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Disaster in Shelby County

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An investigator, with a cigarette hanging from his lips, reaches down for something atthe crash sceneduring the investigation.
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The crash of Allegheny Airlines flight 853 and a small Piper Cherokee plane left a gruesome scene by all accounts at the Shady Acres Trailer Park off London Road in northwestern Shelby County on Sept. 9, 1969. Debris was scattered throughout the area, including the road leading to the trailer park that is marked, on the right, with a “Watch for Children” sign.
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This photo of a slideshow presentation by Robbie Stonebraker shows what the DC-9 aircraft looked like in 1969.
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This photo of a slide for presentation shows the Piper Cherokee that collided with Allegheny Airlines flight 853 on Sept. 9, 1969.

By JEFF BROWN - jbrown@shelbynews.com

As the 50th anniversary date approaches of the Allegheny Airlines crash in northwestern Shelby County, locals have recalled what they saw on Sept. 9, 1969, when a small plane collided with a DC-9 passenger jet on approach to what is now Indianapolis International Airport.

The sight was surreal. Two planes touching at approximately 2,500 feet with the DC-9 traveling at 350 miles per hour. 

Robert Carey left Brookside Airpark near McCordsville at 3:11 p.m. headed south for Columbus. A student pilot, Carey had passed his FAA written examination and was nearing qualification for his private license. 

Small planes like the Piper Cherokee that Carey was piloting that day often did not appear on radar at the Indianapolis airport – a fact noted in the investigation and later proven true.

Allegheny Airlines captain James Elrod and co-pilot William Heckendorn arrived in Boston, Massachusetts on Sept. 8 with a call-to-duty of 11 a.m. the next day for a routine flight to St. Louis, Missouri, with stops in Baltimore, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.

Flight 853 arrived in Cincinnati but had its departure delayed to accommodate a group of TWA passengers. Flight 69 to St. Louis was delayed. So TWA offered its passengers the option of boarding the Allegheny Airlines flight – 38 passengers made that decision to switch planes.

A total of 15 minutes was needed to load the passengers and prep flight 853 for departure. Any one of those minutes could have made a difference once the plane reached Shelby County.

The control tower at Indianapolis cleared Elrod to bring flight 853 down from 6,000 feet to 2,500 feet as it prepared for arrival. Carey’s small plane was not visible on radar.

Flight 853 confirmed acknowledgement of the clearance to descend and it was noted at 3:29 p.m. The DC-9 jet then disappeared off radar. 

There is evidence Elrod saw the Piper Cherokee for a split second. He uttered “I’m going down,” as the impact happened. Not aware the much larger plane was in front of him, Carey’s plane collided with the airliner’s vertical stabilizer. The small plane was sheared in half killing Carey instantly, according to the National Transportation and Safety Board report.

The tail assembly of the DC-9 was destroyed leaving the jetliner nearly uncontrollable. The report concluded it went nose down into the soybean field about 100 yards from the nearby trailer park. The force of the impact at nearly 400 miles per hour shattered everything into little pieces. 

Debris from the plane littered the trailer park and damaged several trailers but there were no casualties as a result. A school bus had stopped to let children off when debris started falling all around it. 

The scene was graphic. Jet fuel permeated the air. Debris billowed in trees. Mail being transported on the DC-9 fell everywhere. 

Nearly 20 miles from Shelbyville, first responders took several minutes to get on scene and secure the area. Once it was determined there was no salvageable life, the investigation commenced.

Body parts were collected feverishly for removal to a makeshift morgue at the National Guard Armory, which was located on East Washington Street. The challenge was nearly impossible to identify what remains were brought from the scene.

From the Sept. 9, 1969 edition of The Shelbyville News, Shelby County Coroner Dr. Paul Inlow indicated there are “no whole bodies” among the plane victims.

Only Carey was found intact in his plane which dropped straight to the ground after the impact.

The Shelbyville media was barraged with calls asking for information, both in print and radio. Site cleanup continued for days.

From the Sept. 10 edition of TSN, “Shelby County morticians banded together in a group to help in any way possible. Offers of help came from casket firms, insurance firms and others. Plastic bags provided by KCL Corp. were sent to the crash site for use in collecting remains.”

On Sept. 11, the TSN headline read, “Say Radar Weak Here In Crash Area, U.S. Warned.”  In the story it read, “A spokesman for the National Association of Government Employees said in Washington that air controllers at Indianapolis Weir Cook Airport six weeks ago warned the government that radar coverage was weak in the crash area.”

In fact, two days after the crash, the exact same flight 853 experienced a near collision with a small airplane on its way to Indianapolis from Cincinnati.

Eight days after the crash, funeral rites for 33 men and women were held in Shelbyville at Forest Hill Cemetery. Despite heavy rain that day, it was reported more than 200 persons filled a huge canvas tent where multi-denominational services were held. 

Allegheny Airlines arranged for family members of those 33 to be at the service. A mass grave was created and stones sit there with the names of all 33 men and women who were laid to rest. Allegheny Airlines added a memorial stone one year later.

The field that DC-9 landed in is now full of corn. The trailer park is still here. And, on Monday, the two sons and daughter of captain James Elrod will help lead a memorial service that will include the unveiling of a memorial stone to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Indiana’s worst airline disaster.