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PSA Flight 182: VFR on a Beautiful Morning Spelled Disaster

The 1978 Midair Collision Over San Diego Was Entirely Avoidable

PSA 727-200 by Bill Larkins (PSA727) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

At 0834 local time on 25 September 1978, Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) Flight 182 departed Los Angeles International Airport (KLAX) bound for Lindbergh Field (now San Diego International Airport- KSAN). The flight originated in Sacramento (KSMF) and stopped at KLAX prior to heading south to San Diego. The flight was a Boeing 727-214 serial number 19688/589 and registered as N533PS. The jet had 24,088 hours on the clock over 36,557 cycles and had flown for the first time on 4 June 1968.

PSA 727-200 by Piergiuliano Chesi [CC BY 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
At 0816 local time Cessna 172 N7711G took off from Montgomery Field about 6 miles north of San Diego. The aircraft, owned by Gibbs Flite Center and flown by a pair of experienced licensed pilots with more than 5,500 hours of flight time between them, shot a couple of practice ILS approaches on runway 9 at Lindbergh Field- the only airport equipped with an ILS system in the area that fateful morning. N7711G was instructed to maintain visual flight rules (VFR) at or below 3,500 feet and to fly a course of 070.

Cessna 172 By Cory W. Watts from Madison, Wisconsin, United States of America (A 172 on final) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The PSA 727-200 was flown by a flight crew based in San Diego consisting of 42 year old Captain James McFeron, 38 year old First Officer Robert Fox (who was flying the aircraft), and 44 year old Flight Engineer Martin Wahne. In the cockpit jump seat was off-duty PSA Captain Spencer Nelson. Also aboard Flight 182 that morning were 127 other passengers, 29 of whom were PSA employees. The weather that morning, like many in the San Diego area, was clear and sunny with 10 miles visibility. Near CAVU. The 727 was cleared for approach on runway 27 and was informed of the traffic in front of them on a reciprocal course, as was the Cessna. The two aircraft should have been able to maintain separation visually. But sadly they did not.

PSA Boeing 727-200. Image via Wikipedia in public domain.

At 0901 local time the aircraft collided at approximately 2,600 feet altitude. Flight 182 was descending on their approach to Lindbergh and overtook the Cessna, which was climbing wings level. N7711G broke up immediately after impact. The 727’s inner right wing was heavily damaged, causing the wing fuel tank to first leak and then burn. The 727 entered a shallow right banked turn and descended until it crashed into North Park in San Diego approximately three miles from Lindbergh Field. The Cessna came down approximately ¾ of a mile from the 727. All souls on board both aircraft perished in the crash along with seven people on the ground. There were nine injured on the ground and at least 22 homes were affected by the impacts.

PSA Flight 182 descending out of control on 25 September 1978. Image via Hans Wendt.

So how did this happen? According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), “The failure of the flightcrew of Flight 182 to comply with the provisions of a maintain-visual-separation clearance, including the requirement to inform the controller when visual contact was lost; and the air traffic control procedures in effect which authorized the controllers to use visual separation procedures in a terminal area environment when the capability was available to provide either lateral or vertical separation to either aircraft. Contributing to the accident were (1) the failure of the controller to advise Flight 182 of the direction of movement of the Cessna; (2) the failure of the pilot of the Cessna to maintain his assigned heading; and (3) the improper resolution by the controller of the conflict alert.”

PSA Flight 182 descending out of control on 25 September 1978. Image via Hans Wendt.

At that time the PSA Flight 182 crash was the deadliest commercial air disaster to occur in the United States. Sadly it did not remain so for long. Just eight months later on 25 May 1979 a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10 operating as American Airlines Flight 191 crashed after takeoff from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (KORD). The tragedy in San Diego remains the deadliest in California history. Here is a link to the NTSB Accident report.

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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