|Date||February 15, 1961|
|Summary||Loss of control for undetermined reasons (possible mechanical failure)|
|Site|| Kampenhout, near Brussels Airport, Belgium |
|Aircraft type||Boeing 707-329|
|Flight origin||Idlewild Airport, New York|
|Destination||Brussels Airport, Zaventem|
Sabena Flight 548 was a Boeing 707-329flight operated by Sabena that crashed en route from New York City to Brussels, Belgium, on February 15, 1961. The flight, which had originated at Idlewild International Airport, crashed on approach to Zaventem Airport, Brussels, killing all 72 people on board and one person on the ground. The fatalities included the entire United States figure skating team, who were travelling to the World Figure Skating Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The precise cause of the crash remains unknown; the most likely explanation was thought to be a failure of the mechanism that adjusted the tail stabilizer.
This was the first fatal accident involving a Boeing 707 in regular passenger service; it happened 28 months after the 707 airliner was placed into commercial use.It remains the deadliest plane crash to occur on Belgian soil.
There were eleven crew members on board the flight.The two pilots, Louis Lambrechts and Jean Roy, were both experienced ex-army pilots. There were no difficulties reported during the seven and a half hour trans-Atlantic flight from New York; there was no indication that the plane was in any particular trouble, although the flight crew did lose radio contact with Brussels airport about twenty minutes before coming in to land.
Under clear skies, at about 10:00 Brussels time (CET; 09:00 UTC), the Boeing 707 was on a long approach to Runway 20 when, near the runway threshold and at a height of 900 feet (270 m), power was increased and the landing gear retracted. The airplane had been forced to cancel its final approach to Brussels airport, as a small plane had not yet cleared the runway. The 707 circled the airport and made another attempt to land on adjoining Runway 25, which was not operational; this second approach was also aborted. It became clear to observers that the pilots were fighting for control of the aircraft, making a desperate attempt to land despite the fact that a mechanical malfunction was preventing them from making a normal landing. The plane circled the airfield three times altogether, during which the bank angle gradually increased until the aircraft had climbed to 1,500 feet (460 m) and was in a near vertical bank. It then leveled its wings, pitched up abruptly, lost speed and spiralled rapidly nose down, plunging into the ground less than two miles (3 km) from the airport, at 10:05 CET (09:05 UTC).
The location of the crash was a marshy area adjacent to farmland near Berg (then an independent municipality, nowadays part of Kampenhout), four miles northeast of Brussels.Eyewitnesses said that the plane exploded when it hit the ground and heavy black smoke was seen coming from the wreckage which had burst into flames. Theo de Laet, a young farmer and noted amateur cyclist, who was working in a field near to the crash site, was killed by a piece of aluminum shrapnel from the plane. Another field worker, Marcel Lauwers, was also hit by flying debris which amputated part of his leg.
Father Joseph Cuyt, a local priest who had been observing the airplane as it came in to land, rushed to the scene but was driven back by the intense heat of the fire.Airport rescue vehicles arrived at the crash site almost immediately but the plane was already a blazing fire.
Baudouin I, King of the Belgians, and his consort, Queen Fabiola, travelled to the scene of the disasterto provide comfort to the bereaved families. They donated oak coffins bearing the royal seal to transport the bodies back home.
All eighteen members of the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating team lost their lives,as well as sixteen other people who were accompanying them, including family members, professional coaches, and skating officials. Among the fatalities were nine-times U.S. ladies' champion, turned coach, Maribel Vinson-Owen and her two daughters: reigning U.S. ladies' champion Laurence Owen, aged sixteen, and her 20-year-old sister, reigning U.S. pairs champion Maribel Owen, both of whom had won gold medals at the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Colorado Springs just two weeks earlier. Laurence Owen was the cover story for the February 13 issue of Sports Illustrated , just two days before her death.
Maribel Owen's pairs champion partner Dudley "Dud" Richards and reigning U.S. men's champion Bradley Lord were also killed, along with U.S. ice dance champions Diane "Dee Dee" Sherbloom and Larry Pierce. The team also lost U.S. men's silver medalist Gregory Kelley, U.S. ladies' silver medalist Stephanie "Steffi" Westerfeld, and U.S. ladies' bronze medalist Rhode Lee Michelson.
Despite the fact that some national teams had already arrived in Prague for the World Championships—which were scheduled to start on February 22—the devastating loss of the U.S. team forced the event to be canceled.The competition organizers in Prague initially confirmed that the event would go ahead, but the International Skating Union (ISU) conducted a poll to agree on the most appropriate course of action; the vote, which took place on February 16, went in favor of cancelation out of respect for the U.S. team. A telegram was sent from ISU headquarters which read: "In view of the tragic death of 44 [sic] American skaters and officials the 1961 world championship will not be held." Prague was given the chance to host the event the following year.
The figure skating team was mourned across the U.S. and all of the national newspapers carried the story on their front pages.
In office for less than a month, President John F. Kennedy issued a statement of condolence from the White House, which read: "Our country has sustained a great loss of talent and grace which had brought pleasure to people all over the world. Mrs. Kennedy and I extend our deepest sympathy to the families and friends of all the passengers and crew who died in this crash."He was particularly affected by the tragedy; pairs skater Dudley Richards was a personal friend of the president and his brother Ted, and they had spent summers together in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
The disaster struck a severe blow to the U.S. Figure Skating program, which had dominated the sport throughout the 1950s. Frank Shumway, who had only very recently become vice president of U.S. Figure Skating, predicted that it would take up to four years for the U.S. to regain its world prominence in the sport.
Barbara Roles, the 1960 Olympic bronze medalist, felt obligated to come out of retirement, and won a gold medal at the 1962 U.S. Championships less than eight months after giving birth to her first child.At the same time, some of the younger American figure skaters progressed more quickly due to the lack of senior skaters competing in the field. Scott Allen won a silver medal at the 1962 U.S. Championships when he was just twelve years old, and then won bronze at the 1964 Winter Olympics the week of his fifteenth birthday, becoming one of the youngest Olympic medalists in history. It was not until 1965 that the U.S. started to win medals at the World Championships again; and the U.S. did not regain international prominence in figure skating until the 1968 Winter Olympics when Peggy Fleming won gold in the ladies' event and Tim Wood won silver in the men's.
As the fatalities included many top American coaches as well as the skating team, the tragedy was also indirectly responsible for bringing foreign coaches to the U.S. to fill the vacuum that was left behind. U.S. Figure Skating team coach, William Kipp, who was one of those who died on the Brussels flight,was eventually replaced by British former world champion pairs skater John Nicks in the fall of 1961. Italian world bronze medalist Carlo Fassi was another international coach who relocated from overseas to help rebuild the U.S. Figure Skating program.
The disaster prompted U.S. Figure Skating executives to issue a mandate that still applies today: No team traveling to an international competition would ever be allowed to fly together again.
The Belgian Government immediately ordered a full inquiry into the cause of the accident,and an investigation was conducted by the Belgian National authorities, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), who spent several months combing through the evidence. There was much speculation about what may have happened; the FBI even reportedly considered the possibility of terrorism.
The exact cause of the crash was never fully determined, but the authorities eventually agreed that the most likely explanation was a mechanical failure of one of the flight control mechanisms,probably a malfunction of either the wing spoilers or the tail stabilizers. Although there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt which of the flight systems had malfunctioned, the FAA were of the opinion that the tail stabilizer-adjusting mechanism had failed, allowing the stabilizer to run to the "10.5deg nose-up position".
There were 34 members of the U.S. Figure Skating delegation on board the fatal flight—almost half the plane's occupants—all heading for the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships in Prague. The eighteen figure skaters were accompanied by six coaches, the team manager, two judges, one referee, and six family members. The notable victims are listed below.
Within days of the tragedy, the U.S. Figure Skating Executive Committee established the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Memorial Fund, to honor the eighteen team members and their entourage who lost their lives on Sabena Flight 548.The mission of the Memorial Fund was to help rebuild the U.S. Figure Skating program, by providing financial support to promising young figure skaters to enable them to pursue their goals and develop their full potential. In March 1961, a benefit was held in the Boston Garden arena to raise money for the Memorial Fund. Over the years, thousands of young U.S. skaters have benefited from the fund which has continued to grow and prosper. One of the first beneficiaries was 12-year-old Peggy Fleming, whose coach William Kipp had died in the plane crash. Fleming became a symbol of the rebirth of U.S. Figure Skating when she went on to win gold at the 1968 Winter Olympics.
In January 2011, the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating team were inducted into the U.S. Skating Hall of Fame in a special ceremony at the 2011 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina.All eighteen team members were inducted, along with the six professional coaches that were accompanying them on the flight, Linda Hadley, William Kipp, Maribel Vinson-Owen, Daniel Ryan, Edi Scholdan, and William Swallender.
In 2009, U.S. Figure Skating commissioned the production of a full-length feature documentary film called RISE, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the loss of the 1961 figure skating team.The film was produced and directed by the Emmy Award winning company Lookalike Productions, of Englewood, New Jersey. RISE was shown in theaters across the U.S. for one night only, on February 17, 2011, with one encore presentation on March 7, 2011. Proceeds from the movie were donated to the U.S. Figure Skating Memorial Fund. The film was shown on the Versus network on October 22, 2011.
Vinson-Owen Elementary School, in Winchester, Massachusetts, is named in honor of Maribel Vinson-Owen and her two daughters who died in the accident.It ranks consistently among the top schools in Greater Boston.
The 40th anniversary of the crash was marked by the unveiling of a five-foot-high stone monument in Berg-Kampenhout,close to the scene of the tragedy. Local dignitaries attended the unveiling ceremony which took place on February 10, 2001.
The Societé anonyme belge d'Exploitation de la Navigation aérienne, better known by the acronym Sabena or SABENA, was the national airline of Belgium from 1923 to 2001, with its base at Brussels National Airport. After its bankruptcy in 2001, the newly formed SN Brussels Airlines took over part of Sabena's assets in February 2002, which became Brussels Airlines after a merger with Virgin Express in March 2007. The airline's corporate headquarters were located in the Sabena House on the grounds of Brussels Airport in Zaventem.
Laurence Rochon "Laurie" Owen was a Hall of Fame American figure skater. She was the 1961 U.S. National Champion and represented the United States at the 1960 Winter Olympics, where she placed 6th. She was the daughter of Maribel Vinson and Guy Owen and the sister of Maribel Owen. Owen died, along with her mother, sister and the entire United States Figure Skating team, in the crash of Sabena Flight 548 en route to the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships.
Guy Rochon Owen was a Canadian figure skating champion.
Maribel Yerxa Vinson-Owen was an American figure skater and coach. She competed in the disciplines of ladies' singles and pair skating. As a single skater, she was the 1932 Olympic bronze medalist, a two-time World medalist, the 1937 North American champion, and a nine-time U.S. national champion. As a pair skater, she was the 1935 North American champion and four-time national champion with George Hill. She also won two national titles with Thornton Coolidge. She was the first female sportswriter at The New York Times, and continued competing and winning medals while working as a full-time reporter.
Francis M. Carroll is an American figure skating coach and former competitive skater. He has coached three skaters to win the World Figure Skating Championships: Linda Fratianne, Michelle Kwan, and Evan Lysacek. His pupil, Evan Lysacek won the men's Olympic gold medal in 2010 at Vancouver.
Barbara Ann Roles is an American former figure skater who currently works as a coach. She is the 1960 Olympic bronze medalist and the 1962 U.S. national champion.
Alain Giletti is a French figure skater. He is the 1960 World champion, the 1955-1957 & 1960-1961 European champion and is a ten-time French national champion. At the age of 12, he represented France at the 1952 Winter Olympics, where he placed 7th. He placed 4th at the 1956 Winter Olympics, and 4th again at the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Maribel Yerxa Owen was an American figure skater.
Ronald Ludington was an American figure skating coach and pair skater. With Nancy Rouillard Ludington, he was the 1960 Olympic bronze medalist, 1959 World bronze medalist, and a four-time U.S. national champion.
Eduard "Edi" Scholdan was an Austrian figure skater and figure skating coach.
Harold Hartshorne was an American ice dancer.
Daniel Ryan was an American ice dancer who competed with partner Carol Ann Peters.
Bradley Lord was an American figure skater who competed in men's singles. He finished fourth at the 1960 United States Figure Skating Championships and then placed sixth at that year's World Figure Skating Championships after the top three U.S. skaters skipped the event. The following year, he won the gold medal at the 1961 United States Figure Skating Championships and placed second at the 1961 North American Figure Skating Championships.
Gregory Eric "Greg" Kelley was an American figure skater who competed in men's singles. He won the junior title at the 1959 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and finished ninth at the 1960 World Figure Skating Championships after the top three U.S. skaters skipped the event. In 1961, he won the silver medal at the U.S. Nationals and the bronze at the North American Figure Skating Championships.
Dudley "Dud" Shaw Richards was an American figure skater who competed in men's singles and pairs. In singles, he won the bronze medal at the 1953 United States Figure Skating Championships and finished sixth at that year's World Figure Skating Championships. In pairs, he once skated with future Olympic gold medalist Tenley Albright, before later teaming up with Maribel Owen. After winning the bronze medal at Nationals in 1958 and 1959, the pair captured the silver in 1960 and finished tenth at that year's Winter Olympic Games. In 1961, Owen and Richards won the gold medal at the U.S. Championships and finished second at the North American Figure Skating Championships.
Dallas "Larry" Pierce was an American ice dancer. He was the 1961 U.S. national champion with Diane Sherbloom.
The 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Championships was held at the World Arena in Colorado Springs, Colorado, from January 25 to 29, 1961. Medals were awarded in three colors: gold (first), silver (second), and bronze (third) in four disciplines – men's singles, ladies' singles, pair skating, and ice dancing – across three levels: senior, junior, and novice.
The 1962 U.S. Figure Skating Championships was held in Boston, Massachusetts from February 1 to 4, 1962. The compulsory figures and initial round dance events were held at the Skating Club of Boston rink, while the finals were held at the McHugh Forum rink at Boston College. Medals were awarded in three colors: gold (first), silver (second), and bronze (third) in four disciplines – men's singles, ladies' singles, pair skating, and ice dancing – across three levels: senior, junior, and novice.
Winchester High School is a comprehensive 9–12 high school located in Winchester, Massachusetts, United States. Founded in 1850, it moved into its current location in the spring of 1972. Ranked 16th among Massachusetts High Schools, close to 98% of students graduated in 2016, with about 96% of those continuing to higher education.
The American Skaters Guild was the first skating teachers organization in North America. On August 10, 1938, a meeting took place of thirteen prominent figure skating coaches from the U.S. and Canada. The meeting took place in Lake Placid, N.Y. and was for the purpose of forming an association of professional figure skaters. The goals of this new organization were to provide mutual protection to the coaches and the clubs employing them, and to foster better relationships with the clubs and the United States Figure Skating Association. The group discussed the formulations of methods of ascertaining the competency of figure skating instructors by giving them tests directly associated with their actual teaching ability. Yearly dues of $5.00 were tentatively approved and officers were appointed, also temporarily. Willy Boeckl was elected President ; Willie Frick, 1st Vice-President; Walter Arian, 2nd Vice-President.
The plane crash that killed the 1961 U.S. world championship figure skating team decimated families and the sport, but alongside grief came renewal.
Something must have been wrong in the cockpit: for the last 20 minutes of flight, Pilot Louis Lambrechts did not contact Brussels Airport. He made a wheels-down approach, but went round again, possibly because a Caravelle jet was taking off. (from Feb. 24, 1961 issue of Time)