Rewind-Fast Forward: Flight 191, Boeing 737 Max & Aviation Safety

Julie Mann
May 23, 2019 - 12:06 pm

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Nearly 40 years before the grounding of the 737 Max Boeing-made aircraft following two deadly crashes, the U.S. witnessed its deadliest airplane disaster just outside Chicago's O’Hare International Airport.

WBBM Newsradio looks back and flashes forward to the positive legacy on aviation safety today because of what happened to American Airlines Flight 191 on May 25, 1979.

“It was a beautiful spring day - sunny, warm. It was the start of the Memorial Day Weekend, people were getting ready for summer. In the newsroom, well people were going off early on a Friday afternoon,” said Jim Benes.

Benes was the afternoon editor at WBBM Newsradio that Friday before Memorial Day in 1979 when he heard something come over the police scanner.

“I heard the call on the police radio. I don’t know the exact words, but I heard the words ‘crash’ and ‘O’Hare’ and after that, for me, most of everything was a blur. But, my assistant at that time, tells me that I stood up, put my hands in the air, and announced that this is happening,” Benes said.

“Immediately, the whole newsroom became attentive.”

With its left engine missing, American Airlines Flight 191 goes into a steep roll, then crashes in a burst of flames less than a mile away from the runway in 1979.
Michael Laughlin/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA

Listen below to sound from the control tower at O’Hare Airport when Flight 191, on its way to Los Angeles within seconds of takeoff, lost its left engine on the DC-10 and the plane came down.

An eyewitness of the crash said at the time, “I was leaving my office and I heard an explosion and I looked up into the sky and I saw flame almost reaching over the office.”

Beneath the smoke lie fragments of the American Airlines Flight 191 jetliner that crashed and exploded on May 25, 1979, shortly after taking off from O'Hare International Airport. All aboard perished.
Quentin Dodt/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA

WBBM Newsradio’s Jim Benes shares what he remembers about the information coming from the WBBM Newsradio reporters on the scene.

“One of the two times in my career at WBBM that I got a chill up my spine was when Bob Crawford, our City Hall reporter, who had been sent out to a hangar at O’Hare where the ambulances were being marshalled to take the injured people away,” Benes said.

“When he said on our air, ‘well it becomes clear now that the ambulances are not needed. Nobody has survived the crash.’”

Victims are marked with numbered flags for identification as emergency workers sift through debris from American Airlines Flight 191, which crashed after take off from O'Hare International Airport on May 25, 1979.
Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA

A crew of 13 and 258 passengers died, along with 2 people on the ground.

Listen below to a portion of the WBBM Newsradio coverage at the crash site.

After the flames were doused, firefighters and rescue teams set out to find the remains of victims amid the smoldering debris from the American Airlines Flight 191 accident at O'Hare in May 1979.
Val Mazzenga/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA

Authorities with the FAA performed an investigation following the crash. Listen below to the investigation reports.

There was a demand that the FAA ground all DC-10s. The loudest call, at the time, came from consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

"In military aviation, such grounding is a prudent course of action when they find a design defect in a figher airplane and certainly, the same practice should be accorded in civilian aviation," he said.

The DC-10 engine lays on the grass just east of Runway 32, right, where it stopped after falling from American Airlines Flight 191, just as the plane rotated from the runway, May 26, 1979. Investigators examine the engine.
Karen Engstrom/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA

Dr. Joe Schwieterman is a transportation expert and professor at DePaul University. He agrees that lessons learned from Flight 191 has prevented many aviation-related deaths going forward.

“If you look back then – what we didn’t have then, that we do now is a real standardization of how maintenance practices occur. You take an engine off a plane – how you do that and reinstall it has huge effects on stress fractures, on the quality and condition of the metal. In this case, we found American was removing engines differently than United and really what the manufacture, McDonnel Douglas, recommended and they missed lots of cues. There’s a lot of similarities you might say with the 737 Max issue that there’s some serious oversights,” he said.

File photo, a worker walks next to a Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplane parked at Boeing Field in Seattle. U.S. aviation regulators said Monday, April 1, Boeing needs more time to finish changes in a flight-control system suspected of playing a role in two deadly
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File

Schwieterman said while it took weeks for the FAA to ground the DC-10 after the crash of Flight 191, that’s not the case anymore.

“No question. Back then it took them two weeks to ground the airplane and that was seen as somewhat of a rash move at the time. Now we saw, of course the FAA really take it on the chin when they took days to ground the 737 Max. I think nowadays we just don’t have any tolerance for the loss of life and that is certainly a good thing,” he said. “But you look back then, and say ‘boy this airplane had fundamental problems’ and we took two weeks to ground it and it (DC-10) was only grounded for a month or so; and we are seeing with the 737 Max that that thing is not going to get back into the air until everyone is satisfied and the questions have been answered. And I also see how Boeing in responding so much differently than McDonnell Douglas. They are really trying to get ahead of this and to rethink the way they do training and so forth. Different world now.” 

He also believes air disasters are viewed differently by the public whom mourn along with those who have lost loved ones.

Related: PHOTOS: Flight 191 Memorial

Flight 191 Memorial
Lisa Haring

A memorial to Flight 191 was installed near the site within the past decade by local school children.

“I think if an accident like that were to occur today the site would be memorialized much different. You go out to Pennsylvania with the 911 United accident and that site is memorialized for lots of reasons, but here in Chicago when you have around 250 people killed in one accident barely gets a marker by the road – it would be certainly different today,” Schweiterman said.

Forty years later, experts still consider the crash of Flight 191 the deadliest passenger airline accident on U.S. soil.