moved to England and flew for the British Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying newly built military planes from factories to air bases throughout Great Britain. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1941, Webber joined Pan American Air Ferries, and transported military planes from American factories to bases in South America, Africa and the Middle East. After the war, he continued as a pilot in the air transport business with cross-continent flights that earned him the irrefutable reputation as an expert pilot.
Webber began flying the Curtiss C-46 twin-engine transport and passenger plane in 1949. By 1950, with his wife and three children at home in Miami, Webber began flying for Continental Charters, a non-scheduled flight airlines based in Miami. Webber's flight log, provided by his daughter, Nancy Webber Harrison, indicated he had logged 6,354 hours by July 1951 when he was only 37.
Pearl Moon described Webber as an ''ace pilot,'' and, when asked if she thought things would have turned out differently if he had been at the controls, she said, ''Absolutely, because he was that kind of person. And he knew how to get things done.''
The extra co-pilot on the plane, Athas, was only a few years into his professional career, and at the age of 25, was the youngest pilot among the four.
Not much is known about pilots Harris and Rutzebeck except for what is in the official accident investigation. Harris had been employed by Continental Charters for three years but had only recently obtained his Airline Transport Pilot Rating for the C-46 in March 1951. He had logged just over 3,000 hours of flight. Rutzebeck, despite being older than Harris and having logged more than 6,300 hours of flight, had begun working for the airline in July 1951.
The plane involved in the crash was a Curtiss C-46 that, ironically, may have been produced in Buffalo at the former Curtiss aircraft manufacturing plant in 1944. The plane had only recently been outfitted for flying American passengers after it was returned to the U.S. from Colombia, South America, 27 days earlier, on Dec. 5.
The authors of the book ''Curtiss C-46 Commando'' describe the plane as a short range, large capacity cargo and transport plane distinguished in 1943 for the American airlift over the rugged mountains between India and China. Known as ''flying the hump,'' the C-46 proved ideal for high-altitude flights carrying heavy loads to small airfields in China. After the war, C-46s were used extensively in South America because of vast stretches of jungle and mountains. Prior to modification to a commercial passenger plane, the C-46 acquired by Continental Charters had a cruising speed of 236 mph and a maximum payload of 15,000 pounds or 50 passengers. The crash investigators determined that Flight 44-2 was not overloaded, nor did it have too many passengers on board.
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 chosen by the pilots of Flight 44-2 took them directly north from Pittsburgh over the highest elevation in Pennsylvania and through the western foothills of New York state's Allegheny Mountains.
Ground observers at Sarver, Rimersburg and Sheffield, Pa, reported hearing a low-flying airplane in foggy weather. In New York state, witnesses at Steamburg and Onoville reported the plane was flying so low they could see the lights in the cabin windows. Despite the low-elevation flight, the plane should have been able to clear the hills and small mountains along a direct route. However, 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.
Napoli is in the southeast corner of Cattaraugus County and is in the western foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. For most observers, the terrain of Napoli would be considered low-rolling hills. However, some of the peaks are named as mountains. The crash investigation report indicates that Continental Charters flew this route without considering it to be mountainous terrain.
The small mountains and lush valleys are what attracted the first settlers to Napoli. Crops were easily cultivated in the valleys and timber was harvested from the mountainsides. Members of the Stephen Hoxie family were Napoli settlers in the 1830s, and from Hoxie Hill, there is an unobstructed view across the Pigeon Valley to Bucktooth Ridge and the crash scene. Mabel Tennies Hoxie was born on a farm along Bucktooth Ridge in 1888. Her daughter, Rosa Myrtle Hoxie, married David G. Shenefiel, whose parents had settled on a farm in Napoli in 1920, about a mile from the crash scene. In 1951, David and Rosa Shenefiel lived on their dairy farm along Hoxie Hill Road. For extra income, David also worked as the Napoli highway superintendent. This meant that he drove a plow in the winter, repaired road culverts in the spring, and sprayed oil on the dusty gravel roads in the summer.
On Dec. 29, 1951 the Shenefiels went to bed early so they could awake before dawn to milk their 19 Holstein cows and complete other chores on their small farm. Like their distant neighbors in the sparsely populated community, they didn't hear anything from the plane crash just a few miles across the valley from their farm. The next day, Sunday, they likely would have become aware of a missing plane from news reports on their radio. News reports told of search planes fanning out across a wide region including parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Western New York, lakes Erie and Ontario, and portions of Canada.
The Shenefiels would go to bed the night of Sunday, Dec. 30, still unaware that 14 people sat huddled around a small fire across the valley atop Bucktooth Ridge, praying for rescue and wondering if they would ever get out alive.
While the Shenefiels and other Napoli farm families stoked their wood and coal stoves for more warmth on that December night, Pearl Moon remembers that the survivors forbid each other to sleep fearing that they would not wake up and would freeze to death.
The morning of Monday, Dec. 31, was also uneventful at the Shenefiel farm and, except for the fact that it was New Year's Eve, the family followed its daily routine. At mid-afternoon David Shenefiel received a telephone call that a plane had crashed on the mountain and that he and the town's equipment were needed to help.
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. One of them, Thomas Patterson, 21, of New Castle, Pa., was badly injured. A photograph of Patterson being prepared to be carried down the mountain, his head wound wrapped with a shirt and resting on a suitcase, would be distributed around the world by the Associated Press.
THE SEARCH FOR HELP
On the morning after the crash, Lt. Bischof and Albert walked off through the snow in an attempt to find help. After about a mile, they 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. The second night was described by Moon as the most painful. She was severely cold, tired and hungry, and now, 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.
The next morning they 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 George Albert's feet so he could continue walking through the deep snow. It's likely that other passengers, such as Mary Battista, 28, of Weirton, W.Va., helped. Mary Battista Haines told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1994 that her feet were frostbitten despite wearing slipper-socks that she had found in someone's luggage.
Lt. 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.
George Albert owned a restaurant in Miami with his mother, Elizabeth Albert, 46. According to a weblog by Jacklyn Hoard of Salamanca, the Alberts flew from Miami to Pittsburgh, to visit their family in Josephine, Pa., for the holidays. For the return trip they never intended to fly to Buffalo. They had tickets for the flight from Pittsburgh to Miami. In the official investigation there were conflicting reports about whether the Alberts and the other Pittsburgh passengers were ever told about a change in the flight schedule that would take them to Buffalo before Miami. Moon said that combining passengers from the two flights made it difficult to get everyone on board the plane and settled in so they could take off. She told accident investigators that she informed all the passengers of the stop in Buffalo before heading to Miami.
Albert told reporters in 1952 that he remembers in the final minutes of the flight being told to fasten his seat belt and hearing another passenger suggest they might be lost. ''Pretty soon we started to fall. The warning light came on. Then there was the crash and blood-curdling screams,'' Albert said in 1952.
Newspaper accounts indicate that George Albert was exhausted by the time he reached the nearest road, Sawmill Run, after tramping through deep snow off Bucktooth Ridge in the woods. He decided to walk downhill on the road instead of uphill where he would have found the nearest farmhouse owned by the Kenneth Herrick family. Albert said it was painful for him to walk uphill. After walking for two miles down Sawmill Run Road, Albert came to the Charles and Ruby Bryant farmhouse in the nearby town of Coldspring. 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 in 2009 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 older Bryant boys started for the scene of the crash right away while Albert stayed behind to report the crash with the Bryant's telephone.
''Rod and Stuart (Bryant) both put on winter gear and headed immediately for the crash site on foot, traveling overland through the woods. They were among the first to get there and helped carry out survivors. I was 15 and my mother wouldn't let me go. I believe my father was at work,'' John Bryant said.
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. After hearing Albert's story of the crash and survivors shivering in the cold on the small mountain, together they placed a telephone call to the Cattaraugus County Sheriff's Department. Albert relayed the details of the tragic events over the telephone. ''It wasn't long before Sawmill Run, and especially our house, was in chaos, with rescue personnel, newsmen, thrill seekers, and traffic. All the reporters wanted to use our telephone,'' Bryant said.
Uphill from the Bryant house, the Herrick farm was also besieged with rescue workers. They accessed the crash site from the farm and used the Herricks' crawler-tractor to carry out survivors and the dead. Rescue efforts were led by Sheriff Morgan Sigel and fire departments from Salamanca, Little Valley, East Randolph and Randolph. A telephone call to the Napoli highway department and Superintendent David Shenefiel produced heavy construction equipment that plowed a crude path up the hill, but not quite to the top and the crash scene.
TELLING HIS STORY
Pearl Moon recalls being carried out in a device in which she could ''sit down or stand up.'' It was probably the small wagon that had been attached to the Herrick's crawler-tractor for the slippery and dangerous ride down the hill. 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. Reporters said a police officer fired gunshots to signal other rescuers of the survivors' location. 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. There is a look of absolute desperation on their faces. The first photograph from the scene would later be displayed around the world in the pages of Life Magazine.
Meanwhile, at the Bryant farmhouse, George Albert was facing his own onslaught from reporters. The 30-year-old restaurant owner was photographed in front of a vintage television set, unshaven, and with the look of bewilderment on his face. He was about to become the hero of the crash at Sawmill Run.
Albert was raised in the small western Pennsylvania town of Josephine and was graduated from Blairsville High School. In her weblog, Unsung Hero, author Jacklyn Hoard reported that Albert was a U.S. Army Sergeant who served during WWII in the South Pacific. After the war he had settled in south Florida and was planning to be married. Hoard reports that Albert and his mother Elizabeth Albert were partners in the Miami restaurant, The Patio. They had flown to Pittsburgh prior to Christmas to meet other family members at their family home for the holidays. They also gathered for a family photograph, the last for Elizabeth Albert.
Albert family members confirmed with Hoard what Pearl Moon reported in her recent interview about the crash. George and Elizabeth Albert traded seats on the plane at the last minute because Mrs. Albert was cold in the back of the plane. The seat exchange proved to be a fatal decision for Mrs. Albert and one that haunted George Albert for the rest of his life.
After the crash, Albert managed to crawl out of the wreckage in the dark where together with Moon, they saw a light in the snow. It was the flashlight.
''That flashlight was a godsend. With it, I was able to find all the survivors. I had to cut some loose from their safety belts,'' he said.
Albert declined to talk with reporters about the death that he witnessed that night through the beam of the flashlight. It must have been a horrific scene. The body of the one flight attendant victim was literally hanging from her seat belt, still in the seat. Pittsburgh Press reporter John Place described Christmas presents, the plane seats, ''a bathing suit, rag doll, and a man's black shoe, with a foot inside, but nothing else.''
Albert also used the flashlight to find his mother's body. The death of Elizabeth Albert was later described to Jacklyn Hoard by Albert family members as being caused by a large object driven into her head by the force of the crash. Albert told reporters that when he realized there was nothing he could do for his mother, he immediately turned to help the others.
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. Within days, local residents were taking visitors into their homes because the hotels were filled with reporters and crash investigators. For weeks after the crash, sightseers traipsed up the ridge to the scene of the crash. Many people removed pieces of the wreckage for souvenirs and local children passed around imaginary stories about victims with missing arms, legs and fingers.
It 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.
A SERIES OF CRASHES
The crash of Flight 44-2 was actually the third of four C-46 passenger plane crashes in 1951. Only a few weeks earlier, on Dec. 16, a Miami Airline C-46 crashed soon after takeoff from the Newark, NJ airport. All 56 people on board were killed when the plane crashed in Elizabeth, N.J., while trying to make it back to the airport. The cause of the crash was determined to be a stall, with the landing gear extended, following loss of power from an engine and subsequent fire. Press photographs of the burning plane plummeting to the ground rattled the fledgling air traveling public. On Jan. 4, 1951, a Monarch Air Service C-46 crashed on takeoff at Chicago's Midway Airport. Investigators determined the pilot lost control of the overloaded plane while using insufficient engine power. Of the 48 people on board, everyone got out safely. And, while crews were still searching for Flight 44-2, another C-46 crashed on Dec. 30, 1951, near Fairbanks, Alaska. Four people on board the plane were killed when the pilot flew past the airport, became lost and hit the ground. The wreckage was found on Jan. 3, 1952, at a time when air travelers' nerves were rattled.
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. He took a plane to Bradford, Pa., and then a car to the base of Bucktooth Ridge, where he walked part of the way up the mountain. He was then carried by an all-terrain vehicle to the summit, followed by reporters.
He was quoted as saying he was the first CAB chairman to make an on-the-spot crash investigation. 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.'' He was photographed with his foot resting on a crumpled Pratt and Whitney engine from the plane, contorted propeller in the background. Nyrop would return to Little Valley two weeks later during formal proceedings for the CAB investigation.
Nyrop had been chairman of the CAB for less than a year and had been reappointed to a full term two days before the crash. Born in 1912 in the small town of Elgin, Neb., Nyrop worked as a history teacher and basketball coach before earning his law degree and becoming a staff lawyer in the Civil Aeronautics Authority in Washington, D.C. During WWII, Nyrop served as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Transport Command, as executive operations officer. After the war Nyrop worked for the Air Transport Association, helping establish facilities and services for new overseas airline routes.
The book ''Airline Executives and Federal Regulation,'' edited by W. David Lewis, reports that newly appointed CAB chairman Nyrop's first task in 1951 was a ''noisy debate over the future of irregular air carriers'' such as Continental Charters. Irregular or nonscheduled airlines were exempt from the strict rules of carrier ''fitness'' by the CAB because they did not fly on regular schedules. Using war surplus airplanes and war veteran pilots, and often duplicating routes of the regular and certificated carriers, nonscheduled airlines offered drastically reduced fares on infrequent flights on various routes. In his previous job as head of the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), Nyrop had ''devoted special attention to the safety problems of irregular carriers.''
In the book, Nyrop chapter author Donna M. Corbett described graphic headlines and photographs in newspapers and magazines of the late 1940s and into 1951 that frightened the traveling public with ''Death rides the Bargain Airlines'' and ''Murder in the Air.'' By the time of the Miami Airline crash at Newark in mid-December 1951, the White House had begun pressuring the CAB to improve safety among the nonscheduled airlines. Within days of the crash of Flight 44-2, President Harry Truman sent a letter to Nyrop requesting new safety rules on uncertified airlines. By April 1952, soon after the Flight 44-2 crash investigation was released, the CAB required nonscheduled airlines such as Continental Charters, to meet the same safety standards as the well-known certified airlines, Eastern, Delta, American, United and TWA. Nyrop's personal visit to the top of Bucktooth Ridge and the resulting press photographs of a CAB chairman among the wreckage of a commercial plane crash spoke volumes about his concern for safety and his commitment to changing the public's perception of commercial airlines travel. He would later portray the same principals as chairman of Northwest Airlines. Nyrop died in November 2010 at the age of 98.
In Cattaraugus County, Nyrop was joined by Sheriff Morgan L. Sigel, who spearheaded the local accident investigation. The crash of Flight 44-2 was the highlight of Sigel's law enforcement career that began in 1940. Rushed to the scene in a deputy's car, Sigel personally directed the rescue of survivors and the recovery of the dead from atop the mountain and at the Herrick farm command post. One of Sigel's more difficult parts of the investigation was the later revelation that someone had stolen several hundred dollars in cash from a victim's corpse. Sigel used his expert political skills to coordinate the anonymous return of the cash with no charges being filed. While news of this lugubrious event leaked out, the thief was never identified.
Newspaper reporters and photographers from Western New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and even New York City rushed to Napoli and Salamanca to cover the story. Between ghastly photographs of bodies hanging from seats and severed limbs protruding from the wreckage, speculation filled their copy, called in from farmhouse telephones. At first, they thought icing on the plane's wings may have caused the crash. Did the plane run out of fuel? Did the C-46s have a defect that caused all the recent crashes? Nobody knew for sure.
An NBC television news crew arrived with a film camera to capture the wreckage scene and to interview survivors. Their footage was reported to have been played on the NBC Camel News Caravan on Jan. 2, 1952. However, the film may have been lost or destroyed, because no records of it can be found in the NBC archives.
George Albert and Lt. Bischof were portrayed as the heroes of the tragedy. The only quotes attributed to Pearl Moon came from her comments about the children and her official testimony in the CAB investigation hearings. Sixty years later, Moon regretted that her role in helping the crash survivors had not been portrayed equally with Albert and Bischof. ''All the reporters were men. They didn't give any credit to what I did, but that's OK,'' she said.
The official crash investigation hearings began in Little Valley on Jan. 17, 1952. Chairman Nyrop personally directed the hearings. It marked the first time a CAB chairman had ever performed the duties, typically left to subordinates. The impact of Nyrop's personal interrogation of Continental Charters president James A. Belding was felt throughout the industry. The newly appointed chairman of CAB was in the Cattaraugus County Courthouse, on directives from President Truman, grilling the head of a nonscheduled airline about safety measures over which the federal government had little control.
The CAB investigation found that Captain Harris flew from Miami to Pittsburgh, as planned, using instrument flight rules. Despite a verbal report indicating poor weather, Harris switched to visual flight rules for the trip from Pittsburgh to Buffalo to make up for lost time and to avoid further delays for refueling in Pittsburgh, as was required for instrument flight rules. It was also revealed that Harris may have been using Automatic Pilot during the low altitude flight to Buffalo.
The investigation also revealed that Continental Charters did not consider the terrain between Pittsburgh and Buffalo to be mountainous. The airline was also advised of this premise by the CAA district office in Miami. Therefore, Captain Harris may have misunderstood the elevation of the terrain along the route. He was also found to have been flying below the minimum altitude for visual flight rules and he was 11 miles (off-course) east of the direct route to Buffalo. Investigators also found discrepancies in the amount of fuel aboard the plane and the weight and balance manifests filed at Pittsburgh. They found that there was enough fuel on board to meet regulations for a visual flight to Buffalo but not enough for an instrument flight, which required a greater fuel reserve.
The final CAB conclusion for the cause of the crash was ''the captain's poor judgment in attempting a flight by visual reference during instrument weather conditions.''
Continental Charters, which is of no relationship to the present Continental Airlines, signaled the errors of its flight crew within days of the crash. On Jan. 3, 1952, Continental Charters adopted new company policies that are commonly accepted safety rules today. All night flights would use instrument flight rules, and automatic pilot would not be allowed under 3,000 feet elevation. Later, on Jan. 21, the airline prohibited use of Automatic Pilot during instrument weather conditions, and while climbing and descending. The new safety regulations were not enough, however. By April 1955, Continental Charters was bankrupt and out of business.
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.
The crash also led to a common public perception about personal safety on passenger airplanes. The publicity surrounding crashes in 1951 and 1952 was widespread and interminable. Those who were not afraid to fly debated among themselves where they would sit on a plane to survive a crash. Nearly all of the 14 survivors of Flight 44-2 were quoted as saying they lived because they were sitting in the rear of the plane. Without the benefit of later studies on crash survival statistics that proved the same result, public perception that passengers are safest in the rear of a plane can be traced to the Dec. 29, 1951, crash at Bucktooth Ridge.