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A Byte Out of History - United Air Lines Flight 629

A Byte Out of History
The Case of the Mysterious Mid-Air Explosion

 

12/09/05

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Question: When a plane crashes at high speeds or explodes thousands of feet above the earth and evidence is blown to bits and scattered across miles of land or sea, how do we help figure out whether it was foul play and who might be responsible?

The short answer: Very painstakingly—calling on a range of investigative and forensic capabilities and working closely with airline safety experts and other partners.

Here's a good example—and an historic one, as it took place 50 years ago and was our first investigation of a major criminal attack on a U.S. airline. On November 1, 1955, United Air Lines Flight 629 crashed on a sugar beet farm some 35 miles north of its takeoff from Denver. All 44 passengers and crew—including the wife of an aide to President Eisenhower and a young boy—were killed instantly.

Within days, we had a suspect—23-year-old Jack Graham, a disturbed delinquent who we learned had packed a dynamite bomb in his mother's suitcase, driven her to the airport, kissed her goodbye, and taken out four insurance policies on her life.

Here's a quick run-down of how we solved the case—and you can learn more by reading the full story on our History website:

  • First things first: we sent our Disaster Squad, a team of forensic experts, to help identify the bodies. Using our civil fingerprint records, the investigators identified nearly half of the victims.
  • Meanwhile, an agent from our Lab joined experts from the Civil Aeronautics Board and the airline and aircraft company in examining the wreckage for clues. They methodically combed the crash area along the flight line, picking up pieces of the wreckage and marking their location in a carefully plotted grid. Then, they placed the parts in a scaled-down grid at a Denver warehouse and reassembled the fuselage (see photo above). Though the shell of the plane was basically intact, the right side of the plane had a jagged hole near the tail. The location? Cargo pit number 4.
  • The hole was examined closely. The metal was bent outward. The fuselage near it was burned and discolored. And, since there were no gas lines or tanks in that area of the plane, the conclusion was evident: there had been a violent explosion aboard.
  • We then sent about 100 investigators across the nation to learn all about the passengers and crew—as well as their bags. We quickly ruled out the possibility of an accidental explosion in a suitcase or piece of cargo.
  • One passenger's luggage, though, yielded some clues. The handbag of Mrs. Daisie King contained a newspaper article that said her son—Jack Graham—was wanted for forgery. Hmmm. And, just a few scraps were all that was left of another piece of her luggage. We soon unraveled the whole story—Graham's criminal past, his dysfunctional relationship with his mother, and his purchase of explosives and the insurance policies. When confronted, Graham confessed. He later recanted, but the evidence was overwhelming and he was convicted at trial and eventually executed.

The upshot? The case helped lay the groundwork for even more complex airline disasters down the road—including the downing of Pan Am 103 by terrorist bomb in Scotland in 1988.

Resources: FBI History website