Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458, a regional commuter airline founded in 1962, left LaGuardia airport bound eventually for Boston on what should have been a routine flight. It made three stops in Connecticut: Bridgeport, New Haven and Groton.
It was February 21, 1982. The fight would be routine until the last leg of the trip.
Flight 458 was a de Havilland Twin Otter 10-passenger plane with two pilots. In Groton, a fresh cockpit crew took over, Capt. Thomas N. Prinster, 36, and First Officer Lyle W. Hogg, 27. They took off from Groton at 3:10 p.m. and climbed to 4000 feet.
Trouble For Pilgrim Airlines 458
Prinster noticed ice forming on the windshield about 15 minutes into the flight. He knew, as all pilots do, that icing can have catastrophic results. Even an eighth of an inch of ice can disrupt the airflow over the wings, making an airplane unflyable.
Prinster routinely activated the de-icing system. Soon thereafter, he and Hogg noticed what seemed like gray smoke coming from under the control panel. They also realized the de-icer also didn’t work because it didn’t clear the windshield. The pilots soon realized they had a fire on board.
Prinster immediately contacted T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, R.I., requesting clearance for an emergency landing. Fire crash crews would await Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 at the airport.
Now the gray smoke turned black and thick. The pilots could neither see out of the windshield nor see their control panel. They smelled a strong scent of isopropyl alcohol, which operated the de-icing system. The alcohol was spraying into electronics system, setting it ablaze.
The pilots opened their windows to try to vent the smoke, grab a breath of air and get their bearings. By now black smoke was seeping back to the passenger cabin. That caused one of the passengers to come to the cockpit. Seeing open flames under the control panel, he tried to swat them out with his coat — to no avail. Returning to the passenger cabin he tried to break open a window to vent the now-almost-smothering smoke. Again he failed.
The pilots realized that they had no hope of reaching Green Airport. They had to find someplace for a forced landing if they were to have any chance of survival. Out the side windows their heads went searching for some semi-safe place they could try to land. Their faces froze while their pants and clothing burned. Yes, they were actually on fire, but to abandon the controls was sure death.
Flying blind, they desperately searched for someplace to try and set down.
Dropping to 1,400 feet, Prinster spotted what would turn out to be the snow-covered and hopefully frozen Scituate Reservoir. Would it hold them? Did they have any choice?
Prinster set about setting the twin turbo prop down on the reservoir in the midst of a cockpit inferno. As they touched down in the snow on the ice the port main gear collapsed and the starboard wing sheared off. The tail section also went, taking with it a female passenger, later found dead still strapped in her seat.
Survivors of Pilgrim Airlines 458
The fire was so intense it melted the earphones on the pilots heads, and when they went to escape they door was welded shut from the intense heat. Prinster had to make his escape through the side pilot’s window, and that was no mean feat for the 6′ 4″ captain. It was an amazing accomplishment getting the plane down in a fire like that with the loss of only one life.
Despite their extensive burns, the pilots led their surviving passengers to shore. Soon rescue personnel arrived on the scene and took Hogg and Prinster to Rhode Island Hospital. The captain was in critical condition with burns over 50 percent to 70 percent of his body. He lived, though, until passing away in 2018 with, as he said, a 70 percent reupholstered body.
In recognition of their astounding feat the pilots went to the White House to meet President Reagan. They received awarded the Rhode Island Life Saving Medal by Gov. Joseph Garrahy.
They were inducted into Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame and received the Flight Safety Heroism Award. Prinster received the Lt. General Harold L. George Civilian Airmanship Award by the Order of Daedalians.
Today a memorial commemorates their heroism at the Prinster-Hogg Park in Scituate, R.I.
Leo Caisse, the author of this story, recently published the book, The Civilian Conservation Corps: A Guide to Their Works in Rhode Island. He has also published a number of historical articles, including Ears On the World in America in World War II Magazine, October, 2017. He has a B.A. and M.A. in American History from Providence College and he lives in East Providence, R.I.