Tuesday, September 9, 1969, dawned bright and clear in Indiana. It was a beautiful day for a flight, or so thought pilot-in-training Robert Carey. Despite an increase in cloud coverage as the day wore on, Carey made the fateful decision to forge ahead with his flight plans. Little did he know that his small Piper Cherokee plane would become entangled in the worst commercial airline disaster in Indiana’s history.
Carey, a Korean War veteran and former aircraft mechanic with the United States Air Force, had always yearned to fly. He had begun taking lessons in New Hampshire before moving to Indiana. Once settled in Indianapolis, Carey enrolled in an advanced pilot training course at Brookside Airport. He had already passed the FAA written exam and was working on amassing the required number of solo flight hours to become a licensed pilot.
Carey had watched the cloud cover increase throughout the morning hours, but the visibility remained within safety limits. Therefore, he made the fateful decision to drive out to Hancock County to Brookside Airport and begin his planned flight. His plan was for a quick trip to Columbus and had filed his flight plan accordingly. Shortly after 3 PM, Carey took flight.
Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Allegheny Airlines Flight 853 from Boston had made its final stop en route to Indianapolis with 78 passengers and four crew. The DC-9 commercial aircraft was piloted by Captain James Elrod of Plainfield, Indiana. Captain Elrod was an experienced pilot who had been flying airplanes for over twenty years. It was about 3:30 PM when air traffic control indicated to the pilot that he should begin his descent.
Both aircraft were oblivious to the other’s presence. Radar at the time was too weak to pick up the small plane. Those technical limitations, coupled with the absence of Federal Aviation Regulations that might have required a system for separating commercial planes from smaller aircraft, resulted in a deadly combination.
What happened next is largely speculation. The DC-9 began its descent, dropping altitude to prepare for landing. As it reduced altitude, the plane maintained a speed near 350 mph. Then, suddenly, there was an impact. Witnesses would later state that they had seen no pre-impact diversion attempts, indicating that neither plane likely spotted the other until mere tenths of a second before the collision.
The small plane was struck on the pilot’s side, killing him instantly and shearing the plane in half. The impact tore off the tail assembly of the DC-9, causing it to invert and plummet towards the ground at a speed near 400 mph. The plane crashed in a Shelby County soybean field, shattering into thousands of pieces spread over a ½ mile. The pilot of the DC-9 somehow miraculously avoided landing in a nearby trailer park, just 100 yards north of the crash site. Everyone aboard the plane died.
Sadly, airplane crashes were all too common mid-century, as safety standards were still in their infancy. In fact, on the same day in Eastern Columbia, another plane crash killed 32 passengers. The horrific nature of the Allegheny Airlines crash led to an increased demand to improve air safety that would eventually lead to much safer skies.