San Diego Stories by Salvatore Filippone

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September 29, 2003

Remembering Flight 182

I was five when my family moved up to Mission Hills from the old neighborhood. I never thought about why. It just kind of happened. One day here, the other day there. It wasn’t too uncomfortable, except for the jump from immigrant ghetto to lower middle class. In late 1978, there was a big move of Italian families to Middletown, but the reason wasn’t economic. We spent our years down there looking up at the bellies of landing airplanes, probably not thinking about the worst, until the worst finally happened. On the morning of September 25, a plane fell from the sky, crashing a few miles away in North Park.

The plume of smoke was visible from our front porch. Thick and black near the horizon, thinning out and trailing off at the top. My mother grabbed us and headed over to the neighbors, down the street. As soon as we turned the corner, we saw folks outside their homes. It seemed like the entire neighborhood was there. All kinds of stuff going on for a curious five year-old me; folks excitedly pointing towards the smoke, shaking their heads in disbelief, other people with folded arms, with one hand covering their mouths. A neighbor had been at school, over at San Diego High, who saw everything. From that campus, one can see the planes coming from miles away, how high in the sky they are. Mikey explained, eyes wide, using his arm to illustrate the descent of the crippled plane, twisting it away and then down.

That one little pantomime is what sticks with me to this very day, whenever the crash is mentioned. It was probably the only action my five-year old mind could understand. The next day, I remember seeing the picture on the front page of the paper. We had a San Diego Union vending machine on the street corner, which we could see from the front window of the house. It was from there I saw the image of the doomed aircraft on the front page. Finally outside, I was able to study the image up close.

It looks the same today as it did then. The image is too revealing, too sad to look at, yet too powerful to ignore. It’s grainy, in that old, seventies Kodak sort of way. The plane is frozen in time, plunging towards earth, veering to the right, then down. The right wing is on fire, burning intensely. Its blaze emits a glow, casting an eerie orange against the fuselage that makes the letters PSA stand out. The landing gear is extended, as are the flaps and whatever else they could do to try and control that airplane. One could feel that the pilots were doing their best to regain control. Other images are said to exist that reveal frightened passengers looking out the windows.

Various reports about the crash exist that describe a mid-air collision between the Boeing 727 and a Cessna, in broad daylight. All agree that the two aircraft had failed to maintain visual contact. The Cessna was controlled by a student pilot, and was on approach to Lindbergh Field at the same time as PSA 182 was making final preparations to land. The Tower had radioed 182, informing them that the Cessna was ahead of them at a lower altitude. 182’s pilots confirmed visual and continue landing preparations, but somewhere along the way, lost the small plane. In the transcript, the PSA pilot asks if they’ve passed the smaller plane. The co-pilot confirms jokingly, adding, “I hope…” In the next few minutes, the two aircraft would collide. Flight 182 continued its descent as the Cessna ascended. It tore through the right wing, puncturing the fuel tank and fatally disabling the larger plane. The Cessna fell out of the sky, crashing close to the point of impact, while 17 seconds later, the PSA crashed about a mile or two away in a North Park neighborhood, wiping out about 22 homes. In total, 144 lives were lost. None of the people on board survived, and seven people on the ground were killed in the impact and resulting fire. In 1978, it was the worst air disaster to date.

We’d find out later that a friend of the family was on 182. She had swapped seats with a friend who worked for PSA. Mr. Corona was going to leave that morning for home, having worked the night shift at LAX. Desperate to get home to San Diego, Mrs. Vella asked Mr. Corona if she could get on the flight. Don obliged, giving up his seat and opting instead to drive down to San Diego. He’d hear the news report in the car, just 40 minutes later.

An acquaintance of mine lost his sister on that flight. I can’t imagine how rough it must have been their family. I’d later meet and become friends with his nephew Greg, who was but five when his mother died. I met Greg just after the 9/11 attacks, which he’d experienced right in lower Manhattan.

All this stuff mixes and tumbles around in my head as I write this. But I wonder…did the city change at all because of this?

The San Diego of 1978 and 2003 are light years away from each other. The accident gave airport opponents fuel to get the airport moved elsewhere, an argument that has been ongoing for at least 40 years, and is still ongoing. But only a few years after, the airport expanded by adding a new terminal, increasing the number of flights exponentially. As a matter of fact, development around the airport has increased, if anything, and a few landmarks are testament to that. I get nervous every time I see a plane land ‘too close’ to the roof of a certain parking garage on the corner of Kettner and laurel streets. If you were to sand at the highest point of the roof, you could probably tickle the belly of an aircraft with your index finger.

Downtown was a ‘sailor’s paradise’ in ’78: hookers, massage parlors, bookies, pimps, drug dealers, and u-name-it. In its place are hotels, restaurants, clubs, a convention center and a new ballpark. The tourism in the city has gradually increased yearly, thanks to events like the Super Bowl and Comic-Con, and attractions like the San Diego Zoo and Sea World. In the past 10 years, the airport has yet again expanded and begun including flights from Europe, and development in the city keeps going like nobody’s business. The San Diego of 1978 seems like a distant memory compared to today. But it should be remembered at least, as a time when San Diego was an innocent little navy town, when you could walk along the harbor and see 120 fishing boats docked and getting ready to go out for a month’s trip.

The anniversary of the accident passed silently the other day, with a little mention in the paper. The aerospace museum is marking the anniversary with an exhibit on the “Poor Sailor’s Airline” that began here at Lindbergh field so long ago. I’ll be going to pay my respects, to the smilin’ airline I loved so much as a boy.

Posted by sfilippone at 09:58 PM | Comments (8)