A helicopter en route to Los Angeles International Airport from Disneyland Resort in California crashed in the city of Paramount, killing all 23 passengers and crew aboard.
When Walt Disney began planning to construct his first theme park in Anaheim, California, in the early 1950s, he had some spectacular ideas. Over the years, the genius visionary had grown weary of taking his young daughters on outings every Saturday, only to be forced to play the role of spectator on the sidelines while his children engaged in the activity of the day.
“There should be something built, an amusement enterprise built, where the parents and the children could have fun together,” Walt said, sharing his inspiration for Disneyland during a 1963 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Fletcher Markle.
But Walt didn’t stop there. His beloved theme park challenged everything known at that time about what an amusement enterprise could be–and should be. Disneyland featured similar offerings and elements that other theme parks of the day featured–similar, but better in every way. But Disneyland’s many unique elements forever set it apart from the competition, paving the way for other Disney parks to be built and do the same.
Among Disneyland’s unique features was the ability for guests to arrive at the park via helicopter. Even before the park was built, Disney execs announced that visitors could arrive at Disneyland by highway or skyway, as Walt had signed off on plans for the development of a helicopter terminal and helipad on a small area of undeveloped land just outside the park’s gates. Walt had discovered that the commute from other areas in Southern California to Disneyland took only 20 minutes–far shorter than the commute by highway.
In 1955, TWA Airlines was the first to advertise direct service from New York City to Disneyland, with the last minutes of the trip being via helicopter. Like most of Walt’s ideas, arriving at the theme park via helicopter became very popular with visitors.
Los Angeles Airways
Flights from LAX to Disneyland became available on December 1, 1955, and were serviced by Los Angeles Airways, one of only two airlines in the country that specialized in shuttle service via helicopter. The airline offered 12 scheduled departures and arrivals each day, except on Sundays, guests paid approximately $4 for each way of the journey.
The idea of taking a helicopter to a Disney park sounds a bit foreign today, but it wasn’t uncommon in the 1950s and 1960s. During the late 1950s, thousands of wealthy guests arrived at Disney’s heliport, which was located next to Tomorrowland on the park’s southeast corner. Guests accessed the helicopter just a stone’s throw from where the twin ride domes and tall rocket stood for the Rocket to the Moon attraction at Disneyland.
Some arrived via Los Angeles Airways and some via private or military helicopters, including then-Massachusetts senator and future U.S. President John F. Kennedy Jr., Prime Minister of Afghanistan Mohammad Daud, Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, and Belgium’s King Baudouin.
Disneyland’s “Greatest Tragedy”
At 5:40 p.m. on Wednesday, May 22, 1968, Los Angeles Airways Flight 841 departed Disneyland with 20 passengers who’d spent the day at Disneyland and were heading back home. The weather was clear. Captain John Dupies was piloting the Sikorsky S-61L helicopter alongside First Officer Terry R. Herrington, while Donald Bergman, the only flight attendant on board, was in the cabin with the passengers.
At 5:50 p.m., ten minutes after its departure from Disneyland, the aircraft was seen by two pilots in another Los Angeles Airways helicopter as the two passed one another in the skies, and all was normal as the helicopter was cruising in a westerly direction at approximately 2,000 feet above the ground. But only 30 to 60 seconds later, LAA Flight Control received a radio transmission: “LA, we’re crashing. Help us!”
At 5:51 p.m., the helicopter fell nearly vertically out of the sky, nose-first, crashing into the ground below in the town of Paramount, California, approximately 14 miles west-northwest of Anaheim, immediately bursting into flames on impact. All 23 passengers and crew members onboard perished in the crash.
What Happened to Flight 841: The NTSB Investigation
At the time of the crash, FAA regulations did not require transport helicopters over short distances like LAA Flight 841 to be equipped with so-called black boxes–a cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder. As such, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) included the accounts of eyewitnesses in its investigation into the crash.
“It was over Alondra Boulevard, coming down like a rock,” one witness said. “It was making a big noise, and parts were flying everywhere.”
Flight 841 made impact with the ground on Alondra Boulevard near Minnesota Street in the city of Paramount. The craft was destroyed entirely by the impact and the fire that followed. Witnesses told investigators that shortly before the helicopter crashed, it suddenly descended from its cruising altitude of 2,000 feet to approximately 700 feet.
Observers said they saw the blades atop the craft malfunctioning. One blade loosened from the helicopter, violently striking the fuselage. Because the five blades work together synergistically, the malfunction of the first blade led to the craft’s demise, as the pilot had no control of the helicopter at that point, and the craft fell from the sky, crashing into the ground immediately.
The final report from the NTSB found that mechanical failure in the blade rotor system was to blame for the crash, though the cause of the mechanical failure was never determined. The system’s failure caused one of the five blades to loosen and strike the fuselage of the helicopter, thus setting the remaining four blades out of balance and causing them to undergo “a series of extreme over-travel excursions in their lead/lag axis.”
With no rotor blades functioning properly and some having come loose from the aircraft, Captain Dupies had no control over the craft. Before the helicopter impacted the ground, the rear fuselage and the craft’s tail separated from the rest of the airframe.
The ordeal happened in less than two minutes and was the worst helicopter-involved accident in U.S. aviation history. More than 55 years later, the crash of Los Angeles Airways Flight 841 is still revered by many as Disneyland’s greatest tragedy.