Flight's tragic encounter with a whistling swan

The Baltimore Sun

W. Clark Gaither and his wife were lingering over cups of post-lunch coffee in the kitchen of their Clarksville farmhouse.

It was shortly after noon Nov. 23, 1962.

For crew and passengers on board United Flight 297, bound from Newark, N.J., to Atlanta, it was just another routine trip on a brilliant late autumn afternoon.

Traveling at 10,000 feet, the plane was preparing for a landing at Washington's National Airport, its only stop on its journey to Atlanta.

Air traffic controllers at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center and the Washington Approach Control Center radioed reports to Flight 297 that small flocks of large birds had been sighted by other pilots in the area.

At 12:20 p.m., the four-engine turbo-prop Viscount under the command of Capt. Milton J. Balog had been "handed off" from route control as it made its approach to Washington.

The plane responded to one approach order at 12:22 p.m. but not to another compass heading issued 3 minutes later.

Flight 297 was never heard from again.

Mrs. Gaither told The Evening Sun that she and her husband suddenly heard a "sound like a tractor motor choking."

Then there was a horrifying silence, she reported.

"We waited for [the engines] to come back on. It never did," she told The New York Times.

It was about that time that the plane suddenly vanished from radar screens and crashed into the dense woods of Homewood Farm, next to the Gaithers' farm.

"Then there were three thunderous explosions, and all we could see was smoke and flames," Mrs. Gaither said. "It was awful. I never saw such flames in my life. They went as high as the trees in the woods, and these are tall trees."

She added: "I don't know if there were any passengers, and if there were any, I don't know how they could have gotten out of that plane."

William S. Hebb was standing on his lawn less than a mile from the crash scene when he saw the doomed airliner.

"It came over so low I could read the name on the side," he told The Evening Sun.

Hebb told newspaper reporters that only two of the plane's engines were operating, and the craft seemed to be "fluttering."

"I realized he was in trouble," he said. "It flew fairly well for a few moments, then it nose-dived and went straight down. There was a terrific explosion, and I rushed to the scene."

Gaither raced from the kitchen, got into his car and sped to the crash site, but couldn't get near the airplane, which had came apart as it descended.

"But I'm staying in the house," his wife told reporters. "It's just too awful out there."

Celeste Lumpkins, caretaker of the Homewood Farm, was out hunting rabbits.

"The pilot raced his motor. It seemed like he was trying to get over the trees to the cornfield," Lumpkins told The Evening Sun.

"When he went to go up, I saw an object leave the plane. On the pilot's second attempt to lift the plane, the nose went up, the engines stopped and the plane went down," Lumpkins said.

There were no survivors. Thirteen passengers and four crew members died in the crash.

Bodies, luggage, shoes, magazines, seats, newspapers and paper cups were scattered over a 100-yard-wide debris field.

Torn clothing and fiberglass insulation from the plane -- strewn high in the treetops -- flapped in the soft autumn breeze.

The plane's tail section was found a quarter of a mile from the main wreckage.

Dr. Russell S. Fisher, Maryland's chief medical examiner, bent over and picked up a bracelet, a necklace and a pin, and put them in small plastic bags, along with other personal belongings of the passengers and crew.

The smell of burning foam rubber permeated the crash site as rescue workers and firefighters worked late into the night searching for bodies.

"As night fell, the wooded hollow took on the look of just what it had become -- an improvised graveyard, with black metal stakes dug into the ground to mark the spots where parts of bodies were found," wrote a reporter for a Washington newspaper.

Early in 1964, George Van Epps, chief of safety investigation for the Civil Aeronautics Board who headed the investigation, reported that the official cause of the accident had been a collision between Flight 297 and a whistling swan.

The CAB's investigation discovered a fragment of the swan lodged a foot deep into a stabilizer, which caused the pilot to lose control. The birds, which weigh between 11 and 14 pounds, nest in the Arctic and winter in the Chesapeake Bay area.


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