Site of crash of United Flight 615, which crashed near Fremont in 1951. It was the deadliest crash in Bay Area aviation history, with all 50 people aboard killed.
Site of crash of United Flight 615, which crashed near Fremont in 1951. It was the deadliest crash in Bay Area aviation history, with all 50 people aboard killed.

Ever since midday Saturday, our attention has been riveted to what happened over a span of a few seconds at the end of Runway 28L at San Francisco International Airport. That’s when an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 from Seoul hit the seawall at the end of the runway, vaulted briefly back into the air, did a sickening partial spin, and pancaked alongside the tarmac. Those of us who have covered the event in some small way, or followed the coverage, know the basics all too well—two teenage passengers died and 180 or so other passengers were injured, about 10 critically. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, and attention is focused now on why an advanced piece of machinery with four aviators on board slowed so much that some sort of accident was inevitable.

But here’s something else we all know: While the particulars of this event are unique and contain their own specific horror, this was far from the first time this kind of incident has occurred at SFO or elsewhere in the Bay Area. As news outlets have noted, Saturday’s crash was the first serious flight incident involving commercial aircraft at San Francisco International Airport, or any other major Bay Area air terminal, since the 1960s. The last major commercial aviation incident involving a plane headed to or taking off from the Bay Area was United Flight 93, hijacked on a flight from Newark, N.J., which crashed in Pennsylvania during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. A little more than seven months earlier, Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crashed along the Southern California coast while en route from Puerto Vallarta to San Francisco. All 88 people aboard died.

Beyond those relatively recent incidents, there’s an all-but-forgotten history of mishap and tragedy and occasional triumph stretching back nearly a century.

In the tragedy category: the more than two dozen commercial and military flights that crashed in the Bay Area and resulted in a loss of life. The most costly of those: the Aug. 24, 1951, crash of United Airlines Flight 615, a DC-6 in the hills just north of downtown Fremont; all 50 people aboard the flight, which originated in Boston and had made stops in Cleveland and Chicago on the way to Oakland, died.

In the mishap category, the handful of flights that ended with no loss of life, the best known are: a Japan Air Lines flight that hit the water far short of SFO’s Runway 28L in 1968. All 107 passengers aboard were rescued, and one account says the DC-8 jet was eventually plucked from the bay, repaired and returned to service for decades.

And in the triumph category: Pan Am Flight 6, forced to ditch in the Pacific about halfway between Honolulu and San Francisco on October 16, 1956. The crew managed to locate a Coast Guard cutter, circle it for several hours while waiting for daylight, and then bring the plane down. All 31 people on board survived, and the incident was later the basis of the movie “Crash Landing,” featuring, among others, future First Lady Nancy Reagan.

The timeline below is based on information from Richard Kebabjian’s The timeline includes all listed commercial aviation accidents and cargo and military flights that originated in the Bay Area and involved fatalities. The timeline does not include general aviation incidents, such as the Dec. 23, 1985, crash of a private plane into Concord’s Sunvalley Shopping Center.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at

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