The Crash of TWA Super Constellation N6904C at NAS Fallon, Nevada

Super Connie Crash Landing at NAS Fallon in December 1952

January 2006

by Ralph M. Pettersen

N6904C at Idlewild, NY September 1952

One of the joys of hosting this website is the constant stream of emails from folks around the world recounting their personal Constellation experiences. Last December I received the following email from Jon H. Richardson telling me about a TWA Super Constellation crash landing at NAS Fallon, Nevada that he witnessed in December 1952.


In 1952 I was in the USMC stationed at MCAS El Toro and we went on winter maneuvers at Fallon NAS Nevada. In mid-December sometime the word spread thru the base that an airliner was going to try to make an emergency landing at Fallon. We all went out by the taxi way and pretty soon here comes a TWA Connie with number.1 & 2 engines out. We heard later that because of the engine failures he had no hydraulics for the brakes so when he landed he drifted over to the right and there was a large pile of dirt or sand and he got so far over that the wing hit the dirt and sheared off at the fuselage. The wing flipped upside down and slid for a ways and the fuselage went round and round in a very large shower of sparks and came to stop about a hundred yards from the wing but still on the runway. The amazing thing is there was NO FIRE. Shortly we could see people coming out from the far side of the airplane. Of course the crash crew was there but I can’t recall seeing them spraying anything on the aircraft. Somebody on base had 3 or 4 school buses sent to the scene and when they came back it was dark and the buses glowed inside with people smoking. The Navy troops had to give up 2 parts of their barracks, one for women and one for men and all the passengers stayed overnight and TWA sent a plane the next day to pick them up and if I remember right they also had some Greyhound buses for those who didn’t want to fly. The original destination was San Francisco I believe and it was zero, zero in fog as was Sacramento. Why they didn’t choose to land at Reno I don’t know. If you would like, I have a few pictures of the wreck taken with my trusty Kodak I can e-mail you when I find them. I was in your site because I have almost 3000 hours in Connies flying the old RC and EC 121s as a Radar Tech. so have a lot of interest in the old Connie. You probably have the information on this wreck but thought I would send this along anyway .

You are doing a great job on keeping up with the Connie survivors. Needless to say, I’m putting your site into my favorites. As we say in the Marines, Semper Fi and as we say in the USAF keep the dirty side down.

Jon H Richardson, CMSgt USAF, Ret


Using my well worn copy of Peter Marson’s 1982 Constellation “bible”, it didn’t take too long to solve the mystery. The aircraft involved was TWA L1049 N6904C (c/n 4016) and the actual date of the accident was December 7, 1952. The aircraft had been in service since September 1952 and, at the time of the accident, it had amassed a total of 699 hours flight time. The aircraft was repaired at Fallon by Lockheed Air Service and reentered service with TWA on September 24, 1953. By this time the story had my interest and I found the official CAB accident report on the internet. It turns out the Jon has a very good memory and the facts of the case are very much as he described them.
Super Constellation L1049 N6904C was operating Flight 35 on December 7, 1952 when it crashed during an emergency landing at NAS Fallon, Nevada at about 6:53pm PST. The aircraft was substantially damaged but luckily there were no injuries amongst the 35 passengers and five crewmembers. The flight originated at New York’s Idlewild Airport and was bound for San Francisco with a stop at Midway Airport in Chicago.

The flight proceeded routinely until near Lovelock, Nevada when, at about 5:40pm PST and at an altitude of 16,000 feet MSL, a complete power loss was experience in the #3 engine. Weather at Reno, about 95 miles ahead, was 2,000 feet scattered/overcast 20,000 feet. San Francisco, about 260 miles ahead, was 20,000 feet with 10 miles visibility. Engines failures at the time were not that uncommon and the captain decided to continue on to San Francisco on three engines. About 25 minutes after the first engine failure, the #4 engine failed and an emergency was declared. At this time the aircraft was about 10 minutes east of Reno but the weather there was below minimums at 1,500 feet overcast and 3 miles visibility with snow. The crew decided to turn back to NAS Fallon, which was about 40 miles away and reporting unlimited ceiling and visibility with 5 mph winds.

NAS Fallon is at an altitude of 3,840 feet MSL and the crew decided to land on the base’s 7,000 foot runway 7. While circling Fallon, the flight engineer was sent back to the passenger cabin to crank the flaps down to the “takeoff” position. Before he was able to locate the crank, the captain decided to dispense with flaps and make a no-flap landing. The first officer manually pumped the landing gear to the fully down and locked position. The Navy had strategically positioned fire trucks and all seemed in to be place for a successful emergency landing.

At 6:53 PST the Connie touched down about 126 feet from the end of the runway at 150 mph. The captain attempted to apply brakes and quickly discovered that he had neither brakes nor nose wheel steering. The first officer immediately set the hand pump selector to “brakes” and tied to get hydraulic pressure by using the hand pump. At the same time, the captain placed propellers #1 and #2 in reverse pitch resulting in the aircraft veering to left and departing the runway. By this time the flight crew was just along for the ride and the aircraft continued to the left of the runway into soft dirt, through a ditch and through several piles of gravel. The right wing and landing gear were torn from the fuselage at the wing fillet and a part of the right empennage was torn free as it passed over the right wing.

Fire trucks were alongside the aircraft within seconds applying fire extinguishing foam, which most likely prevented a fire from starting. The main cabin door was quickly opened and, because of the aircraft's tail-low attitude, the bottom of the door was close to the ground affecting a speedy evacuation of many of the aircraft’s occupants. The remaining occupants evacuated via the forward right hand door via chute and the entire evacuation was orderly and completed in the matter of about two minutes.

The #3 and #4 engines were disassembled and the problem was traced to the failure of cam drive gear trains. Failure of teeth on the intermediate gears of both front cam gear trains had caused immediate and full power loss on both engines. These engines had accumulated only 52:43 and 31:27 hours since new at the time of failure. There had been similar failures previously and Wright had, prior to the accident, begun a modification program.

Why had the crew lost both wheel braking and nose wheel steering? It turns out that the #3 and #4 engines supplied hydraulic pressure to affect wheel braking, nose wheel steering, wing flap deployment, and landing gear deployment. If the #3 and #4 engines were inoperative there was no means of obtaining nose wheel steering, flaps had to be cranked down manually, and landing gear had to be lowered using a hand pump. However, normal wheel braking could have been affected by positioning the brake selector valve from “normal” to “emergency”, thus supplying pressure for wheel braking from two pressure accumulators. This was a change from earlier L049 and L749A Constellations. The accumulators were noted by the crew to be fully charged prior to landing. The CAB report goes on to say “The reason the emergency braking system was not used can rest only in the fact that the company’s transition training to Model 1049’s was omissive in that it did not emphasize sufficiently the difference in the operation of the emergency brakes. This is evidenced by the captain’s statement that he tried to brake the aircraft with the brake selector in the “normal” position whereas it should have been in the “emergency” position. He demonstrated his unfamiliarity with the hydraulic system in that he attempted to brake the aircraft immediately after touchdown and then, and only then, did he realize that he had no hydraulic pressure on his brakes.” While the crew had extensive experience in the earlier Constellation models, they only had about 100 hours each in the newer Super Constellation.

The CAB released its final report on July 13, 1953 with the following probable cause. “The Board determined that the probable cause of this accident was improper use of the emergency braking system during the course of an emergency landing. This landing was necessitated by complete loss of power from the Number 3 and 4 engines due to the failure of their cam drive gears. A contributing factor was inadequacy of the company’s Lockheed L1049 transition training program from the former model aircraft concerning the difference in emergency procedures.”

What started with a simple email from Jon resulted in a fascinating look back at a long forgotten airliner crash in the wilds of Nevada. After the crash, Lockheed introduced a switch valve making crossover feed of the hydraulics systems possible. As stated earlier, the aircraft was repaired and returned to service with TWA where it served until being leased to Worldwide Airlines in 1960. By 1961 it was stored at Mid-Continent Airport in Kansas City before being leased to South Pacific Airlines in June 1962. At the time of the lease the aircraft had a total of 18,408 hours. It was repossessed by TWA in January 1964 and sold to Florida State Tours in August 1964. By 1968 it was stored in derelict condition at Miami, Florida and most likely scrapped shortly thereafter.

Many thanks to Jon for providing his personal account of the accident and for spending the time to find the photos he took back in December 1952.

Ralph M. Pettersen
January 2006

Photo Credits: Jon H. Richardson
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----Created 27 October 2012----