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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Ralph Boerster, a 21-year-old psychology student, was working part time in Continental's reservations department when Doty and the other 36 passengers checked in. Boerster's manager had gone home for the night, leaving the young man to oversee the passenger list. The airline managed passenger information from the 18th floor of the Precious Gems Building, at Wabash and Madison in downtown Chicago. There, Boerster handled seat assignments and relayed information on the number of passengers and baggage to the operations side. After Flight 11 pushed away from the gate, he sent those records on to Kansas City Municipal Airport via teletype.

This particular Boeing 707 had been in the news the previous August, when authorities shot out its tires on a runway at the El Paso International Airport to foil a skyjacking attempt. Leon and Carl Bearden were trying to divert the plane to Cuba. The plane returned to Continental's rotation after that, and Gray prepared the flight plan this night to account for the severe weather expected west of Chicago. He decided to fly at an altitude of 39,000 feet, rather than the 28,000 proposed by the dispatcher.

"If you were on an airplane, and there was bad weather, and you still wanted to get there, you wanted Freddie Gray up in that cockpit," Boerster tells The Pitch.

Flight 11's progress was steady once the plane was airborne. Gray checked in over Bradford, Illinois. At 9:01 p.m., just after the flight was east of the Mississippi River, he asked for an update on the storms ahead of him. Thunderstorms, some capable of producing tornadoes, were expected near Kirksville, Missouri. The radar was functioning normally, and the flight control operator in Waverly, Iowa, recommended that Flight 11 fly south of the storm. Gray instead went north and, after clearing the storm clouds, requested clearance to turn toward the KC airport, and the Waverly operator prepared to pass him off to a controller there. At 9:14 p.m., Waverly made the connection with Municipal Airport, but there was no further word from Flight 11.

Doty got up from his seat and carried his briefcase into the rear lavatory. Inside the case were six sticks of dynamite — the charge would snap the 707 in half at 9:17 p.m. Doty brought down the $4.5 million jet with $1.54 worth of explosives.

As a matter of routine when he prepared to go home, Boerster checked the status of his shift's last takeoff: Flight 11.

"I picked up the hotline ... to check and I heard, 'When was the last time you heard anything from Flight 11?' Flight control then responded that it had been 15 or 20 minutes. Soon it was 30 minutes."

He woke up his manager.

Continental representatives began trying to locate contact information for the families of those onboard. At 10:30 p.m., Joanne Horn was asleep, tired from ironing her husband's shirts and watching 3-year-old Kevin and 18-month-old Jo-Ellen.

"It was my husband's boss. He called and told me the plane was down," Horn recalls. "My husband was always the last to leave the office, and he'd call me and say, 'Honey, I'm heading east.' When his boss called [me], he said, 'Well, now he's headed west.'"

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