Monday, September 25, 1978, was a typical day in San Diego: warm and sunny with clear skies giving an estimated 10 miles of visibility. It was a perfect morning to fly. By day’s end, the city and the aviation industry would be forever altered.
Just Another Day
At Montgomery Field, a Cessna 172 Skyhawk takes off. Inside is Martin Kazy Jr., a certified flight instructor with over 5,000 hours of flight time. With him is David Boswell, a Marine Corps Veteran. Boswell is training for his instrument rating, a certification that would allow him to fly in conditions where a pilot must rely solely on his instruments as opposed to visual references. At this point, Boswell has accrued just over 400 hours of flight time. To re-enforce his instrument training, he wears a hood design to limit his field of vision and force him to use the Cessna’s instruments.
The pair are heading for Lindbergh Field, now known as San Diego International Airport.
Also destined for Lindbergh is a Boeing 727 operated by Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA). Flight 182 is a regularly-scheduled flight from Sacramento to San Diego with a stopover in Los Angeles. It’s a commuter flight and is carrying over two dozen PSA employees who are bound for the airline’s San Diego Headquarters.
Captaining the flight is James McFeron, a 17-year veteran with PSA. His first officer—and the pilot at the controls as Flight 182 nears Lindbergh) is Robert Fox. The third member of the cockpit crew is flight engineer Martin Wahne; there are 4 flight attendants and 128 passengers on board.
Just before 9 am, San Diego approach control notifies PSA 182 that they are approaching the Cessna. The controller relays the light aircraft’s relative position and altitude; once the first officer sees the Cessna, Captain McFeron makes the controller aware that they have the other plane in sight. The approach controller instructs PSA 182 to maintain visual separation and hands them off to Lindbergh Tower control.
During this time, the Cessna deviates approximately 20 degrees from its assigned heading. While this may seem small, the Cessna is now following the same heading as the 727. Tower control again alerts Flight 182 about the Cessna, though the positioning seems to throw the PSA crew off.
LINDBERGH TOWER: PSA one eighty-two, Lindbergh tower, ah, traffic twelve o’clock one mile a Cessna.
CAPT. MCFERON (said to cockpit crew, not transmitted to tower control): Is that the one we’re looking at?-excerpt from PSA Flight 182 CVR
The next transmission is was sealed the fate of both aircraft, their occupants, and several San Diego residents.
CAPT. MCFERON (to Lindbergh Tower): Okay, we had it there a minute ago.
LINDBERGH TOWER: One-eighty two, roger.
CAPT. MCFERON (to Lindbergh Tower): I think he’s passed off to our right.
LINDBERGH TOWER: Right.-excerpt from PSA Flight 182 CVR
At first blush, this seems straightforward, however, the recording of this conversation from Lindbergh Tower revealed that, through radio interference, tower control thought that McFeron had said “I think he’s passing off to our right.” While this looks like a slight deviation, the implications are far greater. When the tower controller heard “passing”, it implied that the flight crew had visual confirmation of the Cessna’s location. In reality, they didn’t. The Cessna was, in fact, directly below the much larger Boeing.
At 9:01 am, PSA 182 received clearance from Lindbergh Tower to land. Immediately following this, the crew continued to speculate on the location of the Cessna.
CAPT. MCFERON: Oh yeah, before we turned downwind, I saw him at about one o’clock, probably behind us now.-excerpt from PSA Flight 182 CVR