40 Years Ago Today Trans American Flight 209 Made a Miracle Landing in Chicago

On March 5, 1980 Trans American flight 209 from Los Angeles made a miraculous landing in Chicago after the pilot Captain Clarence Ovuer and First Officer Roger Murdock suffered incapacitation due to food poisoning during the flight.

One of the flight attendants, Elaine Dickinson, managed to activate the aircraft’s auto pilot while a passenger on the flight, Ted Stryker, took the controls. Stryker had been a military fighter pilot flying attack missions over Macho Grande.

trans american flight 209 auto pilot

Though he’d never flown a commercial aircraft, Ted Stryker was ably assisted from the ground by air traffic controller Steve McCroskey and by Stryker’s former military commanding officer Rex Kramer.

  • Stryker was in no condition to fly that plane. He’d been drinking to excess. He was depressed, and openly sharing his stories with a series of passengers – none of whom, fortunately, spoke up when the time came to put him in control of that plane.

  • Just that week McCroskey had quit drinking, smoking, doing amphetamines and sniffing glue. Kramer’s advice landing the aircraft is timeless: “flying a plane is no different than riding a bicycle, just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes.”

Here’s a re-enactment of the miracle landing based on the cockpit voice recorder and contemporaneous notes and interviews:

Every one of the passengers and crew on board Trans American flight 209 made it down safely. Each of us has been affected by this story and we should take a moment to honor the achievements of everyone involved. That’s the day we all learned not to eat the fish. Unfortunately some documentaries of the incident have had scenes deleted where lessons may have been lost..

Sadly, Ted Stryker was later declared mentally incompetent and institutionalized. He claimed the legal action taken against him was meant to silence him from blowing the whistle on unsafe practices in the development of commercial space travel. Fortunately he found himself in the position of saving another flight.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Captain Oveur made a full recovery and went on to captain the first civilian lunar flight.

    What ultimately happened to First Officer Murdock and Engineer Victor Basta?

  2. A number of years ago I was boarding a Delta JFK-LAX flight directly behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When we stepped onto the plane, he turned left and I turned right. Before heading back to my seat, I turned to the flight attendant and said, “Please, don’t serve him the fish.” Got a quick smile and knowing wink.

  3. Landing the plane safely was made easier by the fact that the flight was equipped with what appeared to be jet engines but which were actually conventional propellers.

    Great post, Gary!

  4. Kind of sluggish. Like a wet sponge! Great post Gary – had me laughing from the start.

  5. I think the movie Airplane! should always be available on every aircraft video-on-demand entertainment system.

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