The Hand of God?
By Rodger Morphett


After I left International Crew Scheduling in 1957, I enrolled at the State of New York College on Long Island at Oyster Bay. The summer after my freshman year was the height of the "Eisenhower Recession". Jobs, especially summer jobs for college kids, were hard to come by. 

Jim O'Malley arm-wrestled George Mundy the Ramp Manager at IDL to give me a job as a cargo agent … later known as ramp serviceman (RSM). I worked one summer as a cargo agent, and the next couple as a ramp agent. I even was also able to get a ramp agent job for a classmate.

One Thursday night, August 31, 1961, we were working the ramp and pulled duty on flight 529, an 049 Connie that started out in BOS, operated through IDL to PIT, MDW, LAS, LAX and SFO. At the time there was a special coast-to-coast fare of $99, for those who could put up with the almost endless flight time and elevator- like ups and downs.  It was also the last flight from New York to Pittsburgh, a route that at the time was pretty much all-TWA's with minimal competition from United, and a regional carrier known then as Allegheny (now USAir).

It seems we always had aircraft weight problems into Pittsburgh because of the high local traffic. The name of the game was to get the folks into Pittsburgh, and often to accomplish that we had to remove some "beyonds.”

It became a rule of thumb that the "beyonds" we pulled were usually military on leave returning to bases in California. If there weren't any military, we looked for clergy traveling on the special fare to LAX or SFO. We would offer to put them up at IDL’s International Hotel overnight, put them on the first jet in the morning to LAX or SFO, with the caveat that we couldn't take their bags off the flight, AND, that when they arrived in either LAX or SFO they'd have to wait a couple of hours for 529 to arrive with their bags. We selected the military and clergy because they were the easiest to convince and to work with to solve the load problem.

That Thursday night we were advised by the load control agent, another college kid named Troiano working the summer vacation, that we needed to remove three full fares to make the landing weight in Pittsburgh. I and the other agent, my college friend Neil Macdonald, went on board and sought the requisite military beyonds to the coast. There were two.

We had no problem making them a deal they couldn't refuse. The third removal was a more difficult case. None of the beyonds we approached wanted anything to do with giving up their seat. Finally we located a young mother traveling with two small children enroute to be with her husband in the military at Fort Ord, California. Neil and I used our best salesmanship, and finally convinced her that she had enough carry-ons for her and the children for the overnight stay. She deplaned but still had some misgivings. We told her we would send a message to her husband to let him know of the new arrival plans. Flight 529 left IDL about 2100 for PIT and points west. But before Neil and I left for the night at 2330, we had not been able to reach the woman's husband.

As most ground personnel working twilights, when we left work we headed for the nearest watering hole. In this case it wasn’t a particularly close one. Instead of the Club Chris near IDL, we went to a bar called D(owling)&C(usak)s on Roosevelt Avenue and 78th Street in Jackson Heights near LGA. Neil's folks were away on vacation and I was staying with him at his home in Mineola on Long Island. We left D&C's around 0330 and started down Roosevelt Ave to the Grand Central Parkway on our way out to Mineola.

We were listening to Bob Hall's “Music ‘til Dawn” on WCBS, sponsored by American Airlines. After we had gone a few blocks there was a news bulletin: TWA's flight 529 had crashed on take off from Chicago's Midway Airport, killing all aboard. In shock, Neil immediately pulled over to the curb, looking at each other and began to weep. Not so much for those who were lost, but for the woman and her two children who were alive because we had convinced her to deplane.

For years after Neil and I would often talk among ourselves in hushed tones about if we had really selected the woman and her kids, or if someone or something had specifically led us to choose her.

Perhaps no clear answer is the best answer.

Rodger Morphett (1955-1990) served at IDL, LGA and BOS  in a variety of positions including ramp service, station operations, City Manager, Planning & Controls, Standards, Transportation and Crew Scheduling.
(Editor’s Note: Coincidentally, Contrails Editor Jerry Cosley was on duty in Chicago as a  public information rep the night of 529’s accident, and spent the next several weeks responding to news media demands and inquiries. Although TWA officially challenged the findings, the NTSB [CAB at the time] ultimately determined that the accident’s “probable cause” was a defect in the airplane’s hydraulic boost package (much like an auto’s power steering mechanism) which adversely affected elevator control)