Written by Ken Fisher
Originally published in the ECHO 7/1991
8:44 AM… Thursday. Kings Mountain Elementary School (KMES). Calm and quiet. Suddenly, violently the buildings are sheared, shrapnel is flying–as is death, blood, and burning bodies. Seemingly without cause the fire leaps to ignite summer cabins and houses on Swett Road. The authorities don’t actually arrive until almost two hours later and the fires rage for three days. No, it never really happened. But it actually was only a few feet and 30 seconds that kept the worst aviation tragedy in county history from destroying Swett Ridge.
On Thursday, October 29, 1953, British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines flight 304/44 was en-route here from Honolulu, originating in Australia. The flight was captained by Bruce N. Dickson, age 34, a veteran of 100 approaches to the then named “Mills Field.” He was flying a 100 by 117 foot-sized DC-6 and felt cocky as he hit a high bank of normal coastal fog while approaching the California shore; he knew what to do. He took instrument readings, determined his position, elevation, direction, and speed, and estimated what was needed to get over our Sierra Morena range. Or, so he thought.
Somehow his estimates were off by miles and he thought he was east of Half Moon Bay and started his descent minutes too soon. He was due south of KMES in the fog, flying north. His orders from the Air controller were to “stay 500 feet on top”–meaning above the fog–they knew it was clear on the bayside–and he indicated by radio that he was “500 feet on top”, even as he flew in the fog. Look at a topo map of today’s MROSD Corte Madera Open Space Preserve. In the 1.3 miles due south of KMES you see three ridge-lines sloping downward to the West from 2,000 feet in elevation. The most southern ridge is treed–the middle one is treeless chaparral–and the northern-most ridge is again treed. As Dickson crossed the southern ridge, flying north, he hit tree tops at elevation 2,020, shearing 13 feet off his left wing and lopping off a piece of his tail stabilizer. In seconds his nose smashed into the steep slope of the treeless middle ridge at elevation 1,950-about 30 feet below its ridge. At 200 miles per hour, the impact of the 90,000 pound plane–capable of seating 36 passengers–was fatal within seconds for all 11 actual passengers and eight crew members. Compounding matters was that after the nose impacted, the plane’s back dropped down to whack the steep canyon, and the plane bounced and flipped over backwards, landing the second time nose-downhill and on the its roof. Fire was immediate and uncontrollable for three days. From impact, at 8:44 A.M. it took the Coast Guard until 10:10 to find the site in the fog. The whole chaparral covered ridge was ablaze.
Had Dickson been 50 feet higher, he would have missed the trees, sailed safely past that next treeless ridge to the north (where he actually crashed), and flying at 200 miles an hour would have lost almost no elevation in the 20 seconds it would have taken him to get past the northern ridge that is the last barrier before Swett Ridge with its 2,100 foot elevation, where he would have crashed close to the KMES, causing tremendous tragedy. Had he “been slightly higher and sailed above the trees, it would have taken him about 35 seconds to get to KMES (from the point where he actually first hit the trees).
Over the decades some folks have seen the wing because it is close to a well traveled trail, but few have seen the plane’s impact point because it is truly in one of the most inaccessible regions of extremely steep and relatively impenetrable chaparral I’ve ever seen.
Recently with the help of the MROSD and in conjunction with folks from In-flight Aviation News, 12 of us tracked down and excavated the impact point. There is still a phenomenal amount of debris spread out in a north-south quarter mile long debris-run. At the impact point, eerie it was, seeing the cockpit seat belts–because they were all used and someone had died behind each one. The force of initial impact hurled parts forward. One of the 18 cylinder 2,100 horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines actually sheared from the wing, and with the force of momentum ~ continued uphill over the ridge-line and down the other side–losing bits and pieces in its path as it tumbled. If this huge steel hunk could traverse almost straight uphill over the ridge-line, imagine the damage the whole DC-6 could have done in a populated area like Swett Ridge, one of the most densely developed regions on Kings Mountain.
According to Liz Mack who was in charge of the local Red Cross’ volunteer response to the accident scene, and who I had the good luck to interview recently, the airline management, who arrived days later, speculated that the pilot was sloppy due to emotional anxiety tied to his son being quite ill. Was it so? The civil Aeronautics Board Accident Investigation Report put the blame fully on the pilot. No one will ever know for sure why he did what he did, but he clearly was doing one thing while telling the air controllers he was following their contrary instructions. Had he followed instructions the tragedy would not have happened. Today, thank God for modern aviation technology, that would sense where he was continuously.