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Remembering the Twin Cities’ four aviation disasters in the 1950s

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
The sites of the four 1950s aviation disasters.

The worst nonterrorism-related civil aviation disaster in American history occurred on May 25, 1979. American Airlines Flight 191 was departing O’Hare International Airport in Chicago for a routine flight to Los Angeles when the left engine detached from the wing a few moments after takeoff, causing the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 to roll over and then crash into a field about 4,600 feet from the end of the runway. All 271 passengers and crew were killed, along with two people on the ground. 

It wasn’t until more than three decades later that a permanent memorial to the accident was constructed in that field. A group of sixth-graders in Chicago, after hearing that their assistant principal had lost her parents in the tragedy, took it upon themselves to begin a fundraising push for the establishment of a memorial. A year after they’d begun their efforts, the students and a group of local and state officials unveiled a short stone wall inscribed with the names of the victims and a memorial plaque. “Let us not forget the victims of May 25, 1979,” it reads, “who helped assure the safety of all who have boarded an airliner since that tragic event.”

It took even longer for a memorial to appear commemorating the Twin Cities’ worst civil aviation disaster – nearly 60 years. By the time it was created, one survivor was quoted as saying to a local television station that the tragedy felt forgotten: “I don’t know why it was forgotten,” said Dianne Doughty-Madsen to WCCO when the memorial was unveiled in 2011, “but it was.” Doughty-Madsen was a child at the time of the accident. 

The 1950s saw three aviation disasters in the dense urban fabric of Minneapolis north of what was then known as Wold-Chamberlain Field. On March 7, 1950, Northwest-Orient Airlines Flight 307 collided with a flagpole at Fort Snelling. Damaged, the plane circled back around and smashed into a home off Minnehaha Parkway. Two people on the ground were killed, as were all 10 passengers and three crewmembers.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
One of the houses on 46th Avenue damaged in the 1956 crash.

Six years later, a pair of military aircraft disasters only days apart rocked the city. On June 5, 1956, a Northrop F-89 Scorpion went down, crashing into a car on the highway near the airport and killing a mother and child bound for the new Metropolitan Stadium. Four days later, a Grumman F9F Panther, fully loaded with ordnance, fell out of formation and crash-landed across three houses on 46th Avenue, causing an enormous explosion and killing the pilot and six people on the ground.

Incredibly, yet a third military aviation disaster occurred less than a year after that, on Memorial Day in 1957 in Northeast Minneapolis. Two Navy planes collided in midair, killing one pilot and setting four houses ablaze near Sunset Memorial Cemetery.

Decades later, these four accidents are seldom invoked by Twin Citians in recountings of the cities’ various civic traumas.

Air traffic over the Twin Cities has long been a major theme of this column, because it’s an experience so closely embedded in the day-to-day experience of life in the Twin Cities. The airport sits between the two cities, a short drive or train ride from most parts of the metropolitan area. The safe and routine presence of civil and military aviation in the skies above is something we take for granted, because in the lifetime of the majority of Twin Citians, there’s never been any reason to think it could be any other way.

That’s perhaps why it’s so shocking to revisit these three disasters 60 years later. The reports from the scenes of all three are nightmarish – in the case of each one, children were among the dead. The landscape of the city near the airport was, as it is now, composed of rows and rows of single-family homes. In the postwar years, those homes were filled with young families. Though the old Wold-Chamberlain Field had been comfortably far out in the sticks when it opened at the dawn of the aviation era, by the 1950s the city had reached right up the fences surrounding the airport. Unlike in other cities, where farmland and fields surround the major airport, Minneapolis-St. Paul is knit tightly into the urban fabric. Any accident over the airport would, by necessity, have a horrific impact on the areas below.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The fence between Morris Park and the Air Force base.

The site of the last of these disasters, a pocket of north-south numbered avenues tucked between Highway 62 and Military Highway on the northern perimeter of the airport, makes this proximity very clear. The streets are a sort of addendum to the city, right up against a high fence topped with barbed wire, and decorated with sternly worded admonishments against entering the area without permission of the Installation Commander. The houses along 46th Avenue were, at the time of the disaster, relatively new – of the three houses damaged in the incident, 5804 and 5808 were built in 1940, and 5820 was a slightly older holdout from the time when the area was farmland, dating to 1918.

There is no memorial to the accident on the site today, and the houses don’t bear any scars of the events of 1956. Even if there were a memorial, it’s the type of site people would be unlikely to pass on their travels through the city, unless they’d made a special trip – it’s only accessible via a frontage road along the Crosstown. As quiet and lovely as the Morris Park neighborhood is, it’s probably one of the most obscure neighborhoods in the city. (It has the shortest Wikipedia entry, anyway.) The area has that quality that neighborhoods nestled in between two giants often have, of seeming hidden away from sight, and maybe preferring it that way. In this case, the Air Force base and the Crosstown create as impenetrable a barrier as any part of the city probably has.

The newspaper account of the morning of the crash is horrifying. “Some 20 or more children were at play in that block when the plane crashed,” notes the writer. “Some of them were littered with debris and flaming fuel.” 

“It is just one of those things you never think happens,” a 30-year-old woman whose children barely survived the accident told the paper. You could imagine a resident saying the exact same thing today. 

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The Flight 307 memorial on Minnehaha Parkway near Dupont.

Five miles west of 46th Avenue, near Dupont Avenue and Minnehaha Parkway, there is a memorial to the airline accident six years earlier. In a boulder placed along the parkway, facing the house at 1116 Minnehaha Parkway West, there’s a plaque recounting the story of the disaster – how a Martin 2-0-2 en route to Minneapolis from Rochester and points east clipped its left wing on a flagpole at Fort Snelling on its approach into the airport, and then going down near the Washburn Water Tower. It lists the names of the 15 people killed that night. 

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The plaque.

The memorial is in a highly visible part of the city – such a tranquil and heavily used part, in fact, that the thought of a fiery crash there is all the more unthinkable. The memorial was commissioned by a group of neighbors working in concert with People for Parks, and dedicated by the Parks Board in the August of 2011. It is, as far as I know, the only memorial dedicated specifically to an air disaster in the Twin Cities, and one of a lonely few memorializing any sort of disaster. The I-35 bridge collapse memorial and the Great Mill Disaster memorial at Lakewood are perhaps the two most notable, but there are others, spread across the Twin Cities.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Memorial plaque for the 1957 aerial collision at Sunset
Memorial Park in Northeast.

Of the three military aviation disasters recounted here, only the final one has a dedicated memorial. On the Tower of Memories at Sunset Memorial Cemetery, near the site of the disaster, there’s a plaque commemorating Cmdr. Newell Franklin Olson of the United States Navy, the serviceman who was killed on that Memorial Day in 1957.

Air travel, in the early 21st century, is safer than ever. It is a testament to the aviation industry that in the past six decades, accidents of this kind have been largely unheard of in the Twin Cities specifically, and in the United States generally. You wonder, though, what the residents of the Twin Cities in 1957 must have thought of the proximity of the airport, after such a rapid succession of deaths and disasters in 1956 and ’57. You wonder if those buzzing fighter jets and twin-engine props overheard were regarded not with the mild annoyance we might feel today, but with a small, lingering sense of dread.

Whatever doubts those people must have had, however, have long been laid to rest. As the memorial in Chicago commemorating Flight 191 reads, those victims have, in some way, helped assure the safety of all who have boarded an airliner since. Similarly, they have also helped to assure the safety of all of us on the ground below. The memorial to Flight 307 on Minnehaha Parkway, passed by hundreds of joggers, dog-walkers and bicyclists every day, is hopefully the only such memorial our city will ever need.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 08/17/2016 - 10:47 am.

    This isn’t a long-gone threat

    Yes, civil aviation is orders of magnitude more safer in the 2010s than it was in the 1950s. That said, this type of event still happens.

    On November 12, 2001, an American Airlines A300 went down into a block of houses in Queens, NY, killing 265 including a number of people on the ground.

    On September 16, 2010, MSP had an extremely close call that could have brought down an Airbus A320 into the Diamond Lake neighborhood of Minneapolis. The NTSB notes these two planes came within 50 to 100 feet of colliding.

    This resulted in significant operational changes for aircraft movements at MSP. Side effects of this include significantly longer taxi times before departure, as planes are slotted for 30L or 30R based on their post-departure heading, so they do not need to cross paths. This also significantly raised the noise impacts to neighborhoods which previously saw far less noise, such as the Standish neighborhood in Minneapolis or some Edina neighborhoods. A departing plane often turns before it is even past the end of the runway on a horizontal plane, fanning out away from the runway heading as part of the new departure procedures. Just as with a turn in a car, turning an airplane consumes energy that would otherwise be used for other purposes. In the case of an airplane, a turn consumes thrust that would otherwise allow the plane to ascend at a higher rate had it not turned. This resulted in a significant noise impact from overflights in areas that have not been mitigated by MAC, are not subject to consent decrees, and are not even accurately mapped by a dated and problematic “DNL” metric.

    But that’s a small price to pay assuming we’re much safer than we were in 2010, right? Not so fast.

    In 2014 and 2015, concerns were raised to the NTSB regarding another hypothetical midair scenario due to the intersecting runway paths at MSP in the event of a go-around for an aircraft arriving on Rwy 35. Full disclosure, at the time I was on the board of an advocacy group which brought these concerns to the NTSB after the local FAA administrator rebuffed the concerns. Ultimately the concerns were found to be valid, and significant changes were made last year regarding time separation for Rwy 35 arrivals. MinnPost had a thorough piece on this.

    Despite these serious safety concerns and subsequent operational changes in 2010 and 2015, are MSP flyers and MSP neighbors safe today? Certainly, we’re safer than 1956, 2010, or 2015. But there are still serious concerns regarding the rate at which operations take place during peak aircraft movement periods at MSP. This is done to accommodate the flight banks for the Delta hub, and the rates we must consider are the momentary rates of aircraft movements rather than the overall number per day or year. Just like a garden hose or a freeway, there’s only so much pressure you can apply at any given moment before things fail or break apart. During much of the day, MSP operates far below any level of concern. But during the biggest Delta arrival/departure banks (rush hours in the sky, if you will) we are still trying to cram far too many planes through tight and complex airspace in any given minute.

    Here’s hoping we won’t have any future events to memorialize. Thanks for the history, Andy.

  2. Submitted by Steve Sundberg on 08/18/2016 - 11:26 am.

    Two other crashes?

    I can still recall seeing the aftermath of two other accidents at MSP – one, in the early ’60s, back when the airport terminal was still off of 34th St. before Hwy. 62 was completed, involved an airliner on a training flight crashing just short the east-west runway; the other, in the mid-’60s, involved a Air Guard fighter plane whose pilot expertly landed his damaged aircraft in the median of Hwy. 5 just short of what is now runway 30L. Because no civilian deaths were involved, I suppose these both go unmentioned.

  3. Submitted by Sean O'Brien on 08/17/2016 - 12:55 pm.

    Closer to Emerson

    I grew up about a block away from the site of the first crash. I first remember my grandfather telling me about the snowing night when it happened. Later I became the weekly teenage lawn mower for the couple that lived in the house that had been hit – or more correctly the one that replaced it. Their house is noticeable in that it’s the only single story dwelling along that stretch of the parkway. A couple years later the memorial was put in. A very sad part of Minneapolis history. Thanks for an interesting read.

  4. Submitted by Hudson Leighton on 08/17/2016 - 01:05 pm.

    Many Crashes

    There is a book on Minnesota Air Crashes, that I read years ago, one of the things that stuck in my mind was the then Head of the Airport Commission blaming the home owners for the two fighter jet crashes.

    There was a B52 lost over Rosemount in the 1960s also.


  5. Submitted by Steve Lee on 08/17/2016 - 10:06 pm.

    Rosemount crash

    The B52 that crashed in Rosemount in September 16 or 1958 was a Strategic Air Command bomber. The practice apparently was to keep 1/3 of the atomic bomber fleet in the air at all times to avoid being caught on the ground by sneak attack.

    The bomber took off from Loring Air Force Base in Maine, did practice bombing runs along the east coast and over Ohio. Then it proceeded to the Minneapolis area where it practiced bombing runs at 36,000 feet over the petroleum refinery in St. Paul Park. Apparently the geography of that refinery resembled one in Russia. After a simulated bomb release the plane would take evasive turns and dives to practice avoiding potential ground fire.

    After the fourth simulated bombing run the plane did not come out of the roll and dive and dropped to 8,000 feet in 100 seconds and continued to the ground. It apparently came apart in the air. Four crewman got out of the plane but only the pilot survived, landing towards Hastings, badly injured. five crewmen remained in the plane and died.

    The plane hit in a farm yard,making a massive crater and fireball. I recall that a family of three was killed and the farm incinerated. The military investigators apparently were some time in confirming that the plane had not been loaded with live atomic weapons.

    The story was in the papers the next day, then not a word.

  6. Submitted by Tomas Mauser on 08/29/2016 - 01:34 pm.

    Cold War hysteria overshadowed air crash trauma

    As an eyewitness to the 1957 crash of two Navy jets over Northeast Minneapolis in 1957, I now wonder if our frequent “duck-and-cover” drills in elementary school – drills mandated by Civil Defense to prepare us for nuclear war with the Soviet Union – inured us to the trauma of aircraft accidents. Sadly, we were taught to be constantly prepared for violent death from a massive nuclear attack, not a small-scale accident, even if it happened in our quiet neighborhood.

    • Submitted by ANN OLSON on 01/22/2019 - 11:04 pm.

      I have a question…I remember being taken to the sight of an airplane crash about this time period. The pilot was hanging from a tree by his parachute and the plane was burning. Do you know if the crash you eye-witnessed matched this memory?

  7. Submitted by Charlie Laper on 06/29/2017 - 11:15 pm.

    F-89D crash 6/5/56

    I’ve seen so many articles on this crash and they all have some wrong information…..I was the crew chief on F-89D serial # 51-11314…my crew and I were waiting for the plane to take off and go on a cross-country flight to Iowa; rather than a local flight…we buckled in the pilot and radar operator and started the engines (the F-89 has 2 engines) the pilot taxied out to the end of the runway, and gave the engines full throttle…then kicked in the afterburners…they were on their take-off roll and half-way down the runway, we thought we heard a small explosion…our view was blocked by a large group of trees, but then we saw a huge plume of black smoke rising from the far end of the trees…one of the guys said “they’ve augered in!”…we were near one of the guy’s car, so we all jumped in and headed for the highway…there was a guy there already directing traffic, and he said we couldn’t go down there…..i said “that’s MY plane” and we took off….we got as close as we could, and already there were crash trucks putting out the fire, and an ambulance from the Navy Reserve Unit….we stayed as long as we could and went back to the alert hangers…….it seems there was a family parked in their car..(right in line with the runway) and they stopped to watch planes taking off….what happened with my plane is the right hand afterburner quit during take-off…..the pilot had to make a split-second decision….either take off or stay on the ground…..he elected to stay down….he blew off the canopy, and he and the R O jumped off the wings…the plane knocked down all the approach lights…went through the chain link fence and pushed the car across the highway, settling on top and caught on fire…fortunately none of the 104 rockets fired…the mother and one of the kids were killed, and a few days later their housekeeper died from her injuries..I can’t figure how the air crew didn’t get hurt jumping off the wings….the take-off speed for an F-89 is 140 mph !

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