John D. Murray: Fate of 76 lives in Captain’s hands

Capt. Murray

Capt. Murray

This article was previously published on November 11, 2011, soon after the launching of our memorial blog. Since then we have had 39,805 views from around the world. Early readers may have forgotten details of Captain Murray’s story. New readers may have missed it completely. He is the man who held our lives, and his own life, in his hands. Read his challenge.
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Captain John D. Murray, 44, of Oyster Bay, Long Island, knew 76 lives were at stake as he slowly brought down the Super Constellation in preparation for ditching in the howling winds and raging waves of the cold north Atlantic.

He faced a dilemma as he searched his way through the darkness: he could follow the recommended ditching strategy of putting the plane down between the troughs, or take advantage of the 50-knot winds at sea level, which would cut his landing speed in half. His challenge was to get the plane down, either way, in the dark, in a gale, with 20 foot waves and with no power left to recover for a second attempt if he didn’t get it right the first time.

The passengers were told to expect at least two skips as the plane skimmed across the wave-tops. Inside the cabin, the passengers felt only one. The crash felt as if the plane had made a classic belly-whopper landing. No skipping. It was a violent thud that broke open the hull and tore off a wing. In view of the conditions, the ditching was success, a combination of skill and miracle.

Reports of the ditching say the aircraft sank somewhere between two minutes and ten minutes, probably closer to the ten minute side.

Captain Murray hit his head on the control panel and was bleeding to the extent that he could hardly see. He made his way out and was most likely the last man out. He was very late getting to the raft. It was filled far beyond capacity. He was pulled in and he sat on the lap of a serviceman.

Evidently the crew was aware of a possible rescue ship, but thought it might be 12 hours off. An aircraft had been following the Flying Tiger right up to its contact with the waves. That aircraft, a US Air Force plane on its way from Prescott, Scotland to Nova Scotia had diverted in response to the SOS. Because it had been following so close, it knew the position of raft and soon began dropping flares to mark the location.

The lone life raft that was to hold all 51 survivors had accidently inflated upside-down. That caused the emergency lighting along the upper rim of the raft to glow deep into the black waters, making them totally useless. The emergency kit that contained first aid materials and a badly needed flashlight was out of reach as well. Those items were zipped in the raft’s emergency pouch which was now facing down into the water.

The raft drifted at a rapid clip for nearly six hours, covering about 22 miles in that time. Waves that seemed to glow in the dark splashed over the passengers, delivering a frigid chill every time.

Finally a rescue ship came into sight, the Celerina, a Swiss freighter. Due to the size of the waves, the recovery was handled with care. Rope ladders were thrown out to the raft and people began to cling to them. The crew pulled the ladders up with passengers clinging to them, taking them into safety. Captain Murray was again one of the last to get off the raft. When he had nearly reached the top, the ship pitched and he fell off, sinking into the dark waters along side of the raft. A trooper grabbed his life vest and pulled him back into the raft. He made it into the ship on his second try.

Capt. Murray at CAB

There have been many news stories about Captain Murray’s role in the recovery.

Murray at CAB Hearing

Capt. Murray at CAB

The Saturday Evening Post ran a photo feature that included a sketching of the jam packed raft being tossed among the waves.

Fortunately for the survivors, Captain Murray was a flying pro! Had he not been, the outcome might have been far more disastrous.

According the Civil Aeronautics Board report adopted September 10, 1963, Captain Murray had a total of 17,500 flying hours, of which 4,300 were in the L-1049 type aircraft. His last FAA first class physical examination was passed on June 16, 1962 (limitation – reading glasses). He had flown 247.4 hours (172.9 in L-1049s) in the last 90 days; 72.6 hours, 41.2 in L-1049s in the past 30 days; and had 33 hours of rest prior to the flight. He knew flying and he knew the L-1049.

About Fred Caruso

Survivor of the crash of Flying Tiger 923. at night, at sea, 500 miles off the west coast of Ireland, with 28 deaths and 48 survivors, September 23, 1962.
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2 Responses to John D. Murray: Fate of 76 lives in Captain’s hands

  1. Patricia Leonard says:

    I continue to be amazed at the many heroes that were present, Fred. Thank you for republishing Captain Murray’s story.

  2. P.-A. Reymond, Spain says:

    Thanks Fred for this excellent text. In my report (see under “Celerina”) I wrote some comments about John Murray :

    …. I attend to the aircraft’s Pilot who has a head wound. Soon he asks me if he can see our captain. I give him some rudimentary care and after he has rested a little, I go up with him on the bridge. No words are needed. The handshake of the two Captains is an emotional instant that reveals a lot about the thoughts of both men.

    …. Personally, I made friends with John Murray, the pilot of the Super-Constellation, who was 44 years old then. Together we discussed the difficult decisions he had to make when the accident happened. Particularly, he had to choose whether to ditch “with” the waves or “against” them. Landing “with” a wave is generally preferable on one hand, but in that case the wind carries the plane with less airspeed and the aircraft may “fall” too roughly. The pilot finally chose the last solution intuitively and he worked with the wind as far as possible until the impact. And if you had to do this over again? I asked. I would try to land as close as possible to a ship, he said, provided one could ascertain its position.
    This conversation has remained in my memory, even though communication between air and sea and rescue methods have made a lot of progress nowadays.

    Yes, he made an excellent job. Remember the state of the sea at the time of the ditching!
    Peter or Pierre, crew-member of the Swiss freighter Celerina .

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