Today marks the 50th anniversary of the air tragedy

J. Arthur Libéré

Los Alamos Daily Message
[email protected]

Today marks the 50th anniversary of a profound tragedy in Los Alamos history. On May 19, 1972, a twin-engine Beechcraft Queen‐Air, chartered by the Atomic Energy Commission to ferry personnel to the Los Alamos Science Laboratory, lost an engine and plunged into an open field.

In addition to the pilot, eight Laboratory employees died at the scene, including Dr. Wright. H. Langham, Associate Division Chief for Biomedical Research.

“Instantly, nine widows and more than 20 fatherless children were created,” recalls J. Arthur Freed, longtime librarian at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. “It seemed like everyone in Los Alamos and beyond knew someone on that plane – stories of those who perished were told and retold.”

Freed recalled the numerous religious services held for the deceased, and that the director of the laboratory, Harold M. Agnew, would have visited the home of each accident victim within 24 hours of the accident.

Those who lost their lives in the horrific accident include Dr Langham, 60, who was a world-renowned plutonium scientist and had been a consultant to the Apollo manned flight program on the effects of radiation on astronauts, reported UPI at the time. The other victims were technicians or lab staff, including Eugene Teatum, 37; Donald A. Larson, 46; Bruce A. Bean, 28; Johnnie E. Gallegos, 41; Richard O. Neithammer, 39; William Paul Frye, 40; and John Allen Gill, 43. The pilot was Richard T. Zittel of Ross Aviation. All of the victims were from Los Alamos except Gill who was from Arroyo Seco.

Eugene Peters, deputy chief of the Albuquerque Air Traffic Center at the time, said high winds could have affected the plane had it lost one of its engines, UPI reported. The winds weren’t extremely strong, but were up to 31 knots…if both engines were running there wouldn’t have been a problem, he said.

Witnesses described seeing the plane climb about 100 feet and hearing what sounded like an engine shutting down. The plane, owned by Ross Aviation of Albuquerque, crashed into a field near an equestrian center and burst into flames, UPI reported.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of this accident was the inadvertent opening of the forward cargo compartment door and subsequent unloading of cargo, which caused damage to the aircraft’s left propeller and additional drag at a critical phase of flight, according to reports at the time.

Freed mentioned his personal involvement in this plane even the day before the tragedy. He had flown to Albuquerque to visit the Sandia National Laboratories library.

“My flight home was scheduled on Ross Aviation’s Beechcraft, the same plane that crashed the next day,” Freed said. “I still vividly remember the shouting between the air and ground crews of the aircraft over the forward cargo hold, which are discussed in the subsequent ‘Airplane Accident Report’ for May 19, 1972, in NTSB-AAR-72-32. This means that on May 18, 1972, it was clearly known that there were security problems with this hatch. The difference – our combat returned to Los Alamos, but not the flight of 19 may.

Following its investigation, the Security Office stated in its report at the time that if the unsecured door indication system had been operational or if the security of the forward cargo hold door had been provided, the accident would have been avoided.

Freed is the recipient of the 2020 Los Alamos History Award, presented annually by the Los Alamos Historical Society to recognize those who have made significant contributions to preserving the community’s history that changed the world. Over the years, he encouraged local officials on key anniversaries of the May 19, 1972 plane crash to hold some kind of public meeting recognition.

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