Mountain Memorial Honors 92 Lives Lost in Clarke County Airliner Tragedy

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is our country’s day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. There are many stories as to Memorial Day’s actual beginnings. More than two dozen US cities and towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day’s tradition of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. There is also evidence that organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War. A hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication, “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead,” according to Duke University’s Historic American Sheet Music collection.

American flags adorn a memorial to the victims of TWA flight 514 killed when the jet struck the Blue Ridge on December 1, 1974 - Photo Edward Leonard

Waterloo, New York was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, although historians say that it is more likely that the celebration had many separate beginnings in the towns and cities where planned or spontaneous gatherings occurred to honor the Civil War dead in the 1860’s.

Regardless of political opinion about America’s involvement in any war, Memorial Day is about reconciliation and coming together as a nation to honor those who gave their all in service to our nation.

Traditional observance of Memorial Day has changed over the years. Many Americans have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day, especially as military service has come to be viewed more as a “job” rather than a solemn duty. At many cemeteries the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored and neglected. Many people no longer remember and observe proper flag etiquette for the day. Memorial Day parades, once a given in every town and city, are now less common.

Even as Memorial Day is fundamentally still about honoring those who gave their lives in service to their country, it has also increasingly become a day to remember the lives who have been lost in other tragic events and for memorializing the sites where the lives were lost.

Thanks to Memorial Day ceremonies in places like the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a field in Shanksville,  Pennsylvania, millions of people will continue to remember the tragic loss of thousands of lives on September 11, 2001. In other places, like Clarke County, Virginia, the memory of lost loved ones is kept alive by more modest, but no less important, efforts.

Clarke Country largest single day loss of life, since the Civil War’s Battle of Cool Spring in July 18, 1864, occurred at 11:10 am EST on December 1, 1974  when Trans World Airlines Flight 514, a Boeing tri-jet 727 carrying 85 passengers and seven crew members enroute from Columbus, Ohio, to Washington, DC, prematurely descended below 2,000 feet during its approach to Dulles Airport while still over Clarke County, Virginia. The jet slammed into the 1,800-foot-high Blue  Ridge  Mountains, approximately 50 miles west of the nation’s capital and one mile north of the Federal Emergency Management Administration facility located at Mount Weather.

All 92 souls aboard the flight were killed.

"Cathleen", who was just 26 when she died, is remembered on a simple cross at the site of the plane crash - Photo Edward Leonard

Flight 514 was originally destined for  Washington National Airport but was diverted to Dulles International Airport when 28-knot easterly crosswinds gusting to 49 mph prevented a safe landing at National Airport’s main north-south  runway. The flight was vectored by air traffic control for an instrument approach to runway twelve at Dulles.  The jetliner began its descent to the altitude level shown on the first checkpoint for the published approach. The cockpit data recorder indicated there was some confusion in the cockpit over whether the flight was still under a radar controlled approach segment, which would have allowed the pilot to descend safely under the guidance of air traffic control, or whether the crew was responsible for the plane’s final navigation to the runway.

Just prior to the crash the flight crew discussed encountering heavy downdrafts and reduced visibility in snow. The plane impacted Mount Weather at about 1,700 feet above sea level.

With only an additional 100 feet of altitude the plane would have cleared the ridge safely and averted the tragedy.

The site of the crash has long since grown over with new tree growth. Vines cover a large rock near the site of the impact. There is no longer any sign of the plane wreckage from that December morning 37 years ago, save for a small memorial tended by an unknown keeper from time to time in the years since the accident. Two small American flags hang horizontally from a small granite plaque listing the names of the crew and passengers who died that morning.

The  National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident  investigation panel reached a split decision as to whether the flight crew or  Dulles air traffic control  was  ultimately responsible for the crash. The board’s majority opinion absolved air traffic controllers as the plane was not on a published approach segment. The dissenting opinion held that the flight had been radar vectored and therefore the pilots believed that their final approach to Dulles was unobstructed.

Three of the five NTSB board members faulted the plane crew for misinterpreting the command, while the other two members placed responsibility on the air traffic controller for not specifically telling the flight to maintain its altitude. But the blame for the accident probably matters little to the people who tend the small monument and several simple crosses at the crash site. The name of “Cathleen”, who had just turned 26-years-old, adorns one white cross – a life lost but still remembered.

Prior to TWA Flight 514’s accident, terminology differed between pilots and controllers over radar vectored approaches and neither group fully understood the potentially tragic consequences of the discrepancy. Before the accident it was common practice for controllers to release a  flight to  its own navigation by issuing the authorization “Cleared for the approach.” Flight crews commonly believed that the statement also authorized to descent to the altitude at which the approach final segment began.

In TWA 514’s case, no clear indication had been given by controllers that the flight was no longer on a radar vector segment and therefore responsible for its own navigation. Procedures were clarified after the  accident and air traffic controllers now issue the command,   “Maintain specified altitude until established on a portion of the approach” to aircraft under their control. Pilots now understand that previously assigned altitudes prevail until an altitude change is authorized on the published approach segment the aircraft is currently flying.

Ground proximity detection equipment was also mandated for airliners as a result of the accident and during the  NTSB  investigation it was discovered that a United Airlines flight had very narrowly escaped the same fate during the same approach and at the same location only six weeks prior to TWA 514’s accident. Although the same westerly approach to Dulles Airport is still in use today, no accidents have occurred in Clarke County since TWA 514.

Monument plaque listing the 92 passengers and crew who died aboard TWA Flight 514 - Photo Edward Leonard

As Memorial Day 2011 remembrances and celebrations take the national stage this weekend, speeches and military ceremonies will honor our brave departed military heroes on the grand scale that they deserve. At the same time, other more humble memorial tributes – but no less poignant – are taking place at gravesites – and on at least one Virginia mountain top – across the nation.

May the memories of all of our departed be kept in our hearts on Memorial Day.

For more information about the origins of Memorial Day please visit




  1. J.C.Coon says: