New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
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July 9, 1982 Airplane crash (PanAm flight 759) in Kenner

Special Report: Pan American World Airways Flight 759

By: Chris Kilroy

Captain Kenneth L. McCullers was in "good spirits" as he settled himself in to the left hand seat of Pan American's Boeing 727-235 (N4737), Flight PA759, and completed his pre-flight checks. Behind him in the cabin, his 137 passengers - 127 of whom were seasoned gamblers heading out of New Orleans on the regular weekend scheduled flight for Las Vegas - were perhaps not so sure. It was approaching four o'clock in the afternoon of July 9, 1982, and the weather at New Orleans International Airport, Kenner, Louisiana, was described later as "freaky."

Lashing summer rain beat against the windows and fuselage of the 105-ton aircraft, freshly loaded to capacity with 8,000 gallons of fuel, so hard that it was causing the windshield wipers to drag. Occasional flashes of lightning cracked from the thunderclouds that towered 35,000 feet into the air, and ground winds gusted to over 20mph, despite an ambient air temperature hovering around the 90° mark.

Four cabin crew members calmed the nervous passengers while Captain McCullers and his three companions on the flight deck - co-pilot, engineer, and another Pan Am crewman travelling as a passenger in the jump seat - peered through the windscreen cautiously onto runway 10. At 16:02:34, while McCullers eased his aircraft toward takeoff position, he and his flight crew heard ground control advise another approaching aircraft of low level windshear in the north-east quadrants of the airport, and provide relevant wind directions and speeds. Immediately, Flight 759's first officer asked the tower for another wind check. At 16:03:37 ground control replied "winds now zero seven zero degrees at one seven peak gusts two three, and we have low level windshear alerts in all quadrants, appears to be a front passing over right now, we're right in the middle of everything."

Captain McCullers remarked that the take-off was liable to be "heavy," but his observation to the First Officer, who was handling the aircraft, sounded almost casual. McCullers was a veteran of several emergencies, including a dramatic in-flight loss of all electrical power on New Years Day 1979, after which he had been commended for bringing a heavily laden passenger jet to a safe landing in Houston. Air crews found him 'comfortable to fly with.' "There was no question of his flying ability and judgement, there was never any doubt to who was in command," said one Pan Am pilot.

While Flight 759 stood on the tarmac during the three minute wait for take-off clearance, McCullers ran through "abort" instructions with his first officer. Then as a safety measure, he told his co-pilot to "..let your airspeed build up on take-off" and said that they would turn off the air-conditioning packs, which would enable them to increase the EPR on engines 1 and 3 to 1.92. The target EPRs were 1.90 on engines 1 and 3, and 1.92 on engine 2.

At 16:07:57, Flight 759 began its takeoff roll toward the east of the airport, with gusty, variable and rain laden winds swirling directly at its nose. McCullers and crew held the Boeing on the ground until 158 knots indicated airspeed was reached; seven knots above the aircraft's V2 takeoff safety speed of 151kt. About three dozen witnesses, several of them qualified pilots, saw flight 759 lift off about 7,000ft down runway 10 in, to quote one airline pilot, a "normal rotation, lift off and initial climb segment." But it reached a height of only 100-150 feet before beginning to descend in a steep nose up attitude. At approximately 16:09, it clipped trees while veering to the left, struck a powerline, and crashed into the the middle-class suburb of Kenner, fireballing and destroying six houses, damaging a further five, and killing eight people on the ground. All 145 on board were killed.

The crash was the second worst accident in the history of American aviation at the time. The NTSB found that windshear on the runway and environent during the critical liftoff period was responsible, and lamented the fact that no accurate windshear forecasting technology was available for ground controllers or pilots at the time.