United Airlines Flight 826, Mainliner Will Rogers, registration N8013U, was a Douglas DC-8 en route from O'Hare Airport in Chicago to New York International (Idlewild) Airport in New York City, New York, on December 16, 1960.
Trans World Airlines Flight 266, Star of Sicily, registration N6907C, was a Lockheed Super Constellation en route from Dayton and Columbus, Ohio, to New York's LaGuardia Airport.
The two aircraft collided in mid-air in heavy clouds a mile west of Miller Field, a military airfield on Staten Island, at 10:33 a.m. Eastern Time. Weather conditions at the time were light rain and fog (which had been preceded by a snowfall).
According to information from the United's flight recorder (the first time a "black box" had been used to provide extensive details in a crash investigation) the United plane was 12 miles (19 km) off course and in 81 seconds dived 3,600 feet (1,100 m) a minute and dropped its speed from more than 500 miles per hour (800 km/h) to 363 miles per hour (584 km/h) when it slammed into the right side of the TWA plane at between 5,250 and 5,175 feet (1,577 m).
The collision occurred about a mile west of Miller Army Field. The TWA Constellation crashed onto Miller Field, with some sections of the aircraft landing in New York Harbor on the Atlantic Ocean side. As the TWA plane spiraled down it disintegrated, dropping at least one passenger into a tree in the New Dorp neighborhood. It crashed into an empty field at the northwest corner of the field—although within a few feet of the neighborhood.
The United plane was supposed to have been circling a point called "Preston" off the New Jersey coast, was supposed to have been at 5,000 feet (and not diving down from 8,700 feet) and not traveling more than 240 miles per hour. United was to say the ground beacon was not working (pilots testified on both sides of the issue).
At 10:21 a.m., Flight 826 advised its company radio operator that one of its VOR receivers had stopped working (although they did not notify air traffic controllers of the problem) but it made it difficult to fly on instrument conditions. At 10:25 a.m., air traffic control issued a revised clearance for the flight to shorten its course to the Preston holding point by 12 miles (19 km).
The United Plane overshot the Preston holding point and at 10:33 a.m. it collided with the TWA Constellation.
Following the collision, the crippled United DC-8 careened into the Park Slope section of Brooklyn and crashed, setting fire to 10 brownstone apartment buildings, the Pillar of Fire Church, the McCaddin Funeral Home, a Chinese laundry and a delicatessen. Wreckage was spewed over the Seventh Avenue at Sterling Place intersection, killing six people on the ground, including Wallace E. Lewis, the Pillar of Fire Church’s 90-year-old caretaker; Charles Cooper, a sanitation worker who was shoveling snow; Joseph Colacano and John Opperisano, who were selling Christmas trees on the sidewalk; Dr. Jacob L. Crooks, who was out walking his dog; and an employee of a butcher shop located on Sterling Place.
Although witnesses speculated at the time that United attempted an emergency landing in Prospect Park or at LaGuardia Airport, there is no evidence that the pilots had control of the DC-8 at any time after the mid-air collision. There was no audible voice radio contact with traffic controllers from either plane after the collision although LaGuardia had begun tracking an incoming fast moving unidentified plane from Preston toward the LaGuardia "Flatbush" outer marker.
The only initial survivor of the tragedy was 11-year-old Stephen Baltz of Wilmette, Illinois, a passenger on the United jet, who was thrown from the plane into a snowbank at impact. He later died in Park Slope's New York Methodist Hospital a few blocks from the crash. Baltz told rescuers that moments before the collision he had looked out the window at the snow falling on the city.