July 11, 1959: a sultry night all over the country, including Kenosha, Wisconsin.
We played Wiffle® ball under the streetlight at 23rd Avenue and 68th Street. Dom and Loretta Forgianni, Sandy and Pat Johnson, my sister Cynda and me. Sometime after full dark, maybe nine-thirty, we broke it up and went inside.
Mounting the stairs to our second-floor flat above the Forgiannis, I heard an NBC staff voice—sonorous, gray, authoritative—interrupt regular programming to inform us, coast-to-coast, that a jet airliner was in serious trouble in the East. Pan American World Airways Flight 102, a Boeing 707, had dropped two of four wheels of its left main landing gear into the bay on its ascent from New York International Airport—then known as Idlewild, now JFK.
Prudence and Recklessness
The pilot requested at least three thousand feet of Runway 13R be spread with fire suppression foam. During the two hours it took to accomplish this, he circled the airport, burning as much jet fuel as possible to reduce chances of a catastrophic fire on landing. When foaming was complete, the plane flew another hour—burning fuel and preparing 102 passengers and eleven crew members for a possibly rough landing.
In New York, as in Kenosha, it was a hot summer night. Many thousands of bored New Yorkers drove out to Idlewild to view the spectacle. When airport access roads became blocked with traffic, drivers abandoned cars where they stood and swarmed over the runways and taxiways on foot. Idling and abandoned cars blocked roads needed by New York fire and police units attempting to converge on the airport. Those units that did get through combined with Port Authority police to corral the ambulatory thrill-seekers north of Taxiway Q, more than eight hundred feet from Runway 13R.
Down to Earth
Preparations were as complete as possible. With millions of us glued to our TV sets, the pilot touched down his right landing gear at 130 knots and full flaps, dropped the left side gingerly—with a shower of sparks as the sheared-off wheel strut met the runway—held the craft straight and true while blasting full reverse thrust, came to rest 1,200 feet short of the foamed area of the runway.
Cabin crew deployed emergency egress chutes immediately. Several passengers slid down them before responders cut them away and replaced them with portable stairs. All passengers deplaned in under three minutes.
There was no fire. Hundreds of curiosity seekers encroached on the scene, refused to move back, and got sprayed away by a Port Authority fire truck. Four passengers were injured getting off the plane.
No grand explosion. Nobody died. The pilot was a hero.
The Pilot Was Uncle Ed
My father’s oldest brother, then 44 years of age. The TV reported that around midnight.
Edward Foster Sommers, born in 1914, graduated from high school in Knoxville, Illinois, then attended the University of Washington on a Naval ROTC scholarship. The U.S. Navy taught him to fly. Graduation made him a Naval Reserve officer. On November 29, 1939, he joined Pan American Airways as a co-pilot. After a stint flying Pan Am’s bread-and-butter routes in South America, he came to Oakland, California, in 1940 to fly the transpacific “Clipper” routes in Boeing B-314 “flying boats.” He, his wife Mary, and young daughter Elaine lived on a hillside in Oakland, a pleasant downhill drive to the seaplane harbor at Alameda, from which he flew.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, Uncle Ed had a brush with Infamy as the Anzac Clipper he was flying inbound to Hawaii was forced to divert to Hilo. Its regular port, Pearl Harbor, had unusually heavy traffic that day. But that’s another story.
At the time of his spectacular landing at Idlewild, Uncle Ed was a captain, command pilot of the plane, with full responsibility for 113 lives. He had amassed 17,100 flying hours—not unusual for a professional pilot of two decades’ experience. Only 170 of his hours were in the Boeing 707, which had been in operational service less than eight months.
Inerviewed soon after the landing, he said that despite the complex flight skills needed, he never doubted he would set the plane down safely. His main concern was that when the exposed strut touched the runway, the craft might “slew around sideways and take out a few hundred damned fools on the ground.”
A London-bound passenger on Flight 102 was movie director Otto Preminger. If Uncle Ed had not preserved this man’s life that night, we would not have had such motion pictures as Exodus, Advise and Consent, and Hurry Sundown. Or maybe we would have had them anyway—but not directed by Otto Preminger.
According to my cousin Steve, this was the first major incident for the 707. General details can be found in the pages of the Civil Aeronautics Board’s accident report here and here. A concise summary is also posted on the Facebook page of the Pan American Museum Foundation, Inc.
In a profile that appeared a day after the big event, the New York Times said Uncle Ed “demonstrated the steady, clearheaded qualities essential to the complete airman.” I think that’s about right. It would be a mistake, however, to think of him as the steely-eyed Robert Stack or John Wayne type that we all desire in a pilot. The real life Edward Sommers was ordinary. Though his career took him around the world—he and his family lived in Brazil, California, England, Germany, and New Jersey at various times—part of him was still the small-town boy from the flatlands of Illinois. He received at least his share of the dour, phlegmatic, mundane outlook that marks our family. Perfectly at home guiding a multi-million-dollar plane, he leaned on Mary, his charming wife, for the social niceties of life.
I imagine he relished the world’s adulation of this one particular instance of routine superlative performance at his chosen trade. Who doesn’t like recognition? But I also am certain Uncle Ed was glad to have his fifteen minutes of fame behind him. He continued flying for Pan Am until he reached the then-mandatory retirement age of 60, in 1975. His renowned employer went out of business in 1991. Mary having died some time earlier, he lived out his life as a gradually shrinking old man until his passing just a few years ago.
Need for Speed
One of his grandchildren told me of taking “Grandpa Ed” for a motorcycle ride during his later years. The old man perched on the rear fender, my second cousin (Uncle Ed’s namesake) drove cautiously until his grandfather—like many pilots, intoxicated by speed—said, “Let her rip, Eddie!” The bike then gobbled up a few miles on a rural highway at astoundingly illegal speeds, much to the old man’s delight.
A few paragraphs above I said my uncle was dour, phlegmatic, and mundane—but I never said he was dull.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author