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When the sky fell over Billerica

What happened

An Ireland-bound cargo plane loaded with computer equipment crashed in Billerica on Saturday, Feb. 16, 1980 at 2:16 p.m., killing seven of the eight people aboard. It tore through mature trees for 1,500 feet before finally disintegrating very close to Wyman Road, sparing everyone on the ground. The one surviving crew member was saved by a Billerica man, whom you’ll meet later. The impact area is now part of the Linnell Circle office park off Middlesex Turnpike. No evidence of the crash remains, and hardly anyone knows about it.

What kind of airplane

The image below is not a random airplane photo or a stock photo of a similar aircraft. It is the actual unit that crashed, the Bristol Brittania 253-F (G-BRAC) operated by Redcoat Air Cargo. The company operated in Sussex, England from 1977 to 1982.

 

Where it happened

The arrow shaft represents the airplane path. The arrow tip represents the final resting spot. For reference, it crossed the Middlesex Turnpike very close to the Ninety Nine restaurant.

 

A closer view:

 

And a closer look. The plane would have struck the big section of 4 Suburban Park Drive, but that section did not exist in 1980.

 

Why it happened

It was a “perfect storm” of challenging weather and human missteps: Poor communication about weather conditions, insufficient de-icing, sticky snow after takeoff, wind shear, turbulence and downdrafts. When it crashed, the plane was trying to return to Logan in a wide arc — it even started dumping fuel in a desperate attempt to save weight — but crashed just eight minutes after takeoff. Here’s the accident report from the National Transportation Safety Board. Click on the cover page below to pull up the entire thing, including the names of the victims and their final conversation with air traffic control. It takes a few seconds to load, so be patient:

 

Billerica plane crash accident report

What the crash scene looked like

Billerica bus driver Rachel Goding snapped these pictures very soon after the accident — in fact, some of the wreckage was still burning. Special thanks to Robin Baxter of Lowell for keeping these photos safe for over 40 years:

 

Bob Hunt of Corcorcan Road, Burlington heard an explosion and waves of sirens right afterward. “I made my way to the crash site probably about 20 minutes after the crash.” And here are his photos:

How the one survivor made it

These next photos belong to Bruce Richardson of Billerica, a National Guardsman (battalion medical officer/medical platoon leader 101st Infantry, first core of cadettes 26th Yankee Infantry Division) who lived nearby at 127 Partridge Road. He had spent the night working for American Ambulance and was relaxing in a hot bath when his sister, Lisa, banged on the door and shouted, “I just saw a plane fall out of the sky!” He grabbed his blue box of medical supplies — luckily he’d just filled it at Fort Devens — and ran toward the cloud of smoke erupting from the trees.

Bruce Richardson

Richardson had delivered many babies and handled car accidents, house fires and nasty lacerations, but had never worked a battlefield. Until now. Police and fire crews were equally shocked at what they encountered and would have to deal with the psychological aftermath for years to come.

One victim was smashed against a tree, his body blackened and smoldering. Too late for him. Another was hanging from a tree, still strapped in his seat but unquestionably dead. Billerica police officer Bill McNulty arrived around the same time, along with some other officers and Fred Packard of 102 Wyman Road.  Amid the chaos, someone said there may be other victims in the charred, splintered skeleton of the cockpit. Richardson crawled in as best he could.  It was like climbing into a smoking, mangled jungle gym.

“I saw what I believed to be the sleeve of a jacket and a face and eyes. As I got closer, there was a loud hissing sound. The hissing must have been an oxygen tank, because it exploded and killed him, and blew me back several feet. I fell into a pile of trees. When firetrucks from Hanscom arrived and started spraying foam, I started to regain my bearings. A police officer helped me up. I stepped on a pile of wreckage and heard a voice underneath it. A man’s voice was telling me, ‘Get the fuck off my legs.’ I knew I had a survivor.”

It was flight engineer Richard A. Creer, a man who had flown spitfire airplanes in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Somehow he was alive. Barely.

“I pulled the stuff off him and examined him. His scalp was partially detached, so I pulled it back on. I made a dressing for his head, wrapped his head in a blanket on both sides, kept him in place. His legs were shattered, bent in directions that legs don’t bend. He was breathing, so I was able to listen to his lungs. He said his right side hurt. I found a pocket of fluid there. I used a cannula to pop that fluid sack. Then he took a deep breath and a lot of fluid came out. He didn’t say a word in the ambulance. His face was black, eyes glued shut. Opening them was difficult. He had blood coming out of his right ear.”

A young, aspiring photographer from Middlesex Turnpike in Burlington went to the battlefield and took these photos. One shows Bruce in the ambulance.

 

 

Years later, Richardson had a visitor at his family’s real estate office. It was sole survivor Richard Creer and his wife. He was not in a wheelchair or even on crutches. He walked in. “He asked me if I had ever done anything like that before, ” says Richardson. “No I hadn’t. He said my father would be very proud of me. My father had just died in 1977. I wish he had lived to see this. My wife was crying. I asked her why. She said Richard’s wife just kept saying ‘Thank you, thank your husband for bringing my husband back to me.'”

And to think Richardson had wanted to attend art school, even got a partial scholarship to Mass Art. His father, a Navy veteran, would have none of it. He told his son, “No son of mine is going to art school.”

 

Valley Forge Cross award

Valley Forge Cross

9 thoughts on “When the sky fell over Billerica Leave a comment

  1. I was there right after it happened. This was the day I married my first husband. I remember it as if it was yesterday. There are not a lot of people that know about this day. Thanks for the great story as usual Robert Fahey!

  2. I had forgotten about this until now but it’s all coming back to me. I was 20 years old and working as a DJ at WLLH radio in Lowell that Saturday afternoon, a snow storm was going on and as I was keeping track of the cancellations to read on the air this story came over the AP Newswire printer. At first the AP incorrectly said the crash was in Burlington, that made me a little concerned and when I had a chance in between talking on the mic and having a record playing, I called home to make sure this did not happen anywhere near our neighborhood. Matt S.

  3. I was 15 at the time and my four friends an I heard about the crash and walked (3 miles) to the scene from Burlington. The devastation was unimaginable. I remember seeing the tail section in the trees, the smell of smoke and jet fuel. It was so surreal. Until I read this article, I thought everyone had perished. I so happy to learn that there was a survivor.

  4. Im not a very superstituious kind of person, but I remember this crash very well. the night before the crash (or early morning when I was sleeping) I had a dream about a plane crashing in Billerica. Then when I learned a plane did indeed crash that next afternoon, I was beside myself. Its the only time I ever dreamed of a plane crashing. I know of only 2 plane crashes in Billerica and the other was a small engine plane crashing into a house on Bridle Road when i was a young teenager.

  5. I was there too, right after the crash! I was 20 at the time, Heard the crash and emergency vehicles from our driveway and went to investigate. I took a bunch of photos also that I need to find now! Didn’t really hear much about it afterwards about this tragic accident. Thank you for putting this story together!

  6. I was shoveling snow off our driveway and saw the plane flying low through the clouds then it disappeared past the top of the trees and shortly after was a large explosion and smoke! Jumped on my bike and rode the 1/2 mile to the crash site- so unreal to see the sheered trees and debris field. Will never forget that day.

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