“Then I had an inspiration.
I went back to the cockpit for a flashlight. By that time
the water in the cabin was waist deep.
No one else was in the plane. Again at the back door,
I was swept out to sea by a wave.” — Capt. John D. Murray
The fate of 51 passengers in a 15-foot wide, rubber life-raft, built for 25, was at stake. One simple flashlight helped guide spotter planes and the Swiss freighter Celerina to the critical point of interception and rescue. Gale force winds swept the craft without a sail some 22 miles over six hours. Three died in the raft as it tossed and turned relentlessly while awaiting rescue.
The tragic situation was complicated further by a chance act of fate. The lone life-raft had inflated upside down. Survivors started piling in long before anyone noticed the error. Once it was discovered, no one was willing to get out to turn the raft right side up. Everyone would have to get out in order to do such a thing. Many could not get out regardless of the fact that their life might depend on it.
This unfortunate situation meant that the raft had no emergency lighting at all. The emergency lighting that rimmed the top edge of the life raft was facing down into the frigid sea. The raft’s emergency kit, which included a flashlight and emergency flares, was zipped into the pouch on the floor of the craft. The floor of the raft was facing down as well, and no one would ever consider swimming under the overcrowded raft in an attempt to retrieve it.
There was no light at all in the pitch black sea, except for one flashlight picked up in a last minute action as the sinking Flying Tiger disappeared into the raging water.
Capt. John Murray told reporters when the rescue ship reached Antwerp, Belgium, that the aircraft was completely vacated within minutes after the ditching. He checked all of the emergency exits and all of the seats he could see as he waded down to the rear hatch.
“Then I had an inspiration.” He told reporters, “I went back to the cockpit for a flashlight. By that time the water was waist deep. No one else was on the plane. At the back door again, alone, I was swept out to sea by an ice-cold wave.” Murray had to swim hard to find the raft, for at least ten minutes, and by all reports he was the last person pulled into the raft.
Once in the raft, a paratrooper, Pvt. Joe E. Hoffer of Birmingham, Alabama asked if anyone had a flashlight.
Capt. Murray told reporters: “The raft was so crowded that it took me several minutes to get it out of my pocket because of the people piled on my lap.” He himself was seated on someone else’s lap. They were all wedged together in sardine fashion and any movement was an ordeal.
Murray went on to say, “That torch brought to us the rescue ship Celerina.”
Months later, at Idlewild Airport in New York City (now Kennedy Airport) the Federal Aviation Administration took note of the dire situation of the survivors of Flying Tiger 923 owing to the lack of emergency lights of any kind and ordered a number of changes for the sake of aviation safety. Among them were:
1 – life rafts would be required to be reversible with rim lights visible and emergency kits accessible from both sides.
2 – individual life vests from then on would include their own lighting so floating passengers could be spotted.
At that time, in late 1962, commercial US airlines did not require individual life-vest lights. According to a story in the New York Times, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recommended in 1957 that all individual life vests have “a means of electric illumination” as standard equipment.
But the United States Government exercised its prerogative of disagreeing with the requirement. Under the rules of the ICAO – a United Nations specialized agency with 98 members – the United States thereby was freed from any obligation to comply with the recommendation.
A spokesman for the agency said he knew of no other country that had similarly taken issue with the recommended safety standard.
The Times newspaper report noted that the country’s two largest international lines, Trans World Airlines and Pan American Word Airways, had no individual life-vest lights. Among others who did not were Eastern, National and Northeast Airlines.
Although individual life-vest lights were not required for U.S. Aircraft in 1962, the Times noted that two major US lines with over-water routes had lights on individual crew and passenger vests. They were Northwest Airlines and United Air lines. All Air Force planes by then had lighted life-vests on all over-water runs. The military life-vests also had whistles, dye marker and shark repellent.
An unnamed spokesman for the Federal Aviation Agency at the hearing explained the agency’s disinclination to require life-vest lights this way:
“When the ICAC recommendations were made in 1957, Government officials felt there was no light available that met what were considered minimum requirements.”
[editorial comment: What if President John F. Kenney said, “we cannot go to the moon by the end of the decade,” simply because there was no practical means possible considering our present state of scientific knowledge.]