The Lockheed Learstar Disaster – December 15, 1958

THE LOCKHEED LEARSTAR DISASTER

North Smithfield, Rhode Island – December 15, 1958

      One of Rhode Island’s worst civil aviation crashes occurred in the town of North Smithfield, Rhode Island during a snowstorm which claimed the lives of seven people. 

     At about 8:30 a.m., on December 15, 1958, a twin engine, Lockheed, Learstar, (Registration N37500) owned by the Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Company took off from Linden, New Jersey, bound for Logan Airport in Boston.  The plane carried five passengers, all top executives for Johnson & Johnson, and a crew of two. 

     From Boston, the executives were to go on to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where the company operated its LePage Glue Division.  While en-route to Boston the plane ran into an unexpected snowstorm and was diverted by Logan officials to land in Beverly, Massachusetts.  When the aircraft arrived at Beverly, the crew was informed that they too were closed due to weather.  With no other option, the pilot set a course southward back to New Jersey.

     As the plane passed over the town of Franklin, Massachusetts, a town just to the north of the Rhode Island border, the pilot reported that one of the engines had died. This was the last radio transmission ever heard from the aircraft. 

     The plane continued south and passed over the town of Bellingham, Massachusetts, where  a man living on Pond Street later reported that he heard a plane overhead with an engine sputtering.

      The aircraft then passed over the City of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and then North Smithfield. The nearest airport at this point would have been North Central State Airport in Smithfield, about four miles away, and it was later speculated that the crew was attempting to reach the airport when the plane went down. 

     Although it was equipped with radar, the plane was flying in heavy snow, and the cloud ceiling was a mere 400 feet.  The pilots were in effect, “flying blind”, relying on instruments to get them to safe haven.   

      At 9:45, the Learstar plunged nose first into a swampy wooded area between Farnum Pike, (Route 104)  and Douglas Pike, (Route 7) below the old New Haven Rail Road tracks, about half a mile in from the road, and three-and-a-half miles short of the runway at North Central Airport. 

     A woman living on Slatersville Road heard the crash and called North Smithfield’s, Chief of Police, Joseph Freitas, to report that she thought a plane had crashed. 

     As a ground search got underway, a National Guard aircraft began searching overhead, and within a few minutes the wreckage was spotted, and the Guard plane began to circle to draw ground searchers to the site. 

     Chief Freitas was one of the first to reach the scene where he found one man still alive, lying with his lower extremities in a pool of icy water mixed with aviation fuel.  Rescue workers carefully pulled him free and laid him on dry land where he died shortly thereafter. 

     The cockpit containing the pilot and co-pilot had buried itself in the soft mud and was submerged under gasoline soaked water.  Firemen found four other bodies in the crumpled passenger compartment. The Reverend Thomas I. Myrick, pastor of Saint John’s Church in Slatersville, was on hand to administer last rites.  It took until 7:30 p.m. to recover the bodies of the crew. 

     The dead were identified as:

     The pilot, Alexander Sable of Metuchen, N.J.

     The co-pilot, Edward Luidcinaitis of Roselle, N.J..  

     Nelson A. Bergstend, age 45, of Linden, N.J.

     Ferdinand Liot, age 39, of Franklin Park, N.J.

     Stephen Baksal, age 44, of Scotch Plain, N.J.

     Raymond Buese, age 31, of South River, N.J.  

     Jesse Hackney, of Pleasentville, N.J. 

     Mr. Bergstend was wearing a broken wristwatch that stopped at 9:45.      

     Investigators later determined that the cause of the crash was ice formation in the carburetors of the engines. It was said that carburetor icing was a fairly common danger in a plane of this type.  Investigators believed the first engine failed due to icing, and the second failed afterward for the same reason. 

      This accident served as a lesson for all big business corporations when it came to transportation of top executives – not to transport everyone together in the same aircraft.  This way, if an accident did occur, the entire top management staff isn’t lost.  Today, many corporations fly top executives on separate flights for this reason.

     The area where the accident occurred is now occupied by a sand and gravel company. 

 Sources:

Woonsocket Call, “Crippled Plane Sought In Area”, December 15, 1958, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call, “…Engine Failure Seen”, December 15, 1958, Pg. 1

Woonsocket Call,  “Investigators Seek Crash Solution”, December 16, 1958

Woonsocket Call, “Routine Flight Gives Hill Man 1st Crash View”, December 16, 1958

Woonsocket Call, “Air Crash Story Wrapped Up By Call While Presses Roll”, December 16, 1958

Woonsocket Call, “Carburetor Icing Seen Crash Cause”, December 1958

Providence Journal, “Pilot Cleared In Woon. Crash”, October 8, 1960, Pg. 5

Providence Journal, “Icing ‘Probable’ Cause of crash Which Killed 7”, February 20, 1961, Pg, 27

 

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