ARLINGTON, Va. (AFNS) --
Sixty years ago on Sept. 23, 1962, Flying Tiger Flight 923 took off from Gander, Newfoundland, headed for Germany. Seventy-six souls boarded the aircraft, but only 48 survived when the plane went down approximately 500 miles off the coast of Ireland.
With freezing temperatures and waves over 20 feet high, the story of the survivors has impacted not only members of the U.S. Air Force but those in the civilian aviation world as well. The event has even brought changes to air safety itself. Yet, many service members know very little about the heroes and how their actions ensured such a high survival rate when all the experts expected no survivors.
There was no warning; nothing to indicate Flight 923 would be anything but normal. All of that changed when engine No. 3 caught fire. The flight crew was able to extinguish the flames, but more trouble lay ahead — and they knew it. Almost immediately, engine No. 1 had to be shut down because a bad propeller would spell disaster for the flight. The crew had no other choice but to tell the passengers to prepare for a compromised landing when the time came. As the flight continued, everyone on board began to realize reaching land safely was not going to happen.
Life jackets were passed out and put on. Instructions were given on what to do when the plane ditched into the water. According to manuals, the plane would skip along the water’s surface and stop, and then the passengers would walk onto the wings and climb onto one of the five life rafts.
After this, a loud thump was heard by all; engine No. 2 caught fire and then went silent.
The plane started to plunge. All the lights went out. The end was near.
Because of the 20-foot waves and 50-mile-per-hour winds, the crash was violent. Instead of skipping on the water, the aircraft's hull was torn open, and the right wing was shorn off. The winds were so powerful that four of the five life rafts blew away.
Yet, no one seemed to panic—those healthy enough to walk moved towards the emergency doors and jumped into the freezing waters.
Fifty-one people crowded into the last 25-person raft; in the chaos and darkness, it had been mistakenly inflated upside down, so there was no access to potable water, flares, or medical supplies. Though no one remembers exactly how long it took for the plane to sink, after 15 minutes, it had disappeared entirely. No other survivors could be seen other than those on the raft. For the next six hours, they were driven by fierce winds and continuously soaked by freezing waves while huddled together. Finally, the raft of survivors would travel another 22 miles, lost at sea, and invisible to the dozens of aircraft racing to the scene or orbiting above. Sadly, three of the 51 on the raft would not live to see rescue.
Before going down, the captain of Flight 923 was able to send off an SOS call intercepted by a Swiss freighter ship, the MS Celerina. Assisted by flares dropped by two aircraft that also heard the SOS and diverted their course, the Celerina was able to bring all 48 survivors aboard. They were safe, warm and taken care of for the remaining journey to land. The storm that made their landing so deadly continued, which delayed their journey. However, after three days aboard the Celerina, the seas calmed, and the remaining crew and passengers finally made it to land in Belgium.
Capt. John Murray was a World War II pilot who never thought his most difficult flight would take place after the war.
The 44-year-old pilot could not brace: he needed to try and steer the shuddering, unbalanced 72-ton aircraft traveling at 120 mph. Despite being knocked unconscious when his head slammed into the control panel upon impact with the ocean, bleeding to a point where he was unable to see, and with the water inside the plane up to his chest, Murray made sure all the 75 souls on board were off the plane – alive. Then, out of instinct, he went back into the cockpit to grab a flashlight. During a brutal swim to the raft, he rescued a teen newlywed. Weak from the hours-long ordeal in the air and sea and losing a lot of blood, he had to be pulled into the raft by the other survivors. He was the last aboard the aircraft.
His last-minute thought before the plane sank ended up saving everyone. After hours afloat, the captain of the Celerina saw the lone beam of light and knew there were survivors.
“If not for that flashlight, no one would have found us,” said Carol Ann Gould, Flight 923 flight attendant.
Gould was supposed to have the day off, but Flight 923 needed an additional flight attendant to accompany the 68 servicemen and their family members. At 22 years old, she would be the only cabin crew member to survive. As many of the survivors would later recall, Gould’s relaxed, calm demeanor helped them prepare for and survive the crash. Knowing that the inevitable would happen, she had a comforting smile and reassured the passengers their captain was the best pilot to handle this situation.
Gould did not secure herself for the crash until she confirmed that every passenger was buckled in and in the proper crash position. She was the very last one to prepare, just mere moments before the plane went down. Immediately after impact, she got up and started leading the passengers out of the plane. She went back and forth, getting everyone she could out. Finally, she was pushed out of the aircraft by a Soldier who told her there were no more people she could help.
After she was pulled onto the raft, Gould started helping take care of the wounded and making sure she spoke to all of them on the raft. To keep hopes high, she led them in song. She never stopped until they were finally rescued. Even in her exhausted state, once on the Celerina, she continued to talk with the passengers until they were all safely back on shore.
Capt. Juan Figueroa-Longo, a physician, was supposed to be on vacation with his wife, Carmen, but instead, the OB-GYN became the emergency doctor who made sure everyone who could survive, did. With the assistance of Gould, while on the raft, Figueroa dealt with hundreds of life-threatening injuries, including severe aviation fuel burns, deep cuts, broken bones, hypothermia, and, most importantly, shock. He did so despite having lost his glasses in the crash. He also received assistance from Senior Master Sgt. Peter Foley, a reporter for Stars and Stripes.
"I guess it was a sense of duty that kept me going,” Figueroa said in an interview. “It was something that had to be done.”
The U.S. Air Force played a vital role in the rescue from start to finish. Lt. Joe Lewis found the raft while piloting his checkout flight out of Scotland; Figueroa tended to those on the raft; and Capt. John Riddle raced from Châteauroux Air Station, France, to meet the Swiss ship when it arrived in Antwerp. Riddle was put in charge of ensuring all survivors were adequately taken care of.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1991, then-Maj. Gen. Riddle shared how meeting and helping the survivors altered his life.
“It forever changes your perspective on life,” Riddle said. “I had to be the first step in trying to help these people take the first step in getting their lives back after such a devastating event. Some lost spouses and friends. For the rest of my career, and even today, I cannot imagine the pain they went through not only at that moment but for the rest of their lives.”
The lost ones
Though Flight 923 is a story of survival, there were 28 people who lost their lives that day. Included were 17 members of the military, five crew members, and six family members, including two children who died with their mother on their way to join their father and husband, who was stationed in Germany.
Lt. Col. George Dent sat crowded on the raft with the other survivors, all but six feet away from his wife, Elizabeth. He panicked when on the raft and called her name but was relieved to hear her respond. However, when the survivors were being pulled onto the rescue ship, he discovered she was one of three who had died of their wounds while on the raft.
Most of the military members lost that day were U.S. Army combat paratroopers. Some as young as 18 were heading to their first duty assignment. Others were mid-level noncommissioned officers, as well as one officer.
Back in the cities and towns where each of the lost came from, the pain was hard on all. Like the survivors, their lives were changed forever.
The lessons learned
Flight 923 is not only a story of survival and loss; it also brought changes to the way water landings are governed today. As evident with U.S. Airways Flight 1549, which landed on the Hudson River in 2009, ditching an airplane on smooth water and close to shore is one thing, but when it is not smooth and far from land, Flight 923 led to essential safety improvements.
The Coast Guard was key in using the example of Flight 923 to push for changes in water rescues of downed aircraft. They pushed for laws that mandated reversible rafts on aircraft. More importantly, all rafts and life jackets now have lights on them so they can be seen by ships and passing aircraft.
Other rules and regulations that can be traced to Flight 923 include improvements to the black box digital recorders and better deicing procedures.
The best lessons learned that day were exemplified through Murray, Gould, Figueroa, and the other survivors who helped each other out of the plane and onto the only raft. The lessons of heroism under pressure and saving others before caring for oneself still resonate today. The Air Force is founded on the virtues of integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do – these heroes, whether Army, former or current Air Force or civilian, exemplified what it means to be a wingman.
Flying Tiger Flight 923 may not be a well-known story; however, it is a story military history should never let die. As the Air Force celebrates its 75th anniversary, now is the best time to look back and reflect on aviation moments like this.
Note: Information for this article was made possible by an interview with and from the book “Tiger in the Sea,” written by Eric Lindner, who is Capt. Murray’s son-in-law. To honor Murray, Lindner made it his personal goal to tell the story of Flight 923. He also was able to interview some of the survivors and share their stories in the book.