American Airlines Flight 320
|Date||February 3, 1959|
|Summary||Controlled flight into terrain (water)|
|Site||New York City, New York|
|Aircraft type||Lockheed L-188A Electra|
American Airlines Flight 320, registration N6101A, was a Lockheed L-188A Electra en route from Chicago Midway International Airport to New York City's LaGuardia Airport on February 3, 1959. It crashed into the East River on approach; 65 of the 73 on board died. It was the first crash for the Electra, which had been introduced only recently by American Airlines. It would not be the last, however, as a series of fatal accidents over the next year would cause the aircraft to have a loss of confidence by the flying public, including two mysterious in-flight wing failures which resulted in speed restrictions and a near grounding by the FAA.
"The crash scene was about a mile north of La Guardia and less than a mile east of Rikers Island, where a Northeast Airlines crash killed 20 persons two years before. By 5 a.m. only 11 survivors were identified. Coast Guard officials said that its boats had picked up 22 bodies. They said many more bodies were presumably lost in the rapid current of the river.
"The big airliner apparently sank between Clason's Point and College Point shortly after residents in those areas reported hearing a dull thud. The cries of the survivors were heard on both shores — at College Point and Hunt's Point in Queens, and Clason's Point in the Bronx.
"A Coast Guard helicopter helped to sight survivors in the fog and rain. It reported that scattered bits of wreckage only two or three feet long could be seen over an area of 200 to 300 yards, The bodies that were found were taken by the Coast Guard tug Navesink to a temporary morgue set up at College Point. They were then transferred to Queens General Hospital for identification.
"At least a dozen boats and two helicopters took part in the rescue. Police and fire boats and civilian tugs and barges worked along with the Coast Guard. The river currents carried most of the bodies toward the Queens side of the river. Four hours after the crash, bodies and luggage were floating north-ward toward the Whitestone Bridge. Three bodies were recovered on the Bronx shore, but most were recovered closer to Queens.
"Winds up to 40 miles an hour and driving rain in the early morning hours hindered the rescuers, while swift river currents hampered rescue vessels and icy roads ashore slowed ambulances that were taking injured persons to hospitals. 
- The Board determines the probable cause of this accident was premature descent below landing minimums which was the result of preoccupation of the crew on particular aspects of the aircraft and its environment to the neglect of essential flight instrument references for attitude and height above the approach surface.
- Contributing factors were.
- 1. Limited experience of the crew with the aircraft type;
- 2. Faulty approach technique in which the autopilot was used in the heading mode to or almost to the surface;
- 3. Erroneous setting of the captain's altimeter;
- 4. Marginal weather in the approach area;
- 5. Possible misinterpretation of altimeter and rate of descent indicator; and
- 6. Sensory illusion with respect to height and attitude resulting from visual reference to the few lights existing in the approach area.
Many references to Flight 320 claim that there were 72 persons on board and that there were only seven survivors. This error may be because one victim was a lap infant and did not have its own seat or ticket.
The flight number is still used today on its Montego Bay-Miami-Dallas/Fort Worth route.
- Air Disaster, Vol. 4: The Propeller Era, by Macarthur Job, Aerospace Publications Pty. Ltd. (Australia), 2001 ISBN 1-875671-48-X
- Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network
- Civil Aeronautics Board Aircraft Accident Report on Flight 320 from the Department of Transport's Special Collections