With worldwide attention focused on Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s heroic safe landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009, after it had lost power in both engines after they were struck by a flock of birds shortly after take-off from LaGuardia Airport, the account in “Tiger in the Sea” is even more dramatic. In this case, it involves John Murray, a 44-year-old pilot, and the heroic rescuing of his damaged passenger aircraft with far less technologically sophisticated landing systems and greater personal bravery by everyone on board the perilous flight over the frigid and stormy Atlantic Ocean, which took place on September 23, 1962.
To appreciate the grave danger facing Mr. Murray’s aircraft, the author points out that “flying was 100 times more dangerous in 1962 than in 2020.”
In this fascinating, gripping, and detailed ‘minute-by-minute account, the author, Mr. Murray’s son-in-law, describes the desperate and brave struggle by Mr. Murray and his crew to land the burning American Flying Tiger Super Constellation passenger aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean en route from Gander, Newfoundland, to Frankfurt, Germany.
The flight began on September 23 when it departed McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, with 76 persons on board. The passengers were US military personnel and their families bound for Frankfurt, Germany, with a refueling stop in Gander. Sometime after departure from Gander, the aircraft encountered mechanical problems, which resulted in the failure of two of its four engines which caught fire. Some 500 nautical miles west of Ireland, the plane was unable to maintain routine flight and was forced to ditch into the North Atlantic at night, in what is described as a “barely controlled landing.”
Captain Murray, of Oyster Bay, Long Island, as described by the author, was no ordinary pilot but had already distinguished himself as a veteran commercial aviation pilot and even as a “black ops” freelancer (including flying for a clandestine New York-based syndicate established to illicitly transport arms to the newly established state of Israel that was fighting for independence at the time), and who had survived several plane crashes, which enabled him to fearlessly manage the aircraft’s perilous ocean landing. As the author writes, “Tiger 93 had a big advantage: Murray. His experience navigating around Michigan lakes, piloting Connies to safe landings despite dead or sputtering engines, and flying in seaplanes and amphibians, for which a ‘controlled water landing’ was the norm, made him uniquely qualified for his current predicament.”
With the aircraft ditched in the frigid ocean, while all 76 passengers and crew members survived the initial wreck, 48 survived the next ordeal while twenty-eight perished from drowning after a six-hour wind and wave-tossed raft ride until they were met by the Swiss freighter, the Celerina.
When it occurred, Flying Tiger 923’s heroic sea crash became one of the world’s top news stories, with popular TV and radio programs and newspapers providing updates on Captain Murray’s heroism in calmly overcoming such devastating mechanical problems and crises.
As a true hero, Captain Murray’s decisions were based on his sense of responsibility for the lives of the others on board the aircraft. As the author concludes, “Yet by all accounts, Murray passionately disdained being called a hero” as he called all those on board the aircraft heroes, since his “reticence wasn’t the mark of false humility. It’s the hallmark of true heroism.”
Especially noteworthy is that the book’s author, an attorney, and businessman, as Captain Murray’s son-in-law had access to unique sources and photographs about the incident, which are extensively reproduced in the account.
In conclusion, readers will appreciate this gripping account of aviation heroism and leadership under catastrophic crisis in the early 1960s, including the fascinating personal stories about Captain Murray, his crew, and passengers, which reads like a dramatic Hollywood action movie.
• Joshua Sinai is a Professor of Practice, Counterterrorism Studies, at Capitol Technology University, in Laurel, MD.
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“Tiger in the Sea: The Ditching of Flying Tiger 923 and the Desperate Struggle for Survival”
By Eric Lindner
Lyons Press, 360 pages, $26.95.