1957 Pacoima mid-air collision

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1957 Pacoima mid-air collision
Accident summary
Date January 31, 1957
Summary Mid-air collision
Site Over the San Fernando Valley, California, United States
Total fatalities 8
Total injuries (non-fatal) 78 (estimated)
First aircraft
N836D-16May11 7877.jpg
A Douglas DC-7B similar to the accident aircraft
Type Douglas DC-7B
Operator Douglas Aircraft Company
Registration N8210H
Flight origin Santa Monica Airport, Santa Monica, California, United States
Destination Santa Monica Airport, Santa Monica, California, United States
Passengers 0
Crew 4
Fatalities 4 (plus 3 on ground)
Injuries (non-fatal) 0 (plus estimated 74 on ground)
Survivors 0
Second aircraft
Northrop F-89J Scorpion.jpg
A Northrop F-89J Scorpion of the Wisconsin Air National Guard's 176th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in October 1972.
Type Northrop F-89J Scorpion
Operator United States Air Force
Registration 52-1870
Flight origin Palmdale, California, United States
Destination Palmdale, California, United States
Passengers 0
Crew 2
Fatalities 1
Injuries (non-fatal) 1
Survivors 1

On January 31, 1957, a Douglas DC-7B operated by Douglas Aircraft Company was involved in a mid-air collision with a United States Air Force Northrop F-89 Scorpion and crashed into the schoolyard of Pacoima Junior High School located in Pacoima, a suburb in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, California.[1][2] By February 1, seven people had died and at least 75 had been injured due to the incident.[3] A 12-year-old boy subsequently died from multiple injuries from the incident on February 2.[4]

The accident[edit]

The DC-7B, 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 Douglas personnel aboard. 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 in clear skies over the San Fernando Valley when, at about 11:18 a.m., a high-speed, near-head-on midair collision occurred. Investigators were later able to establish that the two aircraft most likely converged at a point in the sky approximately one to two miles northeast of the Hansen Dam spillway.[5]

Following the collision, Curtiss Adams, the radarman aboard the eastbound twin-engine F-89J Scorpion, was able to bail out of the stricken 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.[6]

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 began to break apart. Seconds later, part of the hurtling wreckage slammed onto the grounds of the Pacoima Congregational Church, killing all four Douglas crewmen aboard while the major portions fell onto the adjacent playground of Pacoima Junior High School. On the school playground, where some 220 boys were just ending their outdoor athletic activities, the wreckage broke upon impact into numerous pieces and intense fires began due to the aircraft's fuel and oil. Distinct craters were made in the playground by each of the four engines and the main center fuselage section. Two students, Ronnie Brann, 13, and Robert Zallan, 12, were struck and killed by this wreckage and debris. A third gravely 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.[7]

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.[8]

Popular culture[edit]

The event is depicted in the film La Bamba, the 1987 biopic of rock 'n' roll legend Ritchie Valens. A 15-year-old student at Pacoima Junior High School at the time of the disaster, Valens was not at school that day because he was attending the funeral of his grandfather. Recurring nightmares of the disaster led to Valens' fear of flying, which he overcame after he launched his music career. Ironically, Valens, along with fellow rock 'n' rollers Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper, and pilot Roger Peterson, perished two years later in an airplane crash when their chartered Beechcraft Bonanza crashed near Mason City, Iowa, in the early morning hours of February 3, 1959.

The crash was discussed on the May 19, 1957, episode of The CBS Radio Workshop (entitled "Heaven Is In the Sky").[9][10] The program described when and how both planes took off from their respective airfields, and included discussion of how the Pacoima Junior High School was having the 7th grade students outside for exercise. It also included interviews with people who were witnesses and/or affected by the crash, such as Ronnie Brann's mother and a close friend.


  1. ^ Hill, Gladwyn. "7 Die as Planes Collide and One Falls in Schoolyard; PLANES COLLIDE, SCHOOL YARD HIT Roar Alerts Students 'Everything on Fire' Witness Describes Crash." The New York Times. Friday February 1, 1957. Page 1. Retrieved on February 3, 2010. "Wreckage of airliner falls into school yard at Pacoima, Calif."
  2. ^ "31-JAN-1957 Douglas DC-7B N8210H." Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved on February 3, 2010.
  3. ^ "7 KILLER, 74 HURT IN SCHOOL AIR CRASH." [sic] Los Angeles Times. February 1, 1957. Start page 1. 5 pages. Retrieved on February 3, 2010.
  4. ^ "Pacoima Boy Dies, 8th Air Crash Victim." Los Angeles Times. February 3, 1957. Start page: 1. 4 pages. Retrieved on February 3, 2010.
  5. ^ C.A.B. DOCKET # SA-323, FILE #2-0020, DATE ADOPTED 11/22/1957, p. 5.
  6. ^ C.A.B. DOCKET # SA-323, FILE #2-0020, DATE ADOPTED 11/22/1957, p. 1.
  7. ^ http://www.joangushin.net/crashpictures.html
  8. ^ C.A.B. DOCKET # SA-323, FILE #2-0020, DATE ADOPTED 11/22/1957, p. 16.
  9. ^ "The Definitive CBS Radio Workshop Radio Log with Parley Baer, Herb Butterfield and William Conrad". Archived from the original on January 15, 2015. Retrieved January 15, 2015. 
  10. ^ https://archive.org/details/CBSRadioWorkshop

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 34°14′13″N 118°27′40″W / 34.237°N 118.461°W / 34.237; -118.461