Rare photos of Washington state’s only jetliner crash 

Oct 19, 2022, 10:33 AM | Updated: Nov 7, 2022, 12:41 pm
The mostly intact aft section of the Boeing 707 that crashed near Oso, Washington on October 19, 1959 as seen from the opposite side of the Stillaguamish River within a few days of the crash.  The four men who survived the crash braced for impact here. (Courtesy Ron Palmer) A Boeing 707 that crashed near Oso, Washington on October 19, 1959 was about to be delivered to Braniff Airlines.  In this photograph taken by Ron Palmer, a man can be seen painting over the Braniff logo on the jetliner’s vertical stabilizer. (Courtesy Ron Palmer) 

 The remains of the forward section of the Boeing 707 that crashed near Oso, Washington on October 19, 1959 as seen from the opposite side of the Stillaguamish River within a few days of the crash.  Four men died in the cockpit of the jet. (Courtesy Ron Palmer) Ironically, the Boeing 707 that crashed near Oso, Washington on October 19, 1959, had already been photographed for Braniff marketing materials, and the images were used by the airline for years after the jetliner had been destroyed. (Public domain)

It was October 19, 1959 when Washington’s first — and, so far, only — jetliner crash happened. After a story about the crash of a Boeing 707 near Oso was posted in May 2014, a Bothell man contacted KIRO Newsradio and offered to share some rare photographs he’d taken of the aftermath. 

The Boeing jetliner that crashed that day was brand-new. It was about to be officially handed over to Dallas-based Braniff Airlines.

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. One of the Braniff pilots, who was learning about the new jet, lost control during the training exercise.

Three of the 707’s four engines were torn from its wings, and the jetliner caught fire. Control was regained, and the Boeing pilot pointed the jet toward Paine Field for an emergency landing. 

But the jetliner was losing altitude fast. Within a few minutes, the 707 crash-landed along the bank of the Stillaguamish River a few miles west of Oso. The forward section of the aircraft was crushed on impact and burst into flames. Four men, including the Boeing and Braniff pilots, died in the cockpit; the four who had 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 program 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 along the river and broke apart.   

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 back in 2014, it was clear that he had been excited about airplanes for as long as he could remember.

One of his earliest memories, Palmer said as his face lighted up, was seeing a formation of Boeing B-29 bombers during World War II from an upstairs window of his childhood home in Edmonds. 

This love of aviation runs in the Palmer 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 it makes sense that when he heard about the 707 crash on that October day back in 1959, Ron Palmer just had to go and see for himself. 

“I had my two-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 vividly recalled 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],” Palmer said. “Yeah, it was a big deal.”  

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,” Palmer said. “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.” 

The photographs Palmer took that day were never shared with anyone back in 1959. 

“I kept ‘em in the house,” Palmer said. “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 told KIRO Newsradio that nobody he had talked to over the years since 1959 remembered the Oso 707 crash, and some doubted whether it really happened. 

But Ron Palmer had proof. 

“Everyone I talk to about it says, ‘no, no that didn’t happen, we never heard about it,’ you know?  Well, it did happen,” he said, as he pointed to the haunting old photos of the remains of a Boeing jet. 

“There it is,” Palmer said. 

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Rare photos of Washington state’s only jetliner crash