Retracing the path of Continental Flight 11, 50 years after it crashed in Unionville.

Fifty years ago this week, Continental Flight 11 fell out of the sky over Unionville 

Retracing the path of Continental Flight 11, 50 years after it crashed in Unionville.

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Within a few days, Flight 11's last few minutes were being uncovered at the Appanoose County Fairgrounds in Centerville. Continental employees and investigators from the Civil Aeronautics Board (the precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration) began to reassemble the plane using recovered pieces of Flight 11 and a 4-foot-tall stack of Boeing construction manuals. Felt oversaw the FBI's investigation and directed a ground crew toward pieces of the wreckage from a helicopter. As the plane was put back together, the FBI Disaster Squad determined that the blast had originated in the used-towel bin of the rear lavatory, where they'd discovered dynamite residue.

Soon, investigators found that in the days before the flight, Doty had purchased six sticks of dynamite from the Pierce and Tarry Trading Post in Wyandotte County and had studied the use of explosives at the Kansas City Public Library. They also interviewed a witness who had seen brownish-red round sticks in Doty's briefcase before his trip to Chicago but thought they were emergency road flares. (The FAA didn't introduce airport screening of passengers and carry-on baggage until 1973.)

The FBI had its man, but there was nobody to charge.

The news cycle moved on to another Boeing 707. On June 3, Air France Flight 007 rolled off the runway during an aborted takeoff at Orly Airport in Paris, killing 130 of the 132 people aboard. Life magazine shot photos of Horn and her two children for a potential cover story that never ran. By September, Felt was in Washington, D.C., higher up in the bureau and eventually privy to secrets he would tell Bob Woodward under another name: Deep Throat.

The crash has been said to be the inspiration for Airport — Arthur Hailey's 1968 novel, made into a feature film that spawned the disaster genre. The plot: An airline passenger locks himself in a jet's bathroom and tries to blow up the plane, forcing Dean Martin to make an emergency landing at a snowbound airport.

"All that is fiction," Crawford says. "In Airport, everybody lived. It was a love story. There's no love story in this. Not at all."


Andrew Russell, 26, lives 7,914 miles from Unionville. The New Zealand man is studying to be a teacher, paying for school by working as an usher in an Auckland movie theater.

Poor eyesight and an aversion to math have prevented him from learning to fly, but he has always loved aviation history. Five years ago, he was clicking through old crash reports on the FAA's website. The Civil Aeronautics Board's final report about Continental Flight 11 caught his eye. It was the first commercial-jet bombing in the United States, but a Google search yielded nothing beyond the CAB document.

His curiosity led him to put up a simple blog asking why no memorial had ever been built in Unionville and if anybody had more information about what had happened.

"I'd never blogged before, and I just wanted to see what happened," Russell says. "I never even expected to hear back. I was just satisfying my own curiosity."

Nothing happened for a year. But then Crawford came across Russell's blog and found himself eager to share what he had uncovered.

"The idea that someone of his generation would take an interest in this — it's just incredible," Crawford says. "And to be from so far away."

Then Russell began hearing from the families of crash victims, stories of fathers who had never made it home. The comments section came alive with people's recollections.

"They never had the luxury of being able to talk about this thing," Russell says. "I've been almost like the paperweight that's been lifted off of them. Finally, after 50 years, they can vent their frustrations and grief and anger."

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