Trigger Warning: This doesn’t end well, so feel free to skip to the comments
60 years ago today on February 15th 1961 Sabena Flight 548 crashed while attempting to land at Zaventem Airport in Belgium killing all 72 passengers and crew on board and one person on the ground. Of course the lives of all those killed were equally important, most notable among the victims were all 18 members of the 1961 US figure skating team along with coaches, officials, and family members en route to the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia
Sabena Flight 548, a Boeing 707-329, originated at Idlewild International Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport) New York City, New York; USA intending to arrive at Zaventem Airport, Brussels; Belgium. The US team was to use other, unspecified, means of transportation to Prague. The pilots Louis Lambrechts and Jean Roy, both experienced pilots, had reported no problems during the 7 hour trans-Atlantic flight, but as was coming in to land the flight crew had lost radio contact with the Brussels airport. At around 10:00 local time(CET) the Boeing 707 was on approach to the runway when, as it was almost on the tarmac at about 270m (900 ft), the pilots increased the power and retracted the landing gear. A small plane had itself just landed and had not yet cleared the runaway; forcing the pilots to cancel the landing. The 707 circled the airport making another attempt to land at an adjoining runway. The second runway was not operational and the once again the landing was aborted. Onlookers and air traffic control now knew that something was wrong with Flight 548, and that the pilots were fighting against some sort of mechanical failure for control of the aircraft. The 707 circled the airport a few more times as its bank angle increased. When the aircraft was at around 460m (1500ft) at a near vertical angle, it leveled it wings, pitched up abruptly, lost speed in a stall, and rapidly spiraled nose down. At 10:05 CET Sabena Flight 548 crashed, almost vertically straight down, into the ground near farmland 3km (2 miles) away from the airport and exploded; killing all aboard instantly. A farmer working nearby was also killed and another was injured by debris from the resulting explosion.
The 1961 Team:
The 1961 US Championship were held from January 25 – 29 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The top three competitors in each of the four disciplines were chosen to compete at the World Championships in Prague. Between the two major competitions was the North American Championships, between US and Canada, held on February 12th in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; used as a warmup for the Worlds.
Laurence Owen (16)
Born in Oakland, California, along with her family she moved to Winchester, Massachusetts, her mother’s hometown, in the early 50s. Laurence was the reigning US Champion, having just won in Colorado Springs. She had previously finished 6th at the 1960 Winter Olympics. Among the favorites to win the 1961 Worlds, Laurence was considered the future of American figure skating. Her win in Colorado was the first time CBS broadcast the event, making her an instant celebrity with her magnetic personality. On February 13th, just two days before the crash, she appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated
From Colorado Springs, she had finished 2nd at the US Championships before a hometown crowd earning her place at the Worlds. Her sister, Sharon, was also among the victims of the crash
Rhode Lee Michelson (17)
Born in Long Beach, California, Rhode was the Bronze Medalist in Colorado. A nagging hip injury forced her to withdraw from the North American Champions, but she was deemed healthy enough to compete in Prague.
Bradley Lord (21)
From Boston, MA. The Boston University student had won the Gold Medal in Colorado Springs just barely defeating Gregory Kelley for the title. Bradley had previously competed at the 1960 World Championship.
Gregory Kelley (16)
From Newton, Massachusetts, Gregory Kelley began skating at 8 years old. He was the Silver Medalist at the 1961 US Championships. His sister Nathalie was also killed in the crash
Douglas Ramsey (16)
Detroit born Douglas Ramsey, was one of the most promising US male skaters. Despite having an excellent free skate due to a rather poor performance in compulsory figures; he finished fourth place in Colorado Springs. However because of an illness to Bronze Medalist Tim Brown he was chosen to represent the US Team in Prague as the alternate.
Maribel Owen (20) and Dudley Richards (29)
Maribel Owen was born in Boston MA. Along with a previous partner she was the 1956 US Junior National Championship. The older sister of Laurence, she was a student at Boston University Dudley “Dud” Richards was from Providence RI. A graduate of Harvard, he was the college roommate of Ted Kennedy. Before teaming up with Maribel, he competed as a single. The 1961 US Pairs Champions, the pair had been together since 1956. They competed as a team at the 1960 Winter Olympics, finishing 10th
The US Silver Medalist were a brother and sister team from Renton, Washington. They began competing in 1957 as Juniors and were at the 1960 Winter Olympics; finishing 11th. Because of financial issues, the pair almost didn’t travel to Prague, but thanks to contributions from the Seattle skating community they were able the make the trip to the World Championships. Their mother was also aboard Flight 548
Laurie Hickox (15) and William Hickox (19)
From San Francisco, CA they were another pair of siblings. The 1961 US Championships were their first major senior competition as a team. They had previously won the 1960 US Junior Championships. They had no real plans to compete in 1961. William retired from skating to attend the Air Force Academy, but was convinced by his mother to rejoin his sister for the 1961 US Championships. After finishing third with his sister, he was given leave from school to attend the Worlds. Laurie was the youngest member of the 1961 Team
Diane Sherbloom was from Los Angeles, CA and Larry Pierce was born in Dallas, TX. Dee Dee had retired from skating after graduating from high school in 1960 and had no intentions of competing at the 1961 US Championships. She was approached and persuaded by Larry Pierce to join him as a pair. He was looking for a new partner after his previous longtime partner, Marilyn Meeker, had broken her ankle training in December 1960. This newly formed team went on to win the 1961 US Championship.
Dona Carrier was from National City, CA. She had never competed at the national level until the 1961 US Championship. Roger Campbell was originally from Providence, KY. He had previously been a partner of Diane Sherbloom until she, originally, retired. He teamed up with Dona in 1961, and together they finished second at the 1961 US Championships; earning their place at the Worlds. His mother Ann was also killed in the crash
Patricia Dineen (25) and Robert Dineen (25)
A husband and wife team from New York City, NY. they began competing together as Juniors in 1956, and were married in 1958. They continued to train for the 60-61 season even after Patricia had given birth in the summer of 1960. The Ice Dancing pair took the Bronze at the 1961 US Championships. They left behind their 9 month-old son, Richard Jr. who was given to the care of Robert’s brother
Maribel Vinson-Owen (49)
Maribel Vinson-Owen, originally from Winchester, MA was one of the most successful American Figure Skaters of all time. She won a record nine US Figure Skating Ladies titles; a record shared with Michelle Kwan, and also won a Bronze Medal at the 1932 Winter Olympics. While still competing she became a sportswriter for the New York Times, the first female sportswriter in the paper’s history. She retired as a competitor in 1937 to become a coach . She was equally successful as a coach, leading Tenley Albright to five US titles and an Olympic Gold in 1956; the first Figure Skating Gold Medal won by a US woman. She was the mother of Laurence and Maribel
Eduard Scholdan (50)
Originally from Vienna, Austria. He was the coach of Gregory Kelley, Stephanie, Westerfield, and the Hickox siblings . His 13 year son, whom he was planning to bring to Vienna for the first time, was also killed in the crash
Daniel Ryan (31)
From Indianapolis, IN he was the coach of Ice Dancers Sherbloom and Pierce. A pioneer in American Ice Dancing, as a competitor, with partner Carol Ann Peters, he had won a US title in 1953 and twice competed at World Championships winning Bronze both times.
William Kipp (28)
From Pennsylvania, PA a up and coming youth coach, he was the first coach of a then 12 year-old Peggy Fleming
Following the crash the 1961 World Figure Skating Championship were cancelled immediately as the skating world mourned the loss of the US Team. US President John F Kennedy, just a month in office, issued a statement of condolence that read: “ Our country has sustained a great loss of talent and grace which had brought pleasure to people all over the world. Mrs. Kennedy and I extend our deepest sympathy to the families and friends of all the passengers and crew who died in this crash.” Belgian King Baudoiun I and Queen Fabiola went to the crash scene personally to help comfort distraught family members.
The exact cause of the crash of Sabena Flight 548, which remains the deadliest airline crash on Belgian soil, has never been fully determined. Investigators would eventually agree that the most likely cause was a mechanical failure of one of the flight control mechanisms; probably a malfunction of the wing spoilers or the tail stabilizers. According to the FAA the most plausible hypothesis was a malfunction of the stabilizer adjusting mechanism permitting the stabilizer to run to the 10.5deg nose-up position
US Figure Skating was of course decimated by the crash. Within days US Figure Skating officials established the 1961 US Figure Skating Memorial Fund to honor the fallen skaters and their entourage. The Fund was to help rebuild the American program by providing financial support to promising skaters and help them develop. In March 1961 a benefit was held at the Boston Garden to raise money for the fund. Over the years thousands of young American have benefited from the fund which is still around to this day. 1960 Olympic Bronze medalist, Barbara Roles had come out of retirement to help rebuild the US Team, and eight months after giving birth, won a Gold Medal at the 1962 US Championships. Younger skaters would also climb the ranks of the US team due to a lack of senior skaters competing Scott Allen, at only 12 years-old, would win a silver medal at the 1962 US Championship and would go on to take Bronze at the 1964 Winter Olympics. However it wasn’t until 1965 that US Skaters would start to win medals at World Championships again. The US finally regained international prominence at the 1968 Winter Olympic when Peggy Fleming, one of the first benefactors of the Memorial Fund, won Gold in the Ladies’ event and Tim Wood took Silver in the Men’s In January 2011 the entire team along with the coaches were elected to the US Figure Skating Hall Of Fame.
On the 40th anniversary in February 2001, a monument dedicated to the victims was unveiled near the crash site