By Jim Ignasher
The pilots opened the cockpit windows, but it did little to ventilate the toxic smoke filling the cabin and choking their lungs. Meanwhile flames licked at their legs from under the control panel, burning away clothing and flesh while inflicting excruciating pain. Yet both men remained at their posts, for to do otherwise would mean certain death for all aboard.
The date was February 21, 1982, and Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 had been on a routine flight from New York to Boston when disaster struck. The plane was a twin-engine De Havilland Otter, capable of carrying up to eighteen passengers and used by many of the smaller airlines of the day.
After making a brief stop in Groton, Connecticut, Flight 458 continued on at 3:10 p.m. with ten passengers and a crew of two aboard. The pilot was Captain Thomas Prinster, age 26, and the First Officer was Lyle Hogg, age 27.
The plane climbed to its designated cruising altitude of 4,000 feet, but before long frost began to form on the exterior of the windshield, so Captain Prinster activated the external de-icing system. Just after doing so he noticed a strong odor of the de-icer solution permeating the cockpit, followed by wisps of smoke that began to emanate from behind the control panel. Realizing there was an onboard fire situation Prinster radioed T. F. Green Airport and declared an emergency, and was granted priority clearance to land. However, the aircraft was still over western Rhode Island and it soon became apparent that they were now in a race for their lives.
As Prinster and Hogg set a course for Green Airport, the smoke grew thicker as the fire quickly gained headway feeding on wires and other materials behind the dashboard. Then flames appeared at their feet and began to attack.
As smoke began to waft back into the passenger cabin, one man raced forward and attempted to smother the flames with his jacket, but was unsuccessful. He then retreated back to the cabin and began using a tennis racket to attempt to break out a Plexiglass window hoping to release the smoke that was now throughout the entire aircraft.
Meanwhile the cockpit was now so full of smoke that the crew had to stick their heads out the windows as they flew the plane in order to breathe. Imagine their plight; faces freezing in the 150 mph slipstream while flames burned at their legs.
The smoke was such that the pilots couldn’t see the instruments leaving them unable to read a compass heading, see the artificial horizon gauge, or other navigational equipment. Below them, at 1,400 feet above the ground, was a thick layer of clouds about 400 feet thick that obscured all visual reference points which might aid them in their situation.
It was now obvious that they wouldn’t make it to Warwick where fire and rescue trucks stood at the ready. They would have to take their chances going down through the clouds and hope for a successful crash landing. What lay below the clouds was unknown. They could suddenly find themselves over a populated village, a steep wooded hillside, or a radio tower, any of which could appear in an instant with no time to react. Yet there was no choice, so they began to drop down through the scud. For a few seconds the misty whiteness was all about them as the engine noise seemed to dim. Then suddenly the mist parted as they broke through at one-thousand feet and found themselves over Scituate, Rhode Island. Scanning the barren winter landscape Prinster sighted the Scituate Reservoir ahead in the distance, frozen, and covered with snow. There was no way to know if the ice could support the weight of the aircraft, but the only alternative was to come down in the woodlands, which had a higher probability of ending badly. Choosing the best option, the pilots brought the plane down to tree-top level and approached from the northwest, passing over the Foster/Scituate town line, then Route 102 near the famous “Crazy Corners”, and setting down on the ice of the tributary that runs along Tunk Hill Road.
When they hit the ice the impact tore away a portion of the landing gear sending the plane into an uncontrolled sideways skid during which the right wing broke loose and slid away. The aircraft continued to slide across the snow covered ice for another five-hundred feet before finally coming to rest. And it was still burning! Passengers and crew scrambled out as spreading flames quickly engulfed the fuselage. A headcount revealed that one passenger, a 59-year-old New Hampshire woman was missing. Her body was later recovered, still strapped in her seat.
Despite serious injuries, Captain Prinster remained in charge of the situation as he and First Officer Hogg calmly led the survivors away. They reached the safety of the shoreline as the first police and fire vehicles arrived on scene. Unfortunately most of the fuselage was destroyed before firemen could douse the flames. Investigators later determined that the fire was caused by a loose connection in the de-icing system which allowed the alcohol based liquid to spray behind the electrical circuits of the control panel.
The survivors were transported to Rhode Island Hospital for treatment. Both Captain Prinster and First Officer Hogg were admitted with potential life-threatening injuries due to their severe burns, but both ultimately survived.
Their fortitude, determination, and quick-thinking under extreme pressure didn’t go unnoticed. Captain Prinster was awarded the Lieutenant General Herald L. George Civilian Airmanship Award by the Order of Daedalians, and both men received the Flight Safety Foundation Heroism Award, and the Rhode Island Lifesaving Medal.
Furthermore, few may realize that there’s also a memorial park built in honor of these men located at Scituate’s famous “Crazy Corners”, known as Prinster-Hogg Park. Just in from the roadway, amidst some overgrowth, stands a large granite boulder with a brief story of the incident engraved on its face. It is the only aviation memorial in Rhode Island dedicated to an incident involving a civilian aircraft.