Continental flight 11

7 Jun 24 7 Comments

Sixty-two years ago, on the 22nd of May 1962, Continental Airlines flight 11 broke up at 39,000 feet.

Flight 11 was the last flight of the day: a one-hour commuter flight from Chicago O’Hare, Illinois, to Kansas City, Missouri.

It was a stormy Tuesday evening and only half of the seats had been sold. The son of a staff member who was working the Continental ticket counter has written about his father’s recollections of that day. His father was the gate agent for the flight. He just finishing up when two passengers arrived late: Thomas Doty and Geneva Frayley. They were travelling together and had stayed in the same hotel the night before; however media reports varied as to whether Geneva Fraley was Doty’s secretary or girlfriend or business partner. It seems unlikely that she had any idea what he had planned.

The stairs had already been moved away from the airliner, a Boeing 707, but when the gate agent reported that two more passengers had arrived, the stairs were brought back so that they could board.

The cabin was run by the chief purser and four cabin crew. The thirty-seven passengers were primarily men on business trips, including several Chrysler Motors executives flying to an event. One was a Japanese engineering student studying locally. Geneva Fraley was the only woman passenger.

The gate agent remembered that the weather was terrible: thunderstorms with rain and hail. When he escorted the two passengers to the aircraft, one of the cabin crew gave him a cup of coffee and wished him a nice evening before they closed the doors again. When he’d met his wife, she worked as cabin crew with Continental but, in 1962, airlines promoted their cabin crew as young and single and expected them to leave the job if they got married. So she’d left the airline and taken a job as a nurse but the gate agent said he’d thought of her when the cabin crew member was so kind to him.

The flight departed at 20:35 local time. In the cockpit were three flight crew: two pilots and a flight engineer. The bad weather continued to plague them and the crew were concerned about the lightning, icing and turbulence associated with thunderstorms. The captain requested a change from 28,000 feet to 39,000 in hopes of avoiding the thunderstorms west of Chicago.

Fifteen minutes into the flight, the flight crew reported to Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center that they’d reached 39,000 feet and asked for information on a squall line visible ahead of the flight. Chicago Center did not have any helpful information and handed the flight over to the Flight Following Radar Service at Waverly, Iowa. Again, the flight crew asked about the storm area and discussed deviations to avoid the thunderstorm. The details of the conversation confirm that the aircraft’s navigation and on-board radar were working as expected.

The flight deviated to the north and passed the storm, after which the Waverly controller said that a direct course to Kirksville should avoid the remaining weather. The flight crew responded that they were starting the turn and requested clearance direct to Kansas City. The controller cleared the flight and said their descent clearance was being processed.

A few minutes later, the controller called the flight again to say that he couldn’t get through to Kansas City Center. One of the crew responded that they could probably get through on the radio, “do you want to send us over?”

The Waverly controller tried one more time and finally got through to Kansas City Center to hand off the plane. He confirmed that flight 11 should change frequency to Kansas City but he didn’t get a response. Thinking that the flight was just out of range, he reported to Kansas City Center that the radar return for flight 11 was about 10 miles south of the intersection of Airways J45V and J64V and moving in a southerly direction. The Kansas City controller saw an indistinct target at that position but it disappeared after two or three sweeps. The Waverly controller saw the target fade from his radar scope.

Continental Airlines flight 11 had disappeared.

The controller’s first thought must have been the thunderstorm and that the aircraft had been brought down by bad weather. The temperatures in the heart of a storm could lead to severe icing and hail could shatter a windshield or get pulled into the engines. In the heart of the storm, excessive wind and turbulence could have stressed the aircraft and caused structural damage.

The captain of a B-47 from Forbes Air Force Base flying in the local area was at 26,500 feet and flying north when he saw a bright flash in the sky ahead and above him. Several people on the ground in the area reported hearing loud noises and two said that they saw a big flash or ball of fire in the sky. All of the witnesses, including the captain of the B-47 flying in the area, reported that the weather was clear.

When the sun rose the following morning, owners of small aircraft were asked to take the sky. Mercruiserdr remembers that he was just five at the time when his grandfather was contacted by the Appanoose County sheriff. His grandfather took him to the airport, where they ran into two men who had just landed to report that they’d spotted the main wreckage.

My grandfather, my dad and I all jumped into his pickup and headed for the crash site. I barely remember anything about the crash site. Dawson went to the terminal building to contact the Sheriff and relay their discovery.

Search and Rescue services rushed to the scene to find the Boeing 707 crumpled in an alfalfa field, having impacted nose-down.

The engines had torn off in the final descent, landing some distance away. But the tail and the left wing were found even further away, four to six miles from the main wreckage.

When the first responders opened the cockpit, they found the fatally injured flight crew still in their seats with smashed smoke masks. The oxygen hoses were broken and stained with blood, showing that the crew had been wearing them at the time of impact.

Near the captain’s yoke was the emergency checklist. The landing gear was down and the flaps were up: the aircraft was configured for an emergency landing.

Continental Airlines quickly sent out workers to paint over their logo on the wrecked fuselage but it had already been photographed and shown in every major news outlet.

One paper told the story of a man who went outside with his son to find a jet engine lying in the yard. One woman found a body near her barn. The wreckage landed in a 40-mile narrow path, from the initial break-up to the aircraft’s impact in the field; they were finding pieces for weeks. Cloth napkins with the Continental logo turned up near Iowa City, 150 miles away.

Six miles from the main wreckage, near where the tail had landed, they found a lavatory door handle and a pillow with traces of blood.

The accident investigation was led by the Civil Aeronautics Board, the predecessor to the modern NTSB.

Investigators painstakingly worked to collect all the wreckage and created a grid in a hangar to identify the pieces. As they attempted to reassemble the aircraft, they conducted additional intensive searches to find the missing pieces.

This reconstruction showed them that the pieces of the wreckage became smaller and smaller in the direction of the lavatory at the back of the aircraft. Most of the lavatory was never found other than the handle near the start of the fallen wreckage. Using the small pieces of the rear of the plane that they able to find, they concluded that at 39,000 feet, an explosion had destroyed the backend of the aircraft. The explosion could not be explained by any aircraft operation or expected combustible material.

The flight crew would have immediately lost control and had no way of knowing what had happened. The smoke masks were likely in response to the dense fog which forms after an explosive decompression.

The Civil Aeronautics Board contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigations. They tested residue found on the small pieces from the right rear lavatory and confirmed that the source of the explosive pressure was dynamite. The remains confirmed that the source of the explosion was in a waste towel bin underneath the wash basin.

Someone had placed a bomb in the lavatory. This was now a federal criminal investigation.

The Civil Aeronautics Board issued their final report.

The board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the disintegrating force of a dynamite explosion which occurred in the right rear lavatory resulting in the destruction of the aircraft.

The FBI report is not in the public domain but some of the details can be pieced together using the information released to the media at the time. Agents discovered a shop where six sticks of dynamite had been purchased shortly before the crash. When they spoke to the shopkeeper, he quickly identified Thomas Doty, the passenger who had arrived late for the flight, as the man who had bought the dynamite. Doty had also been picking up books on explosives and dynamite at the local library.

Now that the FBI knew who had placed the dynamite into the aircraft, the pieces began to fall into place. Doty had mounting personal problems. His business had gone bust and he’d gotten a job as a salesman but had lost it with accusations of “womanizing” two months before the crash. He was now unable to provide for his wife and their 5-year-old daughter. His wife was pregnant again, increasing the pressure on him. A month before the crash, he was arrested for attacking a woman to steal her handbag and her car, and the preliminary hearing was coming up quick.

Doty took out a large amount of life insurance policies, including one for 250,000 US dollars at the airport before the flight. Doty had set off the dynamite, killing everyone on the plane, in hopes of leaving his wife financially secure.

Mercury International Vending Machine (Smithsonian Photo by Mark Avino)

It didn’t work. His wife never received a payout. One insurance company refunded her the cost of the premium, so Doty’s scheme left her with an additional $12.50.

At the time, terminals selling life insurance were common in US airports and Doty was not the first to think of using one for financial freedom. There were a few aircraft incidents and sabotage attempts motivated by people hoping to collect on their life insurance policies. In one particularly horrifying case, a young man hid explosives in his mother’s Christmas present so that it would explode in flight and he could collect the insurance payout. Doty was one of the last, possibly because it was a very high profile case which did not succeed in collecting the insurance. The insurance companies began to publicise that they would not pay out on aviation fatalities if there was any sign of sabotage.

(Buying life insurance at the airport goes right back to 1896: this vending machine in Milan airport sold policies for Assicurazioni Generali is the earliest known version).

In the US, as the public began to view air travel as routine and regulation forced lower policies, the demand for last-minute life insurance dwindled.

In 2009, a man contacted Continental Airlines on behalf of his wife, whose father had died on the flight when she was 4 1/2 years old. He asked that flight number 11, which was still in use for daily flights from Paris to Houston, be retired, as is now standard for flights involved in fatal accidents. Continental responded just a few weeks later to apologise for the oversight. They retired flight number 11 and initiated a review of all flight numbers to ensure there were no other instances where a fatal flight number was used for future flight routes.

A memorial was raised in 2010 in Unionville, Missouri.

Category: Accident Reports,


  • “Geneva Fraley was the only woman on board.”

    Minor quibble – the four cabin crew were probably female as well; at least one ‘reminded the gate agent of his wife’.

    And ‘in-airport insurance sales’ was a plot point in Arthur Hailey’s novel “Airport” (1968).

    Oddly enough, the Wikipedia article references Continental Flight 11.

    • Oh good point! I meant passenger but that was sloppy of me.

      I saw a few references that Airport was based on this incident but I haven’t seen the film.

  • Well written, tragic case, I guess the lives of the other people meant very little to him. I wonder what his psych profile reads like.

  • I’m stunned by a random person being able to walk into a store and buy dynamite. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” (L. P. Hartley, 1953.) (It wasn’t just KC, of course; I was growing up in Maryland then, and remember that fireworks (much lower power than a stick of dynamite) couldn’t be bought in-state — but vendors were lined up on the DC side of Western Avenue, with nobody checking to make sure the purchasers were from DC.) I remember seeing those insurance machines in the late 1960’s, and hearing about the increasing attempts to ban them.

  • Thanks for sharing this article. It’s terrible what some people will do in the name of greed.

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