PSA 182: A Tragic Lack of Awareness

Suspense-Thriller author Jeb Bohn

By JEB BOHN

Monday, September 25, 1978, was a typical day in San Diego: warm and sunny, with clear skies giving around 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. Boswell has accrued just over 400 hours of flight time. To reinforce 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 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.

Collision Course

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 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

09:01:47

To prepare for the landing, the crew begins lowering the landing gear. Something outside catches First Officer Fox’s attention, as he’s heard saying, “There’s one underneath. I was looking at that inbound there.”

Eight seconds later, the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) picked up the sounds of a collision. At 9:01 and 47 seconds, the right wing of PSA 182 struck the Cessna, swatting it out of the sky. The debris of the small aircraft plummeted to the ground, the fuselage coming to rest on 32nd Street, killing both Kazy and Boswell. Steve Howell, a cameraman with San Diego’s channel 39, was attending an outdoor press event and captured footage of the Cessna falling from the sky.

The 727 has suffered extensive damage to its right wing; the strike ruptured the fuel tank in the wing and a fire breaks out. There’s also severe damage to the wing’s control surfaces, causing the plane to roll right. Captain McFeron alerts Lindbergh Tower that they’re going down as the crew struggles to gain control over the stricken aircraft.

In the end, their efforts prove fruitless.

At 9:02 and 7 seconds, just 20 seconds after impact, PSA 182 strikes the ground near the intersection of Dwight and Nile in the North Park area of San Diego. The crash kills everyone on board the jetliner as well as 7 people on the ground. Hans Wendt, a photographer with the San Diego County Public Relations Office, captured images of the doomed plane seconds before impact.

PSA 182
PSA Flight 182; photo by Hans Wendt (San Diego County Office of Public Relations)

It’s a terrifying image, one that truly conveys the hopelessness of the situation.

PSA 182: A Tragic Legacy

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the likely cause of the crash had been the PSA crew’s failure to establish and maintain visual separation with the Cessna. The report also noted that the crew failed to notify the tower controller that they had lost sight of the smaller aircraft. Had they done so, they could have taken corrective measures that would have likely averted this tragedy.

Air traffic control was also found to bear responsibility for instructing PSA 182 to maintain visual separation when radar could have been utilized to maintain separation. The NTSB also listed the Cessna’s deviation from its assigned heading, though only as a finding. NTSB member Francis McAdams felt that this was inadequate, believing that the course deviation played a much larger role in the collision and should be treated accordingly.

Because of the disaster, the NTSB issued a recommendation that Lindbergh Field be outfitted with a terminal radar system. This system would allow controllers to maintain separation of aircraft in the vicinity. This disaster was also one of several such accidents that led to the development and implementation of the Traffic Collision Alert and Avoidance System (TCAS). TCAS units—installed in every commercial aircraft—communicate with one another and, when they detect a collision is likely, issue both audible and visible warnings to the pilot.

If you would like to read the full CVR transcript, you can do so here.

To read the NTSB accident report, click here.

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