Saturday, March 28, 2015


On December 1, 1974, TWA flight 514 en route from Cincinnati to Washington National Airport was diverted to Dulles Airport due to strong crosswinds in Washington. Because of miscommunication between the flight crew and air traffic control, it began its descent into Dulles before it had cleared the Blue Ridge Mountains. At ten after eleven in the morning, Flight 514 struck the western flank of Mount Weather at about seventeen hundred feet above sea level and was destroyed, killing all on board.

In July of 1975, I set out to section-hike the Appalachian Trail southbound from Snickers Gap (where Route 7 crosses the Blue Ridge and A.T) to Rockfish Gap at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park, a distance of about 140 trail miles. At this point (and at that time) the A.T. was a notorious and reviled road-walk section, white blazes on telephone poles.Within an hour or so of setting out, pavement under my vibram-soled boots, I walked into the crash site of Flight 514, barely seven months after the fact. It told a very simple, very detailed story.

The point of impact was squarely on Blue Ridge Mountain Road, Virginia Route 601. There was a clear vista westward across the shattered treetops, revealing the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester and South Mountain. To the western edge of the brutal clearing, trees were neatly cropped; each successive rank eastward was increasingly shattered and splintered. There were clearly defined notches at the western edge where the engine nacelles ate into the trees; they faded and disappeared midway, as I suppose the engine pods had. It displayed the cross-section silhouette of a gently banking airplane. I have pictures of it, somewhere.

On the very west side of the road, forming the road bank, was a large outcropping of metamorphic rock. This is what stopped the forward movement of Flight 514 that bleak December morning. The rock was shattered, but beyond the road the trees remained intact; there was no undergrowth. The earth, even seven months later, was scoured. At that instant in time and space, the airplane became a mass of shrapnel too small to take down the trees but massive enough to scythe the forest floor for hundreds of yards up the hillside. It looked like a park. I don’t recall from the news at the time whether or not there was fire, but since the plane was near the end of its flight, most of its fuel had been consumed and the weather was cold and snowy, I don’t think it was a fiery kind of crash. The forest in that next July was not marked by the scars of a large fire.

In July 1975, I was young and impressionable, and modestly observant. I took a short break at the endpoint of Flight 514 to pay respect and take in the image of that moment, captured indelibly in that ravaged landscape. I still go down Blue Mountain Road from time to time; it is a favorite motorcycling destination, and the rock outcrop has become an informal memorial to Flight 514.

The woods to the east and west of the road have largely grown up to hide the scar, but forty years on, the weirdly tortured trees still bear mute testimony to the damage they both bore and caused. Trees grow from their tips; once damaged, they don’t grow them back. They find other routes to the sunshine. It will be generations before the woods fully conceal their secrets from us again.

No comments: