The Last Flight of Flagship “San Antonio”
Written by Henry M. Holden
American Airlines Flagship San Antonio, NC 21746 c/n 2104-DC-3-208A was delivered to the airline on February 23, 1939. It had served unremarkably throughout the war remaining with the civilian fleet. On January 5, 1947, it took its last flight. This is the remarkable story of the Flagship San Antonio called American Flight 203.
Flight 203 was scheduled to fly from LaGuardia (LGA) to Nashville (BNA) with several interim stops. It began with a routine departure at 5:34 p.m. Captain John Booth had 3 1/2 hours of fuel on board.
The LaGuardia-Baltimore leg was completed routinely, and Booth intended to add fuel at the next stop, Washington National Airport (DCA). What he and everyone else hadn’t counted on was an unexpected blizzard that hit the entire East Coast just as he departed Baltimore. The storm shut down every airport between New York and North Carolina.
It was only 40 miles between Baltimore and Washington, but in the time it took to cover that short distance, the cloud cover dropped 7,500 feet as heavy snow swept in. Incoming traffic to Nashville airport began to back up, and Air Traffic Control (ATC) had told Captain Booth to hold over Anacostia Naval Air Station (NSF).
At this point, all radio communications began to deteriorate. Precipitation static began to interfere with transmission and reception. The captain decided to return to Baltimore to refuel. By this time, Baltimore was backing up and they were in the process of landing a flight of military aircraft that had just declared a low fuel emergency. Booth and his passengers were number 12 to land.
Communication continued to deteriorate as the storm intensified. Booth was now unable to hear any of the ground stations, and they could barely make him out. Flight 203 was now in trouble. But it would get worse. Booth was luckily able to contact an American Airlines DC-4 flying somewhere above him at approximately 10,000 feet. He advised to DC-4 captain of his situation and asked him to get the weather at Philadelphia, Flight 203’s alternate airport for just such a situation, and relay to him. The reply was not good. Philadelphia was getting pounded with heavy snow and visibility was almost zero.
What about LaGuardia? “Almost as bad,” relayed the DC-4 captain, “but there was still a small window of visibility.”
Booth decided to try for LaGuardia. He continued to head north until he estimated he was over New York City. He discovered conditions had deteriorated badly. He was unable to raise ATC. With communications and visibility now zero, he decided to try and raise the company dispatcher. He was in luck! But the dispatcher had more bad news. LaGuardia was closed to all traffic. Booth was beginning to worry. He was down to 45 minutes of fuel. Booth asked the dispatcher where the closest and open airport was. The dispatcher, with reluctance in his voice, said there was nothing open within his fuel range.
Booth now had a problem. He virtually did not know where he was. His fuel was quickly being depleted and he had no contact with ATC. This is the point where airline captains earn their pay. He had command decision to make. It was also a life-and-death decision. He had several choices but none of them were attractive: he could head for an airport and risk running out of fuel over New York City. He could ditch off Long Island, either in Long Island Sound or to the south in the Atlantic Ocean; or he could find a flat area and attempt a crash landing. The option for ditching in the water was quickly ruled out. No one would survive more than a few minutes in the fridge and water.
Booth was down to 30 minutes of fuel and somewhere over in New York City. His altitude was 2,000 feet. Not much margin there if either engine quit. He could not risk going higher and using more fuel.
Booth headed south east to find the beach. What he found at 300 feet was the Atlantic Ocean. The copilot suggested they drop a flare. The flare revealed angry choppy waves. They were over the Atlantic Ocean. They turned on the landing lights and estimated they could not see more than 40 feet ahead of them.
By now the auxiliary tanks and one main tank were dry. The two engines were still running but sucking fumes from the one remaining main tank. A few minutes later the copilot inform the captain that fuel gauge was reading zero. Remarkably, the engines were still running. The captain decided it was time to ditch and a moment later the beach showed up in the glare of the landing lights. Since there was no cabin public address system in the airplane, the passengers were unaware of just how critical the flight had become. Immediately, the captain began to fly a split-“S” trying to spot any obstructions on the beach. He banked the airplane and made one pass when the engines quit. With the gear up he put the airplane down on the beach. On impact the right wing dipped and dug into the snow and sand, causing the airplane to slow quickly causing a violent turn to the right.
The captain was hurled into the windshield, causing his teeth to tear through his lower lip. The copilot was thrown into the control yolk which penetrated his eye and was driven deep into his eye socket. A moment later the airplane came to a stop with only the sound of creaking metal and howling wind surrounding them. There was no fire after all, there was no fuel to ignite.
The passengers, all 12 of them were shaking but unhurt. Nobody had any idea where they were. Booth asked two passengers to each walk one in each direction down the beach to look for help. The flight attendant and other passengers attended to the pilot and the copilot.
Booth tried the radio again. It worked! He raised someone but never found out who it was, or where they were located. He was told to hold his microphone button down so they could get an ADF bearing. A few minutes later voice came back telling them that they were on the south shore of Long Island in the vicinity of Jones Beach.
A few minutes later, a Coast Guard truck pulled up. One of the passengers stumbled upon the Coast Guard Station. The Coast Guard station officer called the only number he had for American Airlines, reservations, and advised them that one of their airplanes had landed on Jones Beach. The reservations clerk replied very authoritatively that American Airlines did not have service to Jones Beach. The officer replied, “Well, you do now!”
The captain was awarded American Airlines Distinguished Service Award for bravery and he retired as a senior captain in 1975. The copilot, Tommy Hatcher had severe double vision for several months but went on to fly another 33 years, retiring as a captain in 1980. The airplane was sold to a local scrap dealer.
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