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56 Years On: The Structural Failure That Downed Braniff Flight 250

Braniff International Airways Flight 250 was a regularly scheduled flight between Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) in Louisiana and Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport (MSP) in Minnesota, with stops at the following airports:

  • Shreveport Regional Airport (SHV) Shreveport, Louisiana
  • Fort Smith Regional Airport (FSM) Fort Smith, Arkansas,
  • Tulsa International Airport (TUL) Tulsa, Oklahoma
  • Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport (MKC) Kansas City
  • Eppley Airfield (OMA) Omaha, Nebraska

Image: GCmaps.

The aircraft involved in the incident was a one-year-old British-built BAC One-Eleven with the registration number N1553. The flight’s cockpit crew consisted of 47-year-old Captain Donald Pauly and 39-year-old First Officer James Hilliker. Pauly was a highly experienced pilot with 20,767 flying hours, 549 of which were on the BAC-1-11. Hilliker was far less experienced, with 9,269 flying hours, of which 685 were on the BAC-1-11.

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The flight was on the fourth leg of its route

On Saturday, August 6, 1966, Braniff International Airways Flight 250 departed Kansas City on the fourth leg of its journey to Omaha at 22:55 on an Instrument Flight Rule Clearance (IFR) to climb and cruise at 20,000 feet. However, the crew did not like the look of the weather and asked permission to remain at 5,000 feet.

At 23:06, approval was given for the aircraft to descend from 6,000 feet to 5,000 feet. At 23:08, the pilots radioed another Braniff flight that had just departed Omaha to inquire about the conditions and was told that there was moderate to light turbulence. Around four minutes after speaking with the other Braniff flight, the aircraft entered an updraft on the edge of a line of severe active thunderstorms.

The tailplane and vertical stabilizer failed

As the plane accelerated violently upwards, the right tailplane and the vertical stabilizer failed. The aircraft then pitched nose down, and within a couple of seconds, the right wing had also failed. Now in a spin, the plane hurtled to the ground, crashing into a farmer’s field near Falls City, Nebraska. All 38 passengers and four crew members died in the crash. The incident marked the first-ever crash of a BAC 1-11 in the United States.

The investigation

Braniff regulations prohibited a plane from being dispatched to an area of active thunderstorms. However, the company’s forecast was inaccurate regarding the severity of the storms. Dispatchers knew that Braniff flight number 255 had departed Sioux City for Omaha one hour late to miss the storm. They also knew that flight 264 from St. Louis to Des Moines had diverted to Kansas City because of the storm.

Believing that the storm was too far away to affect flight 250, the crew was unaware of the severe weather and the actions of the other flights. However, as it became clear, the first officer suggested they divert, but the captain reportedly insisted on continuing to the edge of the squall line.

Conclusion

The probable cause of the crash was an inflight structural failure of the aircraft caused by extreme turbulence. The structural failure itself occurred while operating the plane in an area of avoidable hazardous weather.


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