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History's Headlines: Cold War Crash

On the night of November 4, 1961 the scene at the home of Joseph J. Kobil Jr. at 348 West Street in Bethlehem was a combination of merriment and anxiety. As couples danced around the living room, others made their way toward three young men to wish them well. John Joseph III, 23, his brother Stephen Michael, 19 and their friend Leroy W. Kranch, were about to enter the army together. Their brother Ronald was already a paratrooper. Looking back on it their mother, Grace, noticed how odd and almost distant her son Joe seemed. “He kept coming back to me and hugging me and saying, ‘Just you see mom, I am going to come out a second looie (lieutenant)’” she recalled. “Work was hard to get. Joe had been unemployed for a good while. Stevie knew that in order to get a good job he had to get his service behind him. So Stevie decided to enlist in the paratroopers to be near Ronald. When he told Joe about this he decided to go too.”

Four days later, without hearing a shot fired in anger, all three young men would be dead, the victims of the crash of a loaded troop plane carrying 77 young men, 29 from the Lehigh Valley, outside of Richmond, Virginia.

Headlines in that fall of 1961 showed the U.S. faced a lot of challenges from Vietnam to Berlin. And nuclear weapons tests by the Soviet Union had the U.N. endorsing that week a joint U.S. and British proposal to begin talks to ban nuclear testing. “The Soviet Union tested while we were at the table negotiating with them,” President John F. Kennedy told a news conference on Wednesday, November 7. “If they fooled us once it is their fault. If they fool us twice it is our fault.” To prove they were not going be fooled the administration was asking for a $50 billion plus dollar defense budget.

On the next day, November 8, 1961 a plane chartered by the U.S. Army from Imperial Airlines took off from Newark, New Jersey. On board was a group of recruits and draftees from the New Jersey / New York area. Its next stop was Wilkes Barre’s Avoca airport to pick up the Lehigh Valley men. Then it was on to Baltimore. Their final destination was to be the boot camp at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

Not everyone was happy with the selection of Imperial Airlines as a choice. They had a spotty safety record and their planes were not well maintained. In the 1950s they had come close to having dangerous crashes. But for unclear reasons these objections were overruled or ignored. By the time the four engine Lockheed Constellation took off from Baltimore, darkness had fallen. But the occupants of the plane must have known something was wrong. Ten miles west of Richmond it began to experience engine trouble. By the time it limped over the Byrd Air Field two of its four engines were out and it was barely 700 feet above the ground.

A.P. Webb, customer service agent for Eastern Airlines, had gotten a false report in was an Eastern plane. “I watched it come over the tower and turn its final leg (for landing). It started to settle down into the trees just southeast of the field.” Then Webb lost his view as plane glided down below the tree line. Within minutes he saw the night sky glow pink and explode into what Webb called “a great ball of flame.”

Rescue teams rushed to the scene but the intensity of the heat was too strong. Finally around midnight two men in asbestos suits were able to approach the plane. The tail section was broken off at some distance. Hoping to find someone alive they approached the fuselage. No one was alive but Captain Ronald Conway, the plane’s pilot and flight engineer W.F. Paythess. Paythess was badly burned on his arms and legs. It was later discovered that most of the victims died from carbon monoxide poisoning before being able to escape the plane.

The account of the crash made headlines across the country. The late Jack Yohe, later executive director of the Lehigh Northampton Authority, was then an aide to Easton-area Congressmen Francis E. “Tad” Walter. A Congressman since the early 1930s, Walter had a lot of seniority in Congress in the House Judiciary Committee. Yohe recalls they were on a trip back to Easton on Wednesday night when they got word of the crash. “We turned the car right around and headed right back to Washington,” Yohe recalls. “Walter went right up to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He demanded an investigation of military charters, the nonskeds (nonscheduled) airlines.”

Soon three House committees were investigating the crash along with the Civil Aeronautics Board. There were hearings where Conway and Paythess testified. The research into the crash took up so much of Yohe’s time that he later became public relations director for the CAB. Among the things uncovered, according to Yohe, was that Imperial had substituted a cheap automobile part for a part required for the plane.

The CAB concluded that it was not just the parts problem that was to blame. The flight engineer had mismanaged the engines and had failed to recognize the problem until it was too late. “From a study of all the information,” concluded the CAB, “available to the board it is concluded that the flight crew was not capable of performing the function or assuming the responsibility for the job they presumed to do.”

The Board further concluded that the management of Imperial Airlines should have been aware of the manner in which company operations were being accomplished. It is believed that the substandard maintenance practices of Imperial’s employees were condoned by management. The manner in which maintenance and personal records were kept by the company confirms this conclusion.

Congress passed regulations to control the non-skeds, putting 20 of them out of business. By 1967 they were booming again thanks to the Vietnam War.

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