The Pacoima Mid-Air Collision

15965042_397285100613578_8266337840637552324_nOn January 31, 1957, a Douglas DC-7B collided with a United States Air Force Northrop F-89 Scorpion. The DC-7B which was earmarked for delivery to Continental Airlines, took off from the Santa Monica Airport at 10:15 a.m. on its first functional test flight, with a crew of four. Meanwhile, in Palmdale to the north, a pair of two-man F-89J fighter jets took off at 10:50 a.m. on test flights, one that involved a check of their on-board radar equipment. Both jets and the DC-7B were performing their individual tests at an altitude of 25,000 feet over the San Fernando Valley when, at about 11:18 a.m., a high-speed, near-head-on midair collision occurred.

The resulting mid-air collision caused wreckage from the crash to rain down over a schoolyard of Pacoima Junior High School located in Pacoima, a suburb in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, California. On the school playground, where some 220 boys who were just ending their outdoor activities when the wreckage came crashing down into numerous pieces and intense fires from the oil and gas. Two students, Ronnie Brann, 13, and Robert Zallan, 12, were struck and killed. A third badly injured student, Evan Elsner, 12, died two days later in a local hospital. An estimated 75 more students on the school playground suffered injuries ranging from critical to minor.

Following the collision, Curtiss Adams, the radarman aboard the eastbound twin-engine F-89J Scorpion, was able to bail out of the fighter jet and, despite incurring serious burns, parachuted to a landing onto a garage roof in Burbank, breaking his leg when he fell to the ground. The fighter jet’s pilot, Roland E. Owen, died when the aircraft plummeted in flames into La Tuna Canyon in the Verdugo Mountains.

The DC-7B, with a portion of its left wing sheared off, remained airborne for a few minutes then rolled to the left and began an uncontrollable, spiraling, high-velocity dive earthward. In doing so, it began raining debris onto the Pacoima neighborhoods below as the aircraft beg an to break apart. Some of the wreckage slammed into the Pacoima Congregational Church grounds, killing all four crewmen aboard.

The collision was blamed on pilot error and the failure of both aircraft crews to exercise proper “see and avoid” procedures regarding other aircraft while operating under visual flight rules (VFR). The crash also prompted the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) to set restrictions on all aircraft test flights, both military and civilian, requiring that they be made over open water or specifically approved sparsely populated areas.