My New Oxford Shorter English Dictionary defines hypothesis as “a proposition put forward merely as a basis for reasoning or argument, without any assumption of its truth”. I don't mind using this definition to describe the work I have done so far, however there are things we do know for certain regarding events of July 9, 1964.
United Flight 823 canceled its IFR at 1802:45 and, according to Page 13 of the Civil Aeronautics Board Aircraft Accident Report, would have been “24 miles southwest of Holston Mountain at an approximate altitude of 11,000 feet.” The last known communication from Flight 823 came ten seconds later, at 1802:55.
This would place the aircraft in the proximity of Jonesboro, Tennessee.
What took place during the flight's final ten or eleven minutes?
Page 13 of the CAB report states, “It is believed that the crew discovered a fire sometime during the period between cancelling their IFR and before being observed in a descent about 4,000 feet above the ground.” The person, thought to have been the first to witness seeing the aircraft, placed it at a location about 38 miles southwest of Holston Mountain. According to the CAB report, the aircraft showed no signs of difficulty at that time.
A 14 mile window existed between when the Flight 823 cancelled its IFR (near Jonesboro) and when the witness placed the plane as being at an altitude of 4,000 feet (in the vicinity of Bird's Bridge). Thirty-eight nautical miles southwest of Holston would place the aircraft further along the flight path in the vicinity of Bird's Bridge. If a fire was determined to be uncontrollable, wouldn't the best course of action have been to land as soon as possible? Or, at that particular time, was the fire not seen as uncontrollable? Or, as my way of thinking leads me to believe, was there not yet an actual fire present during the 14 mile window? Instead, did the crew experience some type of electrical failure that was a precursor to the fire that was to break out further along the flight path?
Two things that we know lead me to believe that the actual fire started much further along the flight path.
First, smoke was not seen coming from the aircraft until shortly before it crashed.
The first witness to notice anything unusual was in a position 11 miles from the crash site. She saw a violet red light burning on the fuselage. There was found, in the wreckage, a battery terminal with “an arc produced mark”. Could the violet red light have been evidence of the beginning of the fire? And could this violet-red light have been akin to the type of brilliant light, similar to an arc one sees made by a welder, and that this may have been produced by the shorting out of one of the plane's batteries? It is important to note that she reported not seeing any smoke coming from the aircraft at that time.
A different witness, a bit later, was the first to report seeing smoke and also saw brown spots on the fuselage resembling peeling paint. The aircraft, at that time, was five miles from the crash site. Several witnesses, an additional mile further along the flight path, reported seeing smoke coming from the aircraft after it passed them. UPDATE During the Civil Aeronautics Board public hearing in Knoxville that took place in January 1965: Roy C. Reed, Route 2 Parrottsville, gave testimony that he was standing on a rock midstream of the Nolichuckey River when the plane went overhead. “'I heard it first and it sounded like a jet, but then I saw the black smoke trailing behind it and I knew it was not a jet'. “He saw brown spots on the fuselage ahead of the wings and on the wings beneath the fuselage. 'They looked like burned spots'”. *
Second, we also know something else. This is perhaps the foremost reason why I believe a fire did not break out until a good distance after the flight crew's last communication: We know that, according to toxicological examination, no elevated levels of carbon monoxide were found among the passengers. Page 11 CAB Report: Histological examination of the seven respiratory tract specimens recovered revealed only a small number of carbon particles in each. The free fall victim, who died of injuries from impacting the ground, likewise had only a few carbon particles found in his trachea and a carbon monoxide level of 5% in his blood. Any level below 10% is considered negative. Blood samples of cigarette smokers can have a 5% level of carbon monoxide. Therefore, in my opinion, these low levels show that the passengers were not exposed to overwhelming smoke resulting from a fire until a minute or two before the crash.
The above, in my opinion, also tends to rule out a “liquid aliphatic hydrocarbon” such as paint thinner, being brought on board by a passenger-regardless of reason or possible intent-as the cause of the fire. Had a fire existed for even a slightly longer period of time than the final five miles-when smoke from the aircraft was evident-there would have been more than just a few carbon particles contained in the respiratory tract specimens.
To suggest that the low levels of carbon, etc found in passengers was due to their use of “drop down” oxygen masks that we are all familiar with, is to not be aware that Vickers Viscount aircraft were not equipped with these masks.
The presence of additional oxygen would have made the situation more dangerous.
The pilot, at some point during the emergency, would have donned a smoke mask. Smoke masks have microphone connections that would have allowed the pilot to communicate with those on the ground.
The aircraft was experiencing trouble well before its final few miles, but I don't believe the situation became uncontrollable or catastrophic until shortly before the crash. If one was to draw a straight line from Bird's Bridge to the Knoxville Vortac, it can be determined that the Captain had line of sight capability-even at extremely low altitudes. The on board Distance Measuring Equipment bears out that Captain Sabatke maintained line of sight.
Examination of the Tennessee Aeronautics Chart , and the straight line drawn from Bird's Bridge to Knox Vortac, shows the crash site location to be at the end of a divergent path Flight 823 took from the straight line to Knoxville. Prior to that, witnesses still had the aircraft on that straight line, crossing the Nolichuckey River in the vicinity of Linebaugh Bend (the bend resembles a thumb pointing downward) and slightly west of the Nolichuckey-roughly five miles before the crash site (when the plane was observed trailing smoke) and approximately where the DME ceased functioning.
In 1971, the Marathon Sonotone battery on board Aloha Airlines Flight 845 burned a large hole (roughly two square feet) through the floor of the aircraft's cabin, while also burning through the flight control push rods, in the elapsed time of two or three minutes, as the plane sat on the runway at Honolulu Airport. The interior of the Aloha 845 Vickers Viscount 745D was heavily damaged with “the most severe fire and heat damage exist(ing) in the passenger compartment in the vicinity of Seat Row 4.” The left aircraft battery tray was located directly beneath the hole found in the floor.
The CAB report analysis of United 823's wreckage lists the area below the #4 window, on the left side of the plane (Fuselage Station 388 to 495), as being an area of heavy sooting and fire damage.
The free fall victim on United Flight 823 jumped from the aircraft one and a half miles from the crash site by way of the #4 emergency window. While a passenger seating manifest has, so far, not surfaced in this investigation, Robert Serling's book provides a clue as to where the free fall victim was seated on the aircraft; ”…He was an elderly lawyer who made the Washington-Huntsville trip frequently. He did not like to fly and was nervous in a plane. He told friends that if anything happened on a flight, he would prefer to jump rather than be trapped in flaming wreckage. He invariably sat next to an emergency window exit, apparently for that very reason…“ Invariably means “without exception”. Therefore, it is reasonable to have the opinion that, on July 9, the free fall victim was seated in Row #4, on the left side, next to the #4 Emergency Window.
Aloha Airlines Flight 845 experienced extreme damage to the interior of the cabin even though firefighting equipment was on the scene two minutes after being requested. The fire was brought under control three and a half minutes after the fire equipment-which consisted of eleven pieces-began dispensing 165 gallons of foam liquid, 1,500 pounds of CO2, and approximately 3,600 gallons of water. This was a fire that did extreme damage in a very short period of time.
While the accident report for Aloha 845 states that damage did not include fuel system or hydraulic system leakage that would have fueled the fire, this does not preclude possible damage caused to the hydraulic lines by one of the Sonotone batteries on board United Flight 823.
The data I have examined so far makes no mention as to whether or not a fatal amount of carbon dioxide was present in the cabin area. Shortly before the crash the free fall victim was able to jump from the aircraft and, later, someone was able to remove the #9 emergency exit window which was found on the ground some 2,300 feet (about 1/2 mile) before the crash site. In my opinion, this activity tends to show that, overall, passengers were not exposed to fatal amounts of CO2.
To be continued…
*Knoxville News-Sentinel January 13, 1965