LOWER TOWNSHIP — John Brier remembers yelling at somebody to put a match out as aviation fuel poured out of the commuter plane that had just crashed in the swampy woods short of the runway at Cape May Airport.
“I remember yelling at him, and then I must have passed out,” Brier said.
The Timber Lane resident was reliving a memory from a foggy night on Dec. 12, 1976, when he was a 36-year-old flight commander on the Atlantic City Airlines-owned commuter plane that ran between Philadelphia and the shore.
Steven Gross, a 20-year-old Maryland resident returning to his U.S. Coast Guard post in Cape May, had kicked out the emergency exits, managed to get out and lifted survivors onto the wreckage to get them out of the swampy waters near the Fort Apache Campground that were quickly filling with aviation fuel.
It was Gross who was lighting the match. He had soaked a paperback book in fuel and was lighting a torch to successfully signal a Coast Guard helicopter looking for the crash site. His actions likely saved the lives of several injured passengers.
Brier only recently learned about this from a group of volunteer firefighters in Erma working to preserve the memory of Allegheny Airlines Flight 977. The group has found the site, where the trees still bear the scars, and put up a plaque remembering the four who lost their lives and the six survivors whose lives were changed forever.
“May Flight 977, its crew and passengers, never fall from our memories,” reads the plaque.
The effort is led by John Piggott, an Erma firefighter and dispatcher for the Lower Township Police Department. An aviation buff, Piggott has studied the National Transportation Safety Board report and feels the pilots, Brier and Capt. Jon Scheaffer, 31, of Somers Point, who was actually piloting the plane going from Pomona to Cape May, have been unfairly blamed. Both were experienced pilots who landed at the Cape May Airport many times at night.
“They know a lot more about wind shear now. There were 20-30 mile per hour winds, dense fog and the ground crew at Atlantic City Airport in Pomona mishandled the luggage. The captain said they were fighting to keep the nose up the whole trip,” Piggott said.
It was one of the worst aviation disasters in Cape May County history, taking the lives of Scheaffer, retired Wildwood Crest Judge Maurice Hayman, his wife, Rita, and James Simmons, of West Wildwood.
The crash also left six survivors, some with serious life-long injuries. Brier spent the next year in the hospital and still suffers aches from the many bones he broke when the DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter crashed into the trees.
“I never went back. This happened and life goes on. I flew for another 15 years. The first time you throw the throttles forward you feel apprehensive. After that, it’s just like riding a bike,” Brier said.
Brier also had injuries to his shoulder, arm and face. He still has a scar on one finger and remembers that when he was on the stretcher somebody was trying to get the ring off it. He kept the ring but never did find out what happened to his watch.
He said he also remembers getting no attention at the hospital and finding out why.
“I heard somebody say don’t worry about him, he won’t make it through the night,” Brier said.
Piggott met Brier recently and was able to draw out some fuzzy memories. The most significant was not mentioned in the NTSB report.
“There was another airplane there shooting the approach, probably illegally. I occasionally see in my mind an airplane above us. The reaction is you don’t want to hit him, so go lower,” said Brier.
Did another plane drive them into the trees 3,900 feet short of the Runway 19?
While there is no record of another airplane in the air, a worker at the Wildwood water utility on Route 47 reported hearing the sound of intermittent airplane engines, which could have been two planes or one with engine issues. Brier said a weather observer at the airport said another plane went over the airport just before Allegheny 977 arrived. He theorized it could have been military.
Brier said he has “slight flashes of another airplane” but admits his memory is fuzzy and they “were in the soup” with almost no visibility. They couldn’t even land at the normal stop at Bader Field in Atlantic City due to the conditions and had to drop those passengers off in Pomona.
Even if another plane was in the air, Brier said Allegheny 977 should not have crashed.
“Obviously we were too low. We should never have hit the trees,” Brier said.
The NTSB blamed the pilots for “lack of altitude awareness” that brought the plane below a “safe approach profile” for landing. There was also debate on whether the altimeters were working properly.
The report also said visual references were degraded by fog while the airplane’s descent increased due to wind shear. An FAA meteorologist identified two distinct layers of wind shear in the area as a cold front replaced a warm front. It concluded wind shear probably induced a “higher than desired” rate of descent. The NTSB found the company had not provided the required training on wind shear.
Atlantic City Airlines was blamed for improper procedures on pilots calling out the altitudes on approach. Brier can’t remember if they did this or not.
It also blamed the forward center of gravity being off due to improper loading of luggage. The plane discharged five passengers in Pomona and all their baggage came from the rear compartment. All the baggage from the remaining passengers was left in the forward compartment, creating what the NTSB called “a forward condition.” The FAA received some blame for inadequate monitoring of weight and balance computations.
The last radio transmission from the Atlantic City Airlines station manager at Cape May Airport reported decreasing visibility due to fog and a low ceiling.
“Are you sure you want to give it a try?” he asked at 11:17 p.m.
Several minutes later he went outside and saw conditions were even worse. The one-mile visibility had dropped to half a mile. He said he didn’t radio Flight 977 again because it was already on its final circling approach. At 11:26 p.m. he heard explosions north of the airport.
At 11:40 the fog lifted and visibility increased to three to four miles as northwest winds at 20 to 30 knots arrived with the cold front.
Reporters from The Press of Atlantic City were at the scene and carried eyewitness accounts from survivors. They reported a series of collisions and noise as the plane hit the trees for about 10 seconds before the fuselage came to rest. Then there was yelling and screaming. The plane never did catch fire.
Steven Gross, 20, from Maryland, was so airsick during the turbulent ride that he had his head between his legs. He was relatively unscathed with only lacerations to the forehead and nose. Survivor James Daniels, of Avalon, was also airsick and had his seatbelt on tight and his head between his knees. He only suffered a scalp laceration.
“That’s probably what saved me,” Daniels said.
Gross said the plane kept gaining and losing altitude. He said the pilots blamed it on cold front moving into the area. The FAA said visibility was down to the one-mile safety minimum due to thick fog and a low cloud ceiling.
Scheaffer died instantly as the cockpit crashed in on him. Rita Hayman, 60, of Wildwood Crest, had no seatbelt on and died in the crash, while her husband, Maurice, 71, never regained consciousness and died one month later. They were returning from a vacation in Puerto Rico. James Simmons died two days later at Burdette Tomlin Memorial Hospital.
NTSB Identification: DCA77AA006
14 CFR Part 135 Scheduled operation of ATLANTIC CITY
Aircraft: DEHAVILLAND DHC-6, registration: N101AC
FILE DATE LOCATION AIRCRAFT DATA INJURIES FLIGHT PILOT DATA
F S M/N PURPOSE
3-4171 76/12/12 WILDWOOD,NJ DEHAVILLAND DHC-6 CR- 1 1 0 COMMERCIAL ATP,FLIGHT INSTR., AGE
TIME - 2326 N101AC PX- 2 6 0 COMMUTER AIR CARRIER 36, 7428 TOTAL HOURS,
DAMAGE-DESTROYED OT- 0 0 0 AIR TAXI-PASSG S-D 5200 IN TYPE, INSTRUMENT
NAME OF AIRPORT - CAPE MAY COUNTY
DEPARTURE POINT INTENDED DESTINATION LAST ENROUTE STOP
PHILADELPHIA,PA WILDWOOD,NJ ATLANTIC CITY,NJ
TYPE OF ACCIDENT PHASE OF OPERATION
UNDERSHOOT LANDING: FINAL APPROACH
COLLIDED WITH: TREES LANDING: FINAL APPROACH
PILOT IN COMMAND - MISJUDGED ALTITUDE
WEATHER - WIND SHEAR
MISCELLANEOUS ACTS,CONDITIONS - IMPROPERLY LOADED AIRCRAFT-WEIGHT-AND/OR C.G.
PERSONNEL - OPERATIONAL SUPERVISORY PERSONNEL: DEFICIENCY,COMPANY MAINTAINED EQPMT,SERVICES,REGULATION
WEATHER BRIEFING - UNKNOWN/NOT REPORTED
WEATHER FORECAST - WEATHER SLIGHTLY WORSE THAN FORECAST
SKY CONDITION CEILING AT ACCIDENT SITE
VISIBILITY AT ACCIDENT SITE PRECIPITATION AT ACCIDENT SITE
1 MILE OR LESS NONE
OBSTRUCTIONS TO VISION AT ACCIDENT SITE WIND DIRECTION-DEGREES
WIND VELOCITY-KNOTS TYPE OF WEATHER CONDITIONS
TYPE OF FLIGHT PLAN
REMARKS- LACK OF ALT AWARENESS DRG CIRCLING APCH.CG 4.6% MAC FWD OF FWD LMT.NO COMPANY PROC,ALT-CALLOUTS.