This is It, Baby!
Reflections on Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182
“This is it, baby! Brace yourself! Mom, I love you!” – the last physical set of words echoed by captain James McFeron and first officer Robert E. Fox of Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) Flight 182 on its final descent into San Diego on an unusually warm Monday morning of September 25, 1978. At 9:02:07 a.m., America’s Finest City changed forever as the jet liner N533PS with a smile across its face met its untimely fate in the quiet suburb of North Park at the intersection of Dwight and Nile Streets.
About nine minutes prior, the PSA Boeing 727-214 airplane entered San Diego’s skyline with 135 passengers and crew aboard when the unspeakable occurred after a customary scheduled flight from Sacramento to San Diego via Los Angeles. Thirty-seven passengers on this particular flight were regular PSA employees who were flying for free. Many of them were either San Diego or Los Angeles residents who were traveling to Lindbergh Field to attend an operations training colloquium.
Established in 1972, PSA, or the “World’s Friendliest Airline” worked to mimic the “swinging 60s” and had recently expanded to offer services throughout the state of California. With the “Catch our Smile” theme, its planes showcased the epitome of bold colors, consisting of fuchsia, orange, red and white stripes along with confident PSA logos, a black-button nose and smile.
On the hot, Santa Ana morning of September 25th, as one of the proud “Grinningbirds” of the PSA line made its final approach toward Lindbergh Field just 4,000 feet above, a Gibbs Flight Center Cessna N7711G, rapidly ascended at 120 mph, approximately 1,300 feet below when it struck and was taken down by the larger jet. Just a couple of agonizing seconds ensued when McFeron uttered the heart-wrenching, poised words, “Tower, we’re going down; this is PSA.”
Inside the small Cessna cockpit sat 35-year-old United States Marine gunnery sergeant David Lee Boswell and Martin Kazy, who was the proud owner of a commercial pilot license with years of certified flight instructor experience. The former was learning the components of the ILS or Instrument Landing System. A little known fact held that Lindbergh Field was the only airport in the city’s vicinity equipped for ILS certification training. Thus, the Cessna was coerced to contend with the Boeing aircraft for air space above the airport. On-board transponders signaling both planes’ headings, altitudes and glide paths were connected to dashboard-supported ILS instrument gauges. However, even with these technological aides, the eventual outcomes for each proved to be tragically futile.
The course of events to happen just moments after impact left a permanent mark on the souls of all San Diegans and those across the United States as the happy, smiling PSA aircraft violently crashed nose-first, just 80 feet northeast at the crossroads of Dwight and Nile Streets. The reverberating impact and towering inferno as a result subsequently took the lives of seven on the ground and was forcibly albeit reluctantly witnessed by many. The sheer magnitude of this collision along with the thousands of gallons of jet fuel initiated an imposing shock wave on the San Diego Museum of Natural History’s seismograph.
After colliding with the PSA jet, the little Cessna and its two souls aboard rapidly fell toward earth as the 110-ton plane impacted and flipped the 2,100-pound Cessna upside down right into the PSA aircraft’s right wing. What ensued after collision tore the latter in half, resulting in the rupturing of one of its internal fuel tanks along the PSA jet’s right wing. Captain, first officer and flight engineer Martin Wahne grappled with the doomed airliner.
A sequence of ill-fated events occurred in the moments preceding disaster. In a way, we must thank both the Cessna and PSA jet as new and improved safety procedures and regulations arose out of this catastrophic misfortune. At 8:59:30 NAS Miramar duly informed Flight 182 of “traffic at twelve o’clock, one mile, northbound” to which McFeron replied, “We’re looking.” Further conversations moments after revealed that there were two smaller vehicles (both Cessnas) flying in front of and below the larger jet. McFeron was then mandated to “maintain visual separation” from any incoming aircrafts and to inform Lindbergh of his final approach. This meant that PSA flight crew had to maintain a visual on the Cessnas at all times without impacting them.
Flight 182’s descent was aided by Lindbergh Field whereas NAS Miramar was in charge of the Cessna’s (N7711G) approach. Just thirty seconds after 9:00 a.m., Boswell was notified of and acknowledged that “traffic at six o’clock [directly behind them], two miles, eastbound; a PSA jet inbound to Lindbergh Field, out of 3,200 [feet altitude that], has you in sight.” Just eight seconds later, Lindbergh updated McFeron that there was “traffic, twelve o’clock, one mile, a Cessna.” A quick exchange between McFeron and Fox revealed that “I think he’s pass[ed] off to our right,” or “I think he’s passing off to our right.” Air traffic controller statements suggested that he thought he heard McFeron say “passing,” which implied that PSA crew visualized the Cessna passing to its right.
As a result, Lindbergh control did not convey any additional information to PSA Flight 182.
Just before 9:01 a.m., further conversation between the PSA crew indicated their assumptions of the Cessna being out of sight; additionally, it was unclear whether their assumptions were regarding the Cessna 401 or the Cessna N7711G. Furthermore, the latter Cessna changed its course from 70 degrees to 90 degrees without letting Miramar know. This decision placed it in the direct path of the larger jetliner. Additionally, Boswell and Kazy did not have admittance to Lindbergh Field’s radio transmissions; perhaps, if they had, they would have probably been able to pinpoint their location relative to Flight 182. Thus, as you can glean, visibility was the core issue for both aircrafts.
Twenty-eight seconds past 9:01 a.m., Miramar was alerted of an imminent collision between the Cessna and PSA jet. It was revealed that Miramar chose to only notify the Cessna of “traffic in your vicinity, a PSA jet has you in sight, he’s descending for Lindbergh.” This transmission remained unacknowledged by both Boswell and Kazy. In utter amazement, PSA 182 and Lindbergh Field were not notified about Miramar’s radar-activated conflict alert warning, thus, contributing to the concluding destiny of both aircrafts.
Within minutes of the unbelievable impact, San Diego emergency crews rushed to the scene; a prospect surely mimicking the sights and sounds of war. In fact, there were hundreds of individuals who landed upon the location to offer whatever assistance they could. What they and North Park residents were coerced to see in the aftermath would soften the toughest of individuals. A quiet, tree-lined street with chirping birds and quaint houses just moments before turned into a scene of sheer disaster with towering flames, shattered pieces of jetliner and lifeless bodies. Years after this indescribable event, first responders, residents and fellow Southern Californians suffered with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and with good reason. Even in the present day, many individuals cannot go a day without being reminded of PSA Flight 182.
As a paranormal researcher and historian, I am drawn to locations that have witnessed utter tragedy and heartache. The intersection of Dwight and Nile Streets is one such site that I have visited on numerous occasions. On different days and evenings, I have spent considerable time here trying to offer consolation to the passengers and crew of flight 182, the two souls aboard the Cessna and those on the ground. It has been my personal mission to let them know that they are free from any pain and suffering associated with their last seconds in the physical. I have openly talked with each and every one of them; in my heart, I know they have heard me.
As Paranormal Underground Magazine has a supernatural theme, I will share that I have experienced some profound spiritual encounters at the crossroads of Dwight and Nile Streets. Some of the occurrences are so powerful and I keep them private in order to hold their respect and reverence. However, I will share one particular event that struck my very center: one morning, as I pulled up along the east side of Nile Street and parked my car, I noticed movement out of my right peripheral vision. When I glanced over in that direction, I saw a beautiful young stewardess adorned in her colorful PSA uniform. She appeared as she would have looked when boarding the flight as opposed to her eventual exodus; in other words, she materialized as whole without a scratch or bruise. Perhaps, the inherent message in appearing before my eyes was her way of letting me know that she’s “okay” and “at peace.” It is my sincere hope that all those who perished have or will soon be reunited with loved ones in the “light” and have found eternal love and solace. On one of my recent visits to this location, I sensed an overwhelming feeling of peace unlike that of other times.
I am sensitive to any tragedy; however, I have been exceptionally rocked and saddened by the crash of PSA Flight 182. Perhaps, there are elusive reasons as to why, those that I don’t really need to know or understand. Interestingly, my mom was pregnant with me by one month at the time of this disaster. Several of my maternal relatives resided just a few blocks south of the impact. When I was in my primary years, I flew Pacific Southwest Airlines on a couple of occasions. I distinctly remember choosing to sit in the red, flower-adorned seats and looked forward to receiving my little PSA wings pin from one of the stewardesses. As with many others, I have fond memories with this airline as a young child. So, for these aforementioned reasons and those beyond, the story of flight 182 really hits home.
It’s entirely possible that what those souls felt in their last breathing moments on the planes was unlike what those felt on the ground. I would like to think that their fear was overshadowed by hope; by the many prayers and by the conviction that they might make it. I imagine the feeling was, perhaps, similar to driving up Santo Road in my mom’s neighborhood of Tierrasanta, San Diego in the wake of the 2003 wildfires, not knowing whether I would see her house or a pile of ruins. I held onto hope.
In their final physical moments, they, too, held onto hope at the same time as feeling a sense of surrender – surrender to the free fall, to saying goodbye to the physical world. They held hands, they prayed, they cried, and they loved each other during those last few moments of their lives. I would like to think that their souls left their physical bodies before impact and peacefully passed and landed in the arms of God.
James McFeron and his flight crew were unwavering heroes in their last seconds on earth; their courageous and calm composition in the face of impending disaster is nothing short of pure admiration. Every soul that sadly departed the physical world on that fateful day in 1978 lives on in our hearts, memories and every jetliner that flies among the skies. Their accomplishments and devotion to their family, friends and work will always be remembered with high esteem. Even though I am just one person among many, this article is my way of honoring their legacies.
A memorial ceremony is held every year on September 25th for those who tragically slipped the surly bonds of earth at 9:02 a.m. in 1978. It’s a time for family, friends and fellow San Diegans to come together and commemorate all those who were lost but not forgotten. A memorial plaque showcasing the names of the departed sits underneath a tree in front of the North Park Library, a tangible reminder to hold them close in our hearts for eternity. Let’s remember that the 135 souls aboard, including the two in the Cessna and the few on the ground, flew with a set of wings and departed with a set of wings and it is my hope that they are soaring high among heaven’s pastures.
PSA Flight 182 – Always in our hearts!
Written by Nicole Strickland
Paranormal Researcher, Author, Lecturer
Reference: Bevil, Alexander D. “Memories That Will Never Go Away – The Crash of Flight 182 and its Aftermath.” The Journal of San Diego History 63, no. 3+4 (2017)