Failure of the “Big Sky Theory”
In Oakland, California
March 31, 1987
“Crossroads of Commerce”
Construction of the Oakland Airport began in 1927, and the airport was dedicated by Charles Lindbergh in September of that year, just five months after his historic flight. In its early days, Oakland was the departing point of several historic flights, including Charles Kingsford Smith's historic America-Australia flight in 1928, and Amelia Earhart's final flight in 1937.
During World War II, the U.S. military took control of the airport, and used it as the origination point for most of the military flight to islands in the Pacific. After the war concluded, the airport reverted back to its original civilian role.
By 1987, the airport had grown to encompass four runways, two jet terminals, and was constructing a another terminal to specialize in the handling of cargo, and with the arrival of spring, those aspiring to become pilots took to the skies from Oakland Airport's North Field.
Will Fly for Food...
Anastasia Marie “Stacy” Snyder, 25, of Fremont, was a flight instructor with the Alameda Aero Club, and had recently become engaged to be married. Her student, Scott Edward Lindsey, 18, was from Alameda and was on his second flight.
At 09:55 in the morning, Snyder and Lindsey, in Cessna 172N “Skyhawk”, registered as N75584, were cleared for takeoff on Runway 33 with a 'right turn out' in accordance with the established noise abatement procedures. But just seconds earlier, James David Bolesky, 24, who was flying a charter for United Parcel Service in a Piper PA-32 “Saratoga”, registered as N39614, reported his position as nine miles to the north of Oakland, inbound for landing. The tower controller at the North Field told him to plan for a right entry to Runway 27R.
Two minutes later, Bolesky - who had more than 1,800 hours of flight time logged - reported that he was turning downwind over the Oakland Coliseum, a prominent land mark in relation to the airport's North Field complex. The tower controller replied that the Saratoga was 'not in sight' & cleared the pilot to land on Runway 27R.
The two aircraft collided nearly head-on at about 1000 feet in the air, about a mile north of the departure end of Runway 33.
"I thought they were too close” said Darren Rice, a 28-year-old construction worker who told reporters he had witnessed the collision. "All of a sudden, they nicked each other, either the wing tip or the landing gear, and they went straight down.”
"It looked like they had just taken off," another bystander said. "One dropped like a rock, with a wing at a very awkward angle."
The Cessna Skyhawk crashed into the roof of a PG&E warehouse facility, scattering burning wreckage across the ground. The aircraft and its wings, torn away, shot across the storage yard about 50 feet and stacked up against a fence, with the flaming engine plowing through the fence. As vehicle traffic in the area of Interstate 880 and the High Street exit was jammed temporarily as emergency vehicles rushed into the area, workers quickly extinguished the fire. But a security guard - Daniel Robinson, 32, of Oakland - was hospitalized with a chest injury after the crash.
Meanwhile, the Saratoga crashed into nearby Oakland Estuary – some 400 yards away. Divers found the Piper's cockpit virtually buried in the mud under 4 feet of water, but said the pilot's body did not appear to be inside.
A line of divers, some from the nearby Coast Guard Island, waded in chest-deep water through the afternoon, feeling around in the mud with their feet for the body.
Failure of the “Big Sky Theory”
In aviation, the Big Sky Theory is that two randomly flying bodies will likely never collide, as the three dimensional space is so large relative to the bodies. Certain aviation safety rules are based on this concept. It does not apply (or applies less) when aircraft are flying along specific narrow routes, such as an airport traffic pattern.
"One of the two aircraft strayed from what should have been an expected flight pattern," said Barry Strauch, the National Transportation Safety Board's chief investigator of the probe.
The investigation revealed that tower personnel had not provided traffic advisory to either aircraft & that the BRITE (Bright Radar Indicator Tower Equipment) radar was out-of-service for routine maintenance.
Also of note was the fact that airport personnel had posted signs around the airport with noise abatement procedures without FAA approval, which effectively reduced separation between departing and arriving aircraft. When he learned of their presence, the FAA's traffic manager did not order modification or removal of signs.
As a result, the National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident to be that the ATC personnel on duty did not issued a proper traffic advisory to the aircraft, and that the pilots of both planes did not maintain an adequate visual lookout for each other. The fact that the airport did not follow the proper procedure for the establishment of the noise abatement protocols, as well as the FAA's failure to correct the matter when it was observed, also contributed to the mishap, according to the NTSB.
During the lawsuits that followed, it was found that the airport's radar was turned off, and the control tower was understaffed, at the time of the accident. In the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, Judge Stanley Weigel, who was known to be a tough judge with a short fuse that had been appointed to the court by President Kennedy in 1962, ruled that the U.S. government was 75 percent responsible for the crash, and allotted 25 percent of the blame for Bolesky. The family of Anastasia Snyder received $600,000 from the lawsuit, and the family of Scott Lindsey received $425,000
Just off of Earhart Road, the main thoroughfare that services the businesses of Oakland's North Field, there is a small park named for Scott Lindsey.