Pontifications: Book Review, “Tigers in the Sea”

By Scott Hamilton

May 17, 2021, © Leeham News: Tiger in the Sea is a new book about the 1962 ditching of a Flying Tigers Lockheed Constellation L-1049H in the stormy North Atlantic.

It was, in modern-day comparisons, the US Airways Flight 1549 of its day. But while all 155 passengers and crew on 1549 survived the ditching in Hudson River, 28 of the 76 on board died.

US Airways 1549’s captain, Chesley Sullenberger, landed in the cold but calm Hudson River. Rescuers surrounded the plane within minutes. Tigers Capt. John Murray ditched in 20 feet seas in the middle of a storm with gale-force winds. The nearest ship was 13 hours away. Those who died survived the impossible landing.

Trouble with the engines

Sullenberger’s airplane engines failed because a flock of Canadian geese was ingested. Murray’s Constellation was powered by four notoriously balky Curtiss Wright piston engines well known for in-flight failures.

Astonishingly, from the beginning of Murray’s event to the landing, three of the four engines failed, a long-odds calculation. Two failed due to mechanical issues. A third failed because the flight engineer, a recent hire from Eastern Airlines where he also flew Connies, hit the wrong switch on the unfamiliar Tigers cockpit to shut down an engine. Damage incurred prevented a restart.

Sulley’s passengers and crew had only seconds to prepare for the ditching and little time to think about the emergency and possible outcomes. Murray’s crisis began just past the point of no return on a trans-Atlantic flight. The passengers and crew had an estimated five hours in a desperate attempt to divert to Shannon to think about their crisis and the worsening emergency as one engine after another failed. Finally, down to one operating engine, it became clear Murray had to ditch the airplane well short of Ireland.

High and the Mighty

The book begins with the first engine failure and returns to describe the flight, the Constellation’s historical troubles with the engines, the histories of the flight crew and passengers. In this respect, the book reads like a real-life High and the Mighty, the classic 1950s fictional-based-on-fact story by Ernest Gann.

For us old fudds and aviation geeks, Gann was the premier aviation writer of the 1950s. With a history in commercial aviation and as a World War II ferry pilot, Gann’s experiences were translated to book after book. The High and the Mighty was one of several turned into a movie, in this case starring John Wayne. It was the original disaster movie.

Unlike Gann’s characters in the book, whose backgrounds were sappy and boring both in reading and the overlong movie, author Eric Lindner tells interesting stories of Tigers 923’s passengers and crew.

While Gann’s TOPAC DC-4 flight suffered a single engine failure past the point of no return, the drama ensued when the departing propeller gashed the wing, causing the flight to lose fuel. The loss led the pilot (Robert Stack) to conclude he’d have to ditch the Honolulu-to-San Francisco flight.

Flying through a storm, Stack and co-pilot Wayne worried that ditching in the cold, stormy Pacific would be catastrophic. Meantime, a Coast Guard Boeing B-17 left San Francisco to intercept the TOPAC flight.

In real life, the military launched a B-17 to intercept Tigers 923. Just as in Gann’s story, the intercepting B-17 worried it would miss Tigers.

Ditching

The fictional TOPAC flight was able to barely make a safe landing in San Francisco through clever use of fuel settings on the three remaining engines. Even so, fuel starvation caused one engine to cease on the final approach.

There was no such luck for Tigers’ Capt. Murray. Having flown for a few hours on two engines, the third engine began to fail under the strain. Finally giving up, Murray had only minutes left to land the Connie on one engine into a stormy North Atlantic sea.

Passengers and crew had to exit the airplane as it filled with water. The high seas caused one raft to overturn upon launch and another to immediately drift from the plane before passengers could board it. In the end, only two rafts were used, a direct contribution to the deaths of 28.

Author Lindner includes in his story the hearings by the Civil Aeronautics Board, which investigated accidents then. Murray’s piloting was nothing short of a miracle and whose handling of the emergency was professionalism at its best. Nevertheless, he had to defend his actions (not just explain them) against some accusatory questions.

Linder closes the book by revisiting the postscript of the lives of many passengers and crew. Perhaps the saddest and most ironic story is that of Capt. Murray. Years later, he died while snorkeling during a layover between his Tigers flights.

Tigers in the Sea is one of the best crash books I’ve read. It’s available through Amazon.

 

10 Comments on “Pontifications: Book Review, “Tigers in the Sea”

  1. I also had a survival story my book A real live survival story by Capt. Denis G. Murphy, depicts the art of diching airplanes in the ocean.

    • And perhaps ‘ditch’ is the best, if not only, word to use? ‘Land’ can scarcely be appropriate since land is the missing vital element. Purists might offer ‘alight’ (as in a passenger alighting from a train (or ‘bus), especially one not yet stationary), a term best – and correctly I suspect – applied to a seaplane or flying-boat.

  2. Forget where I read it, but there was a Tigers Charter loss of a Connie between Guam and the Philippines for some kind of secret ops into Vietnam.

    Our FAA station was the first on scene for a precautionary ditching of a North West Charter DC-7 off Sitka AK in the late 59-60 era.

    We have come a long ways since those days.

  3. Scott,

    Thanks… I love these sort of true life stories. Not to nit pick, but it’s ‘Tiger in the sea’ , not Tigers.

  4. The Constellation had a bad reputation and a very bad safety record, and the same goes for the Wright engines. Of he 850 Constellations (all models) built, about 150 were lost in accidents of all types, some 40 due to engine/propeller failures. By todays standards it would be grounded.
    Of the 3 contemporaries long-range American aircraft, The DC-6/DC-6B had the best safety record, 60 lost out of 700, 10 due to engine/propeller failures.
    It’s successor, the DC-7, had also a bad record but the worst was the B-377 Stratocruiser.

    • The larger number of super constellation losses were in military hands, for whatever reason and only about 25% flying passengers whereas the DC6 was nearly 50% flying passengers. If you click into Accident statistics on the following pages you’ll get the breakdown. The Tigers are quite common.
      https://aviation-safety.net/database/types/Douglas-DC-6/index
      https://aviation-safety.net/database/types/Douglas-DC-7/index
      https://aviation-safety.net/database/types/Lockheed-L-1049-Super-Constellation/index

      I suspect the R-3350 was pushed heavily in power to get enough MTOW for long range operations. I recall one ex QANTAS Engineer telling me they did over 20 engine changes on one QF1 flight Sydney to London. Hot take offs were a problem. Too easily we forget what the gas turbine brought to us no only dramatically improving engine reliability but seemingly getting rid of propeller issues. There was an turboprop version of the Super constellation proposed. There is one youtube training video showing a super constellation flying on one outer engine.

      • Indeed, and much further back airliners disappeared without a trace, at least a few over the Atlantic between refuelling stops. Plausible factors besides weather and fuel problems were possibility of a fire under the floor of one model.

    • Note that only the DC-7C variant had Turbo Compound engines.

      Note that only some of the Lockheed Super Constellations had Turbo Compound engines.

      B-29s had them to get range to bomb Imperial Shinto into submission. They had teething problems.

      Dan McIvor wisely switched the Martin Mars back to nonTC engines when he purchased them from USN to set up a forest fire fighting operation on Vancouver Island.

      The Canadian Navy used the TC engines on its FrankenPlane submarine patrol aircraft, the Argus. In its final years navy personnel were not skilled enough at maintaining the engines for reliability. (Trying to patrol the Beaufort Sea from a base on Vancouver Island, mission scrubs were common, some flights did not even reach the High Arctic before turning back. It was a 23 hour mission if it succeded.)

      Only some versions of the Wright R3350 were Turbo Compound,and the Mars first flew with basic R3350s, so McIvor’s task was relatively simple.

      The TC version had exhaust gas turbines coupled into the crankshaft with hydraulics, to get fuel efficiency. That pushed the gas generator, aka cylinder banks, harder.

      (DC6s did not have Wright TC engines, nor did the Boeing 377 though its big Pratts were unreliable.)

  5. If you want to see some of those big radials, one museum to check is the one at Pearson Field by the river in Fort Vancouver WA.

    In the back is an area of engines, IIRC one of them is the big Pratt R4360 radial that came after the Wright R3350 and was used on the Boeing.

    That museum was re-oriented to children with, with special events. I don’t remember how much of the airline memorabilia such as uniforms were transferred from the old museum there, the old biplane was given back to Russians.

    There’s an R3350TC in the museum at Langley BC’s airport.

    • Correction, a monoplane from Russia.
      https://www.historylink.org/File/7208

      Ended up at Pearson by happenstance.

      (As for the Canadian Navy’s Frankenplane, it was comprised of:
      – wings, tailfeathers, and landing gear of Brittania airliner but with North American materials and some strengthening
      – fuselage I’m not sure of, unpressurized to suit observation blisters and bomb bays for sonoboy chutes, nose is DC4/6
      – the TC engines instead of turbo-propeller engines
      The Brittania based CL-44 was in production in Canada at some point, as was the DC-4 (as the Merlin powered NorthStar).

      There may still be an Argus weathering away at Comox BC airport

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