Episode 52: Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458

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Summary:

Ice on the wings of a plane can be catastrophic, but a little ice on the windshield on a winter New England day isn't out of the ordinary. In 1982, that challenge set a frightening chain of events into motion for Pilgrim Airline Flight 458, which challenged the crew and the passengers to do everything they could to save the plane. This episode of Take to the Sky: The Air Disaster Podcast shares a story about unlikely heroes, terrifying obstacles, and the will to live—and it's a story you won't want to miss!



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Why Did Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 Crash?

It was mid-afternoon on February 21, 1982, and Pilgrim Air Flight 458 was preparing for its journey from New York City to Boston with planned stops in Bridgeport, New Haven, and Groton, Connecticut. Pilgrim Airlines was a commuter airline that specialized in short-haul flight service. The company was founded in 1962 by Joe Fugare to provide charter services between Groton and Washington, DC, but competitor Allegheny Airlines edged him out of the market. He ended up finding his niche by transporting executives between Groton and New York City; Groton, which is close to the Rhode Island border, is home to General Electric's Electronic Boat Division, and leadership regularly needed to commute between their headquarters and New York City. Pilgrim Air could provide that critical service. Eventually, Pilgrim Air expanded their operations throughout Southern New England, eventually adding Boston to their network.

What Aircraft Did Pilgrim Airlines Fly?

Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 was scheduled on a de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter. Twin Otters were designed for short takeoffs and landings, and they were especially popular in remote places like Northern Canada, where they could be fitted with different landing gear configurations such as skis or floats to make it possible for them to land safely in difficult area. They have also served military customers, flown to destinations including the Himalayas, African deserts, and Antarctica, and they were popular as commuter planes; many companies got their start in the commuter flight industry by purchasing and flying Twin Otters.

Who Is Thomas Prinster?

After departing La Guardia and making connections through to Groton, Pilgirm Air got a fresh flight crew and 10 passengers for the final leg of the trip to Boston. Captain Thomas Prinster was 36 years old as he boarded the plane that day; he became a licensed pilot when he was just 17 years old so that he could fly his father and his father's colleagues and friends on business trips. He served as a pilot in the US Navy, earning the rank of Lieutenant Commander, where he flew reconnaissance missions in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic from the USS Enterprise. Known as Big Tom for his height— he was 6'4" tall— he was known for being more comfortable in the air than on the ground, and he had 6,700 flight hours in the air.

Who Is Lyle Hogg?

Captain Prinster was joined by 27-year-old First Officer Lyle Hogg, who was just 6 months into his career with Pilgrim Airlines. First Officer Hogg had about 2,100 flight hours of experience as he settled in for the quick flight to Boston.

What Happened to Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458?

Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 took off as expected, and the crew was cleared to Boston via their approved route, which would take them from Groton toward Norwich, Millis, Massachusetts, and finally Boston. The crew was given a choice between flying the unpressurized Twin Otter at 4,000 or 7,000 feet; they elected to fly at 4,000 feet.

About 15 minutes after takeoff, the crew noticed a bit of icing on the windshield, which was concerning although probably not entirely unexpected since it was a winter day in New England; temperatures were around 37 degrees Fahrenheit, and it was foggy and a bit drizzly along the route. The crew didn't see any icing on the plane itself, which was good news; ice in spots like the wings can lead to some very serious problems, such as on Scandinavian Airlines Flight 751. First Officer Hogg turned on the deicing system, which used an isopropyl alcohol-based deicer along with wipers to clear ice from the windshield. It didn't seem to be working very well; when First Officer Hogg activated the deicing system and moved the windshield wipers, he didn't see a whole lot of the deicing agent on the windshield. He decided to apply a little more; he held the switch that released the deicing solution down a bit longer to coat the windshield with a bit more of the alcohol solution. Within a few seconds, he could smell alcohol in the cockpit, which was concerning. He stopped the deicing process completely.

A few moments later, a grayish smoke began to waft upward from the cockpit floor.

Emergency on Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458

At 3:38 PM, not quite 20 minutes after takeoff, Captain Prinster contacted air traffic control and said, "Pilgrim 428, we need a direct Providence-- this is an emergency. There is a fire onboard." The flight was cleared to make a 150 degree turn to the right and head toward the closest airport, Green Airport in Providence, Rhode Island.

In the brief time it took for the crew to contact air traffic control, get clearance to make an emergency landing, and begin to turn toward Green Airport, the smoke in the cockpit had changed from light and gray to heavy and dark. Before long, the smoke was so black that Captain Prinster and First Officer Hogg couldn't see each other or their instrument controls, nor could they see outside of the cockpit; they had to open their side windows for visibility and ventilation.

The Twin Otter is a small plane, and as smoke overwhelmed the cockpit it also began to seep into the passenger cabin. One passenger, Harry Polychron— a US Airways flight engineer and former pilot— approached the cockpit and was met by an almost unimaginable sight: open flames were ripping through the plane's control panel. He threw his coat over them in an attempt to smother them, which didn't work.

It was clear that there was no hope of a landing at Green Airport, where emergency crews were waiting for Pilgrim Air Flight 458 to arrive. And, in fact, the chance of a safe landing was slipping away almost completely for one terrifying reason: Captain Prinster and First Officer Hogg were on fire.

As the flames burned through the plane, they also began to attack the flight crew, who found themselves battling two shocking extremes: inside the plane, fire began to latch onto their legs, but their heads, which were straining outside of the open windows, were starting to freeze. Their only option was to continue to fly and land as safely as possible; to tend to either their burning legs or their freezing faces would mean to abandon the flight controls, which would unquestionably doom any remaining hope of survivability. Never once did either Captain Prinster or First Officer Hogg give up in their attempt to save their passengers— and themselves.

Where Did Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 Crash?

Pilgrim Air Flight 458 descended to 1,400 feet, and beneath them, Captain Prinster saw the frozen Scituate Reservoir. It was going to be their best chance for landing: it was an open space, and because it was so cold there was a chance the water would be frozen enough for the plane to land without breaking through and sinking into the frigid water. As they continued to lose the aircraft to fire, the flight crew was out of options.

In the passenger cabin, Harry Polychron began bashing windows open with a tennis racket as black smoke continued to overwhelm the aircraft. 16-year-old Grant Reynolds, who was traveling with his mother, rushed throughout the plane trying to open air vents, just in case that effort could save lives.

In the cockpit, as the plane continued to descend toward the Scituate Reservoir, the flight crew lost communication with each other— their headsets melted in the heat of the cockpit. Their clothing burned away from their bodies. First Officer Hogg could see the ground below them, and his hand gripped the control wheel. That's when he felt it move; it banked to the left, lining up with the river below them. Captain Prinster was still in command of the aircraft.

At 3:33 PM, Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 landed on 12 inches of ice; in what was later described as a controlled landing, the left engine and the right wing with the engine attached broke off the plane as it slid to a stop. The exit doors were melted into their frames, leaving the flight crew to climb through the open windows in an attempt to rescue themselves from the inferno that blazed around them.

Who Survived the Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 Crash?

Passengers began to escape through holes in the fuselage as they fought to get to safety. Paul Hainsworth kicked through the plane's aluminum skin to create an opening big enough to fit through, and he was followed by cardiologist Sigfried Kra and nine-year-old Sophie Geidt. As Harry Polychron started to jump to safety, he heard another passenger cry for help: the voice said, "Somebody please help me, I'm blind." Harry found the passenger, Laurel Magee, and dragged her to safety, too. He dislocated his shoulder during the crash sequence, which prevented him from returning to the plane to help more passengers off, including one man who lay motionless on the ground toward the back of the plane. It was Paul Hainsworth who returned to save Lance Theobald's life.

As rescue teams caught up to the plane, what they discovered must have seemed like nothing short of a miracle: 11 people were immediately accounted for and were very much alive. They were burned, injured, and disoriented, but they were alive. Rescuers were surprised to see 11 of them; when Captain Prinster radioed into air traffic control and gave a head count, he reported 10 souls on board. He had forgotten to include himself and First Officer Hogg in the count, which would have brought the true number to 12.

11 people survived the crash of Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458; the single fatality was passenger Lorretta Stanczak, who was pronounced dead due to asphyxiation from the smoke onboard.

What Was It Like to Survive the Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 Plane Crash?

Of the moment when the gray smoke began to turn black, Captain Prinster said, 'Very shortly thereafter, Lyle and I realized we had to get that plane down somewhere. It was like sitting in the middle of a bonfire. We couldn't see out the windows. We couldn't see the instruments. We couldn't see each other. My thoughts were to get it down on the ground. We came out of the clouds and I saw the lake and kept it coming down. The smoke kept getting thicker and thicker." Of the decision to keep flying the plane, even has his body burned and his uniform melted away, he said, "The choice is pretty simple. You either fly the airplane and take your chances -- or you leave the cockpit and certainly crash."

First Officer Hogg's reflections on the landing are especially haunting. He said, “We couldn’t talk to each other, there was so much smoke. The only way I could tell that Tom was still in control of the airplane was to rest my hand on the control wheel and feel the inputs he was making. That way I knew that he was still in control and still fling the airplane and I did not have to.”

Those thoughts directly from the flight crew themselves are especially remarkable in contrast to their conditions, which were well documented as they began their long roads to recovery. William Garvey, who was an editor at Professional Pilot Magazine and researched this accident, described the situation as being dire. He said, "The flames, furious and intensely hot, had eaten through the flight deck. Prinster and Hogg were being roasted in their seats. Their uniforms, part synthetic, were melting to their bodies. The heat and the flames were charring their arms, legs and torsos. Their hair was singed to dust. Their fingers were frying on the yoke. Even their ears were burned raw by the insatiable, excruciating flames. They were being torched like meat on a spit. …But they both remained at their stations, flying their disintegrating craft through its final, screaming descent. Prinster and Hogg were burned horribly and as they made their way toward the shore, a quarter-mile away, lumps of charred flesh fell from their arms and legs. Their hair was cinder. Smoke or body steam was rising from their open wounds and clothing. Burnt, blackened gashes split their legs, exposing the bone beneath.”

Were Passengers on Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 Injured?

Captain Prinster had third degree burns on 70% of his body. First Officer Hogg suffered burns to 25% of his body. Their passengers were also battered and bruised as they were taken to local hospitals. Cardiologist Sigfied Kra wrote a book called Nine Lives, which shares some insights into the crash of Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458. He said, "I was hungry. Famished. I felt as if I hadn’t eaten in weeks. The adrenaline was overflowing. I ate three hamburgers and then called my wife. 'Don’t get worried, you probably heard of the crash. If you didn’t, turn on the radio. Come and get me. Bring a coat, a hat, and a bottle of scotch.'” That scotch was well-earned; Dr. Kra was credited with saving lives that day, not necessarily because he was a medical professional, but because he bravely helped other passengers off the plane before the flames overtook it.

Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 Investigation

As investigators started to uncover what brought the plane down in such a devastating and terrifying fashion, the accident report described the wreckage as being extensively burned and gutted by the fire, with the fuselage melted and exposed metal visible on the ice. The cockpit was completely destroyed, and investigators could not tell where some of the passenger seats they located would have been on the intact aircraft due to the extensive damage.

The investigation into the crash began quickly, it the NTSB had the odds stacked against them from the beginning. Acting Director James Burnett said, 'It's always difficult to determine the origin of a fire, particularly when it destroys the evidence." There were no cockpit voice recorders or flight data recorders on board." The final report completely absolved the flight crew of any wrongdoing; when they saw the first signs of smoke they declared an emergency and began to prepare for landing, and the report referred to their actions as heroic. 

Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 Crash Probable Cause 

This story really started with icing on the windshield and the flight crew's attempt to remove it using the deicing system. When it was first activated, it didn't release enough of the deicing solution— the isopropyl alcohol-based solution that was used to clear ice from the windshield. First Officer Hogg tried again, only to find the same result with one additional concerning symptom: there wasn't a lot of deicer on the windshield, but he could smell the deicer in the cockpit. He deactivated the system, but it was too late: the first domino in this catastrophe had already fallen.

When interviewing Pilgrim Airlines staff, investigators learned some shocking information that made it pretty easy to identify a probable cause: three days before the crash, the aircraft had experienced a leak in the windshield washer/deicer system that was repaired using wire and clamps to secure the tubing connections. This repair was done in response to a known problem with the Twin Otter in which tubes in the deicer system would come loose from the system's motor-driven pump. When this problem was diagnosed three days before, the implemented fix was based on recommendations from the manufacturer, deHavilland; however, the fix didn't hold as First Officer Hogg attempted to activate the deicing system when it was needed. Because the system was prone to leaks, by activating the system at all, it would have sprayed alcohol onto the floor of the cockpit. The alcohol ignited, although the source of the ignition was not determined by the accident report. The probable cause offered by the NTSB was that the deficient design of the isopropyl alcohol windshield washer/deicer system and the inadequate maintenance of the system resulted in an in-flight fire.

Were There Fire Extinguishers on Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458?

First Officer Hogg attempted to locate and use a fire extinguisher in the cockpit, but by the time he could get to the fire extinguisher it was so hot he couldn't handle it. In passenger interviews after the fact, most passengers said the safety briefing before takeoff was garbled and hard to understand, so even if the fire extinguisher location had been mentioned they wouldn't have known where to find it. Additionally, the fire extinguisher location was not illustrated on the seatback safety card, which only 9-year-old Sophie Giedt claimed to have read before takeoff.

Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 Safety Recommendations

Ultimately, the accident report made several critical safety recommendations, including a redesign of the isopropyl alcohol deicing systems, an operations bulletin to review safety briefings and the content of the information in the safety briefing cards, and a maintenance review of the audio quality of the broadcast systems.

What Happened to Thomas Prinster? 

Captain Thomas Prinster eventually returned home with what he called a 70% reupholstered body. He credited his brain with the landing, saying his mind somehow shut out the pain so he could focus on getting the plane on the ice safely. His recovery took more than a year, including nine months in the hospital, and involved skin grafts and surgeries. He returned to the cockpit once he was cleared to do so; although his flying career was short-lived after the crash, he proved he could safely fly again. Talking about planes, he said, "I think they're relatively safe. The figures prove that. There are far more people killed in cars every year than in planes." He went on to become a flight instructor, earn two Masters degrees, and worked as a psychotherapist. Captain Prinster passed away in 2018.

What Happened to Lyle Hogg?

First Officer Lyle Hogg made a full recovery from his injuries, and he, too, returned to the skies as a pilot. After flying commercially for 35 years, he became the president of Piedmont Airlines. Although he is still widely and rightfully recognized as a hero, he is humble about the experience, saying, "I don't think about it that way. I think about it as doing the job I was trained to do."

Awards for the Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 Flight Crew

Both Captain Prinster and First Officer Hogg were recognized with numerous awards, including the Department of Transportation Heroism Award; the 1982 Civilian Air Safety Award, a Veterans of Foreign Wars Citation for Heroism, and the “Well Done” Award from the Charles Lindbergh Chapter of the Air Force Association. In 2019, they were inducted into the Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame, which was a posthumous award for Captain Prinster.

Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 Memorial

In Scituate, Rhode Island, at the intersections of Routes 102, 14, and Rockland Road, you can visit the engraved stone memorial in what is now Prinster-Hogg Park, where their heroic act is honored and remembered to this day.

Show Notes:

We started the episode with a quick story about an 8-year-old in India with a pretty incredible talent: he just set a Guinness World Record for solving three Rubik's Cubes at once! Not that we're feeling a little untalented over here... but it's a pretty great story!

Credits:

Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered at: Snow Monster Studios
Sound editor: Stephanie Hubka
Producer: Adam Hubka
Music by: Mike Dunn
Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458

A de Havilland Twin Otter. Source: New England Historical Society

Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458

Memorial at Prinster-Hogg Park. Source: Providence Journal

Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458

Headlines from the crash. Source: Daily Sentinel

Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458

Thomas Prinster and Lyle Hogg meet President Ronald Reagan. Source: RIAHOF