For many of the passengers on Imperial Airlines Flight 201/8, it was the first time they had ever been on a plane. Airline tickets weren’t cheap in 1961, but Uncle Sam was picking up this tab.
Michael McAllister was onboard. “Big Mike,” everyone in his family called him. He was 18 years old and 6-foot-2 and lived at North Capitol and W streets NW. “It was kind of like his dream to join the Army,” said his little sister Paula Kirk. Big Mike had arranged for his pregnant wife, Charlene, to move to Brooklyn with her mother. On Nov. 8, 1961, he caught a bus to Baltimore, where he was sworn in as a private at Fort Holabird.
With 11 other new recruits from the Washington area, Mike waited to board the chartered Lockheed Constellation that would take them to basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. The plane had already made two stops that day, picking up enlistees in Newark and Wilkes-Barre, Pa. At 8:30 p.m., it lifted off from Baltimore’s Friendship International Airport.
The Constellation had four propeller engines, and all day they had been balky. There had been an odd drop in fuel pressure in the No. 3 engine, and the crew had adjusted the fuel flow in an attempt to deal with it. Somewhere over Washington, engine No. 3 cut off, then No. 4. The crew, under the command of Capt. Ronald Conway, tried in vain to restart the engines. Conway feathered the props on the two right-side engines and diverted the stricken plane to Richmond’s Byrd Field.
On the first attempt to land, the crew realized the plane was coming in too high. As the pilot pulled the plane up and started a go-around to Runway 33, the No. 1 engine stalled. Pine trees loomed in the windshield.
Only the sketchiest details of the crash appeared in newspapers the next day, but the front page of The Washington Post on Nov. 10, 1961, told the sad story: “Airliner Crash Dead at 77; 12 Were Area Army Recruits.” Only the pilot and flight engineer survived, after scrambling through the broken windshield.
“I remember my mother sobbing,” Paula said. “I remember her crying, saying, ‘Oh, my God, it can’t be.’ ”
Her parents, Charles and Mary, shielded Paula and sister Phyllis from the details of the crash, but in the years since, Paula did her own research. She discovered that the airline had numerous safety violations. She learned that the coroner determined that most of the passengers had survived the crash, only to be overcome by smoke and flames.
The Civil Aeronautics Board blamed the flight crew, which had mismanaged the engines. In testimony, a mechanic admitted that when he couldn’t find the right-size part for one of the engines, he’d installed an automobile part he had cut down to size with a hacksaw. An investigation by Time magazine found that “non-scheduled” airlines such as Imperial — lowest bidders eager for military contracts — had abysmal safety records.
“I am 63 years old, and it is just as difficult today as it was back in 1961,” Paula said.
Michael McAllister was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Paula lives outside Dover, Del., where she’s a civilian employee of the Navy. “I know of all the support and assistance that’s provided when a death occurs of an active-duty military person,” she said. “That support just did not exist back in the ’60s, at least not that we were aware of.”
On the 50th anniversary of the crash of Imperial 201/8, she hopes people will remember her brother and the other passengers, taken before they’d even had a chance to serve their country. “I would really like to see a memorial built in their honor,” she said.
Alexandria’s Robert Vernon Poole, 26, left behind a 4-year-old son. Donald Leon Essex, 20, went to Spingarn. James Leon Harris, 18, lived on G Street NE. Reginald Gilbert Shelton, 21, was a bindery helper at the Government Printing Office. Samuel McGhee, 18, played guard on the Phelps Vocational High football team. Bernie Abraham Collins, 19, also went to Phelps. Charles L. Decoteau turned 18 on the day of the crash. Maurice H. Davis, 18, ran track at Dunbar. Michael Crissey Dash, 18, hoped to get an appointment to West Point. Peter Steve Georgopoulos, 22, was born in Greece and graduated from Roosevelt High. Joseph Eugene Rosenberger was from Arnold, outside Annapolis.
And Michael Edward McAllister was known as “Big Mike.”
Paula would like to connect with family members of other victims. E-mail me at email@example.com.