From the Vault: Eight men from Greater Cincinnati die in 1979 Comair plane crash

HEBRON, Ky. -- In a biblical sense, the number 666 is cursed, known as "the number of the beast." But on Oct. 8, 1979, it was 444 that was a cursed number.

Comair flight 444 didn't make it out of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport before it crashed to the ground from 600 feet. 

All eight people on board died. Six died instantly, one died on the way to the hospital and one died at the hospital.

 

At first, the airline said pilot Bill Paul did everything right. 

"Everything was where it should have been for that type of operation," said then-Comair spokesman Timothy Donovan. "It may have just been bad luck. A few more feet and they could have walked away from it."

The eight-seat plane had only seven passengers on board; typical commercial planes at the time had less than ten passengers, Donovan said.

Less than a minute after he was cleared for takeoff, Paul called the air traffic control tower, saying "444 just lost an engine. Like to come back around."

The engine quit working -- it didn't actually fall off, according to the air traffic control personnel WCPO interviewed at the time.

 

"Basically on takeoff something went wrong," Donovan said. "Whatever it was, I do not know. The pilot did his best to keep the plane on course and did a marvelous job landing it."

Donovan said the dual-engine Piper Navajo that Paul was flying was built to safely land with only one engine. Piper echoed this and said the plane should have been capable of "a smooth landing" with one engine.

 

All seven passengers were men from Southwest Ohio: John Huston, 53, of Fairfield; Douglas Jones, 50, of Madison Township; Jeffrey Lake, 29, of Forest Park; William Myers, 43, of Montgomery; Thomas Oatts, 52, of Loveland; Ronald Perry, 39, of Dayton; and J. Pat Warman, 47, of West Chester.

Paul, 30, of Marysville, Indiana, was described as a "highly-rated pilot" in a Cincinnati Enquirer article about the crash.

When the National Transportation Safety Board released its report on the crash, it blamed several factors.

"Probable cause of the accident was the loss of control following a partial loss of power immediately after liftoff," the report said. "The accident could have been avoided if either the pilot had rejected the takeoff or had raised the landing gear and flaps. His failure to take decisive action may have been due to preoccupation with correcting the malfunction, and a lack of familiarity with the aircraft and with its emergency procedures. "

The report goes on to say Paul's inexperience with a multi-engine plane, a "hurried departure," ineffective certification and surveillance, poor company management and inadequate training all contributed to the crash.

The cargo was also 195 pounds over the maximum weight allowed on the aircraft, according to the report.

Only two weeks before the crash, Donovan met with Al Schottelkotte for an interview about Comair's two-fold expansion at CVG. The airline had grown from four planes to nine, with two jets set to join the fleet in the following year.

The expansion was in response to the Airline Deregulation Act. Enacted in Oct. 1978, it was meant to open a free market for the commercial airline industry, meaning more competition, cheaper rates and more flights.

 

In that same year, however, commercial flights were three times more likely to crash than major airlines, according to NTSB statistics.

Comair flights crashed again in 1997 and 2006 in Detroit and Lexington, respectively. Between the two crashes, 78 people died.

Comair ceased operations in 2012, but stayed based in Cincinnati for more than three decades.

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