On the morning of February 19, 1955 TWA Flight 260, a Martin 404 piloted by Captain Ivan Spong, took off from Albuquerque for Santa Fe, New Mexico. The weather was overcast and snowing, with clouds obscuring the mountains in the vicinity, including 10,800 foot Sandia Mountain just north of the Albuquerque airport.
After taking off to the southeast, the aircraft made an extended right turn toward its northbound course toward Santa Fe. Instead of rolling out on a northerly heading, however, it continued turning toward the east and disappeared into the overcast. The tower called Flight 260 to confirm that it was on course; there was no answer to this or further calls, and the flight was reported missing.
When the weather cleared the next day the wreckage was located in a remote area on Sandia Mountain. Recovery of key components was hampered by the difficulty of reaching the crash site, but eventual analysis of the radio equipment and navigational instruments revealed no evident malfunction.
On October 12, 1955 the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), which at that time conducted aviation accident investigations, issued its report. It concluded that the probable cause was “a lack of conformity with prescribed enroute procedures and the deviation from airways at an altitude too low to clear obstructions ahead.” The CAB also concluded that only the peak of Sandia Mountain was obscured by cloud, and that even if there had been instrument failure, “all the pilot had to do was look outside to determine that he was not following the airway.” Therefore, it stated, “from all available evidence and lack of any evidence to the contrary, the Board can only conclude that the direct course taken by the flight was intentional.” (emphasis added). In short, it accused Captain Spong of committing suicide, taking his crew and passengers to their deaths with him.
But the story does not end there.
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) launched its own accident investigation with the support of TWA’s Engineering Department. They uncovered a history of malfunctions in the Radio Magnetic Indicators (RMIs) of Martin 404s which had caused significant heading errors, and presented this evidence to the CAB. In August, 1957, the CAB issued an amended report that dropped the word “intentional,” but again rejected instrument failure as the cause, citing the “excellent visibility” near the area of the crash.” It said, “there is no understandable reason why the pilots would not know, by reference to the conspicuous terrain features, that they were not on the planned course.” Even if there was instrument failure, it concluded, the accident wouldn’t have occurred if the crew had been paying attention.
The airline and the union did not give up. Using eyewitness testimony in the CAB record, they established that given the wind velocity, temperature, flight path, gross weight and climb capabilities of the aircraft, it entered the overcast at an altitude at which the continued turn toward the mountain was not evident. They also pointed to the radio communications record, which showed that before takeoff Captain Spong asked the tower to repeat a reporting point, to define its exact location, and to confirm his understanding of its location—requests he was unlikely to have made if he did not intend to comply. The airline and the union also submitted demonstrative exhibits showing that technical data, together with evidence in the CAB’s own investigative record, established that an RMI malfunction could have led the aircraft to the point of impact while the pilot–relying on the instrument while in the clouds—believed he was on course to Santa Fe, not a collision course with a mountain.
The CAB held a third hearing in January, 1959. On June 15, 1960—more than five years after the accident—the CAB issued a further amended report. It conceded that the final course Spong took could not have been intentional. It admitted the possibility of instrument malfunction. And it changed its probable cause determination to “Unknown.”
The story of TWA Flight 260 is that of an airline, its pilots and their lawyers joining forces to successfully challenge the findings and conclusions of the government agency responsible for investigating air accidents, and persuading it to change its findings and conclusion to exonerate a pilot it had accused of deliberately causing a fatal air crash. It underscores the potential impact of careful analysis and presentation of evidence and effective advocacy.