Sabena Flight 548
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (February 2011)|
|Date||February 15, 1961|
|Site||near Brussels, Belgium
|Fatalities||73 (all, including 1 on ground)|
|Aircraft type||Boeing 707-320|
|Flight origin||New York Int'l Airport, Anderson Field|
Sabena Flight 548, registration OO-SJB, was a Boeing 707 aircraft that crashed en route to Brussels, Belgium, from New York City on February 15, 1961, killing the entire United States Figure Skating team on its way to the 1961 World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
The flight, which originated at New York International Airport, Anderson Field (now John F. Kennedy International Airport), crashed on approach to Brussels' Zaventem Airport. All 72 on board were killed, as well as one person on the ground (Theo de Laet, a farmer, was struck by debris). The crash was the first fatal accident involving a Boeing 707 in regular passenger service, 28 months after it was placed into commercial use.[nb 1]
There was no indication of trouble on board the plane until it was forced to cancel its final approach to the Brussels airport, as a small plane had not yet cleared the runway.
At about 10:00 am Brussels time, the Boeing 707 was on a long approach to runway 20 when, near the runway threshold and at a height of 900 feet (270 m), power was increased and the landing gear retracted. The airplane attempted to circle and land on another runway, but never made it back to the airport. The plane made three 360 degrees turns to the left. During these turns, the bank angle increased more and more until the aircraft had climbed to 1,500 feet (460 m) and was in a near vertical bank. The 707 then leveled wings, abruptly pitched up, lost speed and started to spiral rapidly nose down towards the ground. It crashed and caught fire in a marshy area adjacent to a farm field near the hamlet of Berg, less than two miles from the airport, at 10:04 a.m. Brussels Time. 
The wreckage burst into flames, though it is believed that all 72 aboard were killed instantly. A farmer working in the fields was killed by a piece of aluminum debris from the plane, and another farmer's leg was severed by flying debris. Baudouin I, King of the Belgians, and his consort, Queen Fabiola, rushed to the scene of the disaster and provided comfort to the families of the dead and injured farmers.
The exact cause of the crash was never determined beyond reasonable doubt. Investigators suspected that the aircraft may have been brought down by a failure of the stabilizer-adjusting mechanism.
Loss of U.S. team
All 18 athletes of the 1961 U.S. figure skating team and 16 family members, coaches, and officials were among the fatalities. The dead included 9-time U.S. ladies' champion, turned coach, Maribel Vinson-Owen and her two daughters, reigning U.S. ladies' champion Laurie Owen and reigning U.S. pairs champion Maribel Owen. Maribel Owen's pairs champion partner Dudley Richards and reigning U.S. men's champion Bradley Lord also died, along with U.S. ice dancing champions Diane Sherbloom and Larry Pierce. The team also lost U.S. men's silver medalist Gregory Kelley, U.S. ladies' silver medalist Stephanie Westerfeld, and U.S. ladies' bronze medalist Rhode Lee Michelson.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy issued a statement of condolence from the White House. He was particularly touched by the disaster; one of the skaters killed in the crash, Dudley Richards, was a personal friend of President Kennedy and his brother Ted Kennedy from summers spent at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
Because the casualties included many of the top American coaches as well as the athletes, the crash was a devastating blow to the U.S. Figure Skating program, which had enjoyed a position of dominance in the sport in the 1950s. Although Scott Allen won a bronze medal at the 1964 Winter Olympics – becoming one of the youngest Olympic medalists in history – the United States would not regain prominence in the sport until the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, where Peggy Fleming won gold in the ladies' event and Tim Wood the silver in the men's singles event. The crash was also indirectly responsible for bringing foreign coaches such as Carlo Fassi and John Nicks to the United States.
U.S. Figure Skating President F. Ritter Shumway, in office less than two months at the time of the accident, established the USFS Memorial Fund in honor of the crash victims. The fund, which is still in existence, is used to support the training of promising young figure skaters throughout the country. Future Olympic gold medalists Peggy Fleming and Scott Hamilton credit the fund with being vital to their careers.
A film about the event, called RISE, was commissioned by U.S. Figure Skating to celebrate American figure skating and commemorating the 50th anniversary of the accident. RISE was filmed in 2010 and shown in theaters nationwide for one day only: February 17, 2011, with one encore performance on March 7, 2011. The film was shown on the Versus network on October 22, 2011.
- Singles skaters
- Pairs skaters
- Ice dancers
- Three 707s had crashed previously during training or test flights.
- "Brussels Tragedy", Flight magazine, 24 February 1961.
- "ASN Aircraft accident Boeing 707-329 OO-SJB Brussel-Zaventem Airport (BRU)". ASN Aviation Safety Database.
- Armour, Nancy (Associated Press), "US skating program rose from ashes of '61 crash", USA Today, 10 February 2011.
- Swift, E. M., "'The Day the Music Stopped'", Sports Illustrated, 21 February 2011, pp. 70–75.
- Duffy, Bob. "Shattered Dreams: Potential for Greatness of 18 Skaters Perished En Route to Prague," The Boston Globe. December 29, 2000, p. E16.
- Nichols, Nikki. Frozen in Time: The Enduring Legacy of the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Team. Emmis Books, 2006. ISBN 1-57860-260-2.
- Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network
- Silent newsreel footage of the crash scene at British Pathe (requires Adobe Flash)
- Photo of the crash scene
- US Figure Skating Memorial Fund
- RISE, a documentary movie about the 1961 team - will be shown in theaters in Feb 2011
- Other incidents involving Sabena
- Book about the crash
- I Dream of Genealogy Memorial to Victims of Sabena Flight 548