George Lamson Jr. sits patiently in his seat waiting for his flight to take off. Next to him is his father, the man after whom he is named. The plane, a Lockheed L-188 Electra operated by Galaxy Airlines, is heading for Minneapolis, Minnesota. But little does the teenager know how life-changing the following moments will prove to be.
A native of St. Paul, Lamson had spent that weekend in January 1985 in Reno with a group of other Minnesotans. Some of the group involved in chartering the flight had traveled down to Stamford, California, to see the Superbowl. Lamson, meanwhile, had stayed in nearby Lake Tahoe and loved it so much he’d told his father that he would someday like to live in nearby Reno.
By 1992 Lamson had made the dream of moving to Reno a reality, and he had picked up work in one of the city’s many casinos. Unfortunately, what had transpired in the intervening seven years meant that a return to the region he had enjoyed so much was a bittersweet experience for the young man.
In January 1985 Lamson was a wide-eyed 17-year-old high school senior. The youngster enjoyed many of the activities young Minnesotans partake in: namely hockey, scouts, and attending church. Lamson told the Reno Gazette Journal in 2014, “I grew up in a neighborhood where I was the paperboy. I was the kid that cut your grass, shoveled your sidewalk, the altar boy at Mass.”
The day before the big game, Lamson had spent the Saturday skiing at the famous Heavenly Mountain Resort near Lake Tahoe. He recalled in the same interview, “I felt so in tune and connected to the surroundings of this beautiful country. I spent only a day in Tahoe before I stated to myself and to my dad that I wanted to make his place my home someday.”
The group then watched the big game on the Sunday, and it saw the 49ers defeat the Dolphins to win their second title. The men from Minnesota subsequently met up again at Reno-Cannon International Airport, which is now called Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
It was a late flight back to Minneapolis, and the Lamsons were likely looking forward to some sleep on the five-hour flight. There were five crew members working on board Galaxy Airlines Flight 203 that night, along with 65 passengers in total. Takeoff, meanwhile, wasn’t until shortly after 1:00 a.m.
The flight took off as planned – but shortly afterwards it was clear to the pilot that something was wrong. A heavy vibration distracted the flight crew, and they quickly reduced power to the plane’s four engines to ascertain if they were the cause of the problem.
According to reports, just one minute after takeoff, the flight’s co-pilot contacted the tower back at Reno and asked staff there to allow them to land back at the airport. Unfortunately, Galaxy Airlines Flight 203 never made it that far.
Records show that, for one reason or another, full power was never restored back to the engines. Tragically, the wings stalled and the plane ultimately went down. In a catastrophic sequence of events, the jet crashed just a mile and a half from the end of the runway.
Near to where the plane crashed was a vehicle dealership and a mini golf course. The owner of the latter saw it come down and he immediately called the emergency services. The jet disintegrated upon impact – creating a fireball and scattering debris across US Highway 395 and nearby South Virginia Street.
Lamson was thrown from the jet upon impact; it broke in half just in front of the row where he was sat next to his father. It was simply the positioning of his seat that saved his life, as the young man was propelled out of the plane. Lamson later told the Reno Gazette Journal, “I had been thrown through the fireball.”
Lamson only got the full account of what had happened to him after the event. He said, “Looking later at the [United States National Transportation Safety Board report], I was thrown 40 feet, still in my seat, and hit [the] pavement. Before I was able to get up, I was [knocked] out. I don’t know how long I was out. I thought I had died.”
The fire captain that saw to the the scene, George Kitchen from the Reno Fire Department, recalled what he discovered upon arrival. He told reporters, “One of the first things we saw was the boy. He was still strapped in his seat out on South Virginia Street. He was conscious. We gave him first aid until the medics got there.”
According to Lamson’s own testimony, and that of an eyewitness, he managed to walk away from the crash site. Understandably, he’d suffered scrapes and burns, but it was nothing short of a minor miracle that his condition wasn’t worse after what he’d just gone through.
Along with Lamson, there had been 64 other passengers and five crew members on board the flight. Of those 71 individuals, 68 of them were killed in the disaster. Only Lamson, his father George Lamson Sr. and another man, Robert Miggins, had survived the impact and the subsequent blaze.
However, in the following days, both Miggins and Lamson Sr. tragically succumbed to their injuries. That left the latter’s son as the sole survivor of a crash that had claimed the lives of 70 people.
Following the devastating crash, questions were soon asked about how it had happened. To what extent had the vibrations picked up by the flight crew been responsible for the crash? And how had Lamson survived from a disaster which had killed everybody else on board?
Although there were no easy answers, the subsequent probe by the aforementioned United States National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed a catalogue of errors which led to the eventual crash. The plane itself had been used for numerous chartered journeys before and had even carried presidential candidates in the years leading up to the crash. Indeed, in May 1984 a flight carrying Jesse Jackson and his team had dropped down as a result of heavy turbulence. Panic ensued onboard, but the flight carried on as normal and no fault was subsequently found with the aircraft.
Instead, the investigation into the crash of Galaxy Airlines Flight 203 focused on a tragic combination of events which shared one common theme: human error. It began when the plane was still on the ground and being prepared for its flight. And one of the catalysts for the disaster surrounded a part of the plane known as an air start access door.
The report found that this door wasn’t properly closed before takeoff, and a faulty headset meant that staff on the ground couldn’t communicate this with the crew on board. The open door then led to the heavy vibrations felt by the flight crew shortly after the plane had taken off. As a result, the flight crew had reduced the power of the four engines, but the plane’s wings stalled before they could increase the power again and it subsequently crashed.
But why had the air start access door not been closed? Was it simply a case of gross negligence on the part of the airport runway staff? Well, the NTSB report concluded the situation had been a little more complicated. The chain of events had been triggered by the ground supervisor discovering that the headset used to communicate with the plane’s pilot had malfunctioned.
The faulty headphones led to a change in procedure which ultimately caused an alteration in routine for the ground handlers. Now using hand signals because of the broken headset, the ground supervisor cleared Flight 203 to taxi away. However, at this stage, the air start hose had not been disconnected. This then led to an emergency stop; the hose was disconnected, and the plane pulled away again. However, in the confusion, the air start access door was never closed.
As we explored earlier, the report found that it was the open access door which had caused the vibration felt by the flight crew shortly after takeoff. Though it added that the vibrations themselves wouldn’t have been enough to threaten a flight’s safety. Indeed other Electra pilots had noted that similar vibrations would stop at higher air speeds.
So the oscillations would not impact upon an aircraft safely reaching its destination. This was an important set of findings because it was ascertained that the open air start door was not, ultimately, the cause of the crash.
Fearing that the engines were the cause of the unfamiliar vibrations, the pilot had reduced power. It can only be presumed that the intention here was to test the engines as the source of the vibrations. But that power was never sufficiently restored, and the plane stalled.
In its conclusion, the report said, “The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the captain’s failure to control and the co-pilot’s failure to monitor the flight path and airspeed of the aircraft. This breakdown in crew coordination followed the onset of unexpected vibration shortly after takeoff.”
The NTSB report added, “Contributing to the accident was the failure of ground handlers to properly close an air start access door, which led to the vibration.” So as we have seen, it was several errors, rather than one single thing, which caused the disaster.
Though we now had a number of reasons behind the tragedy in Reno, Lamson himself still struggled to come to terms with what had happened to him. He told CNN in 2014, “I was fearful to reach out to [the victims’ families] because I was afraid of their judgment of me. I didn’t think I was worthy of the gift of being alive. I know it sounds weird, but that is what I felt.”
Initially, Lamson sought to get on with his life; he finished high school and enrolled in college. Things were going quite well until the holiday period came around. He explained to the Reno Gazette Journal, “I was doing pretty good. I was kind of on a high because I felt like I got a second chance at life. Then when the holidays hit, there was a big vacuum… because I didn’t have my father there. The family was different; they treated me different. It wasn’t their fault or anything. It was just different.”
But then in 1986 another high-profile crash occurred which impacted heavily upon Lamson’s life. He added, “After the holidays, I went back to school and then the Challenger accident happened. For some reason, that triggered me into a real depression. I know it had nothing to do with me, but it was on the psyche of everyone. I saw that happen and I went, ‘My god, that reminds me of what happened to me.’ I dropped out of school and fell into a tailspin.”
Lamson was clearly struggling with survivor’s guilt at this time. The Reno Gazette Journal wrote, “Part of Lamson’s depression… was the idea that he was being judged on how he was living his life after the accident. He felt he was disappointing his family and the families of those who [had] died. It was a burden that weighed heavily on him for years.”
Lamson was given a cash settlement as a result of the crash, but he continued to struggle. He added to the newspaper, “When you give a kid a bunch of money, you can go do things or you can do bad things. I was kind of in the middle. I didn’t do drugs or anything, but I kind of withdrew from life. I didn’t want to have anything to do with getting a job or getting back into school. I just wanted to have fun and not do anything.”
Then something changed; Lamson decided to act on the vow he had made to his father in the hours leading up to the crash. He moved to Reno, and there he found a job, got married and became a father himself. Being a dad to Hannah was the catalyst to changing his life. But he refrained from telling people about the crash. Lamson told the Reno newspaper, “I didn’t tell anybody except maybe a few very close friends, and I told them to keep it under their hats. I didn’t want to have that kind of attention at work.”
But Lamson needed something more to help ease the burden of what he felt as the sole survivor of a fatal crash. He needed to help others who had experienced the same fate. So he created a Facebook page in 2010 and subsequently forged relationships with other plane crash survivors.
Among them is Bahia Bakari, the sole survivor of a plane that crashed into the Indian Ocean in 2009. The young woman’s own mother was among the 152 people who died in the tragedy, yet Bakari survived by clinging onto debris in the ocean for nine hours. Incredibly, she was only 12 years old at the time.
Another such person that Lamson has met is James Polehinke. He was the first officer on Comair Flight 5191 that crashed during takeoff from Lexington, Kentucky, in 2006. All 47 passengers were killed, along with the pilot and an additional crew member. And Polehinke, like Lamson before him, was the solitary survivor of the crash.
Lamson, Bakari and Polehinke are all featured in a 2013 documentary about lone survivors of aviation tragedies. Sole Survivor, directed by Ky Dickens, also looks at the issues presented by survivor’s guilt – an affliction felt so acutely by Lamson.
Dickens directly experienced a tragedy herself – she was in a car crash that killed her friend. She told the Star Tribune, “I had struggled with survivor’s guilt and the ‘why’ questions: Why did I live? Why did he die? Why did this happen?”
Dickens admitted that Lamson was the inspiration for her film. She told the Star Tribune, “[He] has been the engine of the whole thing. [It] started with [him], and the story rests on his shoulders.” And Lamson, for his part, summed up his unique life voyage with the same publication. He concluded, “I had to learn to forgive myself. I had to convince myself that I am worthy. I am blessed.”