Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sabotage: The Downing of Flight 629

November 1, 1955 6:29 p.m

The four-engine prop DC-6B revved up its mighty turbines at the end of the runway with a tremendous roar. As the pilot released the wheel brakes, United Airlines flight 629 rolled down the narrow, bumpy tarmac gathering speed. The front wheel gently lifted from the ground as the nose of the aircraft pointed toward the heavens. Within moments, the sturdy airplane soared into the crystal blue sky and banked gracefully to the west, on its way to a 1,029-mile journey to Portland, Oregon. On board, Captain Lee Hall, an accomplished pilot and veteran of World War II, pulled steadily back on the control arm and within minutes, leveled off the plane at 4,000 feet. Visibility was good, and the crew, consisting of pilot, a co-pilot and three stewardesses, prepared for a leisurely flight over Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho.

In the cabin area, small by today's standards, the 39 passengers observed the blinking "unbuckle seat belts" and "smoking permitted" signs. Some prepared to light up cigarettes while others read magazines. In the front section of the plane, where a few first class passengers stretched their legs, stewardess Peggy Pettacord tended to their needs and began the familiar routine of preparing dinner and refreshments. There was one baby on board, accompanied by his mother, on their way to visit his father, a serviceman stationed in the South Pacific.

Stewardess Peggy Pettacord
Stewardess Peggy

Captain Hall announced flying time of about three hours and simultaneously advised the passengers that weather was clear and calm. As the modern aircraft flew over the small city of Longmont, Colorado, just 30 miles from Wyoming, Captain Hall switched on the autopilot and asked one of the stewardesses for a cup of coffee. He checked the instrumentation panel, which showed all indicators were normal and aircraft systems functioning properly.

His first inkling that something had gone wrong was a loud bang that seemed to emanate from somewhere under and behind the aircraft. Captain Hall heard the noise and then felt a deep shudder that lasted a fraction of a second. Then his seat suddenly came up off the floor of the plane and crashed into the metal ceiling of the cockpit. Below him, traveling at several hundred miles per hour, the aircraft erupted into one gigantic blast that ripped the fuselage apart into a thousand pieces sending debris, luggage and passengers tumbling into space. Since the fuel tanks were almost filled to capacity, an immense fireball detonated, beginning in the lower section of the plane, which momentarily enveloped the entire aircraft.

Both engines separated from the wings and the propellers continued to turn as they began their long, spinning descent to the ground below. As the fiery debris plummeted to Earth, several other smaller explosions shattered the remaining parts of the aircraft. Tiny, white-hot bits of metal, similar to the pattern of fireworks, cascaded into the cool November air. These pieces, along with the passengers and their belongings, scattered across several square miles of Weld County in northern Colorado.

There would be no survivors of United Airlines flight 629.

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