History Hour: crash of B-727 leaves destruction in San Diego
On September 25, 1978, the worst aircraft accident in California history occurred when a Boeing 727-214 airliner, civil registration N533PS, operated by Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) as Flight 182, crashed at the intersection of Dwight Street and Nile Street in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego, 3 miles (4.83 km) northwest of Lindbergh Field, today known as San Diego International Airport (SAN).
PSA Flight 182, on fire after mid-air collision, September 25, 1978. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)
Flight 182 was a regularly scheduled commercial airline flight from Sacramento to San Diego, with a stopover at Los Angeles (California). Captain James E. McFeron, a 17-year veteran of PSA, was in command. First Officer Robert E. Fox was the pilot flying the 727 on this leg. The Flight Engineer (also called the Second Officer) was Martin J. Wahne.
Also in the cockpit, occupying the two “jump seats” were two off-duty PSA captains. Four flight attendants were on duty in the passenger cabin along with 126 passengers, which included 30 PSA employees.
In clear weather and early morning sunlight, the airliner was on a visual approach to Lindbergh Field (SAN). The 727 passed over the Mission Bay VORTAC (MZB), a navigation aid 3.4 miles (5.5 km) northwest of the airport, and turned left to a heading of 090° to intercept the downwind leg of the approach.
Ahead of the 727, a single-engine light airplane, Cessna 172, N7711G, with an instructor and student aboard, had made two practice ILS approaches to Runway 9 at Lindbergh and departed to the northwest, returning to its base at Montgomery Field (MYF), 6.4 miles (10.3 km) north-northeast of SAN.
Approach Control called, “Cessna 7711G, radar contact, maintain VFR at or below 3500 [1,067 meters], fly heading 070, vector (for) final approach course.” The pilot of the Cessna, David T. Boswell, acknowledged the east-north-easterly heading and the altitude restriction.
About 15 seconds later, at 08:59:39 a.m. local time, the controller informed the 727, “Additional traffic’s twelve o’clock, three miles, just north of the field, northeast bound, a Cessna One Seventy-Two climbing VFR out of one thousand four hundred.” [427 meters] At 08:59:50, First Officer Fox reported, “Okay, we’ve got that other twelve.”
Radar tracks show that the Cessna 172, N7711G, initially maintained the assigned heading but after about one minute, turned 20° right to 090°, the same heading as that of Flight 182.
At 09:00:23, Approach Control acknowledged Flight 182: “Okay, sir, maintain visual separation, contact Lindbergh Tower 133.3. Have a nice day, now!”
Flight 182 switched radio frequencies and Captain McFeron checked in with the tower: “Lindbergh, PSA 182. Downwind.” The Tower Controller responded, “PSA 182, Lindbergh Tower, traffic 12 o’clock, one mile, a Cessna.”
In the cockpit there was confusion about the reported conflicting traffic ahead. Captain McFeron asked, “Is that the one we’re looking at?” Flight Engineer Wahne replied, “Yeah—but I don’t see him now.”
McFeron called the Tower, “Okay, we had it there a minute ago.” The Controller replied, “One Eighty-Two, roger.” The Captain continued, “I think he’s passed off to our right.” Inside the cockpit, McFeron said, “He was right over there a minute ago.” Wahne agreed, “Yeah.”
Lindbergh Tower authorized Flight 182 to land, “PSA 182—cleared to land,” and McFeron acknowledged with, “PSA 182’s cleared to land.” He then asked the Flight Engineer, “Are we clear of that Cessna?” Wahne said, “Supposed to be!” McFeron responded, “I guess.”
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