The Crash Of Air Illinois Flight 710

Aug 31, 2018

Crash scene photos of Flight 710
Credit Southern Illinoisan

This fall marks 35 years since Air Illinois Flight 710 crashed.   The commuter service flew to many smaller airports and provided a quick way for travelers to venture across the state.

That is until October 11, 1983.   The plane took off from Springfield, quickly ran into trouble and a half hour later went down in a southern Illinois farm field near Pinckneyville,  killing all 10 aboard.

Bruce Rushton is a staff writer for the Illinois Times.  He recently wrote about the crash in an article titled "Flying Blind."

"This plane had been having problems with its generator system, primarily the right  generator.  The plane could fly with just one generator," Rushton points out.  But a malfunction soon after taking off from Springfield led to a decision to "isolate" the right generator.  

Turns out, it was fine and the problem was on the left.  The crew could not reconnect and was left on battery power,  leaving them only about  30 minutes of lights and instruments. That was insufficient to make the full trip to Carbondale as night approached.

Rushton said the cockpit voice recorder helped piece together the decisions that were made.  "At one point, a flight attendant came forward and asked why is it dark back there? The passengers are asking questions.   The pilot said we have an electrical problem, but we're going to continue to Carbondale and we have to conserve electricity."

Rushton says Flight 710 decided not to turn back and chose to keep going south.  The plane passed as many as 9 other airports where a request to land could have been made.

"I tried to put myself in the place of one of those passengers.  It's dark. The lights aren't working.  Wouldn't you be a little concerned?"

After the crash, the investigation pointed the finger at pilot error.   Capt. Lester Smith was known to cut corners and make some questionable calls in the cockpit.  Rushton said he was known as an average pilot and it was clear he should have turned back to Springfield's Capital Airport.  

The resulting probe received national attention also put a focus on how the airline industry was operating and found problems like forged documents related to inspections and pilots taking amphetamines to stay awake and make schedules.   

The Air Illinois Flight 710 crash led to changes in safety procedures.  But it also signaled the end of the small planes that criss-crossed the state serving small airports, sometimes flying with just a few people on board.  He points out flights that went from places like Decatur to Mt. Vernon with 4 passengers.  

The Air Illinois crash was likely a concern for many would-be fliers.  But Rushton adds it was nearly impossible for these services to make money and the end was a matter of economics. 

"These smaller commuter airlines still exist, but often they are feeders to the larger ones. They have contracts with the (American Airlines) of the world for example.  They will bring folks from smaller communities such as Springfield into airports where they can make connections like St. Louis or Chicago," he said.  

"But back then, there was an expectation that air travel was the wave of the future and why drive when you can fly?”