( Click here to read the complete history of Western Airlines)
Low visibility and pilot inattention would cause this DC-6B to end up in the cold dark waters of San Francisco Bay half way between the San Francisco International Airport, and the Oakland Municipal Airport in California. Special Flight Rules were in effect at the time to govern trans bay flights between these two cities. These special rules, called "Visual Trans-Bay," would allow an aircraft to fly below all IFR and VFR minimums for the short crossing of only 11 miles. The only restrictions were that the flights must remain at least 500 above the water and stay clear of all clouds.
At the time of this accident the Oakland Control Tower could plainly see the lights of the San Francisco Airport across the bay, and the measured ceiling was 900 feet overcast. But it was night, and the dark placid waters provided no contrast for the pilot to use as a reference to gauge his height. What the pilots were doing to cause the distraction from their flight instruments, especially the altimeter, will never be known. They did not survive the impact, and their bodies were never recovered. Two of those onboard would survive the crash, but eight others would not.
The flight had begun in Los Angeles, California at 9:00 p.m. that night. It cruised in clear skies with five crew members and thirty-five passengers on an IFR clearance (Instrument Flight Plan). At 13,000 feet the ride was smooth and uneventful all the way into San Francisco. After landing in San Francisco at 10:40 thirty of the passengers deplaned, but five others remained onboard for the short trip across the bay to Oakland.
In command of the flight was Captain Robert E. Clark, age 36. Clark had more than 11,500 hours of flying time, but only had seventy-nine hours in the new Douglas DC-6B He was instrument rated, but only had two and three-quarters hours of instrument time in the DC-6B.
His copilot was Robert C. Jacobson, age 32. Jacobson had a total of 3,100 hours of flying time, with only thirty-eight hours in DC-6Bs. Both pilots were properly rated and certified for the flight conditions and type aircraft flown that night.
The remaining crew members were: Flight Engineer Robert R. League, and Stewardesses Barbara Brew and Beverlee Nelson. Miss Nelson and one passenger, Mr. Vilas F. Adams, would be the only persons to be pulled alive from the cold waters of the bay after the crash.
The crossing to Oakland began at 11:05 p.m. from runway 28R. The weather was a measured ceiling of eight hundred feet and ten miles of visibility. At Oakland the weather was reported to be a measured ceiling of seven hundred feet and the visibility was ten miles. These conditions met the "Visual Trans Bay" flight clearance requirements. The aircraft could remain at least five hundred feet above the water, and still stay clear of the clouds. The ten miles of visibility was far in excess of the three miles required for the crossing. So the flight began with a right turn out from runway 28R for the direct course to Oakland Airport. Unfortunately what the crew did not know was that the ceiling was lowering at mid-bay. The ceiling was later discovered to be a mere four hundred feet at the mid way point.
The first radio contact with the Oakland Control Tower came at 11:07 when Western Air 636 called Oakland and requested landing instructions.
"Oakland tower this is Western 636, off San Francisco, Trans-bay, landing instructions, over."
To which Oakland replied: "Western 636, Trans-bay, cleared to enter traffic pattern, Runway 27 right, wind west one zero."
The Oakland surveillance radar detected Flight 636 just as it was completing the right turn toward the Oakland airport, and continued to observe it until it was within range of the six mile scale on their scope. The radar operator then switched the scope to the six mile range and continued to track the aircraft.
At about 11:08 tower operators in both Oakland and San Francisco saw a large orange colored flash in the direction of the aircraft's track. Then the target disappeared from the Oakland radar scope. Fearing the worse, the radar operator marked the spot on the scope as 5.5 miles out, on a bearing of 217 degrees from the Oakland radar antennas. Despite all attempts by the Oakland Control Tower to reestablish contact with Flight 636, there was no further reply. So the Oakland tower immediately alerted the San Francisco Coast Guard and the Alameda Naval Air Station of an aircraft down in mid bay.
Passenger Adams stated that the takeoff from San Francisco was normal and that he could see the lights on both sides of the bay. When they went out over the water, the aircraft banked and headed for Oakland. After about two minutes, Mr. Adams stated that he was still looking at the light ashore and judged the aircraft to be about five-hundred feet in the air. Then, the next thing he noticed was that:
". . . we were about twenty feet off the water and it appeared that we were below the lights, like we were under them."
About fifteen second later Adams looked out of the window again and saw water a mere ten feet below the aircraft. Alarmed, he unfastened his seat belt and stood up. At that very instant there was a "blinding flash" as the aircraft hit the water. That was all he could remember until he found himself in the water outside the aircraft.
Perhaps if Adams had not unfastened his seat belt when he did, he may have drowned during the moments of unconsciousness following impact. As it was, he was thrown clears of the sinking wreckage, which broke open and began to settle into the cold dark water.
Stewardess Beverlee Nelson had been seating in the aircraft's lounge during the flight. She did not sense anything unusual until the aircraft was well on its way toward Oakland. A few moments into the flight she sensed the aircraft begin a very slight descent. She was not concerned, but she did feel that it was a little too early to be making the landing at Oakland.
Within a few seconds she heard the power being reduced on the engines. Because of the sound of the slipstream she also felt that the flaps were slightly down. All of these sounds were normal when landing, and she had heard them hundreds of times before.
As she sat there waiting for instructions from the cockpit she felt what she thought was the nose gear striking the runway. And then there was a flash of light, followed by a quiet blackness. She did not remember the actual crash sequence, but within a few moments she regained her senses and realized that very cold water was rising up around her. The aircraft had split open upon impact and was slowly sinking to the muddy bottom thirty feet below. Fear and instinct told her to get out quickly. After making her way through the tangled wreckage of the rear section of the cabin, she stepped out into the cold water. Both Nelson and Adams were rescued by Coast Guard vessels within the hour.
A rescue helicopter, guided by the Oakland radar operator, arrived on the scene at 11:30 p.m. The helicopter had to descend to just three hundred feet above the water near the wreck site to stay below the overcast. Within minutes of the helicopter's arrival, other Coast Guard and Naval vessels began to arrive.
Nelson and Adams were the only survivors of this accident. In all, six bodies were recovered, but the bodies of the pilot and flight engineer were never found. Only variety of relatively small parts of the aircraft were ever recovered, the largest of which was the wing center section with the two main landing gears still attached. An inspection revealed that the landing gear was fully retracted at the moment of impact.
One propeller hub with the blades bent and broken was also recovered, but it was damaged to such an extent that the blade pitch settings and RPM at the time of impact were indeterminable. The four engines were never recovered because of the deep, soft mud on the bottom.
To this day, much of the wreckage is still laying buried in the soft mud, thirty feet below the surface of San Francisco Bay. It is likely that the pilot and flight engineer are still trapped within that wreckage and are also buried forever in mid bay. The approximate location of this accident is: N37 40 45 - W122 17 33. Each year thousands of pleasure boaters pass over this spot without ever knowing of the disaster that occurred there, or that two men are forever entombed below.
Click here to return to "True Tales Of Aviation Archaeology" home page.