Deadly Champaign County plane crash changed families, safety rules

A tranquil pond in Concord Twp. provides few signs that it marks the location of a plane crash in the skies over Champaign County 50 years ago today that killed 26 people and led to overhauls to air traffic control funding and safety in the U.S.

The crash was the worst of its time in Ohio history and changed the lives of local residents forever.

On March 9, 1967, a DC-9 Trans World Airlines Flight carrying 21 passengers and four crew members was headed from New York City to Chicago, with stops in Pennsylvania and Dayton along the way. Flight 553 was about 25 nautical miles northeast of the Dayton Municipal Airport over Champaign County when the plane collided in mid-air with a small private Beechcraft, killing everyone on both planes.

That crash left Vickie Matthies of Springfield without a father.

She recently stood at the crash site near the 4200 block of Woodville Pike looking out at a small pond that remains where her father’s TWA flight smashed into the ground. About a decade ago, she began communicating with other people who lost loved ones in the crash, and worked with local leaders to create a memorial at Grimes Field in Urbana.

Her dad, Linwood Leonard, was on a flight home after a business trip while he worked for the Elliott Co. It took her 40 years before she could bring herself to visit the crash site, but said it’s critical not to forget the impact the crash had on the region’s history.

“It’s important for the future generations,” she said of remembering the crash. “Because my kids never knew my dad and so, obviously my grandkids don’t know him. But they know him through me.”

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As aviation evolved, the Urbana crash was one of the first cases investigated by the then-newly formed National Transportation Safety Board, said Janet Bednarek, a professor of history at the University of Dayton.

“The Urbana incident would have been one of a number of accidents in and around airports — as well as extreme congestion in and around airports in the late 1960s — that resulted in changes to air space regulations around airports,” Bednarek said.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

The crash

High thin, broken clouds cut visibility to five to six miles in haze the morning of the crash, according to the NTSB’s official accident report about one year after the crash.

TWA Flight 553 was a regularly scheduled passenger flight and was headed toward Dayton at 11:53 a.m. The Beechcraft, a small, private plane with a single occupant, was on a business trip from Detroit to Springfield.

While the TWA crew communicated with the Dayton airport in preparation for a landing, the Beechcraft had no contact with any Federal Aviation Administration facility.

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Just 18 seconds before the crash, the radar controller in Dayton noticed and notified the TWA flight about another plane in the airspace ahead and slightly to the right. The captain of the TWA flight acknowledged the transmission four seconds later as it descended from 20,000 feet to 3,000 feet in preparation for landing.

It was the last recorded radio communication with the aircraft. Just seconds later, the planes collided in the sky over Champaign County, killing everyone in both planes. Flight 553 crashed into a wooded area near Woodville Pike between Kiser and Church Roads, while rescuers found parts of the Beechcraft scattered in farm fields more than a mile away.

“Approximately 14 seconds later, the radar targets of the two aircraft merged, separated, changed shape on the radar screen, and then disappeared,” the final NTSB report said.

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The report determined the probable cause of the crash as the failure of the TWA crew to see and avoid the small, private plane. The report also cited environmental conditions and the excessive speed of the TWA flight, “which reduced visual detection capabilities under an air traffic control system which was not designed or equipped to separate a mixture of controlled and uncontrolled traffic,” the report said.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

A grim scene

At only 24 years old, Roger Stillings was just beginning his career as Champaign County sheriff when his office became inundated with calls from all over Champaign County about the accident. Now 50 years later, he said the scene and the wreckage is something he’ll never forget.

“The best way to describe it was mass confusion,” Stillings said.

The Ohio State Highway Patrol and federal authorities were responsible for investigating the crash, while Stillings and other local first responders cordoned off the crash site and cleared away bystanders. Local crews spent about a week guarding the site around the clock, he said.

“My first thought was, ‘I wish I wasn’t sheriff at that particular time,’” Stillings said of when he arrived at the scene.

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Richard Myers, a retired Urbana firefighter, remembers taking a call at the fire station just after noon that day. When he first learned of the crash, Myers said he was concerned jet fuel would create a massive fire that would be nearly impossible to manage with just a few firefighters initially on hand.

What he actually saw when he arrived was unexpected.

Myers still remembers a light snow covering the ground and saw several bystanders walking out of the woods.

“They said there’s nothing you can do, don’t hurry,” Myers said. “When we got back there, they were correct. There was nothing we could do … (almost) 30 lives just vanished”

The TWA plane’s engine, nosegear and fuselage left a crater in the soft ground at the crash site. Clothing, seats and other scattered debris littered trees surrounding the crash site.

The pond where Vicki Matthies stood remembering her father now marks the crater left when the plane crashed, she said. TWA employees later worked with the property owners to convert the crater into a pond as a memorial, she said.

There was so much confusion the day of the crash, Myers said he was unaware two planes were involved until he returned to the fire station late that evening.

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Joe Rizzutti, a retired firefighter, worked with Myers the day of the crash. One image that sticks with him even today was the uniform coats of two members of the flight crew

“Their coats were wrapped around that tree,” Rizzutti said. “It was just like someone hung them up and wrapped them around, and what was holding them up was the tail assembly that was wrapped around the tree.”

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Lasting impact

Although dozens of lives were forever changed when the planes collided, Matthies said many people who live in the region know little or nothing about the accident. That’s one reason she and her family believed it was important to create a small memorial at Grimes field, where much of Champaign County’s aviation history is honored.

At the crash site, few signs exist that a tragedy ever took place. A small concrete bench sits near the pond marking the crash site, allowing visitors and family members of the victims to reflect on their loved ones.

“It made a great memorial place to come and visit, for people to see, and a great place to refresh all your memories,” Matthies said.

Beyond the impact on families and those who responded that day, the crash made a lasting impact on aviation, said Bednarek of the University of Dayton.

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The most immediate result was a rule issued in December the year of the crash that limited the speed of aircraft flying below 10,000 feet. The NTSB’s final report concluded that it would have been difficult for the TWA flight crew to see the smaller plane at the speed the DC-9 was traveling.

At the time, the air traffic control system also wasn’t designed to separate controlled aircraft, like the DC-9 jet, and a small, uncontrolled plane like the Beechcraft, Bednarek said. Air traffic control never issued a warning to the DC-9 until seconds before the planes collided.

The Urbana crash wasn’t the only mid-air tragedy that year, Bednarek said. On June 19, 1967, a Piedmont 727 collided with a Cessna 310 near Hendersonville, N.C., killing 82 people.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Those two incidents resulted in Congressional hearings on aviation safety that became caught up in ongoing struggles over how to pay for the U.S. air traffic control system, she said, as well as what role airports should play in the air traffic control system.

In 1969, the NTSB convened a hearing to determine how to prevent mid-air collisions. About a year later the agency recommended new procedures that included the development of Collision Avoidance Systems for commercial aircraft and larger general aviation aircraft.

The NTSB also recommended the development of Pilot Warning Systems, Bednarek said.

Five decades after the tragedy, the story still resonates with many families in Champaign County, said Stillings, the former sheriff. Earlier this year, a large crowd packed into the Champaign County Historical Society’s meeting room, where Stillings discussed his memories of the accident. He was surprised so many people remain intrigued by the crash after 50 years, but it shows there are still strong memories of the tragedy in Champaign County.

“It was just a terrible unfortunate disaster that happened in our county,” Stillings said.

How we got this story

The Springfield News-Sun interviewed numerous local residents still affected by a fatal plane crash that occurred on March 9, 1967, as well as reviewed historical archives and spoke with local experts to dig into the importance of this historical event.

By the numbers:

1967: Year of the fatal plane crash in Champaign County

26: People who died in the crash

4,525 feet: Altitude at which the planes collided

11:53 a.m.: Time of crash

553: TWA flight number

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