Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Before Sully, There Was Hatch

By Ed Byrne

On Jan. 15, 2009, US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger saved the lives of all 155 people on Flight 1549 when he crash-landed his Airbus 320 on the Hudson River. Sullenberger and his crew successfully evacuated the flight’s 149 passengers before the airplane sank. His courage and resourcefulness in performing a “dead stick” landing on a liquid runway have been justly celebrated, and the Clint Eastwood film based on his feat is currently leading the nation in box office returns.

It was not the first time that a determined and courageous pilot successfully crash-landed an unpowered airliner after takeoff, saving the lives of all his passenger and crew. American Airlines pilot Ed Hatch had performed a similar feat 60 years earlier, on June 23, 1949, in Memphis.

SIGHT FROM AIR -- Hundreds flocked to the scene after the "Convair" crash-landed in a field beside Getwell Road, less than a mile from Kennedy General Hospital. Note skid marks across field. At the controls were the pilots shown in insets [Capt. Ed Hatch and Officer N. E. Lundeen]. they said right engine quit on takeoff.
Memphis Commercial Appeal, June 23, 1949.

On a hot Wednesday afternoon (it had to be hot in Memphis in late June), Hatch was captain of an American Airlines Convair CV-240 airliner, the “City of San Antonio,” taking off from Memphis on a flight to Nashville “and points east.” None of the contemporary accounts give the number of the flight, but several note that the twin-engined, 40-passenger aircraft was considered “big” or even “huge” in its time.

An illustrated flight path map published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, June 23, 1949.

Hatch reported that his engines performed normally as he warmed them up for the flight and started down the runway. As soon as the aircraft became airborne, one engine failed. While the Convair was designed to stay airborne with only one of its two 2,400-horsepower engines, the remaining engine immediately began to overheat. Fearing his second engine would explode and burn, Hatch shut it down. His aircraft had gained just enough altitude to clear a nearby power line “by 10 or 20 feet,” but lost airspeed in the process. Hatch was flying at an altitude of about 100 feet with absolutely no power.

He spotted a small open field ahead and set the aircraft down in it. According to contemporary news accounts, the plane slid more than 100 yards across the field, skipped across a road, and plowed under a 12,000-volt power line before stopping with its nose against a tree. The flight had lasted about 90 seconds and ended three and a half miles from the end of the runway. Providentially, the crash landing site was only one mile south of Kennedy Veterans Hospital, where some of the injured passengers were taken.

Thirty-four of the 43 people on board suffered injuries, and 17 were hospitalized. But everyone survived. Hatch and his flight officer walked away with minor injuries and the single flight attendant was unhurt.

A photograph of the wreckage published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, June 23, 1949.

Judging from the grainy newspaper photos of the time, the lack of fatalities seems miraculous. The photos show the front end of the aircraft smashed and the fuselage broken open. One engine burned, but a fire crew reached the site within four minutes and extinguished the blaze before it reached the fuel supply. The piston-powered aircraft was fueled with 115 octane aviation gasoline so a fuel tank explosion would have been catastrophic.

Front page headline, Memphis Press-Scimitar, June 22, 1949.

It was a simpler age. Today Captain Sully Sullenberger has a film named for him, and his own website promoting his consulting practice. Hatch, by contrast, seems to have disappeared from the media almost immediately. A search of the Internet produced a few articles from contemporary newspapers, complimenting his skill in saving his passengers and crew. But there is no evidence that fame and fortune followed Hatch in later life.

It may be that a nation so recently embroiled in the greatest war in history had grown accustomed to aviation heroics. The Berlin airlift had ended successfully less than six weeks before the Memphis crash and Americans in 1949 were still celebrating the wartime contributions of their Navy and Army Air Forces pilots. Most Americans of the time probably saw Hatch’s feat as one more example of an American doing his duty in the face of life-threatening circumstances, as countless Americans had done over the preceding decade. People today crave heroes; Americans of the late 1940s had them by the millions.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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