The crash of Flight 46

This year marks 40th anniversary of Downeast Airlines disaster
By Daniel Dunkle | May 29, 2019
Source: File photo A National Transportation Safety Board team member, left, investigates the wreckage of Downeast Airlines Flight 46.

It was 40 years ago today that one survivor crawled away from the wreckage of Downeast Airlines Flight 46 after it crashed in the trees in Owls Head, killing 17.

John McCafferty, just 16 at the time, was the sole survivor of the plane crash, which was the worst civilian air disaster in Maine history.

The twin-engine De Havilland Otter turbo jet plane crashed as its pilots attempted to land in dense fog at the Knox County Regional Airport the night of May 30, 1979. It had been piloted by James E. Merryman, 35, of Brunswick, and copilot George Hines, 40, of Albion.

McCafferty told The Courier-Gazette in a 2004 interview that decades after the crash, he still thought about it every day. He also said he had a bad premonition that there would be a crash as he boarded the plane that night in Boston.

"I just had a bad feeling right from the start," he said. "I think that's why I was prepared, while other people were relaxing."

As it approached Owls Head, he could see the plane was descending too rapidly into the big pine trees.

"I hollered to everybody on the plane, 'We're going to crash!'"

The plane plowed through the trees for 500 feet before striking a rock nose-first. All of the seats and passengers were thrown into the front of the vehicle. McCafferty hurt his head badly, suffered a broken arm, wrist, ribs and leg. Despite his injuries, he said, he crawled on his belly away from the wreckage, fearful that the plane would explode. Fuel was leaking out of it.

He was found by Robert Levasseur and Johanna Stadler of the South Thomaston Ambulance Service and taken to Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport.

Stadler said the young man was scared and asked if he was going to live, and asked if anyone else had survived. She held his hand and reassured him.

"I told him yeah, he was going to live," she said.

The rescue team didn't know at first how many people had been on the plane and if there were other survivors out in the woods, thrown from the wreckage, who had to be found. Eventually they learned the truth.

"There was a feeling of hopelessness because there was nothing you could do," Eunice Stadler, also of the Ambulance Service, said in 2004.

A team from the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the crash, staying in Rockland for 10 days. They would issue their final report about a year later. They found the most probable cause of the crash was pilot error, but during the investigation and hearings, the management of Downeast Airlines was criticized, with some saying pilots were pressured to land at Owls Head in dangerous conditions to save on the cost of landing at Augusta or Portland.

The fallout, including the lawsuits from the families of those who died in the crash, was too much for the airline, which was replaced in Knox County by Bar Harbor Airlines in 1980.

McCafferty, who lives in Searsmont, said in 2004 that he still suffered headaches from his injuries in the crash. He has worked in construction over the years.

He said people often tell him that his life must have been spared in the crash so that he could serve some higher purpose. While he believes that God spared his life, he bristles at the pressure placed on him to live up to this miracle.

"Before they expect something of someone else, they should live up to that themselves," he said.

Daniel Dunkle lives in Rockland. He is author of the novel, "The Scrimshaw Worm." Send in your stories, photos and memories via email at: ddunkle@villagesoup.com; or snail mail to: 91 Camden St., Suite 403, Rockland, ME 04841. Vintage Ink columns rely on back issues of The Courier-Gazette for source material. Other sources will be cited specifically.

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John McCafferty in 1980 (Source: File photo)
Downeast Airlines mechanic Leo Gallant removes a radio from the wreckage of Flight 46. (Source: File photo)
Comments (1)
Posted by: Kathryn Fogg | May 31, 2019 20:17

I remember that evening.  I was enjoying it with my friend Russell Murphy who was the funeral director for Davis Funeral Home.  He got called out to the crash.  It was the first time I realized what terrible situations our local first responders face.  Russell was a kind and compassionate man.  Years later when he retired, I remember him saying how tired he was of looking at all the sad faces.  So many care givers surround us to help at our time of need.  Many thanks.



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