Shortly after takeoff on March 1, 1978, the captain of Continental Airlines 603 hears a loud boom that ends up being blown tires on the left main landing gear, and he decides to reject the takeoff. This decision should have been a routine one that ended in a swift stop on the runway. However, when the plane won’t stop as it is expected to do, the captain must swerve to avoid colliding with oncoming obstacles at the end of the runway. As the plane swerves, the left main landing gear gets stuck in the tarmac, and as it does, it rips away from the skin of plane, breaching the fuel tanks and igniting a blaze that quickly engulfs the plane. While all 200 people evacuated flight 603, four later died and dozens are injured. The NTSB investigation revealed faulty assumptions in the design of aircraft tires that prevented the tires from handling the additional weight after one tire failed. It also revealed that the common calculation used for V1 speed only included dry runways, a fact that was reinforced by pilot training and even aircraft certification requirements. Following the crash, the NTSB issued a series of recommendations intended to close the safety gaps highlighted during this investigation, which eventually led to the FAA drafting several new rules. The NTSB recommended that tires have “adequate margins” for normal operations; that standards for retreaded tires be drafted; that inspections be required on both new and retreaded tires; that a limit be established on the number of times a tire can be retreaded; that FAA requirements for aircraft stopping distances take into account wet runways and events other than engine failures; that simulator training include the effects of wet runways in stopping distance; and that pilots be trained on the most critical rejected takeoff scenarios. As a result of these recommendations, the FAA drafted new, tougher rules for the loads tires must be able to bear, how they must be inspected, and how they should be retreaded.
1970s Commercial Flying Meant the End of Government Regulation and the Start of Fun
Our story begins in March 1978 at Los Angeles International Airport (or as we refer to it, LAX) in the United States where a McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 aircraft, flying under the banner of Continental Airlines Flight 603, is preparing for takeoff to Honolulu, HA. At this time in 1978, Continental’s fleet included this popular, wide body passenger plane, which was decorated in a color scheme fitting to the era. On the exterior of the aircraft’s white skin was the word “Continental” hovering above passenger windows toward the front of both sides of the plane in dark brown capital letters. Beneath the Continental name was a set of three stripes (one lighter brown, one red, and one orange) that ran the entire length of each side of the aircraft. The lighter brown stripe then swept upward and expanded across the tail of the plane where Continental’s dark brown emblem capped off the design. Looking at pictures of their fleet from the late 1970s may lead you to remark that the planes looked “groovy.”
And in fact, we could probably say that flying then was also groovy. In the 1970s, the party in the sky never stopped. In fact, many airlines went as far as to remove seats from the aircraft to make room for things like pianos or bars that served complimentary cocktails. Continental Airlines equipped its own fleet with a flying pub, complete with arcade games, and yes, complimentary booze. These celebratory airplane redesigns were largely the result of the industry's longstanding two-drink limit being struck down, freeing passengers to imbibe to their heart's — and liver's — desire.
And it wasn’t just the passengers who would loosen up in the air during this same decade. The 1970s also marked the end of government regulation of the airline industry. Many government rules were originally put in place to keep airfares priced fairly and individual routes and destinations from being bombarded with competing, empty flights.
However, numerous case studies showed that unregulated airline startups were able to offer fares lower than the protected legacy carriers. So, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter dissolved the Civil Aeronautics Board, and subsequently granted airlines both new and old the powers to set their own fares, decide their own route maps, and learn for themselves what the market might bear.
And we could not move on today without also considering what commercial flying’s safety record was back then. In the 1970s, an average of 68 commercial planes crashed each year, with 1,676 fatalities. Let those numbers sink in for a moment. Obviously, the introduction of GPS, aircraft avoidance systems, and ground-proximity alarms in the 1970s and '80s has prevented countless crashes. But, in 1978, while commercial flying was getting safer, we still had a long way to go to where we are today. And as we know that road is paved with lessons learned from stories like the one we will explore today.
Captain Hersche’s Final Flight Before Retirement is Continental Airlines 603
Speaking of today’s story, back on Continental Airlines Flight 603, we could imagine the festive atmosphere in the cabin given who was flying that day. Most of the 186 passengers making up the manifest were spring vacationers on their way to destinations in the Hawaiian Islands. Many of them, in fact, were retirees in the 60+ age range.
And speaking of retirement, the captain was 59-year-old Charles E. Hersche, who was commanding Flight 603 as his last flight before his own retirement. He had been with Continental Airlines since 1946 and had logged 29,000 flight hours, including almost 3,000 hours on the DC-10. Before flying commercially, Captain Hersche served with the U.S. Air Force for 11 years during World War II and Korean War. Because this was his final flight, and a momentous occasion, his wife joined him on the plane today as one of the passengers in the cabin.
The first officer was 40-year-old Michael J. Provan, who had been with Continental Airlines since 1966 and had 10,000 flight hours, with about 1200 of them on the DC-10. The flight engineer was 39-year-old John K. Olsen, who had been with the airline since 1968. He was the least experienced member of the crew with 8,000 flight hours, 1,520 of them on the DC-10. Rounding out the crew were an additional 11 cabin crew members, bringing the final count of people onboard flight 603 to be 200.
Continental Airlines Flight 603 is Heavy on Takeoff at LAX
Before flight 603 even takes off, there are many tasks for the flight crew to complete, specifically, performing calculations prior to takeoff from their assigned runway 6R at LAX. You see, having given the number of people, baggage, and pounds of fuel onboard, the plane is almost at its maximum takeoff weight, gracing the top limit with just 136 kilograms (or 300 pounds) to spare. This meant that the flight crew needed to precisely identify what their decision speed would be for takeoff – we refer to this speed as V1. As we have talked about before, V1 is the maximum speed at which a rejected takeoff can be initiated in the event of an emergency. In 1978, the exact value of V1 depended on the weight of the aircraft, the length of the runway, the direction and speed of the wind, runway slope, airfield altitude, and a few other variables. Sounds simple enough.
Because the plane is so heavy, it must takeoff from a shorter runway than usual because the longest runway at the time at LAX included an overpass that could not withstand the weight of the plane. This all meant that flight 603 would takeoff, instead, from runway 6R, which was shorter. Considering these factors, the pilots calculated that V1 for this takeoff would be 179 mph (or 288 kph).
Continental Airlines Flight 603 Takeoff is Rejected but Plane Does not Immediately Stop
At 9:25 that March morning, flight 603 lined up with runway 6R and began its takeoff roll. Just as the plane began to accelerate down the runway, there was a loud boom followed immediately by a second boom. Captain Hersche was a literal veteran pilot, and he knew instantly that a mechanical problem had just happened. In the cockpit, the captain yelled, “abort!”
However, even in the few seconds it took for the captain to comprehend what needed to be done, the plane had just inched past its V1 takeoff speed. Following his training, Captain Hershe slammed on the brakes and activated the thrust reversers as quickly as possible. But what he thought would happen next did not occur: despite applying full braking power and reverse thrust, the plane was still careening down the runway. Quickly coming toward them, at the end of the runway, was a gasoline storage area and a car‐rental parking lot at the end of the runway. Captain Hersche knew he needed to avoid colliding with all of these structures, and so he did only what he could do in that moment: he steered the plane sharply to the right to go around them. As he did, the plane went into a skid, sparks from the plane’s four pairs of wheels flying everywhere.
As the plane skidded across the tarmac, the wheels on the left main landing gear ground into the tarmac under the enormous pressure of the plane’s weight and speed. As it did, it became lodged into the surface of the tarmac and ripped away from the plane’s skin, tearing itself out of the left wing, and taking with it a large section of the bottom wing skin and part of a bulkhead. The plane finally came to a stop just 664 feet (or 202 m) past the runway. It was amazing that Captain Hersche had avoided colliding with any of the structures around the runway. But the hardest part of the crash landing came next with the evacuation.
When part of the left side of the plane’s bulkhead was torn away, the fully loaded fuel tanks ruptured, and a plume of fire shot 100 feet (or 30 m) into the air. Almost instantly, black smoke began to envelope the plane along with a blaze that quickly began to burn under the wing on the left side of the fuselage.
LAX Firefighters Arrive on Scene to Find Flight 603 Being Engulfed by Flames
Back in 1978, LAX was the third busiest airport in the world. That meant it was fully equipped to handle all types of airport emergencies, including the one unfolding right now with flight 603. When firefighter Tom Kaiser heard what sounded like a firing canon, he and his fellow firefighter Jim McJannett ran outside their concrete outpost next to the runway to see a crisis unfolding in real time: a departing Continental Airlines DC-10 was racing down runway 6R at more than 170 mph (or 270 kph) and its left tires had blown off the jet and now only metal was bearing down on the tarmac on the left side of the plane. Jim looked at Tom and said decisively, “Blowout. Let’s go!”
By the time Tom and Jim’s firefighting truck made it to the crash scene, the plane was already being rapidly engulfed by fire on the left side. The firefighters knew they had only minutes before the entire plane would be lost to the blaze. Tom wondered chillingly, how many people were going to be able to get out alive before that happened?
Tom and Jim arrived just 90 seconds after they first spotted flight 603’s crash landing, and with the hoses from their fire truck, began attacking the fire right as the first passengers slid down an emergency chute and ran away from the plane. But it was hard to get ahead of the blaze, what with the steady stream of jet fuel continuing to feed the fire, which now had quickly begun to swallow large sections of the plane. The firefighters frantically call for backup: more fire companies, trucks, men, ambulances, everything they could get. This was the big one. The one event they had dreaded but had always been training for. And now, time was running out. The fire was now spreading under the entire fuselage.
Continental Airlines Flight 603 Passengers Panic, Struggle to Find Exit After Crash Landing
Inside the cabin was sheer panic. As soon as the plane ground to a halt, and began to catch fire on the left side, passengers could see the orange glow of flames through the windows. People began screaming and running frantically toward the exits, pushing into one another desperately and aggressively with the same goal to escape. The crowd got so entangled that it pinned a flight attendant to an exit door, and he couldn’t open it. The other flight attendants pushed past the crowd and began opening the other emergency exits, but three of the four exits on the left side were blocked by fire and couldn’t be used. The fourth left-sided emergency door was opened but its slide didn’t deploy, so all the passengers had to evacuate through the four usable exits on the right side of the plane.
Thirteen-year-old Gina Draker was sitting in the window seat just over the left wing when the plane finally came to a sudden stop. She could already see that a fire was beginning on one side of the plane. As passengers panicked and began rushing to exit doors, her mother, Genie, got pinned into her own seat and couldn’t move. Genie told her daughter to leave without her. Meanwhile, Gina’s father, Bill, who’d served in the Marines, lifted both his wife and daughter onto seats and told them to crawl to the nearest exit. But he was not leaving with them just yet. Bill was staying behind – the Marine in him was going to do his best to not leave others behind.
By this time, amazingly, about half of the total passengers had gotten off the plane in the first few moments after the plane came to a stop. But that left about 100 people still in dire need of evacuation. And now the fire was growing and spreading beyond the left side of the plane to the underbelly of the fuselage. As the fire grew, the escape paths normally available to passengers during an emergency were quickly becoming compromised by the fire. The back, right-sided slide broke after becoming overloaded with too many people trying to escape at once. And because of the intensity of the heat from the fire, the three other exit chutes began to melt and quickly deflated.
If they were to have a shot at surviving, the only choices that remained for passengers was to jump several meters down onto the ground either from the doors or from the right wing, OR they could slide down a rope out the first officer’s window. Many people chose to jump. But as they did, jet fuel spattered onto them, and as they fell to the earth, they began to catch fire. Firefighters rushed to extinguish several people who were walking around in burning clothes. Some people ended up sitting down after they jumped from the burning plane, but for some, they unknowingly sat next to something else that would flare up in flames, and they, too, would catch fire. Other passengers crawled along the right wing and simply dropped to the ground from its rear flap, injuring themselves when they landed. In a moment of terror, firefighters watched helplessly as an older woman wandered under the plane in a daze and caught fire. Tom and Jim would later remember her cries of help. So, too, would Gina Draker, who escaped the burning wreckage with her mother Genie.
But Gina’s father Bill had stayed behind. Gina anxiously scanned charred face after face streaming out of the burning plane to see if one of them was her father. Bill Draker was among one of the last people out of the plane. Jim McJannett had finally climbed on top of the plane and sprayed it with foam, an act which bought Bill some time and enabled him to help several more people escape. But the exit chute Bill had been using to help others escape had now completely burned, and it was Bill’s turn to jump. And so, he did. The Draker family, covered in black smoke but otherwise uninjured, were later reunited.
Continental Airlines Flight 603 Crash Leaves 4 Dead, Dozens Injured from Falls
Those passengers who jumped from the burning plane suffered broken bones and serious head injuries on impact. Many other suffered severe thermal burns. And these injuries happened despite the quick response from first responders. After four minutes, several more fire trucks arrived to join the one driven by Tom and Jim, and within six minutes of the crash, all the passengers were out, and the fire had been extinguished. The fire was under control one minute after that, and total extinguishment was accomplished six minutes after the crash. All the injured victims were transported to hospitals in less than one hour after being treated by paramedics on the field.
By the time it was over, two people were dead and 29 others had suffered serious injuries ranging from rope burns to broken ribs to fractured vertebrae. Three months later, two seriously injured passengers died in hospital, bringing the death count to four people. The other 167 passengers survived with minor injuries, thanks in part to a new firefighting technique – the use of foam, also called “light water,” which passed its first major test at LAX that day. This is one of the first times foam was used outside of the military to extinguish a major fire. And thanks to the quick action of firefighters Tom Kaiser and Jim McJannett. Experts later attributed their quick response actions to having saved the lives of at least 40 to 50 passengers that day alone.
Many letters of appreciation were received by LAFD Fire Captain Bob Engle and the LAFD including one from Mayor Bradley, the Airline Pilots’ Association, and Continental Airlines. One very touching letter is available on the LAFD historical website related to this crash and was written on March 11, 1978, by two survivors of flight 603, Mr. and Mrs. Al Smithson. They wrote:
Dear Captain Engle: How does one begin to express gratitude for life? There are no words strong enough to convey our thanks for the miracle of just being here. On March 1st my husband and I boarded the ill-fated Continental plane bound for Hawaii. Minutes later the windows were filled with flame – it seemed inevitable the plane would explode. From then on, our lives were in the capable and courageous hands of your men. My husband suffered no injuries and though I have a fractured back and ribs I feel more than fortunate to be writing this letter. We understand several of the firemen were burned. This distresses us and it is our sincere hope their return to good health will be rapid. We would greatly appreciate your expressing our deepest thanks to all men involved. If there is some way we could be of service, please let us know.
NTSB Identifies Blown Tires Could Not Handle Weight During Rejected Takeoff
As the wreckage of Continental Airlines flight 603 is still smoldering on the tarmac, investigators arrive onsite from the National Transportation Safety Board (or NTSB). While the plane’s flight data recorder (or FDR) was recording at the time of the crash, the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) was not working. Despite that, investigators were able to piece together what had happened based on the evidence left at the scene, the FDR, and from interviews with the flight crew.
That leads us to discussing tires on the DC-10. On a DC-10, in addition to the nose gear beneath the nose of the aircraft, we have four sets of tires. They are numbered in pairs from left to right, so tires 1 and 2 are on the same left side as tires 5 and 6 while tires 2 and 3 are together with tires 7 and 8 on the right side.
First, the tread on tire 2 wore off and then blew out. This put extra weight on tire 1 and caused it to fail as well. Flying debris from either tire 1 or 2 destroyed tire 5 right behind it. When the two tires blew out, flight 603 had accelerated to a speed of 175 mph (or 281 kph), just below the threshold for V1, which was 179 mph. But, due to the damage from the blown-out tires, the wheels became damaged, and the braking power became reduced.
That, combined with the wet runway, prevented the aircraft from stopping in time, despite the crew’s application of full manual brakes and reverse thrust. Knowing this sequence leads the NTSB to solve the riddle of what happened to flight 603 by answering two key questions: one, why did the tires fail in the first place, and two, why did the plane not stop on the runway?
NTSB Highlights Need for Consistent Tire Treading Standards Across all Airlines
Let’s explore the first question: why the tires failed. Investigators came up with several reasons why the tread of the number 2 tire may have unraveled. But the larger issue investigators focused on was understanding how airlines chose to maintain tires to ensure that tire tread was not wearing down. But here’s the catch. There were no consistent standards that required airlines to inspect their tire tread for hidden damage. In fact, airlines were completely free to use whatever retreading procedures they liked. Continental did not inspect its tires before retreading them; in fact, none of the failed tires on flight 603 had been inspected for hidden damage before being retreaded, nor were they required to be. Obviously, the lack of consistent standards across the industry created the risk that tire damage may go undetected until a tire failure occurs. And by then it’s too late.
In addition to problems with tread maintenance, another problem discovered was related to the design requirements of airplane tires for the DC-10. While the tires used on this DC-10 were designed to withstand up to 24,400 kilograms (53,800 pounds) of load, the design assumptions used to define this limit were faulty because it assumed that weight would be equally distributed across all tires. It did not consider the scenario when one tire was required to withstand a greater load because of another failed tire, which is precisely what happened on flight 603: tire 2 failed and the load was then transferred to tire 1, and then it, too, failed, due to the pressure of having too much weight placed on it.
The NTSB had been aware of this problem and tried to get the Federal Aviation Administration (or FAA) to take action since 1962 but had been unsuccessful. And so, here in this crash was the same problem happening all over again: tires were still not required to withstand the extra loads when an adjacent tire fails.
NTSB Investigation Highlights V1 Calculations Do Not Consider Wet Runways
After identifying the contributors related to tire failure, the NTSB next moves on to the second, big question: why did the plane fail to stop as commanded by the pilots? The answer is frustrating but simple and shocking at the same time: the decision speed (V1) for takeoffs did not account for a wet or slippery runway, even though this could significantly increase stopping distance, AND the calculations for V1 assumed the plane would have full braking power at the time of the rejected takeoff, something which often wasn’t available if the tires or wheels were damaged.
In the case of flight 603, the calculations to estimate the plane’s stopping distance — which were based off an engine failure at V1 on a dry runway — suggested that the plane would stop with 800 feet (244m) of runway to spare; however, when you consider the wet surface, the plane actually had zero feet of stopping distance. The NTSB understood this to be a massive issue: the measures being used to prevent runway overruns on takeoff did not reflect real world conditions. And that discovery had a real-world impact on planes taking off every day across America.
This faulty calculation around V1 for a dry runway was a prevalent theme in everything touching a pilot’s world. Regulations, aircraft certification requirements, and even pilot simulator experiences all focused on dry runway situations.
We can all safely assume that had the pilots of flight 603 known the real decision speed, they would have continued the takeoff; in fact, the NTSB showed that the tire failure on flight 603 would not have interfered in any way with the plane’s ability to become airborne.
Flight 603 Crash Landing Highlight Faults in Emergency Chute Design
The accident of flight 603 also highlighted other safety problems, one with the landing gear design of the DC-10 and one with the design of the emergency chutes. Regarding the landing gear, all aircraft, including the DC-10, were built so that the landing gear would break away harmlessly in a crash landing without breaching the fuel tanks. But as with the case of flight 603, the landing gear did not break cleanly away as expected. Instead of a clean break, it twisted off, and breached the fuel tanks as the plane skid.
When it came to the emergency slides, the NTSB was concerned to discover that the design requirements for such slides did not include the ability to withstand fire or heat. As we know, the slides on Flight 603 melted under the intense heat. This was something the FAA failed to consider when it wrote the rules for emergency slides; it had only assumed that heat would compromise the slides after an evacuation, not before or during.
NTSB Issues Recommendations Following Crash of Continental Airlines 603
Six months after the crash, the NTSB issued a series of recommendations intended to close the safety gaps highlighted during this investigation, which eventually led to the FAA drafting several new rules. The NTSB recommended that tires have “adequate margins” for normal operations; that standards for retreaded tires be drafted; that inspections be required on both new and retreaded tires; that a limit be established on the number of times a tire can be retreaded; that FAA requirements for aircraft stopping distances take into account wet runways and events other than engine failures; that simulator training include the effects of wet runways in stopping distance; and that pilots be trained on the most critical rejected takeoff scenarios. As a result of these recommendations, the FAA drafted new, tougher rules for the loads tires must be able to bear, how they must be inspected, and how they should be retreaded.
Continental Airlines Flight 603 Captain Heralded as Hero
Following the crash, Captain Hersche received the Daedalian Award for his performance during the crash landing of flight 603, a coveted prize for aviation excellence awarded by the FAA and the Daedalian Society (which, by the way, a membership of aviators from across the U.S. armed forces that come together to honor our rich heritage and inspire the future of military aviation). Captain Hersche’s quick thinking was later cited in an analysis conducted by the FAA in 1981 of the mandatory retirement age for pilots. At the time of the crash of flight 603, Captain Hersche was retiring at age 60 because he had to. And yet, because of his years of experience, he was able to avoid making the crash of flight 603 one of the deadlier crashes in Continental Airlines history. The fact that his performance during the crash was cited as a reason for why the retirement age for pilots should have been higher than it was is as true a testament as anything to his role in saving the lives of his passengers.
And that is the story of a little-known crash landing that had a huge impact on aviation safety, Continental Airlines Flight 603.