Remembering My ‘Papi’: My Dad Died a Hero, But He Shouldn’t Have…..

This was the C-46A-55-CK (registry number YS-012C) which my dad and his co-pilot died on when it crashed on February 13, 1965. Image Credit: Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archive

Yesterday – Monday, October 4, 2021 – was my father’s 102nd birthday.

I never had a chance to say “Happy birthday, Papi” to Jeronimo Diaz-Granados before he died. At least, not at an age in which I could say it uncoached by my mother Beatriz. I was less than seven months old when he celebrated his 44th birthday in 1963; and almost 19 months old when he turned 45 in ’64.

Papi took this photo of my mother and me on the beach at Marco Island sometime in 1964. It was tucked away in my mother’s possessions after her death in July 2015.

He would not live to see his 46th birthday. He died, along with his co-pilot, Ernesto Revelo, 24, when their World War II surplus C-46A (registry number YS-021C) crashed in an automobile junkyard at 4:20 AM Eastern on February 13, 1965.

Curtiss C-46 “Commando” in flight. U.S. Air Force photo

Per the brief summary of the final National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report found on the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archive website:


Circumstances:

The crew was performing a night cargo flight from Miami to San Salvador. Shortly after takeoff, while in initial climb, the left engine failed. The airplane stalled and crashed in a huge explosion near the runway end. The aircraft was totally destroyed and both pilots were killed.

Obviously, this terse account leaves out a lot of details about the crash of YS-021C, a C-46A-55-CK built circa 1944 and was – at the time – the only aircraft owned and operated by Aerolineas El Salvador S.A.

For instance, it omits the fact that my dad, Jerry, and “Neto,” as his young co-pilot was called by his friends and family, realized that even though they had clearance from the Miami tower to make an emergency landing at the airport, their plane – which was grossly overloaded and only had one working engine – could not stay in the air long enough for them to circle back to the runway.

According to my mom, who had been given a copy of the cockpit voice recordings by the NTSB due to the diligence of the Colombian Embassy in Washington, my father and Neto knew that if they attempted that maneuver, the most likely result would be a fiery crash in nearby Miami Gardens that would destroy several houses and kill or injure many residents.

This image from Google Maps shows the approximate location of YS-012C’s crash site. Note how close to the airport the crash site is.

Instead, knowing that their crippled Commando was losing altitude – fast – and trailing flame and smoke from the port engine, the pilots chose to crash-land the plane at the ABC Auto Junkyard on NW 47th Street not far from  NW 37th Avenue in a mostly black neighborhood called Brownsville.

Experienced Pilot

My father’s official Aerocondor company photo. (Author’s collection)

My father, who was the pilot-in-command and sat on the left seat, was a highly experienced airman. As I wrote yesterday in Papi, I Hardly Knew Ye, he began his aviation career as an 18-year-old mechanic for Sociedad Colombo-Alemana de Transporte Aereo (SCADTA), the world’s second airline and the oldest one in the Americas. Founded in 1919 – the same year Dad was born, this Colombian-German enterprise operated until World War II and, after various mergers with Colombian and U.S. airlines that cut all ties with Germany (which was then under Nazi rule), SCADTA was folded into the company that became Colombia’s flag airline Avianca.

My father’s career track is something I don’t know much about. I do know that he worked his way up the ranks from mechanic to pilot, had a commission in the Colombian Air Force Reserve, was one of the first pilots for Aerocondor, a Colombian airline founded in his hometown of Barranquilla in 1955, and according to my mom, was a member of Colombia’s Civil Aeronautics Board until he decided to move to the States and try his hand at running his own air freight company. That enterprise did not go well, but he ended up flying YS-021C for AESA sometime after I was born.

This was the C-46A-55-CK (registry number YS-012C) which my dad and his copilot died on when it crashed on February 13, 1965. Image Credit: Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archive

I bring up this backstory because my dad was one of the world’s most experienced pilots. According to the information in the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archive, Papi had a total of 14,606 flying hours and, specifically, 2,353 hours of stick time on the C-46 Commando. At the time of his death, my dad held the world record in flying time on the C-46.   

It is a credit to my father’s airmanship – and his co-pilot’s, too – that when YS-012C hurtled onto that auto junkyard without harming the sole employee present, there were no other fatalities. Just Jerry Diaz-Granados and Neto Revelo.

On February 13, 1986 – the 21st anniversary of my dad’s last flight – I wrote these words in a column I wrote for my college student newspaper. Catalyst:

Much later, my mother and I would reminisce about that fateful morning and other things pertaining to my father. I also was made aware that I could never live up to my mom’s expectations as she was comparing between him and me.

She would, in moments of pique, say: “Your father would never say things like that.”

He was neat; I am not. He was a gentleman; I am not quite as refined as he was. 

However, there is no “bad blood” between my father’s image and me. On the contrary, I love my father for what he was and who he was. I know my father would have died in an auto junkyard without endangering anyone below rather than attempt to land on the expressway or on a crowded runway. He would not have been able to live with himself had he saved his own life at the expense of others.

And for that, I’m proud to have been his son.

Mixed Feelings

 I have, obviously, mixed feelings about the crash of YS-012C.

On the one hand, yes, I am proud that my dad was a hero who, along with his young co-pilot, refused to risk other people’s lives in a futile effort to return to Miami International Airport in a plane that was crippled and no longer airworthy.

One time, my mom reluctantly told me that for days on end after Papi died, residents – mostly black – of the Brownsville neighborhood that lived close to where that C-46A crashed and became a funeral pyre for its crew stopped by our house to give condolences to my mother. They also hailed Jerry and Neto for their courage and skill as aviators. Mom said the most common phrase she heard was “They saved our homes. They saved our lives.”

On the other hand…..

As heroic as my father and his co-pilot’s deaths were, I can’t help feeling that if AESA’s management and ground staff had been diligent in maintaining the one and only plane they had on hand, the crash of YS-012C could have been avoided.

Per the NTSB report summarized on the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archive:

Circumstances:

The crew was performing a night cargo flight from Miami to San Salvador. Shortly after takeoff, while in initial climb, the left engine failed. The airplane stalled and crashed in a huge explosion near the runway end. The aircraft was totally destroyed and both pilots were killed.

Probable cause:

Failure of the left engine during initial climb due to a crankshaft failure (fatigue fracture) and oil contamination. Inadequate maintenance and inspection on part of the operator. The aircraft was also improperly loaded.

Mom, as I said before, was usually unwilling to discuss my dad’s death. She didn’t talk to me much about the events of February 13, 1965, when I was a kid, and she did not have too many photos of him on display at any of the places we lived in, either in Colombia or in Miami. I used to have Papi’s Aerocondor portrait in my bedroom in Bogota when we lived there from 1966 to 1972, but after we moved back to Miami my mother kept it hidden in one of her dresser drawers. I found it there when I was sorting through her belongings after she died in July of 2015.

Still, when I was in my 20s, she sometimes spoke about it, usually after she’d had a few vodkas with tonic water.

One of the few facts that I gleaned during these rare discussions of Dad’s flying days was that a short time before the crash – weeks, I think it was – YS-012C had had an inflight incident involving the port (left) engine that resulted in an emergency landing somewhere near Miami.

Papi knew the Curtiss C-46A Commando well. He knew that the plane’s fuel line was not as well-designed as that of the plane’s contemporary rival, the Douglas DC-3/C-47 Skytrain. The fuel system was complex, poorly conceived, and prone to have fuel leaks that caused fires to break out and planes to explode in flight.

Per History.net’s C-46: Going Commando by aviation writer – and pilot – Stephan Wilkinson:

The Curtiss C-46 filled a niche during World War II for a high-altitude heavy hauler capable of operating from rough airstrips in far-flung locales

They called it the Curtiss Calamity, Ol’ Dumbo, the Flying Whale and, more recently, Miss Piggy. The C-46 Commando was the biggest twin-engine airplane in the world when it first flew—longer, taller and with a wider wingspan than a B-17 or B-24. To fly a C-46 was to wrestle with 20 to 26 tons of aluminum and steel, depending on the model and mods. There were pilots who said that if you could fly a C-46, you could fly anything. Others claimed that if you could taxi it, you could fly it. Still others called it a miserable groundlooping sonofabitch and wanted nothing to do with it.

My father had over 2500 hours on the “Curtiss Calamity,” so I would say that he fell into either of the first two categories of pilots. He obviously was fond of the C-46, but he – as a former mechanic – knew that maintenance and proper loading procedures were key elements in keeping that big an airplane aloft safely.

The C-46 was definitely not a new plane in the mid-1960s. YS-012C was built in 1944 and saw service during the Second World War with the U.S. Army Air Force, most likely in the China-Burma-India theater, flying supplies to China over “the Hump,”  as the Himalaya mountain range was nicknamed.

According to Wilkinson:

Altitude performance was the key to the C-46’s major contribution to World War II: It was the sole high-altitude, heavy-lift cargo aircraft available to cross the Himalayas on the famous China-Burma-India Theater “Hump” route, airlifting supplies to Chiang Kai-Shek’s army after the Japanese closed the Burma Road. C-47s did yeoman work crossing what Hump pilots called the Rockpile, and eventually the four-engine C-54 would become the favored airlifter when Japanese retreats opened a lower-altitude Hump route. However, C-46s did the brunt of the Hump-topping work during the prime years of the resupply route.

But the C-46 was nobody’s favorite. Thirty-one of the 230 Commandos used on the Hump routes—more than 13 percent of the fleet—exploded in flight. It was long thought that 55-gallon drums of avgas cargo were the cause, and no matter how frigid the loaded eastbound flight to China, C-46 crews wouldn’t touch the cockpit heater until they were returning to India empty, the cabin swept clean of gas fumes. It was finally discovered that fuel from tiny leaks in the wing tanks and fuel lines pooled in the C-46’s unvented wing roots, where a stray spark would eventually set it off. After the war, all C-46s were modified with proper vents, sparkless fuel-boost pumps and shielded wing-area wiring.

My dad knew the C-46A backward and forward. He would have been aware of the aircraft’s strengths and weaknesses, and as AESA’s senior pilot, he told management that he would not take YS-012C aloft until the damaged engine was repaired.

According to Mom, management agreed to Papi’s requests, but in an effort to save downtime on the C-46 – remember, it was AESA’s only aircraft at the time – the ground crew only did quick and inexpensive fixes to get the plane on its Miami-San Salvador run as soon as possible.

On top of that, the AESA ground crew was so inept and careless that they used contaminated fuel to fill the C-46’s tanks. They also overloaded the cargo hold, thus changing the plane’s center of gravity.

In short, AESA was grossly negligent in its maintenance and cargo-loading procedures. YS-012C was doomed to crash. Two families were deprived of husbands and fathers, all because the company cut corners in its flight safety procedures in order to maximize its profit margin.

So, yes. I’m proud that my dad and his co-pilot were heroes.

But I also feel a great deal of sadness and some bitterness knowing that their heroism was the result of bad decisions made by the folks that cut their paychecks, set their flying schedules, and were supposed to keep Jerry Diaz-Granados and Neto Revelo aloft – and alive.

Sources:

Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archive

C-46: Going Commando, by Stephan Wilkinson, History.net. Originally published in  the May 2016 issue of Aviation History.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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