Life raft story stirs reader responses

Super Constellation #N6923C - Photo by Ragnor Domstad, June 1961, on the tarmac of Gothenburg (Sweden) Torslanda airport.

Super Constellation #N6923C – Photo by Ragnor Domstad, June 1961, on the tarmac of Gothenburg (Sweden) Torslanda airport.

We were told repeatedly during the preparation drills, “The life rafts stored in both wings will eject and inflate automatically on impact..” If that were so, what happened to them?  

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A seasoned airman, Stef Ballis, wrote, “I flew and worked on Super Constellation N6922C, which was a sister ship of the ditched aircraft, N6923C. The answer to the question above is simple. The statements by the crew members were incorrect!

“I have a complete L-1049H Operations Manual issued in 1966 by Flying Tiger Air Services (a subsidiary of the Flying Tiger Line), which was basically a copy of the Flying Tiger Line manual. The manual reads:

‘There are four wing rafts, two in the left wing and two in the right. The wing rafts are released by pulling a ‘T’ handle, which is in the aft side of the window frame of the aft emergency exit over the wing. The ‘T’ handle is connected to both the inboard and outboard rafts on that side of the aircraft and when it is pulled out approximately 12 inches, it releases the locking pins on both the bin doors and opens the CO2 valve on the rafts.’

“I remember the T-handle that released the rafts.

“The exact reference is: Emergency Procedures/Ditching on Water/Launching Life Rafts, found on page 1.11.5.”

[The deployment of rafts was dependent upon human intervention.]

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From Pierre-Andre Reymond, a crew member of the rescue ship Celerina and a lifelong seaman and ship appraiser, we have a report on the subject of life rafts on FT923:

“Yesterday evening I had another look at the CAB Accident Report FT 923, File no. 1-0028, published by the Civil Aeronautics Board and released September the 13, 1963. Here are quotes as the report says it:

On page 10: Sometime before ditching, two soldiers-passengers, at the direction of the crew, removed the emergency life raft stowed in the crew compartment and placed it in front of the left rear main exit door where it was tied down.

Page 11: Just prior to ditching, the navigator went into the cabin and removed the tie down strap from the life raft.

Page 12: Immediately after opening the main cabin door, the navigator pushed out the life raft. Since the lanyard provided for the life raft’s retention was not tied to the aircraft nor was it held by the navigator when he launched the raft, it drifted away requiring him to jump into the water to retrieve and inflate it.

Page 13: In addition to the 25-man life raft stowed in the crew compartment, the aircraft carried four 25-man life rafts which were stowed in four compartments, two in each wing aft of the rear spar. A cable control, actuated by a handle located inside the jamb of of the aft over-the-wing exits, sequentially unlatches the wing compartments cover doors and opens the valves to the CO2 cylinder of each raft on that of the aircraft. As each raft inflates, it ejects itself automatically from the compartment. The stowed rafts in the in the left wing can also be released by actuating a lever in the cockpit. In addition to these releases there is a release mechanism on each wing life raft compartment. 

Page 14: The captain was asked the location in the cockpit of the release handle which actuates the life rafts stowed in the left wing compartments. He was not aware that there was such a handle in the cockpit. 

Page 14: None of the life rafts stowed in the wings was seen by the survivors during the evacuation; however all rafts were later recovered. There was no evidence that these rafts were used by any of the non-survivors.

Page 31: Failure of the left wing deprived the survivors of the life rafts stowed therein. Rafts on the right side were never seen by the survivors even though many exited through the right-over-the-wing exits. However these were later recovered and found inflated. The reason for loss of the right wing stowed rafts is not clear from the testimony. The difficulty in opening the right rear over-the-wing exit may have contributed to the problem. Extended operation of this airplane at low temperatures could have increased the inflation time for these rafts materially, resulting in the rafts not inflating in time to be useful.

Page 32, recommendations: The unavailability of the wing life rafts leads the Board to question the advisability of their being externally stowed. Their unavailability can be attributed to the loss of the left wing and/or in the increase in inflation time resulting from the decrease in the temperature of the CO2 after prolonged flight at high altitude.

“So here we are Fred… Where is the mistake? Where have been found the two rafts? Have they been examined? If so, by who? None of the survivors could see the rafts, but do they exist? And what about the raft found with the body of a stewardess?

In a second email on the same subject sent that same day, Reymond said, “I must say that if a raft is not attached with a line to the airplane or ship, the wind will blow it very quick and far away (my personal experience as ship officer). Also, a raft is not built to keep inflated until the eternity. It can be flat within 24 hours (my knowledge as a certified life raft operator).

To be clear, it seems that the airplane was not fitted with all the safety equipment. I also see that it was very embarrassing for the government. I have been reading the accident report and also question if there was more to the story.

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Comment by survivor Fred Caruso:

As a survivor and one involved with the right wing exit, I take issue with the statement on page 31 of the report, which says in part:

. . . The difficulty in opening the right rear over-the-wing exit may have contributed to the problem. . . .

I used the right rear over-the-wing exit for my escape. My eyes were fixated on that window. I was intent on being the first one out. Immediately after impact, I released my seat belt, jumped out of my seat, jumped over the broken seats in front of me, and tore that window out of the wall. I was out and I am pretty sure I was the first one. I don’t recall any problems in opening that window. There were no life rafts.

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Comment by survivor Paul Stewart:

Seeing this post [about the life rafts] brought back some memories of the crash. The stewardess’, after all of the ditching drills and instructions, moved some of the troopers to different seats. They moved me to an aisle seat over the right wing ( the 3 seat side) next to the rear exit, and gave instructions to the trooper next to the exit how to remove the exit window, and how to operate the manual pull handle that would automatically activate the rafts. These instructions were covered by the stewardess shortly before impact, and she took the middle seat.  She did not survive. Once in the water, as you know, this was an impossible task.

Having only one raft may have been a blessing. With only 20 to 25 people on a raft they could have been tossed from one side to the other, and the raft more than likely would have flipped over with the size of the waves.  There were numerous times I thought we were going to flip over, and as you know we were packed so tight, that there was no shifting of weight as were packed like sardines.

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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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3 Responses to Life raft story stirs reader responses

  1. Carol Gould Hansen says:

    The crew never said that the rafts would eject automatically, I know because I am one of the crew
    We told them that we would walk on the wing pull the raft compartment door open and pull the
    T bar and than the rafts would open. However, the wing brook off on impact and I had to jump
    into the ocean quickly to let everyone else out. Whoever said that we said the raft would open
    on impact is “wrong”
    Carol Gould Hansen
    Stewardess

    • Paul Stewart says:

      Carol, I can confirm that the stewardess did exactly as you said about removal of the window, and the T handle, as she was in the middle seat, and I in the aisle..

  2. Paul Stewart says:

    Fred, Thank you for all that you do to shed light on FT923. There would be many different views of the preparation, the crash, the raft, the rescue, but one common item that almost all would agree on – it was a miracle that anyone survived a crash in the north Atlantic during a storm. Thanks again Fred, and keep up the great work in progress.

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