Fall was quickly on the horizon as summer wound to a conclusion on September 9, 1969. Indianapolis radio station WIFE rolled the current hits over the airwaves, playing Glenn Campbell’s Wichita Lineman and Elvis’ Suspicious Minds as the decade of the 60s inched towards the dawn of the 70s and the promise of new things to come. Life in rural Indiana, just outside the shadow of downtown Indianapolis, went on as it always had—the daily routine of living went unchanged…. On September 9th at 3:30 on the Tuesday afternoon when television broadcasts of General Hospital and One Life to Live were at the mid-commercial break there was a shake-up of that routine afternoon in southeastern Indiana near the town of Fairland. It originated in the skies.
On the last afternoon of Bob Carey’s life he prepped for what he loved best besides his family—flying. Carey, a Korean War veteran and former mechanic for the United States Air Force, was preparing to lift himself above the rural farmland and pilot his white and yellow Piper Cherokee to Columbus. A plumber by trade, Carey took the afternoon off from his job at William Steik Plumbing & Heating to register a few more hours in the air. He was very close to obtaining his private pilot’s license and had thus far accumulated enough flight time to solo fly. Originally he had planned a flight north to Kokomo, but low level cumulus clouds were banking into the Indiana landscape, forcing a change of flight destination. He made the switch to Columbus instead.
One will always wonder…in that nano-second before Carey took an unexpected turn into eternity… did the faces of his wife and six children flash before his eyes?
Allegheny Airlines Flight 853 originated that morning in Boston, with a stop in Baltimore and then west to Cincinnati. The DC-9 would then continue on into Indianapolis’ Weir Cook Airport. After a short stay it was to have moved on to St. Louis for the completion of its journey. That was the plan.
Captain James Elrod piloted the Allegheny flight that Tuesday. He was a man with a lot of flight time under his belt, having been a commercial pilot since 1945 and employed with Allegheny for some nineteen years. Along with first officer William Heckendorn they were doing their best to stay on schedule, but back in those days of commercial flight there was not a rigid emphasis on punctuality as there is today. It was ok however…it would all work out.
TWA Flight 69 to St. Louis encountered an hour delay while sitting at the gate in Cincinnati. Thirty eight travelers quickly took the offer to avoid waiting that hour and transfer instead to Flight 853. The plane was held at the gate long enough to accommodate these transfers. It was no big deal…Indianapolis was less than an hour away and 853 had the seats.
Thirty eight people bound for St. Louis…thinking they had made the best move possible. They had no idea of the hand they were being dealt.
Flight 853 was due to arrive at Weir Cook Airport in Indianapolis at 1536 (3:36 PM). Undoubtedly Capt. Elrod made up some lost time while on the short jog from Cincinnati to Indianapolis. Around Shelbyville, Indiana they were roughly at 6000 feet, started their descent and gradually broke out of the clouds around 3000 feet over the London area. Preparations were for a landing in Indianapolis in just a few minutes.
At the same time Bob Carey’s Cherokee was ascending southeast at an elevation of 2500 feet. Allegheny Flight 853 was on the radar blip of the watchful eyes of Weir Cook’s air traffic controllers. Unfortunately, due to the antiquated nature of the radar system, Bob Carey was not!
What are the odds? A gambling man would be hesitant to put money on the likelihood of two planes meeting at the same moment, in the same airspace, on an Indiana afternoon that was transitioning into evening.
The two aircraft impacted at a relative speed of 350 MPH. Bob Carey most likely never knew what hit him; perhaps a quick flash of Allegheny blue and white, and then he was gone. Capt. Elrod, instituting landing procedures, most likely caught a glimpse of the rapidly ascending Cherokee, but it was much too late. Radio transmission received at Weir Cook at 1529 reported the pilot saying…”I’m going down.” No evasive maneuvers were registered on the DC-9’s accelerometers. Perhaps a handful of passengers on the right side of the plane caught a glimpse….
The small Cherokee passed up and over the DC-9’s right wing. Its front left side—just inches from where Carey sat behind the controls—impacted into the DC-9’s upper right tail section at the vertical stabilizer. The Cherokee was cut in half. Its impact sheared off the entire tail section of the DC-9. The remains of the Cherokee and the tail of the DC-9 dropped like a stone…almost landing directly beneath the point of impact. The right wing and fuselage of the Cherokee, carried by momentum, landed a couple of hundred feet to the south.
Bob Carey’s body, still strapped into his seat, was the only body in the wreckage found intact.
When the remainder of Flight 853 hit the soybean field just a hundred yards north of the Shady Acres Mobile Home Park it literally disintegrated.
Eight witnesses purportedly saw the actual collision, yet as with any eyewitness reports, descriptions vary. Some described the descent of Flight 853 as “nosed over”, “spun in”, and “barrel rolled” as it impacted the earth. Some described the pieces falling from the sky as slow and “fluttering”, much like leaves from a tree. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the county coroner feel the plane crashed inverted. Regardless, the plane was completely destroyed…shattering into pieces by the explosive impact into the field. All passengers were killed instantly…pieces of the plane, luggage, and bodies were scattered over a distance of half a mile. Many of these remnants rained into the mobile home park.
A school bus letting off children at the mobile home park was a silent witness to the event. The bus driver still lives in the general area of the crash. One of the children, now deceased and the brother of a husband of a co-worker, was impacted when he saw an arm hanging from a tree limb. His attention was focused on a ring that adorned a finger. He never quite shook the memory.
Of the seventy eight DC-9 passengers and four crew members, only five were positively identified. For two days searchers painstakingly combed through the three foot high field of soybeans, marking the areas of human remains with wooden stakes, and gathering pieces of the aircraft. The smell of kerosene (jet fuel) was overpowering and hung like a toxic curtain. It was grim, silent work at best.
Within a few days truckloads of dirt were brought in and the field was plowed over, working the remaining pieces of the plane into the soil. Routine life resumed as best it could. WIFE radio continued playing the hits—Martha & the Vandells’ Dancing in the Street and the Beatles’ Something. Paul McCartney of the Beatles was rumored to be dead and the daily soap operas continued unabated. Life, for all intents and purposes, continued to move on.
Sites that encompass sudden unexpected death has been known to harbor certain residuals of that event…either as a playback or something more in the nature of an intelligent occupancy. This may be the case of Flight 853. While the field itself does feel “heavy”, this may be very well due to us knowing what transpired there forty four years ago. All of us carry the gift of sensitivity—some more than others—but the history of past tragic events can influence this “sensitivity” to a point where we need to question the feelings we are receiving. Is it genuine or just working into our psyche? However, digital recordings are quite another matter. Many paranormal groups have visited the crash site of Flight 853, and will continue to do so. The investigative group Paranormal 911 was featured on A&E’s My Ghost Story. While conducting an EVP session in the depth of the field they got something very interesting…a male voice asking a simple question…”Did we crash?”
You can see the slight rise in the field where tons of dirt was worked into the soil. The mobile home park is still small, quiet and unassuming, and I would imagine many of the residents have no idea what happened there in September of so many years ago. The ground had been tilled in the fall and gently climbed north to the tree line in the near distance. The only sound was the occasional traffic and a steady wind that rustled paper and scattered amounts of broken trailer skirting. And pieces of the airplane had worked themselves to the surface and gleamed in the afternoon sun. I imagine they will be there forever.
Kudos goes out to pilot Dan McGlaun who has done extensive research on the crash of Flight 853 and has produced an excellent account.