Part One: 40 years later man recalls Maine's worst commercial aviation disaster

Published: May. 29, 2019 at 6:30 PM EDT
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40 years ago Thursday, Downeast Airlines Flight 46 crashed in Owls Head while trying to land in the fog.

17 people died. It's still Maine's worst commercial aviation disaster.

One person survived.

We sat down with him to talk about that night and what the last four decades have been like for him.

John McCafferty was just 16-years-old at the time of the crash.

As you can imagine, not a day goes by that McCafferty doesn't think about that horrible night.

"It's something I live with, I have to live with."

May 30th, 1979 seemed like a normal day. John McCafferty was on his way home to Searsmont from Florida. He was delayed in Boston because of the weather, but eventually, Downeast Airlines Flight 46 was ready to leave for Owls Head.

John remembers standing in line in the rain to board the plane.

"But when I came to that plane, and I looked up, a feeling just overwhelmed me like I had never had before in my life, and I froze and I just knew that plane was going to crash. I just knew it was."

He still got on the plane saying he was very anxious the whole flight. On approach to Knox County Regional Airport, he could see the fog out the window, then chaos.

"The trees just came up suddenly. I hollered to everybody we were going to crash, and then it happened. It happened quickly, but you could hear the whole plane starting to crunch. It pretty much ripped the whole plane apart."

John was severely injured - an arm and leg broken, numerous lacerations, and his scalp had been torn off. The only thing he could hear in the woods on that foggy night was jet fuel pouring from the plane.

"The first thing I did was holler to see if anybody was all right, and I knew within a very short time that nobody had made it."

He began to crawl away from the wreckage and says the oddest thing happened.

"But then there was a light in front of me that looked like a flame. That's the direction I crawled. It seems as though I could never get to that light. I guess I made it about 75 yards, and I came to a dip in the ground, and I rolled myself into that thinking that if the plane did blow, the fire may blow over me, but I was also soaked in jet fuel because I had crawled right through that fuel."

John was in the woods for more than an hour before rescuers found the wreckage. He thought he was going to die.

"And the worst feeling that I had was my parents were not going to know how good I was with God, and after I got very comfortable with it because I had a lot of time to think about it."

John says rescuers were stunned to find a survivor, but given his injuries, they thought they'd never see him again after they closed the ambulance doors.

"Obviously, I'm very glad to be alive, and I thank the good Lord for that. The bad thoughts I have mostly are for the victims and their families."

Even though his injuries nagged at him, John worked for years as a union pipefitter. He's retired now. You'd also think he wouldn't like to fly, but he's been back in a plane many times. In fact, he owned ultralight planes and crashed them several times. He says he's only been scared of flying once since that night - a flight on the same model plane from the Owls Head crash.

"The plane started taxiing down the runway, and I was going to ask the pilot to stop and let me off. Luckily, a lady beside me got me calmed down, and we actually had a nice flight."

John would like to someday see a memorial for the crash victims, and airport officials indicated they'd be willing to work with him on that. He's also been working on writing a book.

"I plan on honoring all the victims of the crash in that book."

As for the obvious question, why was he the only one to survive?

"You can actually drive yourself crazy with that question. I wondered that for a long time, and I still do, but I don't let it eat me up like it used to. I figure we're all here for a reason whatever it is, it is. I don't know."

The NTSB determined there were several factors that caused the crash, including pilot error.

As for that book John is working on, he says he's not a writer, so he'd really like some help with it.

You can email him at johnmcaffertysolesurvivor at