The “Accidental” Crash of Flight N1248n: A Puerto Rican Tragedy

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Check-in online. Ride a taxi to Luis Muñoz Marin, Terminal A. Print your boarding pass at the kiosk. Wait in line because it’s Jet Blue. Pass through security. Take off your shoes and/or belt. Maybe go through an extra screening before your head to the gate. Sounds simple, no? You shouldn’t run into too many more problems from there. Now imagine you were a farmhand in the 1950s boarding a small, cheap-looking airplane destined for the Midwest. On June 5th, 1950, sixty-two Puerto Ricans attempted to make the trip in this way, only to crash into the Atlantic a few hours later. It’s moment in history that was quickly overshadowed by other large scale events of the time. But it speaks to the unsafe conditions in which Puerto Ricans were expected to make the trip.

Migration, especially for work, has always been an important feature of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Since the first opportunities arose in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii in 1899, Puerto Ricans have demonstrated a willingness to leave the island in search of work. Consequently, the enactment of Law 89 in May of 1947 to regulate government-supported programs hiring out Puerto Rican farm labor allowed farmers not only to request, but to also expect, thousands of cheap laborers to come pouring in from the island. In March of 1950, Saginaw-based Michigan Field Crops, Inc. contacted the Puerto Rican Department of Labor, headed-then by Fernando Sierra Berdecía, with the proposal of airlifting some 5,000 farmhands to the 140,000-acre valley. “Operation Farmlift,” as it was dubbed, would rely on “irregular air carriers.”

These air carriers were different from the normal commercial air carriers of the time. Companies would buy surplus military equipment which they would strip down, repaint, and gear up for commercial use. These “non-skeds” or non-scheduled flights would cost as little as half the price of regular airline flights. The majority of these companies were at fault for making terrible errors and hiding evidence of their misconduct. This resulted in the creation of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), which came down hard on these non-skeds and bankrupted many of these companies in the process. Despite dirty business practices and pressure from the CAB, Westair Transport was one of the most successful non-skeds on the island. The company was trusted with the flights for “Operation Farmlift.” Michigan farmers would advance the plane tickets at $55 per person, which would later be deducted from the worker’s pay. The workers would then be paid at a fluctuating rate of $7-8 daily.

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To provide enough opportunities for workers throughout the island, 62-man cohorts were organized in several districts and left one by one. The first three cohorts left between May 31st and June 2nd, 1950; airlifting 186 men off the island. The Mayagüez cohort was scheduled to leave June 5th. It was made up of both newcomers and veterans to the labor contract program, with an average age of 25. Most of the men were directly related to one another, others had been friends, but all were working in support of the families they would be leaving behind.

They were driven to the Isla Grande Airport, each man being handed a ham and cheese sandwich and a warm Coca-Cola that was intended to last them the entire flight. Though it was a fairly new airplane, with only 2,900 hours of logged flight time, the Westair N1248n awaiting them at the airport was not modern by any means. The inside had been stripped of its former cushioned lining and seats; replaced by wooden benches and ropes for seatbelts. With no storage compartments, the inside was instead equipped with overhead racks for the luggage. The crew was made up of three people: 39-year-old Captain Joseph Halsey, a WWII veteran, 27-year-old copilot William Holleran, and 21-year-old steward Héctor Medina. The flight departed at 5:24pm and was set to arrive at 11:14pm.

It was an uneventful flight until around 10pm when Holleran noticed the oil range for the left engine had suddenly dropped from 32 gallons to 20. A moment later, the left engine backfired. The peaceful flight had erupted into chaos with that sudden explosion. Black smoke was seen outside the windows on the left side. A smell of burning oil filled the cabin. In the cockpit, Halsey attempted to regain control by increasing power to the right engine. Soon it overheated and lost power as well. Halsey attempted to reach the nearest airport on the island of Nassau, but soon began to rapidly lose altitude. The passengers, in the meantime, screamed, wept, and prayed. Then…they crashed.

The chaos continued as the men struggled to get out of the plane. Many were injured during the initial impact because the luggage had rained down on them from the unsecured racks above their seats. Though the three-man crew bravely did what they could, they couldn’t retrieve the necessary equipment to ensure everyone’s survival. Of the two life rafts available, close to thirty men began fighting to get on. It would be hours before several ships, including the merchant ship SS Musa and the WWII destroyer USS Richard C. Sayfley managed to arrive and rescue the survivors.

The event stirred emotions in Puerto Rico. Governor Muñoz Marín moved quickly to shut down all non-skeds operation on the island. However, this posed a serious problem as the Saginaw Valley contract still required 5,000 workers. Muñoz Marín would send Sierra Berdecía to negotiate a new contract with the farmers to assure the workers would get there via commercial flight and without additional cost to the farmers-which would be forwarded to the worker. However, they weren’t informed of this.

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Westair suffered no backlash for the incident, asserting that they had records to show N1248n had been inspected the morning of the accident. Parallel investigations would show the opposite was true, but still, there were no ramifications. The cause of the accident was never fully disclosed. The issue of non-skeds would be shoved under the table since later that year would signal the start of the Korean War, during which many non-sked companies would be used to deliver troops overseas. 

For the full story of this tragic event please consult these sources:

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 11 December 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.