49 Years ago today: On 2 May 1970 an ALM Douglas DC-9 ditched off St. Croix following fuel shortage; killing 23 out of 63 occupants.

Date:Saturday 2 May 1970
Time:15:49 EST
Type: McDonnell Douglas DC-9-33CF
Operating for:ALM – Antillean Airlines
Leased from:Overseas National Airways – ONA
Registration:N935F
C/n / msn:47407/457
First flight:1969
Total airframe hrs:2505
Engines:Pratt & Whitney JT8D-9
Crew:Fatalities: 1 / Occupants: 6
Passengers:Fatalities: 22 / Occupants: 57
Total:Fatalities: 23 / Occupants: 63
Aircraft damage:Damaged beyond repair
Location:48 km (30 mls) ENE off St. Croix, Virgin Islands [Caribbean Sea] (   Atlantic Ocean)
Phase:En route (ENR)
Nature:International Scheduled Passenger
Departure airport:New York-John F. Kennedy International Airport, NY (JFK/KJFK), United States of America
Destination airport:Sint Maarten-Juliana Airport (SXM/TNCM), Sint Maarten
Flightnumber:980

Narrative:
ALM flight 980, from New York-JFK International Airport to Juliana Airport, St.Maarten, was being operated under terms of a lease agreement, utilizing an ONA aircraft and flight crew, and an ALM cabin crew. ALM 980 established radio contact with Juliana Tower and received clearance for an Automatic Direction Finding (ADF) approach to runway 09. The weather was reported as scattered clouds at 800 feet, estimated ceiling 1,000 feet broken, 5,000 feet overcast, and visibility 2 to 3 miles. The crew sighted the runway too late to land successfully on this approach, and attempted two left turn, visual circling approaches. The first circling approach was abandoned because of poor alignment with the runway again and on the second one the captain was unable to maintain the proper descent profile without reducing power and increasing the sink rate beyond acceptable limits. The captain executed a missed approach, made a low altitude return to the St. Maarten Radio Beacon, and was given clearance to St. Thomas at an assigned altitude of 4,000 feet. The fuel gauges were reported to have been acting erratically during the climb, but momentarily stabilized at 850 pounds of fuel remaining. A higher altitude was requested and a course
adjustment was made for St. Croix, which was closer. Although the captain doubted the accuracy of the fuel gauge reading, he decided to descend in order to establish visual contact with the water. He also advised the purser that they were low on fuel, and to prepare the cabin for ditching. The purser made this announcement, and no other warning was given to the passengers prior to impact. The ditching site was confirmed on radar with the assistance of a PanAm flight that diverted for that purpose. Other fixed-wing aircraft orbited the area until the US Coast Guard, Navy, and Marine Corps helicopters began picking up survivors. Weather in the area during the rescue operation was estimated to be 400 to 500 feet overcast and visibility as low as three-eighths of a mile in rain. The aircraft sank in water more than 5,000 feet deep, and was not recovered

Probable Cause:

PROBABLE CAUSE: “The Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was fuel exhaustion which resulted from continued, unsuccessful attempts to land at St. Maarten until insufficient fuel remained to reach an alternate airport. A contributing factor was the reduced visibility in the approach zone because of rain showers, a condition not reported to the flight. The Board also finds that the probability of survival would have been increased substantially in this accident if there had been better crew coordination prior to and during the ditching.”