Sabena Flight 548

Sabena Flight 548 was a Boeing 707-329[1] flight operated by Sabena that crashed en route from New York City to Brussels, Belgium, on February 15, 1961. The flight, which had originated at Idlewild International Airport,[2] crashed on approach to Brussels Airport, Brussels, killing all 72 people on board and one person on the ground.[3] The fatalities included the entire United States figure skating team, who were travelling to the World Figure Skating Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia.[4][5] The precise cause of the crash remains unknown; the most likely explanation was thought to be a failure of the mechanism that adjusted the tail stabilizer.[1]

Sabena Flight 548
Boeing 707-329, Sabena AN1052774.jpg
A Sabena Boeing 707-329, similar to the aircraft involved in the accident
DateFebruary 15, 1961
SummaryLoss of control for undetermined reasons (possible mechanical failure)
SiteKampenhout, near Brussels Airport, Belgium
50°55′15″N 4°31′36″E / 50.9209°N 4.5268°E / 50.9209; 4.5268
Total fatalities73
Total injuries1
Aircraft typeBoeing 707-329
Flight originIdlewild Airport, New York
DestinationBrussels Airport, Zaventem
Ground casualties
Ground fatalities1
Ground injuries1
Memorial at the location of the crash

This was the first fatal accident involving a Boeing 707 in regular passenger service; it happened 28 months after the 707 airliner was placed into commercial use.[a] It remains the deadliest plane crash to occur on Belgian soil.[1]


There were eleven crew members on board the flight.[3] The two pilots, 43-year old Louis Lambrechts (15.384 flight hours) and 48-year old Jean Roy (16.231 flight hours), were both former military pilots.[6] [7] There were no difficulties reported during the seven and a half hour trans-Atlantic flight from New York;[8] there was no indication that the plane was in any particular trouble, although the flight crew did lose radio contact with Brussels airport about twenty minutes before coming in to land.[9]

Under clear skies, at about 10:00 Brussels time (CET; 09:00 UTC),[10] the Boeing 707 was on a long approach to Runway 20 when, near the runway threshold and at a height of 900 feet (270 m), power was increased and the landing gear retracted.[5] The airplane had been forced to cancel its final approach to Brussels airport, as a small plane had not yet cleared the runway.[9] The 707 circled the airport and made another attempt to land on adjoining Runway 25, which was not operational;[6] this second approach was also aborted. It became clear to observers that the pilots were fighting for control of the aircraft, making a desperate attempt to land despite the fact that a mechanical malfunction was preventing them from making a normal landing.[6] The plane circled the airfield three times altogether,[8] during which the bank angle gradually increased until the aircraft had climbed to 1,500 feet (460 m) and was in a near vertical bank. It then leveled its wings, pitched up abruptly, lost speed and spiralled rapidly nose down,[5] plunging into the ground less than two miles (3 km) from the airport, at 10:05 CET (09:05 UTC).[1][8]

Crash site and debris

The location of the crash was a marshy area adjacent to farmland near Berg (then an independent municipality, nowadays part of Kampenhout), four miles northeast of Brussels.[6][10] Eyewitnesses said that the plane exploded when it hit the ground and heavy black smoke was seen coming from the wreckage which had burst into flames.[8] Theo de Laet, a young farmer and noted amateur cyclist, who was working in a field near to the crash site, was killed by a piece of aluminum shrapnel from the plane. Another field worker, Marcel Lauwers, was also hit by flying debris which amputated part of his leg.[6][11]

Father Joseph Cuyt, a local priest who had been observing the airplane as it came in to land, rushed to the scene but was driven back by the intense heat of the fire.[10] Airport rescue vehicles arrived at the crash site almost immediately but the plane was already a blazing fire.[6]

Baudouin I, King of the Belgians, and his consort, Queen Fabiola, travelled to the scene of the disaster[11] to provide comfort to the bereaved families. They donated oak coffins bearing the royal seal to transport the bodies back home.[5]

Loss of U.S. Figure Skating teamEdit

All eighteen members of the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating team lost their lives,[8] as well as sixteen other people who were accompanying them, including family members, coaches, and skating officials.[12] Among the fatalities were nine-times U.S. ladies' champion, turned coach, Maribel Vinson-Owen and her two daughters: reigning U.S. ladies' champion Laurence Owen, aged sixteen, and her 20-year-old sister, reigning U.S. pairs champion Maribel Owen,[8][13] both of whom had won gold medals at the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Colorado Springs just two weeks earlier. Laurence Owen was the cover story for the February 13 issue of Sports Illustrated,[14] just two days before her death.

Maribel Owen's pairs champion partner Dudley "Dud" Richards and reigning U.S. men's champion Bradley Lord were also killed, along with U.S. ice dance champions Diane "Dee Dee" Sherbloom and Larry Pierce. The team also lost U.S. men's silver medalist Gregory Kelley, U.S. ladies' silver medalist Stephanie "Steffi" Westerfeld, and U.S. ladies' bronze medalist Rhode Lee Michelson.[15]

Despite the fact that some national teams had already arrived in Prague for the World Championships—which were scheduled to start on February 22—the devastating loss of the U.S. team forced the event to be canceled.[12][16] The competition organizers in Prague initially confirmed that the event would go ahead,[17] but the International Skating Union (ISU) conducted a poll to agree on the most appropriate course of action;[8] the vote, which took place on February 16, went in favor of cancelation out of respect for the U.S. team.[16] A telegram was sent from ISU headquarters which read: "In view of the tragic death of 44 [sic] American skaters and officials the 1961 world championship will not be held."[17] Prague was given the chance to host the event the following year.


The figure skating team was mourned across the U.S. and all of the national newspapers carried the story on their front pages.[18]

In office for less than a month, President John F. Kennedy issued a statement of condolence from the White House, which read: "Our country has sustained a great loss of talent and grace which had brought pleasure to people all over the world. Mrs. Kennedy and I extend our deepest sympathy to the families and friends of all the passengers and crew who died in this crash."[18] He was particularly affected by the tragedy; pairs skater Dudley Richards was a personal friend of the president and his brother Ted, and they had spent summers together in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

The disaster struck a severe blow to the U.S. Figure Skating program, which had dominated the sport throughout the 1950s. Frank Shumway, who had only very recently become vice president of U.S. Figure Skating, predicted that it would take up to four years for the U.S. to regain its world prominence in the sport.[18]

Barbara Roles, the 1960 Olympic bronze medalist, felt obligated to come out of retirement, and won a gold medal at the 1962 U.S. Championships less than eight months after giving birth to her first child.[5] At the same time, some of the younger American figure skaters progressed more quickly due to the lack of senior skaters competing in the field. Scott Allen won a silver medal at the 1962 U.S. Championships when he was just twelve years old, and then won bronze at the 1964 Winter Olympics the week of his fifteenth birthday, becoming one of the youngest Olympic medalists in history.[5] It was not until 1965 that the U.S. started to win medals at the World Championships again;[16] and the U.S. did not regain international prominence in figure skating until the 1968 Winter Olympics when Peggy Fleming won gold in the ladies' event and Tim Wood won silver in the men's.

As the fatalities included many top American coaches as well as the skating team, the tragedy was also indirectly responsible for bringing foreign coaches to the U.S. to fill the vacuum that was left behind. U.S. Figure Skating team coach, William Kipp, who was one of those who died on the Brussels flight,[19] was eventually replaced by British former world champion pairs skater John Nicks in the fall of 1961. Italian world bronze medalist Carlo Fassi was another international coach who relocated from overseas to help rebuild the U.S. Figure Skating program.[5]

The disaster prompted U.S. Figure Skating executives to issue a mandate that still applies today: No team traveling to an international competition would ever be allowed to fly together again.[5]


The Belgian Government immediately ordered a full inquiry into the cause of the accident,[3] and an investigation was conducted by the Belgian National authorities, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO),[6] who spent several months combing through the evidence. There was much speculation about what may have happened; the FBI even reportedly considered the possibility of terrorism.[5]

The exact cause of the crash was never fully determined, but the authorities eventually agreed that the most likely explanation was a mechanical failure of one of the flight control mechanisms,[5] probably a malfunction of either the wing spoilers or the tail stabilizers.[6] Although there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt which of the flight systems had malfunctioned,[1] the FAA were of the opinion that the tail stabilizer-adjusting mechanism had failed, allowing the stabilizer to run to the "10.5deg nose-up position".[1]

Notable victimsEdit

There were 34 members of the U.S. Figure Skating delegation on board the fatal flight[5]—almost half the plane's occupants—all heading for the 1961 World Figure Skating Championships in Prague. The eighteen figure skaters were accompanied by six coaches, the team manager, two judges, one referee, and six family members. The notable victims are listed below.[15][20][21][22]

Graves of Stephanie Westerfeld and her sister Sharon in Evergreen Cemetery (Colorado Springs, Colorado); both were on board Sabena Flight 548.
  • Gregory Kelley (age 16), 1961 U.S. silver medalist, 1961 North American bronze medalist, 1960 World team member
  • Bradley Lord (age 21), 1961 U.S. champion, 1961 North American silver medalist, 1959 World team member
  • Douglas Ramsay (age 16), 1961 U.S. Championships fourth-place medalist
Pairs skaters
Ice dancers


Within days of the tragedy, the U.S. Figure Skating Executive Committee established the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating Memorial Fund, to honor the eighteen team members and their entourage who lost their lives on Sabena Flight 548.[23] The mission of the Memorial Fund was to help rebuild the U.S. Figure Skating program,[5] by providing financial support to promising young figure skaters to enable them to pursue their goals and develop their full potential.[6] In March 1961, a benefit was held in the Boston Garden arena to raise money for the Memorial Fund.[16] Over the years, thousands of young U.S. skaters have benefited from the fund which has continued to grow and prosper.[5][16] One of the first beneficiaries was 12-year-old Peggy Fleming, whose coach William Kipp had died in the plane crash. Fleming became a symbol of the rebirth of U.S. Figure Skating when she went on to win gold at the 1968 Winter Olympics.[24]

The 40th anniversary of the crash was marked by the unveiling of a five-foot-high (1.5 m) stone monument in Berg-Kampenhout,[11] close to the scene of the tragedy. Local dignitaries attended the unveiling ceremony which took place on February 10, 2001.[6]

In 2009, U.S. Figure Skating commissioned the production of a full-length feature documentary film called RISE, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the loss of the 1961 figure skating team.[25][26] The film was produced and directed by the Emmy Award winning company Lookalike Productions, of Englewood, New Jersey.[26] RISE was shown in theaters across the U.S. for one night only, on February 17, 2011, with one encore presentation on March 7, 2011.[25] Proceeds from the movie were donated to the U.S. Figure Skating Memorial Fund.[6][26] The film was shown on the Versus network on October 22, 2011.

In January 2011, the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating team were inducted into the U.S. Skating Hall of Fame in a special ceremony at the 2011 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina.[5] All eighteen team members were inducted, along with the six coaches that were accompanying them on the flight, Linda Hadley, William Kipp, Maribel Vinson-Owen, Daniel Ryan, Edi Scholdan, and William Swallender.[22]

Vinson-Owen Elementary School, in Winchester, Massachusetts, is named in honor of Maribel Vinson-Owen and her two daughters who died in the accident.[27] It ranks consistently among the top schools in Greater Boston.[16]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The first passenger flight of the Boeing 707 was in October 1958. Three 707s had crashed previously during training or test flights.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Ranter, Harro. "ASN Aviation Safety Database – Sabena Flight SN548 Accident Description". Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved September 27, 2016.
  2. ^ "Jet Crash Wipes Out U.S. Skate Team". The Spokesman-Review. February 16, 1961. p. 20. Retrieved February 19, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c "The Brussels Tragedy". Flight Magazine (online FlightGlobal archive). February 24, 1961. Retrieved February 15, 2011.
  4. ^ "Air Crash Fatal to 73 Is Probed – Jet's Plunge Kills Skaters". The Spokesman-Review. February 16, 1961. p. 1. Retrieved February 19, 2014.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Ford, Bonnie D. (2011). "Still Crystal Clear". ESPN. Retrieved February 19, 2014. The plane crash that killed the 1961 U.S. world championship figure skating team decimated families and the sport, but alongside grief came renewal.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Warnes, Kathy. "Light and Radiance: Figure Skater Laurence Owen and Her Team". Retrieved 29 August 2018.
  7. ^ OO-SJB accident report
  8. ^ a b c d e f g "'Ice Queen,' 17 other U.S. skaters killed". United Press International. February 15, 1961. Retrieved July 26, 2018.
  9. ^ a b Barron, Laignee (February 26, 2018). "In 1961 a Plane Crash Killed the Entire U.S. Figure Skating Team. Here's How the Tragic Legacy Lives On". Time. Retrieved September 13, 2018. Something must have been wrong in the cockpit: for the last 20 minutes of flight, Pilot Louis Lambrechts did not contact Brussels Airport. He made a wheels-down approach, but went round again, possibly because a Caravelle jet was taking off. (from Feb. 24, 1961 issue of Time)
  10. ^ a b c "Brussels Nightmare In Blazing Sunshine: 73 Die In Plane Crash". Montreal Gazette. February 16, 1961. p. 1.
  11. ^ a b c "Monument crash Sabena Boeing B707-329 OO-SJB". (in Dutch). December 31, 2005. Retrieved September 12, 2018.
  12. ^ a b Armour, Nancy (February 10, 2011). "US skating program rose from ashes of '61 crash". USA Today. Associated Press.
  13. ^ Grimsby, Will (February 16, 1961). "Visions of Skating Crowns Vanish in Brussels Tragedy". The Spokesman-Review. Associated Press. p. 13.
  14. ^ Heilman, Barbara (February 13, 1961). "Mother Set the Style: Pretty Laurence Owen is the most exciting U.S. skater but in her remarkable family she is just another champion". Sports Illustrated: 39.
  15. ^ a b "Cream of US Skating Ranks Wiped Out In Air Crash". Montreal Gazette. Associated Press. February 16, 1961. p. 26.
  16. ^ a b c d e f Swift, E.M. (February 21, 2011). "The Day the Music Stopped". Sports Illustrated: 70–75.
  17. ^ a b "Skating Cancelled". Ottawa Citizen. Associated Press. February 16, 1961. p. 1.
  18. ^ a b c Soong, Kelyn (February 20, 2018). "The terrible plane crash that devastated U.S. figure skating – and still shapes it today". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 15, 2018.
  19. ^ Kekis, John (November 14, 1995). "Still golden after all these years". The Free Lance–Star. Fredericksburg, Virginia. Associated Press. p. A7.
  20. ^ "List of Victims on Belgian Plane". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Associated Press. February 16, 1961. p. 23.
  21. ^ "World ended in fire for U.S. ice queen". Deseret News. UPI. February 15, 1961. p. 1A.
  22. ^ a b "U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame Members". World Figure Skating Museum & Hall of Fame. Retrieved September 12, 2018.
  23. ^ "The U.S. Figure Skating Memorial Fund". February 15, 1961. Retrieved September 12, 2015.
  24. ^ Lutz, Rachel (February 1, 2018). "1968: Peggy Fleming takes home only U.S. gold medal from Grenoble". Archived from the original on April 26, 2018. Retrieved September 12, 2018.
  25. ^ a b "RISE at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival". Archived from the original on February 16, 2011. Retrieved January 17, 2011.
  26. ^ a b c "U.S. Figure Skating: RISE". Retrieved September 12, 2018.
  27. ^ "Vinson-Owen Elementary School". Winchester Public Schools (Massachusetts). Retrieved September 9, 2018.

Further readingEdit

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