Insulting an Injury: The Crash of PSA Flight 182

It has been (almost) 43 years. There is still no permanent memorial.

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Names of the 144 victims written in chalk on the 42nd anniversary of the crash on September 25, 2020. [Photo credit: Kim Whittemore]

“Ma, I love yah.”  

 

Those were the last words of Captain James McFeron. 

It was shortly before 09:00 am on 25 September 1978. Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182 with the call sign N533PS was coming in from Sacramento to land on runway 27 at Lindbergh Field, San Diego. The 10-year-old Boeing 727-214 jet was carrying 135 passengers under the command of Captain James McFeron. Thirty-seven of the jet’s passengers were PSA employees.  

Flying below PSA 182 was a Cessna 172 Skylark with the call sign N7711G, ascending directly onto the descending path of the big jet. The four-passenger single-engine plane belonged to Gibbs Flight Center, a flying school based out of Montgomery Field. It was piloted by US Marine Gunnery Sergeant David Lee Boswell, an experienced pilot who was learning to operate the plane’s Instrument Landing System (ILS). His instructor, Martin Kazy, was in the seat next to him.

Since it was a clear Monday morning, the Lindbergh Field control tower directed Captain McFeron to switch to “VRF” or Visual Flight Rules procedure. As such, Captain McFeron was to “see and avoid” potential collisions. This meant that the responsibility of avoiding a mid-air collision fell squarely on Captain McFeron and his first officer, Robert Fox. But neither pilot could see the Cessna flying directly below the descending PSA 182.

At 09:01:47, just as PSA 182 tipped its right wing to turn above the intersection of El Cajon Boulevard and 30th Street in North Park, its nose wheel collided with the Cessna. The collision flung the Cessna onto the right-wing of the jet, splitting the Cessna in half. The impact caused one of its fuel tanks to explode on the right-wing of PSA 182. As the two planes came crashing down, PSA Flight 182 fell on the intersection of Dwight and Nile. All 135 passengers on board that plane lost their lives, as did the two pilots in the Cessna. Additionally, 7 people on the ground perished, 9 more were injured and 22 houses were damaged or destroyed. 

The tragedy still remains the deadliest in California’s aviation history. Yet, there is no permanent memorial marking the crash site at the corner of Dwight and Nile. It has been nearly 43 years. 

San Diego is an important city to US aviation history.  San Diego is where Charles Lindbergh tested the Spirit of St. Louis in preparation for his flight across the Atlantic.  In 1928, San Diego’s Municipal Airport – Lindbergh Field (now known as San Diego International Airport) became the first airport in the United States to be approved by the federal government.  Adding to this significance in aviation history, San Diego also has a rich cultural heritage that honors the deceased. Every November, many in San Diego observe el Dìa de Los Muertos, or All Souls Day, to honor ancestors who have passed on. During the late summer months, merchants along Convoy Street proudly display “Happy Chuseok” banners to ring in the harvest festival of Chuseok where Korean Americans pay respects to their ancestors. Before the pandemic, the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park was illuminated with beautiful Japanese lanterns during the Obon Festival as Japanese Americans in San Diego honored their deceased ancestors. In spite of a rich cultural heritage that honors the deceased and the city’s importance to aviation history, it is therefore baffling as to why there is no permanent and prominent marker at the crash site at the corner of Dwight and Nile streets – not only to remember the lives that were lost but also as a site of cultural and historical importance.

In search of answers, I sought out Kim Whittemore, David Fresina, and Edwin Lohr. A passionate community advocate, Kim Whittemore has been living in San Diego since 2004. Mid-City Ambassador Edwin Lohr was born in Iowa and was in Japan when he heard about the crash. He has lived in San Diego since 1984. Filmmaker David Fresina was only a boy when the crash occurred. He lives in Hull, Massachusetts. His documentary, Return to Dwight and Nile (available on Amazon), memorializes the incident with compassion.

 

BP: What inspired you to work towards a permanent memorial for this crash and why is it important to you that there is a permanent memorial at the crash site?

KW: Of the 144 people who were aboard this flight, only four bodies were recovered…they’re there. They’re at the site and to not mark that for every conceivable reason – humankind, historical significance to California, to aviation, etc. – it just struck me as wrong. To me, this is analogous to an Indian burial mound that you respect. You don’t build a shopping mall, you don’t excavate. 

DF: Other than what you see in the Air and Space Museum and at the library [which is] the plaque at the foot of the tree that was put there 20 years ago or something – there needs to be something there. Something that indicates what happened and memorializes that whole event. It’s time and it has to be done.

EL: We said before – people are there. Homes are probably on top of the dead. So, it’s sacred. The whole idea to me is sacred. I bet that if you really investigate, you could probably feel this aura about the dead that are there. So, I think it is only fitting that there needs to be a memorial. It’s just that simple.

KW: This is not just about the crash. It’s about our entire community. There were people on our committee who were children [and] whose schools and churches were turned into morgues. What about the 30-plus (PSA) employees who were like a family who were on that flight? I don’t know of any other plane crash in the country, or maybe the world, that doesn’t have a memorial or a place [where people] can come to pay their respects whenever they want. We’re still fighting for a permanent memorial and we probably will until we’re dead. 

 

BP: How long have you been working to get a permanent memorial at the crash site?

DF: Well, before we got involved in 2013, there had been other attempts made at this and they’ve failed. So, in 2013, Edwin and Kim and a bunch of other people whom I had met when I was doing the film…we went out to the Lafayette Hotel and did a presentation and the news media did a big story about it. That’s where we decided that this has to be done and we formed a committee…and now…we’re still trying to get this thing done. But we’re getting closer, I think.

KW: I might cry when I say this…we would not be fighting were it not for Dave. Dave’s film is what I always fall back to and I just say to people…This person was a child in Boston and saw this and took it upon himself to take these steps and why can’t we?

 

BP: What was the biggest challenge that you faced?

DF: Well, getting in touch with the right people for one [thing]. But the biggest obstacle to overcome was and probably still is the neighbors. They just don’t want this in their neighborhood. Not in their backyard. The famous NIMBY and I think one woman said it pretty bluntly when she said she doesn’t want her children looking at a cemetery every day. That tells you right there. 

KW: The idea that people in the neighborhood don’t want to be reminded of something that happened – good or bad – is stunning.  If a crash happened i.e., if there was a DUI, there’d be all kinds of candles and tributes and flowers and crosses. This is about a whole lot more than a few people that may have moved in after the fact. 

EL: To me, it was the resistance of the neighbors…that was to me the Debby Downer…that ‘Not In My Backyard.’ This happened in ‘78 and a lot of people there now were not even born in ‘78. They have no idea that something like this ever happened in their neighborhood. So, I think on [the] one side when we educated them, they were like ‘oh wow – but I don’t want a cemetery in my backyard.’  And I say, ‘Ya know, you’re living on top of a cemetery probably.’ 

 

BP (to DF): What prompted you to make the documentary? 

DF: Well, there had been nothing that I could find anywhere that resembled a documentary… that remembered this day. I was watching Discovery Channel shows and I was always waiting for something to come up for PSA 182 and nothing ever did. So it just seemed like this had to be done. I knew the anniversary was approaching in 2008 and so [in] 2007, I started reaching out to people in San Diego.  

 

BP: How do you think a permanent memorial at the crash site will help people?

EL: Every September since [the crash] we’ve done a little something and I don’t think I’ve ever come away without hearing somebody releasing more of what they’ve pent up.  It’s just a release and that’s why I think a memorial at the crash site would be great. They could release [pent up emotions] and they could let it go. So, that’s just another reason why we’re determined to get this memorial. It will help those people who are hanging on to PTSD to this day. So it really goes a lot deeper than having names on a rock. It really does and I am humbled that I am part of this.

DF: While I was making the film, I realized that this was so emotionally important for people to talk about and to finally let loose and to get this off their shoulders and talk about this. And, I found that to be true for most everybody I talked to. People were telling me things that they didn’t even tell their spouse. They kept it balled up and silent for 30 years. So they were grateful, finally, that they had a forum to do this in, and finally, somebody was willing to remember this and give them the opportunity to speak and talk about it. And you noticed in the documentary, there were two firemen sitting at the table and as the interview progressed, one of the firemen finally came to terms with it in the interview. I mean….I just couldn’t… I couldn’t believe it. He was in shock. He was trying to tell the story…and he was in shock through the interview. And finally…finally at the interview, he finally came to terms with it. So that repeated itself over and over again with so many people. It was just an emotionally overwhelming experience. 

KW: Brayden, people shouldn’t have to pay money to get into the museum, or go miles away from the crash site – as Edwin and Dave have both described – to release or respect or visit. They should be able to come close to the crash site and pay their respects whenever they want to without having to [ask people in the neighborhood], “Do you know anything about this crash? Am I close?” It’s like we can’t even get an X to mark the spot.

DF: Like Edwin said, you don’t need a stone, you don’t need carvings of names. All you need is…people that actually care and for the people who are suffering to know that people do care about this and they do want to hear your story, they do want to help, and they do offer a shoulder to cry on…that’s all. 

Photo credit: Kim Whittemore

On September 25th of this year, another anniversary of the PSA 182 crash will dawn. The day will be memorialized by Whittemore, Lohr, Fresina and others just as they have done for years. But, will those who perished be honored with a permanent memorial upon the hallowed ground beneath which they lie? For their sake and for the sake of their loved ones, I sincerely hope so. 

 

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The author would like to thank Mr. Brett McKinney (HCHS) for including the PSA 182 crash in his curriculum, Ms. Kim Whittemore, Mr. Edwin Lohr, and Mr. David Fresina for their dedication and advocacy, Mr. Charles Encisco for his encouragement with research leads, and Ms. Laurel Vozely (HCHS) for her compassionate support throughout the research and writing process.