The Boeing 720 was involved in incidents far worse than hijackings, although only two of them in the 15-year period from 1960 to 1974 entailed fatalities.
The earliest recorded 720 incident took place on December 4, 1960 on board a United Airlines 720-022 carrying seven crew members and 84 passengers. The flight penetrated an area of severe turbulence over Wolbach, Nebraska, resulting in injuries in the cabin. It was later determined that the captain had failed to display adequate precaution before he entered the turbulent area.
Another non-fatal 720 incident occurred the following year, on February 25, when a Braniff 720-027 with seven crew members and 24 passengers executed a hard landing short of the runway in Houston. While there was no loss of life, the aircraft sustained major damage. The cause was determined to be pilot misjudgment.
Yet another 720 landing incident took place later that year, on September 24, 1961, when the captain of an American Airlines 720-023B that carried 33 passengers and seven other crew members elected to execute a landing in Boston during varying weather conditions, but he was not advised of rapidly decreasing runway visual range (RVR). He also committed the airliner to land before receiving sufficient information concerning the location of such conditions relative to the runway.
The first fatality-producing Boeing 720 accident took place on February 12, 1963 on board a Northwest Orient 720-051B, registered N724US, about to embark on a nonstop flight from Miami to Chicago-O’Hare. A fierce storm, creating dark skies, hovered over Southern Florida that day and all arriving flights were diverted because of it. An Eastern 720-025 delayed its takeoff until conditions improved.
Northwest Flight NW 705, scheduled to depart at 1:30 p.m., was piloted by Captain Roy W. Almquist, 47, First Officer Robert J. Feller, 38, and Second Officer Allen R. Friesen, 29, and five flight attendants were to serve the 35 passengers in the cabin.
Aware of the raging weather system, Almquist believed he could execute a safe departure by taking off to the west and then banking southwest, circling around the area of greatest activity. Intense storm cells were now both west and northwest of the airport. As a result, departing flights were being given an initial southwest or southeast route, followed by the proper westerly or northwesterly track once they had gained sufficient altitude to overfly the storm. Flight 705 intended to follow the same path.
The gleaming, factory-fresh jetliner, operating Northwest Orient’s Regal Imperial Service, taxied from the gate beneath almost-black skies, amid gale winds that socked the aircraft and shock it even on the ground.
After aligning with Runway 27-Left’s centerline, it accelerated and rotated into a 25-knot wind, divorcing itself from Florida soil and establishing a positive rate-of-climb over the Palmetto Expressway. Initially cleared to ascend and maintain 3,000 feet, it banked and assumed a south-southwesterly heading. Miami Departure Control further granted it permission to ascend and maintain 5,000 feet on a modified southwesterly heading, which took it over Homestead, Florida, where mighty, menacing cumulous clouds loomed off the starboard side.
Additional departure course clearances first placed it on a south-southwesterly heading and finally on a pure-westerly one.
First Officer Feller audibly stated that he believed that they could quickly pass over the storm area and therefore avoid most of its effects, provided that they received further climb clearance. But, despite a request to Departure Control, they did not. The ominous storm now lay directly ahead. Avoidance could only be achieved by means of an immediate bank, but Feller’s request to do so, either to a southwesterly or southeasterly heading, was not granted because of traffic saturation.
As Departure Control feverishly searched for an available hole in the sky at a higher altitude, the silver and red quad-jet continued to barrel toward the storm’s core. Although clearance to bank and climb was ultimately given, the 720B only avoided a direct plunge through it, but was not spared its effects, now gripped by unrelenting turbulence. Left only with the choice of potential destruction if a banking maneuver were not initiated, it rode it out.
Now passing through 10,000 feet, Flight 705 was handed off to the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center on a frequency of 118.9, but intercepting static made the transmission unintelligible. Forced to remain on the Departure Control frequency, it ascended through 16,000 feet and banked onto a north-northwesterly heading, at which point it was given a new ATC frequency. This, in the event, only proved briefly successful, because the weather at the 17,500-foot level through which it passed was so severe, that static-skewed communication was impossible. The air route traffic control center only heard two words from the aircraft, which either sounded like “number two” or “tank two.” They ended up being the last. The aircraft was at 19,000 feet. The time was 1:19 p.m.
Now slightly above this altitude, the 200,000-pound airplane was being tossed about like a scrap of paper by severe up-and downdrafts. The cockpit crew tried to regain control, but this was nothing more than an exercise in futility. Twelve seconds later it exploded, lighting the mighty black mountain formations from which it just emerged.
Like a fireball, it dove toward the Everglades, producing a volcanic eruption down to the annals of the swamp as it impacted, taking 43 lives with it 43 miles southwest of Miami International Airport.
A Coast Guard helicopter subsequently located the burning wreckage, which littered a ten-square-mile area, ten miles north of the Everglades’ Shark River.
The Boeing 720-051B was subsequently reassembled on wooden frames in an Opa Locka Florida hangar. The reconstruction, which encompassed 99 percent of the original airframe, proved to be the most extensive and costly project of its kind in Civil Aeronautics Board history and enabled investigators to determine that the aircraft’s wings had been subjected to a downward-caused negative force equivalent to 3.1 G’s, or one that was beyond design limitations. Custom Fuzzy Socks