NAVGOOF - THE TRANSOCEAN C54

Norman W. Emmott

 “The winds and waves,” said  Edward Gibbon,  “are on the side of the ablest navigators.”  By the same token, they are vicious enemies to the incapable.

 Transocean Airways found that out in August, 1949.  An unscheduled airline, whose name can no longer be  found among the lists of existing companies, that set itself up in business with war-surplus DC-4’s (the military designation was C54), it airlifted freight to Europe from the United States, and flew west with emigrants headed for South America from war-shattered Europe.  One August day one of its aircraft, N-79998, took off from Rome at 4:08 PM local time, carrying 47 Italians destined for Venezuela, eight crewmembers, and a guest pilot.  The guest was the famous woman  aviator, Ruth Nichols, who was on the last stretch of a journey around the world.  She was bent on being the first woman to fly completely around the globe. 

The destination was Shannon airport, in Ireland.  The trip seemed routine enough; the weather was reasonably good, visibility was threatened by nothing more than the approaching night, and Europe was full of radio stations on which bearings could be obtained by the radio compass.  For the next three and a half hours the navigator checked his position by  map-reading, watching Corsica slide past under him, seeing the north coast of the Mediterranean approach and flying over Marseilles, his first turning point.  Navigating by “pinpoints” (positions determined by map-reading) made a lot of sense in the aircraft, because the navigator’s position was not equipped with any kind of radio direction-finder, nor with headphones.  The navigator had to rely on readings made by the second pilot, who was sitting at the controls while the captain was resting in the crew’s quarters.  It was an awkward arrangement, but the navigator was used to it and after a good many flights, it had worked reasonably well. 

An hour or so after darkness fell, the navigator’s dead reckoning showed that the aircraft was over Rennes, a city about two hundred miles west of Paris.  As he flew northward from the Mediterranean, clouds had spread over the land below him, hiding it and preventing him from continuing to map-read.  The co-pilot was unable to obtain a radio-bearing from the radio station at Rennes, but everything appeared normal enough, and the navigator continued to follow his flight -plan.  About an hour later he saw lights beneath him.  They appeared to signify the northern coast of Brittany, west  of Cherbourg.  To verify this, the navigator climbed into the astrodome, a plastic bubble set into the roof of the aircraft, and took sextant sights on three stars.  When he plotted the three position lines from the stars  on his  map, the intersection of the lines indicated that he had, indeed, flown over Brittany.

 The co-pilot continued to seek a radio bearing, and finally he was successful.  The signal from Brest came

from some twenty-five degrees to the left of  the plane’s tail.  The navigator plotted it on his chart.  The pilot, by now back in the left seat, estimated that the plane must now be just southwest of the Cherbourg peninsula.  He pointed to lights out of the right window and suggested to the navigator that they were located on the Channel Islands, Jersey and Guernsey, famous for their cows.  The navigator agreed that the suggestion must be right. 

The navigator re-calculated his groundspeed, since the Channel Islands were close to his intended track and showed that he was on the right course even if his speed was slower than he expected.  The groundspeed from Marseilles, which he had flown over, and his celestial fix had worked out at 138 knots, suspiciously slow for a DC-4 that cruised at about 200.  A little later more lights came up off the right, indicating land which would be England if the last land had been Normandy.  He identified the lights as the towns of Penzance and St Ives at Land’s End, and worked out a new groundspeed.  It was 160 knots, which made a lot more sense.  Relieved, he relaxed again.

 The radio operator needed  a position report, and the navigator filled out a slip of paper telling him that the plane was over Land’s End at 10:27 and that his Estimated Time of Arrival for Shannon was 11:45.  The radio operator hammered away at his key, telling Shannon radio the news in a stream of dots and dashes.

 The pilot let down from 8500 feet to 3500 feet, leveling off just above a layer of broken clouds.  The navigator put away his navigation equipment as he prepared  for the landing.  His work, the long-range conduct of the navigation, was over; the rest of the job was up to the pilot, who would bring the plane in on the radio range.  The navigator drew the quadrants of the low-frequency radio range on his map.  The signal being received was the “A” quadrant, and that checked.  Everything was normal.  The radio was now almost free of static, and the weather was clear except for the cummulus cloud below, which was dissipating as they flew along.  The navigator reconsidered his ETA, and changed is to 12:10 from 11:45, in view of his earlier slow groundspeed.  He wrote the new ETA on a message slip and handed it to the captain.

 His ETA came and went, without sight of  Shannon.  Five minutes more or less - what did it matter?  The navigator remained unworried until 12:15  when the pilot turned around in his seat to snap at him, “Where is Shannon anyhow?”

 He collected his wits and turned to his Loran set, but off Ireland Loran coverage was poor and he could not obtain a fix.  The radio range was no help either.  A faint “N” signal could be heard, but where the aircraft was on the Shannon range was uncertain. The navigator unstowed his sextant                                                        and took another three-star fix, working with sweaty hands.  At 12:45 he had it plotted.  It  showed him 175 miles northwest of Shannon.  He worked out a southeasterly heading to take them back to Shannon.

 The pilot, however, decided to fly south for a few minutes and then turn southeasterly, hoping to hit the western leg of the Shannon beam.  He reached it at 01:14, and turned east to fly down the beam to Shannon.  By this time the aircraft had been in the air over nine hours, and they had been flying for the last hour or so at a slow, fuel-conserving speed.  The flight plan stated that the plane carried sixteen hours of fuel, but here again reality was far different from theory.  When  the plane had been  loaded at Rome they had been half an hour late, and the captain had divided the pre-flight duties among his crew to save time.  When the crew boarded the plane they found that although the second officer had penciled 16 hours of fuel in the clearance, and the navigator had based his flight plan on 12 hours,  the plane had only 11-1/2 hours worth of gasoline in its tanks.  The 2260 gallons was less than the legal minimum, but the captain decided that since the weather was good he could cut the mileage he had to fly by skipping the Marseilles-Paris leg and flying straight to Shannon, while he could skim around the edges of the regulations by changing his alternate base from Paris to Dublin.  With  these concessions, there would be enough fuel, and the captain did  not spend the time to top up the tanks.  Even twelve hours  instead of 11-1/2 would have made a vital difference .  The pre-flight formalities were skimped also; the navigator and the first and second officers did not check with one another, neither the navigator nor the second officer knew the correct aircraft weight and fuel load until after they had boarded the aircraft, and the captain did not examine any of the documents before he took off. 

 After the plane took off, the same tale of incompetence and over confidence continued to unreel.  The navigator’s celestial fix between Marseilles and the coast of Brittany was off by many miles.  When he used it, he underestimated his groundspeed badly.  The track he was flying was several degrees off to the left, in a westerly direction.

 When he plotted the radio bearing on  Brest obtained for him by the co-pilot, he did so incorrectly.  He mistook Land’s End for the Cherbourg peninsula, and later took the southwest tip of Ireland for Land’s End.  When at last he drew in the quadrants of the radio range at Shannon on  his map, he labeled the “N” quadrant with an “A”, and the “A” quadrant was an “N”.  This last mistake checked with his previous ones, and made the letter sounded in slow morse code on the range frequency plausible.  Both the pilots and the navigator slipped up here, each believing one of the others was keeping track of where they were, and what heading would bring them in to Shannon airport.

 The pilot leaned out the mixture going to  the engines to eke out every possible mile of travel.  Fifteen minutes before he would have reached Shannon, however, the fuel ran out.  First one engine, than another stopped, until with all four propellers dead the big plane, with its load of 58 people was gliding helplessly toward the sea, seven miles off Lurga Point, Eire.  The pilot did a good job of ditching it, putting it into the water with its big wheels still in their wells without injuring anyone aboard seriously.  The crew immediately launched the rubber life-rafts but here their luck gave up.  Unable to understand English , many of the Italian  emigrants jumped into the water without waiting their turn to  board the rafts, and seven of them drowned before they could be rescued in the darkness.  One of the radio men,  perched on the fuselage as he helped to load the dinghies, was struck by a piece of the tail assembly broken loose by the waves, and he fell into the black water and drowned also.

 Fifteen minutes after it hit the water, rescue aircraft were circling the ditched plane, dropping flares and additional rubber dinghies.  A couple of  hours later the British trawler Stalberg  steamed up, and by sunrise everybody, including the bodies of the drowned, had been picked up.  Ruth Nichols hurried to board another plane and continued her flight around the world.  She was the first woman to make the complete circuit. 

Analysis of  the flight reveals that when the plane was thought by its crew to be over Land’s End it was over the southwestern tip of Ireland, Cape Clear.  Since this occurred at 2207 hours, after the plane had traveled about 750 miles from Marseilles, the groundspeed must have been about 190 statute miles an hour or a little more.  This is more than 30 miles an hour faster than the final estimate made by the navigator and more than 50 miles an hour greater than the estimate from the star-fix.  From Marseilles to Rennes is about 450 miles, which would take about two hours and twenty minutes in a plane traveling at about 190 m.p.h.  For the navigator to get a fix which gave him a groundspeed about 50 m.p.h. too low, the fix must have been displaced about 200 miles too far south.

 The plane kept heading northwestward until 0045 hours, which meant that it kept on into the open Atlantic for another 450  miles before it turned.  That was only half an hour after the Estimated Time of Arrival, but if the plane had been on track it should have been flying over land for the last fifteen or twenty minutes of its flight, and the fact that the plane was still over water should have warned the crew that something was going wrong. 

The series of errors, miscalculations and exhibitions of overconfidence that led to the tragedy  was uncommon, but similar incidents have occurred throughout the history of aviation.  It has long been said that  the  two  most dangerous periods in a pilot’s career are when he has 150 flying hours and when he has 800; in the first instance he feels he is completely master of his trade, and takes foolish chances; in the second it is all becoming old hat to him, routines that he can do in his sleep, and he becomes careless.  Apparently the crew of the DC-4 had a least some members with 800 hours flying time. 

The crew of the plane had flown the same route before, and felt the job was easy.  The first part of the flight, with the easily-identifiable island of Corssica and the coast of  France, where the contrast between land and water make map-reading easy, must have lulled the navigator into over confidence.  His troubles started when the craft headed northwest across western France toward Ireland.  All the evidence indicates that he was simply lazy as the aircraft droned through the night sky.  For an hour he did not obtain a fix, but waited until the plane was over the  coast to check his position.  It was undercast, and he could not see the ground, but the stars were still  in the sky, and if he could see neither the sky nor the ground he should have pestered the co-pilot for radio bearings -  or even borrowed his headset to try to get some for himself.  When he finally did cross a coast, it was not the coast he expected, but like many others before him he saw what he expected to see and misidentified his position.  Not until then did he take a celestial fix, and then he misplotted it by something like one hundred miles.  The star-fix he took later placed him 175 miles north of Shannon, when he was probably closer to 400 miles northwest, indicates there may have been something wrong with  his sextant.  He may have taken data from the wrong page of his Air Almanac, or from the wrong column in his Astronomical  Navigation Tables; he may even have misidentified a star.  The worst thing, however, was that his incorrect fix appeared to confirm his  incorrect pin-point. 

The navigator could, however, have checked on his progress by determining his heading by sighting on a star by means of his astrocompass.  He should have had one, since it was standard equipment.  The aircraft’s magnetic compass probably appeared to be working well, and setting up the astrocompass was a nuisance.  The aircraft was badly off track to the west, to the left of its planned route and a heading check would have shown the reason, since the wind was not strong enough to  have pushed the plane as far west as it later proved to be.   At that time, still in the days of primitive instruments, the cardinal rule for any navigator was to distrust his instruments at all times, and not believe anything one told him unless  it was checked by another.  And the most important piece of information a navigator must know is his heading.  If he does not know accurately  where his craft is pointing, he cannot be sure that he can guide it where he wants to go.  The luckless navigator of N-79998 did not find out that his compass was telling him lies, if it was.  If the compass was accurate, he must have miscalculated his course, misread the line penciled on his map to show him the orientation of his track, or else he may have corrected his heading for drift in the wrong direction or even muddled the correction for magnetic variation, which allows for the fact that the magnetic compass does not point true north, but toward the  magnetic pole.  Again, he may have given the pilot the correct heading to steer, and the pilot may have misunderstood him, but it was still his duty to check the heading and make sure that the pilot was actually flying in the right direction.

 He should also have checked his position by another star-fix between the time he left what he thought was the French coast - it was actually the tip of England -  and the time he expected to reach  the Irish coast.    He did not.  Neither did he obtain radio-compass bearings to ensure that he was heading incorrectly toward Shannon.  He went on, in faith and blind hope, with  all the stars blazing at him, unused and unheeded. 

On the last leg, the navigator should have attempted to get a Loran fix, or at least a position line to check his groundspeed, and he should also have looked for radio bearings from the big English town with their broadcasting stations  like Plymouth and Exeter as he was abeam Land’s End, and later from Dublin as he was approaching Ireland.  He neglected to do so.

 There was another card stacked against the navigator.  The pilot, that experienced man to whom all navigators defer, had said, “Aren’t those Channel Islands off to the right there?”  The fact that his identification agreed with the navigator’s dead reckoning gave him an independent, confirming opinion that turned out to be erroneous.  Over the months they had  been flying together the pilot’s opinion of where they were had undoubtedly been right most of the time, and the navigator had probably  learned to trust him.  The pilot, too, when he failed to find Shannon at the ETA, undoubtedly was not worrying.  After all, the plane could not have been badly off track - had they not been near the Channel Islands approximately the right length of time ago, and had not he, the pilot, recognized them himself?

 There are extenuating circumstances but despite them there is no doubt that the reason for the fatal crash, and for the eight deaths, lay in laziness.  If the pilot had not been lazy in Rome, if the aircraft had been topped up with gasoline before take-off, if the navigator had made the checks and cross-checks he should have, if the co-pilot had been more careful to give the navigator radio-bearings, if the pilots had checked the navigator’s work, the crash would not have occurred.

The mistakes and mis-plottings of the navigator would not have by themselves been enough to lead him    into disaster.    Cross-checking would have exposed the mistakes, and let him apply an eraser to his chart and come up with the right answer, even if it would have been late. 

The incident is proof again that the sky, like the sea, is not intrinsically dangerous, but terribly unforgiving of carelessness or incapacity.