On June 24, 1975, Eastern Airlines Flight 66 from New Orleans to New York City crashed
into the ground about half a mile short of John F. Kennedy International Airport’s
runway. 113 of the 124 passengers were killed. The crash had been caused by a microburst,
a sudden, powerful, downward moving blast of air. It is essentially a descending body of
heavy, cold air released by a thunderstorm that has stopped growing and is producing
much rain. Microbursts are usually about 2.5 miles in diameter, but some are so powerful
that airplanes flying through them will most likely crash. The draft of air fans out
when it gets close to the ground, sometimes forming a rim of air resembling an
upside-down mushroom. These blasts can affect a plane’s motion and cause pilots to lose
control. The winds at the bottom of microbursts have been measured at up to 168 miles
per hour, often striking without warning.
Investigators later figured that a strong microburst struck Flight 66 just as the plane
was starting its landing approach. Flying into the burst’s center, the aircraft was
pushed downward. Unfortunately, another gale hit it from behind, causing the plane’s
speed to drop to 140 miles per hour, which is dangerously slow for a landing aircraft.
The pilot tried to lift the nose up and give the plane more power, but it was too late.