An August Afternoon of Tragedy

On the first Friday in August, a small group of single adults from my church gathered in a home in Arlington, Texas. It was a social get-together and discussion about forming an official single-adult group at the church.

It’s been twenty-nine years since that gathering, so I don’t remember who the other people in attendance were. I don’t even remember how we happened to turn the television on.

It was raining, but nothing about the weather seemed out of place to us. That is, until we saw the horrible pictures the news crews were sending from DFW Airport.

An airplane depends upon the speed of the air rushing over and under its wings to provide the lift to keep it in the air. Normally, airspeed is a relatively stable thing. It increases as the pilot increases the engine thrust or lowers the plane’s nose to descend, and it decreases as the pilot reduces the engine thrust or raises the plane’s nose to climb. These increases and decreases are relatively gradual, not instantaneous.

Weather can throw monkey wrenches into this normal stability. Wind direction and velocity vary with altitude. While the wind on the ground may be from the south at ten miles per hour, at 30,000 feet above that same point, it may be from the north at twenty miles per hour. Again, normally this change in direction and velocity is gradual as the altitude increases. A thousand foot change in altitude may bring on a change of a few compass points in direction and a couple of miles per hour in velocity, but it’s gradual enough not to be particularly noticeable.

On this particular afternoon, Delta Flight 191 was inbound to DFW from Fort Lauderdale on its way to Los Angeles. Unknown to the pilots, there was a phenomenon known as wind shear taking place just off the approach end of runway 17C.

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A Lockheed L1011 similar to that of Flight 191

In wind shear, the air at a given altitude is markedly different in velocity and/or direction from that immediately above it. A plane flying at 149 knots airspeed (171 mph), which was the landing speed for this Delta L-1011, and heading into, say, a fifteen knot headwind would have a groundspeed of 134 knots. The wind would be holding back the plane’s speed in reference to the ground by that fifteen knots.

If the plane then descended through a wind shear into a level where the wind was coming from behind at fifteen knots, the groundspeed would still be 134 knots, but the airspeed would suddenly drop to only 119 knots. That sudden shift in the wind would have no instantaneous effect on the airplane’s speed with reference to the ground, but that’s not what keeps a plane in the air. The airspeed in this example would suddenly drop from 149 knots—the plane’s landing speed—to 119 knots—which would be too slow to sustain flight, and it would fall to the ground.

This is perhaps a bit oversimplified and exaggerated, but it illustrates the effect of wind shear. I don’t know the various speeds actually involved for this airplane, but the net effect was that the plane hit the group short of the runway and not in a proper configuration to land.

It touched the ground about 1.2 miles north of the runway, where it bounced back into the air. It came back down again crossing State Highway 114, a freeway running by the north end of the airport, where it demolished a black Toyota, killing its driver. Then it skidded onto the airport property where it collided with two 15,000 gallon water tanks and exploded. Out of 163 passengers and crew members, 136 were killed in addition to the Toyota driver.

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We completely lost interest in our party as we stood glued to the television screen. That afternoon, and for days afterward, the media continued to show view after view of the crash and the rescue efforts that followed. I don’t know about people who viewed this around the world, but those of us here in the Metroplex that afternoon have the scene indelibly imprinted on our brains. I doubt any of us will ever forget it.

Where were you on August 2, 1985? What do you remember about this tragedy?

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WANA: We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.

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For more information about David N. Walker, click the “About” tab above.

For more information about his books, click on “Books” above.

Contact him at dnwalkertx (at) gmail (dot) com or tweet him at @davidnwalkertx.

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About David N. Walker

David N. Walker is a Christian husband, father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years in the health insurance industry, during which time he traveled much of the United States. He started writing about 20 years ago and has been a member and leader in several writers' groups. Christianity 101: The Simplified Christian Life, the devotional Heaven Sent and the novella series, Fancy, are now available in paperback and in Kindle and Nook formats, as well as through Smashwords and Kobo. See information about both of these by clicking "Books" above.
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9 Responses to An August Afternoon of Tragedy

  1. Karlene says:

    David, I was in college… baby number three due in 2 months. The interesting thing about this accident and others of its time is they were initially trying to maintain the glideslope as they did not realize what was happening… that they were in windshear. A microburst can change a headwind to a tailwind and slam the plane into the ground in seconds. We learned a lot from those days. Today we would receive warning and execute a missed approach before it was too late.
    I actually had forgotten this was a Delta flight.

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    • Thanks, Karlene. I thought they had probably improved forecasting enough to detect such things these days. Passengers should feel safer knowing that.

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      • Karlene says:

        Definitely, and my current plane… A330 won’t stall. So we get into windshear and max power and follow pitch up guidance.

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  2. I have distinct images of that day, David. Thanks for the details on wind shear. I knew it crippled pilot control of that plane, but never understood the dynamics.

    We were packing our car to go to the lake house. It was sunny & clear in our part of Irving, but I saw a black cell near the airport.

    Then the call came. My husband was a captain in the Irving Police Department. It’s the first and only time I saw him rattled & knew what had happened when he asked “Was it a jumbo? Where did it hit,? Ground injuries?” Then he told the caller to begin the emergency call out procedures. He ran upstairs to get back in uniform, tossed me the keys to his squad, and sent me to fetch the field radios stored there.

    I don’t know how first responders handle and process what they see in situations like that. All lthose dead and injured…God rest their souls.

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  3. Barb Estinson says:

    David, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you mention being so near the airport when this tragedy happened. I was far away … in Kalispell … but I clearly recall where I was when I heard the news about it. I was at the home of a friend, packing my crystal after giving a crystal show. She and I were both shocked, but I was more so, since it was at my home airport. I later met a woman whose mother was killed in the crash. Such a tragedy.

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  4. Sharon K. Walker says:

    Gosh, I don’t remember what I was doing the date of this tragic airplane crash. I do remember reading about the accident, and sincerely hope such a tragedy as this doesn’t ever repeat itself at D-FW.

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