TWA’s Mystery Ship

By Jerry Cosley & Joe Nemecek  

I finally found a missing file in the clutter of my “stuff,” and can now piece this eerie tale together -- it’s odd, but true. More than 20 years have elapsed, and I’m still not sure what really transpired. Ah well, I’ll just lay it out and you can make of it what you will. I promised some of the participants involved that I’d never, ever blow their cover, so some names have been deleted or changed (ital.) and locations masked in this narrative.

 It begins with an otherwise typical New York office day at 605 Third Avenue in January 1983. “John Able is on the phone for you,” my secretary Nikki announced. I recognized John as a TWA executive I had known in Chicago when I started with TWA, and took the call.

 “I really need your help,” he started, “I don’t know what to do with this!” He then related the bizarre tale of a recent cocktail party in the large western city where he had been newly assigned. As he was being introduced around the gathering, a worried local civic leader approached to say he wanted to speak to him in private. “One of your planes is in terrible danger,” the guy told John. They found a place to talk and John was confronted with this: the civic leader was close to area law enforcement types and was aware that they frequently and successfully used a local clairvoyant (CV … I don’t know what else to call him) to help with investigations. Well, civic leader himself had gotten involved in one such inquiry, and in chatting with CV had learned he was very disturbed about a current “vision” he was having involving the crash of a TWA airplane. Obviously concerned, John agreed to talk with CV and got his phone number. It was after this conversation that John called me … he felt he should advise someone in corporate HQs as he wanted no further part in it.

 “You’re the only guy back there I know!” he pleaded. He related the basics of the vision which included: 4-engine jet, probably a 707, early evening or night, over a coastline, left wing starts to disintegrate, explosion and fire, crash, all die. After I had chewed on John’s butt for dragging me into something so totally wacko, I told him I’d look into it and if necessary run the senior executive trap line for him. I got CV’s phone number and later that same day we talked for about a half hour.

 

My early impressions of him were these: he’s not crazy, haunted by this “curse” of being able to foresee events, relieved that I appeared to take him seriously, getting increasingly concerned because frequency and clarity of the vision indicates the timing of the incident was “getting very close.” Anxious to get some backup on something I truly did not know anything about, I asked him if there was someone in his group of law enforcement contacts I could talk with. I almost wet my pants when he gave me the name and phone number of the Agent-In-Charge (AIC) in the FBI’s field office in his community.

 I called the AIC the next day, and while he was unaware of the TWA vision, he backed up CV’s claims 100%. He related a number of cases where CV had helped them and the local police get a fix on criminal events, contraband, autos and bodies. He also said the FBI had confirmed that CV had accurately predicted the earlier Air Florida Flight 90 Boeing 737 crash into the 14th Street bridge in Washington , DC on January 13, 1982, but had been unable to reach any authorities to intervene.

 I’ll never forget the AIC’s closing comment: “Mr. Cosley, I can’t tell you how to do your job, but his accuracy rate with us is about 85 percent, and if I were you I’d take all this very seriously!” That was not what I wanted to hear, but there I was, very clearly holding a very scary tiger by the tail.

 First stop the next day was to meet with TWA President Ed Meyer, who already had a somewhat jaundiced view of my abilities from an earlier “downwind” incident. I’d been ordered to drop Croatian propaganda leaflets on Manhattan from an NYPD helicopter to help terminate the hijacking of Flight 355 in September 1976. My planning was thorough, but the execution was flawed as nearly all of the leaflets ended up -- not on the streets of Gotham -- but in the East River .

 After briefing Meyer, I was much relieved that he didn’t automatically turn me into a grease spot on his office carpet. He merely said that he wanted me to handle it, involve the VPs of Flight Operations and Maintenance (but no one else), keep it discreet, and inform him immediately of anything significant. The two VPs, Ed Frankum and Dick Pearson, reacted much as I had, i.e., shock and disbelief, but both committed to considering any and all approaches to deal with the situation.

 Since the vision involved the airplane coming unglued, we decided to focus most of our attention on maintenance operations of the 707 fleet, and any wing-related incidents or write-ups that Boeing or the FAA had gleaned from 707 operations worldwide. We did not reveal to any of them just why we were interested.

 

Pearson assigned Joe Nemecek, Staff VP Maintenance Planning & Control, to the case. I flew to Kansas City to meet with Joe at the overhaul base, and we placed a call to CV from his office. We chatted on the speakerphone for nearly an hour, and closed by thanking CV and outlining a plan. I told Joe that CV now sounded even more nervous and agitated about the possible close-in timing of the “event” than in my earlier conversation with him.

 Joe’s plan had determined that a 707 routinely overnights at CV’s airport, and we made arrangements to meet him and the FBI agent there so CV could touch and examine the airplane to his heart’s content. CV thought, and we hoped, that doing so might trigger additional detail and/or clarity. We gathered there the next week, had dinner, talked and the FBI agent drove us to the airport. Joe’s cover story for the local troops on the ramp was that we were “airplane buffs/friends who just wanted to see a 707 up close.”

 We spent several hours with the airplane, but the only apparent ground we gained was when CV took a seat in 15D in the coach section. He kept looking across the aisle and out the left windows saying, “This is where I am in the vision. I can see the top of the wing there and that’s where it starts.” He then went on to describe seeing the upper leading edge surface of the wing, just immediately inboard of the #2 engine, begin to peel up and erupt in a ball of flame. He jumped to his feet, clearly alarmed, muttering, “it’s something near that engine!” That was about all we could glean and I think we got to bed about 3.a.m. None of us slept very well, and on the plane back to KC the next day, Joe said he was going to recommend a fleet-wide inspection of our 707s.

 Dick Pearson and the other TWA execs signed off on Joe’s plan, and over the next two weeks every ship in the fleet got a close-up exam of the inner third of the left wing, with special emphasis on the #2 engine strut, attach points and alignment. Joe’s “cover story” here was that we were concerned about “possible misalignment of the engine mounts/struts causing stress to the wing structure and skin.” The line maintenance worker bees at most carriers are so used to crazy ideas emanating from HQs that they just shrugged their shoulders and did the work. All we found were a couple of mildly loose attachments and drooping engines, but nothing of any safety significance.

 We all stayed in touch during the following months, with CV eventually saying the vision had “drifted away … sometimes they do that.” He was almost in tears, apologizing for what he had put us through, but “grateful that no one had to die.” My last contact with him was sometime in 1984, after he had moved to another state. We promised to stay in touch but eventually lost contact, and we only very recently learned of his death in 1991 at age 56.

 ###

 Joe Nemecek adds this Postscript: Everything in this story is true but, for me, there is another story -- a story within the story.

 When I was growing up there was a well-known psychic in the 1960’s who supposedly predicted the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. She said that she had tried to get in touch with someone close to him before his trip to Dallas but was unsuccessful.

 After President Kennedy’s death many others “came out of the woodwork” and stated publicly that they had had some premonition of his death. These events got me very interested in whether or not the future could, in fact, be predicted and if so could it be changed … or were we “predestined,” as John Calvin had stated centuries before, to just live out our lives by a pre-ordained script.

 I scientifically studied the predictions of many psychics after that time and came to two conclusions: Either they were vague in the details of their prediction and/or they were not very accurate. Even the most famous prediction made by Jean Dixon after her supposed prediction of Kennedy’s assassination, was during the Nixon presidency when she predicted that the United States would go to war with China over the two little-known islands of Quemoy and Matsu. That did not occur.

 The prediction made by CV was also sketchy in facts although quite specific in results. In my conversations with him I was able to get only a few more details to add to what Jerry provided: The wing separation occurred shortly after takeoff with the sun in the west (indicating late afternoon) and that there were two numbers that were important: “753/312.” They were seen in CV’s reported vision in just that manner, with the “slash” between the two numbers.

 Literally hundreds of hours were spent over the following months trying to make sense out of what these numbers might mean. They did not correlate to a time or date when a 707 was scheduled to takeoff (or even near that time to account for a delay) from any

 station in TWA’s system. There were no flight numbers or plane identification numbers (both TWA’s or Boeing’s) that were close to these two numbers. Likewise, although both the wing and fuselage structural stations are numbered, nothing is identified that is close to 753 or 312 as an inboard wing area.

 As mentioned above, we did call out for wing and pylon inspections on all TWA 707 aircraft that still had flying time left -- even the ones that were currently grounded, saving time on them so that they could be used in the summer when TWA flew its highest number of flights to accommodate vacation travelers.

 I was about to conclude that we had done all that we could reasonably do, when I got a copy of a letter from CV. He had stated that he had a vision that a three engine aircraft was going to lose all three of its engines due to mechanical problems. He drew a picture of the aircraft and it was clearly an L-1011 by the location of the engines at the rear of the aircraft. CV added that he also had another vision of the TWA crash and it was even clearer and more imminent than before. Nothing new occurred in the vision to help pinpoint either the plane or location.

 After getting this information I was certain that CV was definitely wrong about the three-engine failure. TWA was applying for FAA approval to fly the L-1011 aircraft from the U.S. to European cities. The major concern that the FAA had was that there could be multiple engine failures on a flight causing the loss of the aircraft over the ocean because it would be too far from an airport to land. Having a master’s degree in applied mathematics, I did an analysis that showed that the probability of just two engines failing before the aircraft could land would occur less likely than once in 10,240,000 flying hours. (International flights would never be more than 1:20 minutes from shore ( Iceland or Greenland ) and an L-1011 can safely land with just one engine operating.) The chances of a 3-engine failure before the aircraft could land would not occur once in more than 980 years of operation.

 Less than a week later, May 5, 1983, an Eastern L1011 had taken off from Miami for a location in the Caribbean . A little more than an hour out of Miami the airplane lost the center engine due to oil depletion. Since the aircraft was closer to Miami than the destination, the flight crew decided to turn around and head back to Miami . They shut the center engine down.

 Shortly after turning back toward Miami , the right-hand engine signaled that it too was running out of oil and losing power. The flight crew continued to operate the engine until complete failure in order to shorten the time of returning to Miami . It failed about 20 minutes out of Miami , leaving them with only one engine to complete the flight. Less than 5 minutes out on the approach, the remaining engine indicated low oil pressure and was starting to fail. In desperation, the flight crew restarted the center engine -- the first

engine that had been shut down. On final approach, the left engine completely failed and just after touchdown the center engine completely failed, leaving the aircraft on the runway with no engine power. A tractor had to be attached to the aircraft and tow it to the terminal. CV’s prediction had come true…but how?

 It turned out that a mechanic had changed the chip detectors on all three engines on the aircraft the night before as part of routine maintenance. The chip detectors are installed in the engine’s oil system. They are magnetized probes that pick up metal in the oil. This is

analyzed after removal in a lab to determine if the engine is liberating metal chips from bearings or other moving parts. If so, the engine may be failing and would need to be removed before an in-flight shutdown occurs. The replacement chip detectors that the mechanic got out of stock did not have o-rings stocked with them. He proceeded to install them without o-rings, allowing the oil from the engine to seep out around the threads where the chip detectors are screwed into their mountings. The oil loss in flight caused the engines to fail.

 I redoubled my efforts to try to find out which airplane was predicted to crash and to take steps to correct the problem before it could cause a failure of the wing.

 It was now late summer, the latter part of August, and the accident had not occurred. I heard again from CV. He senses that the threat is still very real but that another airline accident will occur first -- the crash of a JAL 747. He has no other details except all aboard will perish.

 On September 1, 1983, KAL (Korean Airlines) flight 007 was shot down over the Okhostk Sea by Russian fighters. All 269 passengers and crew aboard are lost. CV was off by just one letter on identifying the airline and right-on in identifying the incident.

 The strain is telling on me. Although I have not told my wife about the prediction, she senses something is very troubling to me. Over dinner one evening in late September she asked me what is wrong. She is quite concerned; so I tell her the whole story. When I finish, she says that I have done everything humanly possible and if the accident still occurs, I should not feel that it is my fault. I reply that that is exactly what most concerns me.

 “What if in all that I have done: the fleet retirement plan changes that I had made, the rerouting of stations into which 707s are now flying, the maintenance service bulletins I have called out to be done, the extra inspections I have scheduled, the engine changes that I have scheduled to prevent an engine from coming apart and taking off the wing; what if in all these changes I have made hoping to avoid the accident, I did the one thing that will cause it to happen. And if I had done nothing and just let things proceed as scheduled, nothing would have happened … but because I did change things, it caused

the accident I was trying to avoid. I said that I didn’t know if I could live with myself if that happened.

 She replied, “Joe, they don’t pay you enough to do this.”

 On October 31, 1983 the last 707 arrived on a flight into Kansas City at 6:43 p.m. I called Dick Pearson, at his request, and told him that the last 707 flight was safely on the ground. The next morning he called me into his office and thanked me for all the effort that I had put in on this project over the year. He then asked me what I had learned from this experience.  

I told him that I had wondered for a long time, since high school, if people had the ability to predict the future. I said that I still wasn’t sure of the answer but I was sure of one thing: That, if the future can be predicted, it was not certain to occur that way; that in all the things that we had done; all the changes we had made; something happened that

changed the pattern and the prediction that the aircraft would crash, and it did not happen. If the future can be predicted, it can be changed. We can change it.

 I never heard from CV again and often wondered what became of him. I agree that his visions were not a gift but a curse -- one that I would not wish on anyone.

 Of all the stories I can relate in my 38 years with TWA, and there are many, this is at the top of my list as the most interesting and personally meaningful.

 Joe Nemecek (1960-1998), started as an Associate Engineer and served in Maintenance and Ground Operations at MCI, and Airline Information Services at KCAC. Jerry Cosley (1960-1985) served in Public Relations/Corporate Communications in CHI, LAX, SFO, MKC and NYC.

 ###