Reliving 1960 MoBay plane tragedy - Dudley Beek recalls how his father cheated death
Sixty years ago to the day, Victor Beek, the first commanding officer of the Jamaica Defence Force Air Wing and war veteran, had travelled to New York to participate in sporting competitions between Jamaicans living in the United States and their compatriots back home and was scheduled to return on a Lockheed L-1049E Super Constellation aircraft, but as his son, Dudley Beek, recalls, he missed the flight.
The decision was to be defining moment.
The Colombia-bound commercial aircraft Avianca Flight 671, on approaching the runway for a scheduled stop in Montego Bay and then Kingston, on January 21, 1960, reportedly made a heavy touchdown, bounced, then skidded down the runway in flames, before coming to a stop about 1,900 feet from the landing strip threshold.
Thirty-five passengers and two crew members died, including three Jamaicans. Only nine persons survived the most disastrous aviation accident in Jamaica’s history.
“I was about 12 years old – a young boy – but I remember that my father was in New York to come on that flight, but changed and came home the following day. We were happy when he missed that flight,” said Dudley Beek, owner and operator of Dustair Limited, which offers maintenance services locally and internationally and is based at the Ian Fleming International Airport at Boscobel, St Mary.
“At the time, he worked at the Ministry of Education, but he was an avid sportsman and was involved in several sporting disciplines, including football, cricket and later dominoes and would make regular trips abroad to participate,” he said of Victor Beek, who is now deceased, during an interview with The Gleaner last Thursday.
Shortly after take-off, one of the four engines failed and the flight diverted to Miami, where a replacement was fitted. However, more problems developed during a pre-flight test, and 46-year-old Richard Osler, the general manager of Caribbean Cement Company Limited at the time, and three other passengers decided against travelling to Jamaica on that flight.
Describing his experience to The Gleaner back then, the American engineer said the Avianca Super-Constellation airliner took off from Idlewild Airport at 10 a.m. on Wednesday on a direct flight to Montego Bay, but about 50 minutes or an hour out of New York, one of the four engines had to be feathered, and the flight was diverted to Miami. The Colombian city of Barranquilla was its intended final destination.
“We got into Miami about 4:30 p.m. and were told that there would be a delay for repairs. At 8 p.m., we boarded again, and the plane taxied to the end of the runway for take-off. But there was still some mechanical trouble and we had to return to the airport terminal,” he reportedly said.
“It was then I decided to leave the flight in Miami and make arrangements with BWIA to return to Jamaica.
“Three other passengers also left the flight in Miami,” he added.
The flight departed Miami for its first stop in Jamaica just after midnight with 39 passengers and seven crew members on board but crashed and exploded on the runway at 2:35 a.m.
According to reports, the Super Constellation burned for two hours, while the airport fire brigade and the Montego Bay Fire Brigade fought the blaze, after which police and civil aviation officials combed the wreckage where the gruesome sight of charred remains of human bodies, some seemingly trying to escape, but most still strapped in their seats, with hands covering their faces told a story of desperate attempts to fend off the flames, while others were thrown from the aircraft and into the swamp waters.
Four passengers and five crew members survived.
For Dudley Beek, who has at least four generations of pilots in his family, starting from his grandfather before he took the baton several decades ago, Jamaica is as prepared now as it was 1960.
He remembers like it was yesterday when an American Airlines plan overshot the runway at the Norman Manley International Airport in 2009, coming perilously close to plunging in the dark sea.
“We are ready and we were in readiness for the last one,” Beek told The Gleaner. “But an accident is an accident; we cannot prepare enough.
“You cannot predict every eventuality,” the Airports Authority of Jamaica (AAJ) board member added.
His vote of confidence is echoed by AAJ Chairman William Shagoury, who says the airports have state-of-the-art technology.
“We are well prepared,” Shagoury said in a telephone interview recently.
“We have the latest in fire equipment, all the latest gadgets to land without visual are in place, so you can land a plane at either of the airports even if the tower isn’t working. There is nothing more that we can do than to have the proper facilities in place to land the plane and to have sufficient runway just in case a problem develops. You have an extra 1,500 to 2,000 feet that the plane can stop,” he added.
That system is called a RESA – runway end safety area – and will be in place at local international airports, Shagoury said.
Work is scheduled to start on the runway at the Sangster International Airport anytime soon, he assured, while the NMIA should commence by next year, which was one of the conditions of the agreement with new operators Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico S.A.B. De C.V.