Ask McGehee

Actually, the city of Mobile has been connected with two air disasters that occurred during the Mardi Gras festivities. On February 28, 1946, a two-engine Navy training plane flying low over the city struck the cross atop the south tower of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception before crashing into a shed on South Lawrence Street and killing the pilot. The cause of the crash is unknown.

A far worse disaster occurred some 7 miles south of Fort Morgan on February 14, 1953, as Mobile geared up for the coronation of Queen Gordon Unger. A National Airlines flight from Tampa was headed to New Orleans when it radioed the Pensacola Airport regarding what was described as “severe turbulence.” The plane’s captain announced they would be descending to 4, 500 feet. That message, received at 5:12 p.m., was the last anyone received from Flight 470. It never made it to New Orleans, where it was scheduled to land just 35 minutes later.

The next morning, the front page of the Mobile Register ran two lead stories. The first headline boldly proclaimed, “1953 Mardi Gras Queen Crowned by King Felix in Brilliant Ceremony.” Beside it in smaller print: “Airliner Vanishes with 49 Persons.” A third, smaller piece noted that parades had been canceled in both Mobile and New Orleans due to heavy rains.

The Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn was sent out into the extremely rough seas on a search that lasted 43 hours. Among the floating debris recovered were three empty life rafts, assorted luggage, a U.S. mailbag and the bodies of three men and 14 women. The condition of these led experts to conclude that the aircraft had hit the water with a “tremendous impact.”  

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The Register also reported that “paradoxically the cutter with the crash victims arrived on the heels of the official entry by boat of Mobile’s King of Mardi Gras.” The “grim faced” Coast Guardsmen delivered the canvas-wrapped victims to Higgins Mortuary on Government Street where family members would attempt to identify them.

Despite what the experts advised, anxious families of the missing passengers hired shrimp boats and other craft to search the Gulf. One father noted that since most of those recovered were older that perhaps the younger passengers had been able to escape in the fourth life raft. More than 40 planes flew over the area when weather permitted, but no survivors were ever found.

It was well into May before divers found the wreckage of the DC-6 in 90 feet of swirling, murky Gulf waters. The disaster would prove to be the worst in the history of National Airlines, which would ultimately be absorbed by Pan Am in 1980.

And, in an odd twist of fate, 1980 was also the year the cutter Blackthorn struck a tanker taking 23 crew members to their deaths. The tragedy occurred in Tampa, Florida, where Flight 470 had originated. 

Text by Tom McGehee

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