Belgium's Worst Aviation Disaster, 62 Years Since

This is the story of Sabena flight 548.


(Photo Credit: R.A.Scholefield)


Before I start with the story, I would like to direct you to my last Belgian aviation history topic: The History Of Constellation Airlines .

I would also like to thank @Robertine again for inspiring me to make these history topics.

Today is also the 62nd anniversary of this tragic accident.


Background:

For this story we will travel back exactly 62 years, to the 15th of February 1961.

At this point, Brussels Airport (BRU/EBBR) had four runways, instead of the three today. New York’s main airport was also called Idlewild Airport (IDL/KIDL), which today is named after the 35th president of the United States of America, namely John F. Kennedy.

This was also the first fatal accident of a Boeing 707 in regular passenger service.

The Aircraft Involved:

The aircraft involved in the accident was a close to brand new Boeing 707-329, registered as OO-SJB. The plane was rolled out of the Renton factory on the 20th of November 1959 and handed over to the Belgian flag carrier on the 4th of January 1960. It was then ferried to Brussels on the 17th of January 1960.

Exactly one year before the crash, on the 15th of February 1960, this aircraft inaugurated the Brussels - Rome - Leopoldsville (now Kinshasa) - Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi) - Johannesburg route.


(Image Credit)

The Location:

The crash took place in the vicinity of Zaventem Airport/Melsbroek Air Base (now Brussels Airport). As mentioned before, at the time, Zaventem still had four runways, instead of the three we have now. The terminal was much smaller and the cargo apron did not exist yet.


(Image Credit).


The Flight:

The ill-fated aircraft had flown from Brussels to New York before without issue. The plane was scheduled to depart back home in the evening as Sabena flight 548 (SN548/SAB548). On board were 61 passengers and 11 crew members. 34 of the passengers made up the U.S. Figure Skating Team. They were headed to Prague for the 1961 World Figure Skating Championship.

The flight crew included Captain Ludovic Marie Antoine Lambrechts and First Officer Jean Roy who were both former military pilots with over 20 years of flying experience. The additional two flight deck crew members were Flight Engineer Lucien Eduwaere and Navigator Jean Kint.

The departure from New York’s Idlewild Airport (IDL/KIDL) was uneventful and the transatlantic crossing went without issue. The only problem occurred about 20 minutes before landing, when air traffic controllers in Brussels (BRU/EBBR) reported issues with radio communications. This was however not a big problem as it was only temporary.

The runway flight SN548 was expected to use was runway 20 (now runway 19) with a long approach.

image
Note: The IATA back then was IDL, not JFK.


The Crash:

At about 10:00 local time (UTC +1), the Boeing 707 was on final approach to runway 20. A smaller aircraft ahead of flight SN548 has just landed on the same runway, but had not yet vacated. At roughly 900ft of altitude, the flight crew initiated a go-around. The landing gear was retracted and engine power was increased as the aircraft began to climb again.

During this go-around however, a problem emerged.

(This explanation was never 100% confirmed, as the official cause of the accident is “loss of control for undetermined reasons”. However this seems to be the most plausible explanation as multiple sources, including a former 707 pilot, claim this as the reason.)

The pilots found their trimmable horizontal stabilizer “running away” from them to a pitch position of full nose up, which is a position of 10,5°. This made the aircraft hard to control very quickly. As the nose pitched up, the pilots knew something was wrong.

To counter the sudden pitch, the pilots pushed the control column all the way forward. This had minimal effect however, so the pilots suggested to land on runway 25 (now runway 25R) instead. This meant they would have to make a large left turn.

As the pilots kept pushing the control column forward, they tried banking the aircraft to the left. This had the effect of forcing the planes nose to go down. Thanks to this, they regained some lost speed. The pilots did these manoeuvres for three complete 360° turns.

The pilots found that banking the plane kept them from losing too much speed and stalling. Each time they levelled the wings, the planes nose would pitch up again, making them have to bank again. At one point, the bank angle reached 90°.

After they almost completed a fourth rotation, the nose once again pitched up. By this time however, the plane had lost too much speed, so this pitch transitioned into a nosedive. The pilots, after much struggle, had lost control of their plane.

Flight SN548 crashed into marshy farmland at around 10:05 local time (UTC +1) near Berg and the town of Kampenhout, less than 3km from the airport. The jet exploded and burst into flames on impact, killing all 72 occupants on board.

A young farmer on the ground by the name of Theo de Laet was also killed when a piece of debris struck him. Another farmer, Marcel Lauwers, was injured when a piece of debris struck him in the leg, which later needed to be amputated.

Airport emergency vehicles and crews arrived at the crash site soon after. There was however no one to save.


(Image Credit).

The Aftermath:

The crash was the worst aviation disaster to ever occur on Belgian soil, which to this day is still the case. This was also the first crash of a Boeing 707 in commercial service.

The Belgian government ordered and inquiry into the disaster. Belgian investigators were helped by the FAA in the research of this crash.

It was found that the trimmable stabilizer was pitched to nearly its full 11°. The cause of this was however never determined.

Due to this accident, a new emergency procedure was temporarily developed. This called for the relevant circuit breakers to be cut in case the trim wheel ran away from the pilots.

Boeing added stabilizer trim cut out switches to the plane, and they were also retrofitted to existing models. These switches would also find their way into the flight decks of the Boeing 727, 737 and 747.

The International Skating Union cancelled the world championship that year out of respect.


(Image Source).


The Crash Site Today:

The area where the aircraft came down is now a suburb in the municipality of Kampenhout. At the crash site, a small memorial stone was put up in 2001, which was joined by a small monument in 2021 to honour the victims of this devastating crash.


(Image Source).


That was the story of Sabena flight 548. It was definitely an emotional one to research this, but also very informative. I definitely praise the pilots for their quick thinking and managing to keep the aircraft in the air for as long as they did.

I also apologise for kind of disappearing, haven’t been doing too well so I wasn’t as active.

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Here are the sources I used for this story:

A great video made by the Disaster Breakdown channel.

https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19610215-3

(In Dutch)

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope to see you in the next one!

23 Likes

Great topic, a fantastic read! A less fantastic event, though. Good job on the history topics, they’re a pleasure to read every single time!

3 Likes

Thank you! Certainly not a great event sadly no.

And thanks again! I really enjoy doing the research and writing them. Nice to give some info about Belgian aviation once in a while.

2 Likes

Wow… this topic is so nice
I really like the pictures, especially the satellite imagery of Brussels Airport in the 60s
Thanks for this

1 Like

One reason why I know this is bc I see the crash inves. Animations.

1 Like

This is a very well-researched and nicely put-together topic. Thanks for the interesting read through of this terrible incident.

1 Like

That is one way to learn about aviation accidents. Can definitely learn about some interesting ones that way.

@Mr-plane-guy1 Thank you very much! Glad you found it interesting.

@Nylzaga Thank you! It is indeed very cool to see Brussels from so long ago.

2 Likes

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