PSA Flight 182 Disaster

Published: 1978
Play Audio Archive Story - UPI

Bob Futz: September 25th, a PSA jet liner collides over San Diego with a single-engine Cessna; 144 people die in the worst air tragedy in U.S. history.

This is Bob Futz, I'll be back with a Recap 78 after this message...

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Bob Futz: PSA’s Flight 182 from Sacramento to San Diego with a stop in Los Angeles was filled with business commuters on the morning of September 25th. Flight 182 never made it. It collided midair with a small Cessna, crashing into a block of San Diego homes, killing 144 people.

An FAA controller named Steve Gibby wrote a letter to his superiors a year-and-a-half before, warning that with the mixture of small and large planes around San Diego's Lindbergh Field a collision was inevitable. His memo was filed away. But on the fateful morning that’s precisely what happened, and the result was America’s worst air disaster. Transcripts of the air-to-ground communication indicate controllers in San Diego warned the pilot of the PSA 727 that a Cessna was nearby. The pilot responds to the last of the warnings, “Okay, we headed there a minute ago. They can pass off to our right.�

But recorders inside the cockpit indicate the crew was busy looking for the Cessna. From the tapes, the first officer asks, “Are we clear of that Cessna?� The second officer responds, “Supposed to be.� The pilot adds, “I guess.� Adds an off-duty PSA pilot riding in the cockpit, “I hope.�

But from the ground, witnesses saw the planes come together. Fourteen-year old Michael Bagnis was in school …

Michael Bagnis: "We were sitting down, we were having a break between class, and we hear this boom. And someone says, 'Look at that'. And we didn't -- we just thought it was like a sonic boom, and we look up and we see this plane and the wing was on fire, and we just see like pieces of metal just kinda like floating away. And then the thing like took a turn and just started to go like a -- almost a direct nosedive down, and then we just -- we hear the crash, and then all this fire shot up."

Bob Futz: All 135 aboard were killed on impact, as were the pilot and instructor riding in the Cessna; 7 died on the ground. A block of homes was turned to an inferno. Albert Garcia was one of the first at the scene …

Albert Garcia: "When I went there to try to assist the firemen, it was all emblazed, all the houses; I believe there's an apartment house back there. When I was walking through the debris I saw parts of arms and legs, I saw a half of a torso. And it was just like … I was in the … in the Korean War and, believe me, this is worse when I tell you. What I saw, it was really terrible."

Bob Futz: Garcia, like the others who saw that scene shortly afterwards, will never forget it. It took days to remove the bodies; a local Catholic school was turned to a temporary morgue. The crash rekindled a longstanding debate about the airport’s location. San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, who had been trying for years to move the airport away from downtown, was at the scene soon after the crash …

Mayor Pete Wilson: "I thought that this was the wrong place then, and obviously if this had occurred somewhere else, you'd probably have the same loss of life in terms of the passengers on the aircraft; but you would have averted the loss of lives in the neighborhood."

Bob Futz: The crash also brought calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to look into the crowding of the skies around major airports, with so many small planes and big jets flying together. Controllers say there are near-misses every day. Some say it was lucky there hadn't been midair collisions before. In San Diego, the luck ran out.

This is Bob Futz for Recap 78.