We’ll keep it brief this evening.
It was a foggy morning in New York City. Of course, its proximity to water means that fog is not an uncommon occurance. It’s just part of the deal. The morning of July 28, 1945 was no exception. Visibility in some places was near zero.
As the clocks rolled toward 10:00am, Lt. Col. William Smith was flying his B-25 Mitchell into foggy New York. More at home carrying bombs and bullets, the light bomber was instead carrying a couple of passengers on a routine transport mission from Boston. Seeking to land at LaGuardia Airport, Smith was advised by the tower that visibility was very poor.
Now soldiers, even those in the Air Force, spend their entire career taking orders. They’re told what to do, where to do it, and when to do it. And a soldier’s response is generally, “Yes, sir!” If a soldier fails to obey orders, they’re usually punished. In Lt. Col. Smith’s case, the control tower was not a superior officer. But a recommendation from the tower is, in my opinion, pretty much an order to be followed. I think it’s particularly true when the weather is bad and/or visibility is also bad.
Lt. Col. William Smith didn’t see it that way. But then, there were several things he didn’t see in the fog, one of which was the Empire State Building. Disregarding the tower’s warning, Smith attempted to land anyways, got disoriented, and flew his Mitchell into the upper floors of the Empire State Building’s north side. He and his two passengers were killed, as were eleven others in the skyscraper.
One of the miraculous survivors was Betty Lou Oliver, a 20-year old elevator operator on the 80th floor. Injured in the crash, she was put on an elevator to be lowered. But as the doors closed, the cables (now weakened) snapped, and she dropped 75 floors, where she crashed in the basement…and lived almost 70 years to tell the tale.
If I’m ever a pilot (and none of you have to worry, because I won’t be), I will always heed the control tower’s advice.
NOTE: Somehow, I got confused on the dates and neglected to publish this piece on time. My apologies.