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It was 55 years ago this October 19 when Washington's first—and, so far, only jetliner crash happened. After a story about the crash of a Boeing 707 near Oso appeared on MyNorthwest.com in May, a Bothell man contacted KIRO Radio and offered to share some rare photographs he'd taken of the aftermath.
The Boeing jetliner that crashed that day was brand new and about to be officially handed over to Dallas-based Braniff Airlines. When it took off from Boeing Field early that autumn Monday afternoon for what was supposed to be a routine training flight, on board were four Braniff employees, a representative from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and three men who worked for Boeing.
It wasn't too much later, somewhere in the skies high above Snohomish County, that something went terribly wrong. A Braniff pilot lost control of the jetliner. Three of the 707's four engines were torn from its wings and it caught fire. Control was regained and the Boeing pilot, now at the controls, headed for Paine Field. But the jet was losing altitude fast. Within a few minutes, the 707 crashed along the bank of the Stillaguamish River a few miles west of Oso. The forward section of the jet was crushed on impact and burst into flames.
Four men, including the pilots, died in the cockpit; the four who'd moved to the rear and braced for impact survived.
An investigation later determined that the Boeing pilot had intentionally put the plane into something called a "Dutch roll" as part of the training for the Braniff pilots. But the Dutch roll was too steep and the Braniff pilot, in his attempt to steady the jet, misapplied the controls and made things worse. The Boeing pilot had been attempting a crash landing when the plane came down.
Ron Palmer retired after working in manufacturing for Boeing for 40 years. Sitting at the kitchen table of his split-level home on a cul-de-sac in Bothell, it's clear that he's been excited about airplanes for as long as he can remember. One of his earliest memories, he said as his face lights up, is seeing a formation of Boeing B-29 bombers during World War II from the upstairs of his childhood home in Edmonds. And the love of aviation runs in the family.
"My dad was passionate. He used to run up to Paine Field when the blimps would come in. Maybe that's where I get it from," Palmer said, chuckling. "I'm an aircraft nut. I always wanted to be a naval aviator, but I never made it."
So when he heard about the 707 crash on that October day back in 1959, Palmer just had to go and see for himself.
"I had my 2-year-old son and my wife, and we hopped in the car and went up Highway 99. I was on swing shift at Boeing, and I just had to see it," Palmer said. And he brought along his camera.
"I was fortunate to walk right up to the river's edge. It was on a kind of a berm or a dike or something. I stood there and took some pictures with my little camera. I don't think I was there more than ten minutes."
More than half a century later, Palmer still vividly recalls the scene.
"I remember looking up in the trees and you could see where the plane had come down and cut the trees off. The tops were all broken off, maybe 50 or 70 feet high. The pilot did a hell of a job," saving the lives of half of those aboard, Palmer said.
The 707 had only recently been introduced and Boeing's future was riding on the jetliner's success.
"The crash was a big deal because we were in competition with Douglas, who had a great product out there in the DC-8 [jetliner]. Yeah, it was a big deal," Palmer said.
Palmer doesn't recall a lot of media coverage of the crash at the time.
"The press kind of cut Boeing some slack at times and just didn't put it out there too much. But it was a big deal for us at Boeing because we lost a product and we wondered, 'Gosh, did we do something wrong?' But no, we didn't do anything wrong," Palmer said.
The photographs Palmer took that day weren't shared with anybody 55 years ago.
"I kept 'em in the house. Didn't talk to anybody about 'em, you know? They were just mine. And as the years went by, I thought the pictures were gone. And here, several years ago, I was going through stuff and I came across 'em."
Palmer said nobody he talks to remembers the Oso 707 crash and some doubt whether it really happened. But Ron Palmer has proof.
"Everyone I talk to about it said, 'No, no that didn't happen, we never heard about it,' you know? Well, it did happen," he said, pointing to the old photos. "There it is."