Air Disaster in 1962

Posted by: Loren Coleman on January 19th, 2009

Mark A. Hall’s Thunderbirds: America’s Living Legends of Giant Birds is the first modern book to tackle the long misunderstood topic of the traditions, folklore, and sightings of large birds in the skies of North America and elsewhere.

Hall rarely speaks publicly any longer, or communicates his thoughts. Therefore, I am happy to report he has stepped forward to comment on the recent Hudson River incident.

Below, please find a guest blog from Mark A. Hall.

Hall Thunderbirds


by Mark A. Hall, author, Thunderbirds: America’s Living Legends of Giant Birds

The recent ditching of an Airbus in the Hudson River has caused some people to comment with references to Thunderbirds. I have not been one of them until now. I have not suggested a giant bird was involved in any way. I did not discuss bird and airplane collisions in my book on Thunderbirds since I think there is a substantial case for the presence of giant birds without reference to such events.

The danger that common birds pose to airmen and aircraft is a familiar subject to many people. About fifty years ago author Frank Lane in one of his books treated the subject extensively. Airports have to be concerned about this problem all the time.

One event in 1962 was linked by author Jacques Bain Pearl (1923-1992) – aka, Jack Pearl – to a possible collision of an airliner with a giant bird. He wrote at some length about the case in his ground-breaking article on Thunderbirds in Saga Magazine for May 1963. The episode deserves to be revisited for its own merits and for the historical fact that the incident was obviously the trigger that caused Pearl to write and offer for publication his article on Thunderbirds.

Robert Lyman of Pennsylvania had been looking into the birds in his state since the 1940s. But he did not publish his findings on Thunderbirds until ten years after Pearl. The Saga article brought the subject into the open and exposed it to a nation-wide readership as nothing had done previously. For all of the good authorship executed by Pearl, I think he will be remembered most for having picked up this neglected thread in the field of cryptozoology.

The incident that caught Pearl’s attention took place after noon on 23 of November 1962. A United Airlines Viscount was on its approach to the International Airport outside Washington, D.C. when the plane crashed into the Maryland countryside.

In his discussion of the incident, Pearl wrote:

On November 25, in an official statement to the press, George Van Epps, chief of safety investigation for the Civil Aeronautics Board, announced: “We have evidence of a bird strike on the (plane’s) horizontal stabilizers and associated elevators, both left and right . . . . The fact is we found both stabilizers back in the flight path which indicates in flight separation . . . .”

Both halves of the 35-foot, all-metal stabilizer were found almost a half- mile behind the crash. And on both were matted the blood, feathers and flesh of an unidentified bird.

With further comments from Van Epps, from Leon Tanguay (safety director at the Civil Aeronautics Board), from the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland, and from a commercial pilot and former fighter pilot, Pearl made his case for a single bird having brought down the plane.

Many years ago I was asked where Thunderbirds would be living just outside of Washington. These are not birds that have to fly only above their nests, like a Russian fighter plane that is so low on fuel that it keeps close to its own airfield. The birds are highly mobile, which is how they can migrate widely over North America as they appear to do each year.

I am not making the case here that a Thunderbird did bring down a plane in 1962. I have limited information on this event, only what Jack Pearl wrote when he made the case. I have laboriously transcribed his account of the event from a poor copy of his original article. For those who want to read it, here are Jack Pearl’s own words from his May 1963 SAGA Magazine article, “Monster Bird that Carries Off Human Beings!”

Collisions between birds and aircraft are more frequent than is commonly believed. In 1957, a goose crashed through the cockpit windshield of a DC-3 and injured the co-pilot. The plane landed without incident. In 1960, a flock of starlings was sucked into the engine intakes of an American Airlines Electra taking off from Boston’s Logan Airport, causing a tragic crash. The files of the Civil Aeronautics Board abound with reports of similar freakish accidents.

Shortly after noon on November 23, 1962, a United Airlines Viscount was making a routine approach to Washington, D.C, International Airport. It was a bright sunny day with unlimited visibility and minimum air turbulence. Radio communication between the plane and the Washington control tower was normal. There was not the slightest hint of trouble, much less total disaster. Then, abruptly, the Viscount disappeared from the tower’s radar screen.

On a farm in Ellicott City, Maryland, a boy looked up from his chores to witness a sight he had never expected to see: a huge airplane diving vertically toward the woods to the southwest of town. As he watched, paralyzed with horror, the plane crashed and exploded in the trees with an impact that caused the ground to tremble beneath his feet.

On November 25, in an official statement to the press, George Van Epps, chief of safety investigation for the Civil Aeronautics Board, announced: “We have evidence of a bird strike on the (plane’s) horizontal stabilizers and associated elevators, both left and right . . . . The fact is we found both stabilizers back in the flight path which indicates in flight separation . . . .”

Both halves of the 35-foot, all-metal stabilizer were found almost a half- mile behind the crash. And on both were matted the blood, feathers and flesh of an unidentified bird.

But what kind of bird was it that could disable a huge aircraft like the Viscount turboprop – built to endure the stress and strain of high speed, the giant force of wind and storm – disable it so badly that it would spin out of control to disaster? It is a question that air experts and ornithologists alike have been asking themselves – and each other – and so far, none of the answers has satisfied anyone.

Leon Tanguay, safety director for the CAB, declared about the bird theory: “I have never known of such a thing to happen. I’m not sure that this happened!” But neither he nor anyone else can explain the feathers, blood and flesh on that stabilizer torn off by terrible impact.

The Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland, who examined the gory remains of the creature plastered to the stabilizer, said cautiously “I’ve got a foot-square piece of the carcass. It’s white with down below the feathers – it couldn’t be anything else but a swan!” He didn’t convince the investigators from CAB and FAA. One of them said, off the record: “There’s talk that it was a swan or a goose. But only ONE bird! It doesn’t add up.”

So unconvinced were the investigators that Army helicopters were assigned to hedge-hop the fatal route the plane had followed from Baltimore to Washington “in an effort to find more carcasses or remains which might indicate this was a flock instead of a single bird,“ explained Mr. Van Epps. “They found nothing,” he added uneasily.

Among pilots, civil and military, the swan or goose theory produced outright contempt. A former World War II fighter pilot, now flying for a commercial airline, said, “That swan would have to be straight out of a science-fiction movie. Take a look at the stabilizers on a big place sometime. They’re built to take strain. They have to be. Without the stabilizer, the pilot has no control. During the war I saw big Flying Fortresses come back with their stabilizers shot to hell by machine guns and cannon shells. Nobody can tell me that a swan could tear one loose from the ship!”

Another pilot – now an aeronautical engineer – asks a more intriguing question. “What I’d like to know is how this ‘bird’ managed to get through the arc of the props and hit the tail? You look at the design of the Viscount. It would be almost impossible unless . . . . ? Unless we assume that it actually swooped in from the side, behind the wings, was able to buck the slipstream, then deliberately dove into the tail section. It’s ridiculous! What kind of a bird could do that?”

What kind of bird, indeed? A bird that could rip a section of metal off the tail assembly, a slab of metal 35 feet long and 238 square yards in area, rip it off like a slice of balsawood off a child’s toy plane?

The answer seems obvious. A bird big enough to carry off a sheep or a calf or a man. A Thunderbird.

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

6 Responses to “Air Disaster in 1962”

  1. korollocke responds:

    Maybe Sam Arkoff was inspired by this event…

  2. springheeledjack responds:

    It is conceivable that it could happen. If there are indeed Thunderbirds migrating in the skies, it is quite plausible that there could be close calls/collisions, or even evasions by pilots or birds that could cause troubles in the skies.

    I would guess the number of Thunderbirds, while there must be a viable breeding population, would still be minimal or we would probably be aware of them more frequently.

    Having said that, I think that it is very likely that such a bird could exist in our skies. The first argument I hear stirring is the classic, ‘well if they were there, we would see them.’

    Sure. But then again, would we? I think about myself when I’m driving down the road and just how often I actually take note of things in the sky. While I will notice a plane, helicopter, etc., I also do not take much time to “See” the thing. I often take note and move on. Is it possible that Thunderbirds do fly over and that most people miss them, caught up in driving, their own thoughts, or just not being observant?

    And again, estimating sizes of things in the sky is really difficult unless you have had some serious practice or training. If you saw something big in the sky, especially the size of a small plane, would it not be easy to just assume it was a plane? Especially if it was flying really high?

    (I would ask Mark Hall here. I do not know a lot about the habits of birds, but I am going to guess that they have an altitude range that they fly in. Is it different for larger birds? If so, is it possible or even likely that a Thunderbird of immense size might fly higher in the sky than smaller birds? OR am I just ignorant of the facts?:)

    The other thing is that even if you saw a big bird, even a really big bird (as in larger than your average bald eagle), would you say anything to anyone other than, “Whoa, I saw a really big bird today?”

    Now, me, sure I would. I am cued into this type of thing and I would probably notice a bird with a wing span of greater than 10-15 feet, but most people might not really think too hard about it.

    And the other part of the equation is: if there are thunderbirds, and if they get to be around 10-20 foot wingspans (I’ve read Mark’s book, but the details are eluding my brain pan, and my books are packed at the moment, so forgive my errors in details), how long does it take a Thunderbird to reach maturation and full adult size? The reason I ask, is that might we not be seeing thunderbirds in the skies and just not know it because they are not full grown yet? Is it possible people might have seen or be seeing such things and because they are not full grown they are mistaken for other birds of prey?

    I am just throwing this up for food for thought to all of you, posing questions and hoping someone will give some answers that will help us all decide if it is plausible.

    Whether I’m right or wrong, I have cast enough stones to make it plausible…or have I?

  3. Kronprinz_adam responds:

    Dear sirs.
    I think there should be witnesses of these birds also in Mexico and Guatemala. Do they migrate?
    A friend from my dad told us some years ago, that he had seen a frightful black-jet giant bird in a foot expedition to the mountains in western Guatemala. He likes wandering a lot into the woods, and he went with an small group. A woman was walking ahead, but she suddenly returned quite shocked, to tell the others about her sighting. The others shortly saw a huge raptor sitting on a tree, so heavy that the tree was trembling, and it was “shouting” loud also.
    They didn’t stay any longer and returnet immediately.
    Later my dad told me the story, what does this bird could be? This friend was in southamerican zoos, and he had seen some captive condors. He told us, that the bird was bigger. I suggested a Thunderbird, because I have read about them in cryptozoology books. An older friend, who liked birdwatching a lot, suggested an out-of-place californian condor. But since I saw Monsterquest, I can only think in one beast: Birdzilla.

  4. HOOSIERHUNTER responds:

    According to a website on plane crashes in 1962,
    “The aircraft penetrated a flock of Whistling Swans at 6000 ft. One, estimated to be 13 pounds, struck the leading edge of the left horizontal stabilizer, weakening the structure and causing it to detach. The aircraft lost control and broke up in mid-air and crashed.”
    The site is:

  5. archer1945 responds:

    It’s too bad no one had the foresight to save the remains for future study. It might prove very interesting if we could now run DNA tests on them.

    I think the CAB came up with the swan story just to keep the media off their backs. Remember in 1962 probably a number of these investigators had been in WWII and had seen what kind of damage the B17s were able to take in the tail and still fly. So I think the swan story was just a cover.

    Another hole in the swan story is that if there was a flock of birds in front of them the pilots probably would have seen it and made a report, probably would have maneuvered away from it. Pilots have steered clear of flocks of birds as long as there have been planes in the air. Also if it had been a flock of swans why was the plane only hit by one, the props should have pulled several right thru them with damage to them which would have left traces. Not to mention birds impacting the fuselage.

  6. MattBille responds:

    With all due respect to Mr. Hall (a prodigious and dedicated researcher of the first order), I’ve never been impressed by the Thunderbird body of evidence: birders should have logged many sightings and, more important, many photos and videos by now. Any out-of-place specimen, even a single sparrow-sized bird, gets spotted and photographed quickly. While birding magazines (as Hall has noted) are unikely to carry such reports, a significant subset of these folks would have captured images and talked to local papers, and, in the last couple of decades, would have put images on the Internet.
    Granted, the Viscount crash seems peculiar. You wouldn’t think that a single bird, even a large one like a goose or swan, would cause such a crash unless it went through the cockpit windshield or into the jet intake (the Viscount was a turboprop and thus did have such intakes, but that’s not where the bird hit).
    However, it is a fact that a larger, more rugged aircraft, a B-1B bomber, was downed by impact of a single pelican on the leading edge of the wing.
    (BTW, the force in any such collision depends on relative velocity and angle of impact as well as the bird’s mass. The bomber was going 560 knots at the time, subsonic but faster than Viscount 745, which topped out around 300 knots.) The B-1B was designed to withstand nuclear shockwaves as well as proximity explosions of conventional SAM warheads.)

    Taking into account the similarities and differences with the B-1B crash, the Viscount loss must have been the result of a nearly “perfect” strike (bird hits head-on) but does not cross over into the inexplicable. I do wonder if there was some preexisting damage or defect in the tail section of the Viscount. (I’m looking for my copy of Robert J. Serling’s 1970 aviaition safety book “Loud and Clear,” which I recall as having some details on this crash.)

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