The Legacy of Galaxy Flight 203

9:08 PM, Jan 20, 2005   |    comments
Reno: January 1985
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By Allen Costantini, KARE 11 News

Sixty-nine-year-old Jean Koski's very blue eyes turned a shade sadder in her Plymouth townhouse earlier this month. "I remember," she said. "Last year on the 21st … I just had … a major breakdown and I hadn't done that for a long time." The cause of Jean's tears? The loss of her husband. Two decades have passed since she was able to hold Bill in her arms, but he is always a presence in her life. "The kids and I," she sighs. "We talk about Bill a lot." For several weeks in 1985, a great many people talked a lot about Bill and those who died with him. Years later, the incident is seldom mentioned. This, despite the tragedy's importance to the safety of all air travelers since. Twenty years ago, Galaxy Airlines Flight 203 fell out of a clear and cold Nevada night. The crash killed Bill Koski and 69 others, including the six person crew. Aside from the pilots and cabin crew, everyone on the plane was returning to Minnesota from a gambling and skiing Super Bowl weekend. The ill-fated junket was under the auspices of the Caesar's hotel and casino in Lake Tahoe. A WTCN (now KARE 11) investigation revealed that Hy Thayer, the junketeer who had promoted the trip, was not properly licensed under Nevada law. The vehicle chartered for the excursion was an aging Lockheed Electra. The old airliner was one of the last of the great turbo-prop airliner designs. With four engines on the wings, the Electra was one of the most powerful propeller-driven passenger planes ever built. The Electra's problem was timing. The plane had the misfortune of coming into production in an era when the airline industry was switching to jet powered aircraft. By the 1980's, Electras in American airspace appeared mainly in the fleets of small charter companies. They hauled both cargo and passengers. Galaxy Airlines of Fort Lauderdale, Florida owned three of the planes. Preflight
Just after midnight on January 21st, 1985, the happy revelers from Minnesota and western Wisconsin were settling into their seats in the Electra's cabin for the final leg of their trip. In the cockpit, the pilots noticed a falling star in the cloudless sky above the airport. Some who later reviewed the cockpit voice recorder transcripts wondered if they might have regarded the sight as an omen. They would be falling from the sky themselves a few minutes later. The pilots took note of the Reno ground crew fussing under the starboard wing. There was nothing unusual about that. The Electra's engines were coaxed to life with blasts of compressed air. A hose from the ground crew truck connected to the plane via a small door just behind the leading edge of the wing. It was the ground crew's job to close and lock the "air access door" after the engine start process was completed. The Electra taxied onto the runway. The four great propellers chewed into the crisp night air and the old airliner began its last flight. Even after 20 years, the panicked communication between the crew and the Reno control tower is haunting. "Galaxy flight 203! Like to make a left downwind! We've got to get back on the ground." The pilot's voice was shaking, either from fear or the sudden shudders jarring his aircraft. He was asking for permission to make a left turn. The tower was caught by surprise. "Galaxy 203? Say again?" "Yes, sir!" the person in the cockpit responded in a quavering voice. "We'd like to make a left downwind! There is vibration in the aircraft!" After months of investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board would determine that the air access door had been left open. Flapping on takeoff against the underside of the wing, the metal panel was causing the violent bumping felt inside. The pilots, however, only knew that something was wrong with their aircraft. Their reaction is part of air disaster history. "No one was managing the aircraft," Minnesota congressman and aviation expert James Oberstar said. "They were all troubleshooting. Someone failed to fly the aircraft." Confusion in the Cockpit
There is little doubt that confusion reigned in the flight 203 cockpit. Although they had requested permission to turn left, the aircraft turned to the right. It was just a few hundred feet off the runway. Apparently thinking the vibration was coming from an engine, the crew throttled back on the power. The combination of the turn and the diminished power proved fatal. An aircraft needs more power to turn than to fly straight ahead. The Electra dropped its right wing and began to plunge toward the ground. Tragically, it would be revealed that the crew's action was not just flawed, but unnecessary. An air access door had been left open on at least one other Electra flight on record. In that case, the pilot took the opposite action to flight 203. He accelerated the aircraft. The small metal door was torn from the wing, but no further damage resulted. That plane completed its flight with no significant compromise of its air worthiness. It's not known if either pilot in the Reno accident was aware of the earlier incident. Federal investigators would later wonder who was actually in command of flight 203 in its final moments. Someone in the cockpit called for "full power!" The engines responded. In fact, so powerful was the Electra's power plant that some observers at Safety Board hearings the following April surmised that the old plane might have been able to muscle itself back into the air if it had been just a few feet higher, if there had been just a few more seconds of flight. As it was, the Electra ran out of sky. All four propellers were turning at full speed when the fully-fueled airliner hit the ground at the edge of the airport property. It disintegrated in a fireball. The debris was scattered through a recreational vehicle parking lot and across a major highway connecting Reno and the state capital at Carson City. Tragic News Back Home
At the Hubert H. Humphrey terminal in the Twin Cities, a dreaded announcement fell on the worried ears of those waiting for the arrival of flight 203. "Any friends or relatives of the passengers on the Galaxy flight, please come to passenger service." Minnesotans would wake in hours to news of the worst single loss of life of their state's residents in the history of aviation. An outpouring of grief swept the state and the nation. At first, there was hope that three might live to tell the in-flight tale of that terrible predawn, but Bill Koski's traveling buddy, Wayzata High School math teacher Bob Miggins, succumbed to severe burns a week later. Saint Paul businessman George Lamson Sr. died of head injuries. Only one person, 17-year-old George Lamson, Jr. survived. His composure captivated the nation. "I thought I was dead," he explained to television cameras from his hospital bed. "I didn't know if I was alive or not." Lamson was hardly a naïve teenager when it came to flying. He had flown on trips with his father dozens of times before the Reno junket. An enthusiastic skier, the Cretin-Derham High School senior had challenged the slopes that border Lake Tahoe while the older crowd frequented the casinos. Lamson had taken a seat next to his father in the front row of the Electra cabin, directly behind a bulkhead. He heard the bumps from the starboard wing and realized they were not normal. The teenager had expressed reservations earlier in the trip about the safety of the old plane, but was always assured by the pilot that there was no cause for worry. As the Electra shuddered into the sky, Lamson knew something was wrong. The plane's right wing dipped as it began its ill-advised right turn. Lamson recalled looking out his window and seeing stars. The competition diver pulled his knees to his chest just as the plane hit the ground. A remarkable focus of forces ripped Lamson's seat from of the dissolving fuselage. The teenager was catapulted up and out of the fireball, landing upright in the middle of the highway still strapped in his seatbelt. He unbuckled in a split second and dashed toward a field at the far edge of the pavement as the fire exploded behind him. "I ran as fast as I could," he told reporters. Lamson's upbeat mood and willingness to appear before cameras in a wheelchair with his head bandaged amazed television viewers from coast to coast. All of that changed, however, when his father lost his battle for life without ever regaining consciousness. It would be years before Lamson would speak publicly again about surviving the crash. In an attempt to offer solace to the survivors of the 1989 United Airlines crash in Sioux City, Iowa, Lamson recalled his own experience to KARE 11 reporters. "It's exhilarating, then depressing, because you're thinking 'jeez, I'm blessed by God to be alive' and then you realize that all these people died and you're the only one there. I felt alone. You know, my father was my hope to be able to discuss with, but I never had that chance." Lamson turned 37 in 2004. He is a father now himself. It would probably surprise many to know that he says he hasn't set foot in Minnesota in ten years. For a time, he lived in Florida, but now he has made his home in Nevada, the state that brought him brief fame and the lifelong simultaneous image of luck and misfortune. He remains a very private person. Contacted by telephone, he asked KARE11 not to reveal anything more of his work or whereabouts. The station has decided to honor that request, but Lamson said he wants Minnesotans to know that he is "thankful for an extra 20 years of life." Twenty years ago, reporters who covered the accident and its aftermath, including Allen Costantini and KARE11's Bernie Grace, filed reports from the scene pondering how history would view the tragedy. At the time, Grace noted, "There are so many things they have to look at. They're going to be looking at the aircraft records, the maintenance records prior to the crash." Little did Grace or the other reporters realize how important the legacy of flight 203 would become. Galaxy's Legacy
In 2005, Oberstar says the fall of flight 203 has raised air safety for everyone. "The 64 victims of Galaxy Airlines did not die in vain," he said, referring to the passengers. Caught illegally moving oil from one engine to another on one of its remaining Electras, Galaxy was shut down in 1986. The company's president, Phillip Sheridan, eventually went to prison for his airline's shady maintenance practices. Oberstar said Galaxy had been cannibalizing its own planes for parts, as well as obtaining worn material from other sources. One of the four propellers on flight 203, for example, was at the end of its legally allowed life on an aircraft. Oberstar, the ranking minority member of the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation Committee said the FAA has tightened its oversight of maintenance practices. The agency more than doubled its staff of inspectors from 1,400 in 1985 to more than 3,300 in 2005. Oberstar calls the 1985 levels "gross understaffing." There have been big changes in the nation's cockpits, as well. The National Transportation Safety Board had been calling for mandatory cockpit resource management, or CRM, since 1979. Notes Oberstar, "For those specific circumstances when there is an urgency, someone has to fly the aircraft and someone else has to do the troubleshooting." The Galaxy pilots' apparent confusion and the 1993 Northwest Airlink crash in Hibbing, Minnesota helped convince the FAA that the NTSB was right. Still, it was 11 years after the Reno accident when the change was made. In 1996, all airlines were finally required to teach CRM to all pilots. Flight crews are now trained to leave their egos on the ground and delegate authority. Another change affected America's men and women in uniform. Galaxy Airlines had a contract to U.S. military cargo. How could that be? Oberstar explains, "The Air Force was relying on Galaxy's certificate of operation as approved by the FAA." Shocked by the Reno crash and the deaths of 254 U.S. servicemen later than year in an Arrow Airlines charter at Gandar, New Foundland, the Pentagon formed its own office and began checking airlines itself. In the first ten years after Galaxy, 50 airlines were rejected for military contracts. Of course, no one is suggesting that any of these changes can make up for Minnesota's loss on that one cold January day. "We will never forget," says a wistful Jean Koski. She used some of Bill's insurance payout to build a playground for children on the shores of Plymouth's Parker's Lake. She gave scholarships for ten years at Wayzata High School, where Bill was a guidance counselor. And she works hard at keeping his memory alive for new generations of his family. "Our grandchildren," she smiles, "write stories about him, draw pictures of him… It's like they know him, too, even though, they never did." Bill Koski lies side by side with fellow flight 203 victim Bob Miggins in a small cemetery in Plymouth, within sight of the playground. The family visits the site on birthdays and anniversaries, singing songs they have written about the gregarious man lost so long ago. Jean decorates the graves each Christmas. Jean, the grief counselor, has also decorated people's palms across the country with bronze medallions bearing her husband's philosophy. They are words the guidance counselor spoke to some students at Wayzata just before leaving for Reno. "Friends," he urged, "Life is fragile. Enjoy each other while you can." Jean Koski has taken her husband's advice. She has traveled around the globe and there is a new twinkle in those very blue eyes. "After almost 20 years, I have a new love in my life," She volunteers the news of a new love from an old friendship — Don Chilstrom, a friend of her husband's who delivered the eulogy. Chilstrom was, himself, to have joined his friends, Koski and Miggins, on the fateful flight. Only obligations to students kept him at work in the Wayzata High Guidance Office. Of the charismatic Koski he once commented, "He had a way of involving himself with people that they never forgot." Chilstrom and his wife Dorothy stayed close to the widowed Jean until Mrs. Childstrom's death from cancer in 2002. Don added his wife's gravestone to the line begun by Koskie and Miggins in the same cemetery. He and Jean grew close. "We started helping each other and hanging out and it blossomed into a nice romance," she smiles. No one who knew Bill Koski thinks he would not approve. Jean Koski, George Lamson, Jr. and Minnesota have moved on since Reno, but the echoes of flight 203 in the hearts of the victims' families and the improved safety of air travelers will never fade completely.

(Copyright 2005 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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