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The Crash of Linea Aeropostal Venezolana Flight 253

On June 20, 1956, Linea Aeropostal Venezolana (LAV) Flight 253, a Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation, caught fire and plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean 32 miles off Asbury Park.  Flight 253 was a regularly scheduled passenger flight from Idlewild International Airport, N.Y. (today known as John F. Kennedy International Airport), bound for Caracas International Airport, Venezuela.  All 74 aboard were killed; at the time, it was the world’s deadliest disaster involving a scheduled commercial flight.  However, its death toll would be surpassed only ten days later.

The Super Constellation was an elegant four-engine, three-tail commercial jetliner produced between 1943 and 1958.  It was the first pressurized commercial aircraft and the first to have a nose wheel.  The “Connie” had a complicated start, with three accidents in its first ten months of commercial operation, related to the four-engine array, creating a legend that baptized this aircraft for a long time as “the most beautiful trimotor in history,” since it was said that at least one of its four engines always failed.

LAV Flight 253 departed Idlewild on time at 11:15 p.m. on June 19.  A little over an hour later, around 12:20 a.m. on the 20th, 250 miles east of Norfolk, Va., Commander Luis Francisco Plata reported that engine number 2 had overspeed problems.  Shortly thereafter, the pilot declared an emergency as they were unable to “feather” that engine, that is, to rotate the propeller blades so that they did not exert force on their turn.  The pilot requested and received permission to turn the plane around and return to Idlewild.  After receiving permission to make an emergency landing at Idlewild, two nearby aircraft, an Eastern Airlines commercial jetliner, and a Coast Guard plane, both monitored LAV Flight 253 as it headed toward Long Island.

At around 1:25 a.m. the plane was off the coast of New Jersey when the crew received permission to drop fuel into the sea, to lighten the airplane for landing.  Shortly after starting the fuel dump, observers from both escort aircraft reported seeing the streaming fuel catch fire and erupt in a large fireball.  The Super Constellation then turned sharply to its right in a 90-degree bank, followed by a gentle left turn, and hit the sea, exploding instantly.  It was barely 10 minutes away from the airport.  None of its occupants survived.

Where did that fire come from?  

A fuel dump (officially known as fuel jettison) is typically a safe procedure, and one that is only done for good reasons.  Certain airplanes are designed to be significantly lighter when landing than when taking off.  When a plane lands heavy, it’s very easy to hit the ground too hard and cause damage to the aircraft.  In most cases, the burning of hundreds of thousands of pounds of fuel while in flight takes care of the matter, but when a plane such as LAV Flight 253 has to turn around after just one hour, dumping fuel may be necessary to ensure a safe landing.

The spilled fuel, however, does not ignite all by itself.  In addition, the witnesses on the nearby escort planes saw the fuel from LAV Flight 253 catch fire on the opposite side of the plane from that of the overspeeding engine.  

Investigators concluded that the vibrations of the number 2 motor caused damage to the wing on the opposite side, between the fuel tank and the fuel discharge device, fracturing the wing such that fuel came out through the fractures and in contact with the vapors of engine number 3.  Although this explanation could not be determined with absolute certainty, it was the conclusion that closed the file.

Linea Aeropostal Venezolana’s Flight 253 would go on to have further tragic bad luck.  On November 27, 1956, just a few months after the accident off Asbury Park, another Super Constellation designated LAV Flight 253 once again departed Idlewild for Caracas International Airport, but crashed into the mountains near Caracas in what was deemed pilot navigation error.  All eighteen passengers and seven crew members died.

LAV Flight 253 - the one that crashed off of Asbury Park - was the world’s deadliest disaster involving a scheduled commercial flight at the time.  But it would not hold that distinction for long.

On June 30, 1956, just ten days after the first LAV Flight 253 disaster, a TWA DC-7 and a United Airlines Super Constellation collided over the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  All 58 on the UA flight and all 70 on the TWA flight died.  It was impossible to determine with certainty why the pilots did not see each other in time, but evidence suggested that it resulted from any one or a combination of factors: Intervening clouds reducing time for visual separation; Visual limitations due to cockpit visibility; and/or, Preoccupation with normal cockpit duties.  This is the accident that led to the adoption of the Air Route Traffic Centers that track planes across the country, and the formation of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Sources:

74 Killed as Venezuelan Airliner Dives in Flames into Ocean off Asbury Park.  (1956). Trenton Evening Times, June 20, 1956, P. 1.

Accident Details.  http://www.planecrashinfo.com/1956/1956-27.htm

McGrath, Jane.  (2011).  “Do airplanes routinely dump their fuel before landing?” HowStuffWorks.com, March 7, 2011.  Available: <https://science.howstuffworks.com/transport/flight/modern/planes-dump-fuel-before-landing.htm> 17 June 2020

Rebes, Jose Maria.  (2013).  Línea Aeropostal Venezolana, Vuelo 253, año 1956.  Available: http://www.aviationcorner.net/view_topic.asp?topic_id=10401

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