Published in Buffalo Express Sept 24, 2013
written by Lee Gayle Boettcher
Fifty-four years ago Sunday, September 29, 11pm in 1959,
Braniff flight 542 plunged into a sweet potato field near Buffalo.
The Lockheed Electra transport suddenly and without warning lost its left wing at 15,000 feet and virtually shredded. The big turboprop plunged to the ground at over 400 mph. Thirty four people - 28 passengers and 6 crew members lost their lives. There were no survivors.
The crash was a stunning catastrophe for Buffalo, a town that lived off income provided by the heavy traffic on State Hwy 75 which ran directly through Buffalo between Houston and Dallas. There was no Nucor Steel Co., Westmoreland Coal Co., NRG, or even a Wal-Mart within driving distance in those days and most moms did not work away from home.
But, whatever was going on, it all came to a screeching halt that night when one of aviation's most tragic disasters thrust Buffalo TX into the national news.
The plane had left the Houston Airport (now Hobby) just 20 minutes before the crash and was about halfway through the flight to Dallas.
Most of the wreckage, which scattered over 2 square miles, landed in a sweet potato field on the farm of the late Richard and Mary White, just 100 yards for the White home located about 4 miles down what is now Star Route Rd southeast of Buffalo.
According to an Associated Press story out of Waco, the foggy dawn of September 30, 1959 revealed masses of torn bodies, blood-soaked clothing and mail. Men walked amidst a grotesque scene of litter sifting down through the trees. As it turned out, the plane was carrying blood in its cargo.
Over 300 National Guard soldiers were called in from Fort Hood. There were game wardens, deputies, highway patrol, newsmen, Civil Aeronautics Board teams and Braniff investigators, but the initial gruesome clean-up fell to Buffalo's local volunteers.
One of the first to reach the crash scene was Buffalo Resident Sonny West, then age 25 who was called upon to drive his father's ambulance out to the scene.
"Pieces of meat (human bodies) were hanging in the trees and everything was all blown to pieces. There were no whole bodies," recalled Sonny.
A makeshift morgue was set up at the closed off Buffalo school gymnasium but, according to Principal James Mae Henson, "We resumed classes without missing a day."
Much has been written including a book, "The Electra Story" about the fate and investigation of Lockheed's Electra, which crashed again in like manner in March 1960. By the spring of 1962 a total of $55 million in lawsuits had been filed against Lockheed, Allison, Braniff, and Northwest Airlines by relatives of those who died at Buffalo and Tell City IN, the site of a 2nd Electra crash.
The Electra was never grounded as a result of the Buffalo and Tell City crashes, but was restricted to fly at a slower speed until the wing flutter mystery was solved and all the planes were repaired.