Christmas tragedy at Prestwick (Part 1)

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This web page was updated April 6, 2018

This banner headline appeared in the Prestwick Sunday Express Reporter on December 26, 1954.

When airliners crash, “survivors” may include mail that the aircraft was carrying under government contract.

The badly damaged envelope shown above was recovered and presumably delivered to its recipient following the tragic landing of a BOAC Stratocruiser at Glasgow-Prestwick International Airport in 1954. Such envelopes, called “crash covers” by philatelists, are artifacts that help to reveal the tragic consequences of aviation disasters.

ON CHRISTMAS MORNING — The remains of the tail of BOAC Stratocruiser G-ALSA testify to the violence of its crash landing at Prestwick. ~ Prestwick Sunday Express Reporter Photo

At 3:30 a.m. on Christmas morning, 1954, a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser registered as G-ALSA1 by British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and romantically named Cathay, crashed on landing at Prestwick, Scotland. Twenty-eight of its 36 passengers and crew died — 16 men, 10 women, and two children.

Newspapers trumpeted the story in banner headlines and, for a few days filled their columns with heart-wrenching photographs and stories.

Seven of the eleven crew members, including the pilot, Captain William L. Stewart, survived. Every passenger but one died: Harry Russell, a BOAC director, was sitting directly across from a section of the airplane’s fuselage which split open and he was thrown clear.

Among the dead were two young girls; in a tragic tableau, one of them was found with her arms around her mother’s neck.

One stewardess, Margaret Coogan, was pulled alive from the wreckage by Leading Fireman James Smith of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, but she later died.

The flight originated at Heathrow Airport in London. It was scheduled to continue on to New York City from Prestwick, with a fresh crew. Twenty-one of its 25 passengers were to deplane at Prestwick.

A Prestwick Sunday Express Reporter clipping provides additional details of the crash.

Months later, crash investigators placed blame primarily on the pilot and co-pilot, but most people had forgotten the tragedy. The few survivors and the families and friends and victims would never forget, however: some of their stories are featured here, along with revealing information about the crash itself.

A WWII bomber begets a peacetime airliner

The Stratocruiser descended from the famous B-29 Superfortress bomber, which wreaked havoc on Japan in the last years of the Second World War, first with devastating fire-bomb attacks on its major population and industrial centres, then with the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The C-97 Stratofreighter

The U.S. Army Air Forces took the first step toward the Stratocruiser in 1942, designing an aerial freighter that would marry the tail, wings and lower fuselage of the B-29 — the most complex aircraft ever built — to a bulbous upper fuselage, giving the aircraft a “inverted-figure-8” shape in cross-section. The prototype first flew Nov. 9, 1944; the first production aircraft, called the C-97 Stratofreighter, entered service in 1947.

A U.S. Air Force Military Air Transport C-97 Stratofreighter. Official USAF Photo

The B-377 Stratocruiser

The Stratofreighter set the stage for the postwar Boeing-377 Stratocruiser, which first flew on July 8, 1947.

With two decks and a pressurized cabin (a relatively new feature in airliners — the first was the relatively unknown Boeing 307 Stratoliner, the Stratocruiser set a new standard for luxurious air travel with its tastefully decorated, extra-wide passenger cabin and gold-appointed dressing rooms. A circular staircase led to a lower-deck beverage lounge, and flight attendants prepared hot meals for 50 to 100 people in a state-of-the-art galley. In its sleeper configuration, the Stratocruiser was equipped with 28 upper-and-lower bunk units.

By the end of 1949, four airlines had purchased Stratocruisers, BOAC among them. The airline was offering offering regular transatlantic service from London to New York City. G-ALSA was one of the new BOAC Stratocruisers; the aircraft was featured in the opening scenes of Home to Danger, a 1951 British film noir crime movie directed by Terence Fisher.

A scene at the beginning of the British film Home to Danger pictures the tail fin and rudder of BOAC Stratocruiser G-ALSA; the distinctive BOAC “Speedbird” logo and and the aircraft’s “G-ALSA” aircraft registration letters are circled in blue. ~ Photo courtesy of You Tube

This real-photo postcard shows a BOAC Stratocruiser ready for touchdown in moments at London’s Heathrow Airport. The aircraft is configured for landing, with wheels down (which is a good thing!) and its large wing flaps extended.

The B-377 was larger and had greater range than the competing Lockheed Constellation and Douglas DC-6, but was slower at cruising altitude and more expensive to buy and operate. And it suffered chronic problems with its Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major radial engines and their four-blade propellers: three Stratocruisers crashed following loss of power, propellers, and even engines.

Production ended in 1950 after only 55 Stratocruisers had been built. (The Stratofreighter and its military derivative, the KC-97 aerial tanker, were more successful, with a total of 888 aircraft built.)

Next, in Part 2: Crash investigators blames pilot Captain William L. Stewart for the crash of BOAC Stratocruiser G-ALSA. However, aviation disasters can rarely result from just one person’s actions. Malcom Stewart, Capt. Stewarts son, explains how the crash unnecessarily ruined his father’s career and brought grief to his family.

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  1. Under the international regulations, the registration letter sequences of all British aircraft begin with the capital letter “G”.