The captured American spy plane that crashed during a Hungarian pleasure flight

August 05. 2022. – 04:54 AM



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Sixty-one years ago, on 6 August 1961, the accident known as the Lumumba Street tragedy occurred when a Malév plane – a passenger plane converted from an American "spy plane" – crashed into a high-rise building in Zugló during a sightseeing flight in Budapest. Even though thirty people died in the disaster, it was not reported in the newspapers until days later.

It started out as a short pleasure flight

"The body of the 21-seater HA-TSA shakes softly, as it breaks free from the earth's embrace and within a few minutes, it is circling over Budapest. Passengers have barely emerged from the awe of the thousands of green, violet, white and red lights shining through the opalescent veil of the airport before they are captivated by new wonders.

It’s as if a jewelery box has opened before them, filled with billions of glittering pearls: Budapest! The mechanical bird is flying at a speed of 220 km/hour, 500 meters high, although at times it feels like it is standing still. It is only during a turn, a steep climb or descent that we feel that we are flying”

– such was the description of the experience in a 1957 article (published in Hétfői Hírek) about the airplane that crashed four years later. It is not hard to imagine that reading such things put many in the mood for sightseeing flights.

At the time this was both trendy and popular. So much so that Malév (the now non-existent Hungarian airline) had regular flights where one could either admire Budapest or lake Balaton from the air. The above quote is from an article describing a two-hour, Saturday evening luxury trip combined with dinner, which was part of the summer schedule, and cost one hundred forints per person. There were also cheaper, less exclusive sightseeing flights: for example, in the spring of 1958, a simple 15-minute flight above the capital cost 45 forints for adults, and 25 forints for children.

There were days when a dozen such flights would take off, so these had become routine. They were not considered dangerous, and even the pilots were quite relaxed. In the year prior to the terrible plane crash in 1961, two flights above Lake Balaton also experienced dangerous situations due to pilots maneuvering recklessly. But since they managed to avoid a crash, the two pilots got away with a simple reprimand, and there were no big changes.

Source: Top Gun Magazine, 1995 (Volume 6, edition 10) / Arcanum Digitalis Tudománytár
Source: Top Gun Magazine, 1995 (Volume 6, edition 10) / Arcanum Digitalis Tudománytár

The crew of the plane registered under the marking HA-TSA took off from Ferihegy airport for the last time at 4:44 pm on 6 August, 1961.

The crew was already breaking a rule, as they allowed more people on board than could be seated. This was most likely one of the things that lead to the tragedy, but another significant reason was the fact that this was an American-made DC-3 military plane, which wasn’t well-known in Hungary, and which had been converted to a passenger plane.

The adventurous story of the spyplane

But how did it end up in Hungary? According to press reports of the time, on 19 November 1951, the twin-engined aircraft known as the “spy plane” entered Hungarian airspace twice, with four American soldiers on board. The United States claimed that it had taken off from Erding in (then) Western Germany, was en-route to Belgrade, and only ended up in Hungarian airspace due to navigation difficulties.

At first the Hungarian Air Force tried – unsuccessfully – to shoot it down, but Soviet fighters intercepted it the second time and forced it to land at Pápa. Officially, the Hungarian Air Force requested assistance from the Soviets stationed in Hungary citing poor visibility, and after the successful operation, the air defense commander sent the following telegram to the pilots in Pápa:

“We are deeply grateful to the glorious falcons of Stalin who intercepted the imperialist plane that flew into the airspace of our People's Republic."

According to an analysis by military historian György Markó published in 1993, although it is a fact that the American aircraft was "piloted by well-trained, experienced pilots, its on-board instruments were in perfect working order, and the crew was in communication with the US military radio station in Frankfurt throughout the flight", it is likely that what happened was indeed a misrouting due to a navigational error.

In any case, in 1951 the crew of the American plane were found guilty by the Hungarian court, convicted of border offenses, fined 360, 000 forints each and expelled from the country. The aircraft itself was confiscated and used by the Hungarian Air Force until 1956, but as it had no proper documentation, spare parts or tools, it was treated as a tolerated stepchild. It was transferred to Malév, (the Hungarian National Airline) where it was first converted into an 18-seater and then into a 21-seater, based on Soviet documentation. It did not fly westwards, but it did occasionally cross the borders of "friendly, people's democratic countries". In any case it was mostly used domestically, often for pleasure flights.

None of the passengers survived

On 6 August 1961, the plane had already completed four successful pleasure flights of just 12 minutes each. However, its fifth trip was irregular from the moment it took off because, although the plane weighed 145 kilograms below the maximum load limit, as we have mentioned before, it was carrying too many passengers: Although only ten tickets had been sold, 17 adults and six children were on board.

Source: Mai Nap, 11 July, 1992. (Volume 4, edition 184) / Arcanum Digitális Tudománytár
Source: Mai Nap, 11 July, 1992. (Volume 4, edition 184) / Arcanum Digitális Tudománytár

The HA-TSA made most of the journey without a problem, but after eight minutes in the air, it began a strange maneuver over Zugló. According to eyewitness accounts, before the crash the aircraft made sharp overbanked turns, flew in up-and-down waves and then began a left turn with an unauthorised bank angle on the upward leg of a wave. It then slewed around, lifted its nose, turned over on its back and, in a spiral dive, crashed into the yard side of a three-storey house at 224 Lumumba (now Róna) Street at 16:56.

The entire crew and all the passengers of the aircraft died on impact.

The fuselage broke in two, the cockpit tore through the roof of the building and penetrated the ceiling of the first floor. The rear of the fuselage and the wing parts slid down the wall of the house, crushing three young people to death in the yard: a 20, a 17 and a 13-year-old boy. The responding firefighters brought out a seriously injured woman and a three-month-old baby from the ruined house. The baby escaped with minor injuries. They were not able to access the collapsed nose section, and the cockpit – in which they found six bodies – could only be pulled from the building the following day.

Although there were many eye-witnesses to the incident – including some who took photographs of the irregular maneuvers – the authorities imposed a news blackout. This may be the reason why the tragedy was only reported in the newspapers days later, based on information from the State News Agency (MTI), with only 20 fatalities.

What could have caused the tragedy?

The circumstances of the tragic crash were investigated by a specially set up committee. However, the results of the inquiry were reported in the newspapers very quickly, less than a week after the accident, also quoting a statement from MTI.

The committee concluded that the aircraft was in good technical condition, that air traffic control was working properly and that there were too many people on board. It was also possible to reconstruct from the positioning of the bodies that neither the passengers nor the crew were wearing seat belts, so that people had fallen out of their seats in the back during the spinning. This also means that after a certain point, the aircraft was already in a virtual spiral dive with no human intervention.

The investigators also found that two female passengers were in the cockpit at the time of the crash and that the flight engineer had left his post. The passengers in the cockpit and in the passenger cabin could have seriously impeded the crew's ability to keep the aircraft in the air.

On the day of the tragedy, the HA-TSA was commanded by 29-year-old Róbert Hoffmann, who had flown a total of around 6,000 hours before the disaster, and had performed his flight and route checks with excellent results. However, before the crash, he had performed excessive turns and waves without taking into account the performance and aerodynamic characteristics of the American-built aircraft.

According to the committee’s report, the crew of the Malév flight was trying to entertain the passengers, and the investigation committee blamed the crash on unauthorised manoeuvres.

In addition to the thirty fatalities and the two injured, the tragedy caused more than HUF 4 million in damages and a significant loss of prestige for Malév. Although the air disaster did not receive much publicity in 1961, a long ban on sightseeing flights over Budapest followed.

Sources: Contemporary editions of “Szabad Nép, “Hétfői Hírek” and “Veszprémi Napló”, and commemorative articles from the 1990’s by Top Gun magazine, Mai Nap and Népszabadság.

The publication of this article was supported by Arcanum.

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The translation of this article was made possible by our cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.