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Monday, May 18, 2009

SOS: ABBA's stormy 1979 Boston concert flight (Windsor Locks tornado)

© 2009-13 (original sections) Please request permission to copy via the comments option at the end of this post. ....Thank you.

3/13 update: If interested,a prominent BBC article (by Mark Savage, 3/10/13,  re Ms. Fältskog's 2013 comeback) briefly referred to the 1979 ABBA "tornado" flight; weather details examined at some length below.  
(Off-site link to the BBC article, new window opens: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-21687897

As may be discerned below it is doubtful that the '79 flight actually "...flew straight into the middle of a tornado..." (The one that occurred in this case was 'rated' as 'F4' in intensity, producing "devastating damage", winds over 200mph*, etc. Different storm/example: What a devastating tornado might have looked like (link). *Note: The 1979 tornado was rated with the older Fujita scale; which likely overstates wind speeds. Please ref. the "Enhanced Fujita scale"(off-site link).
However, as concluded below, a series of severe thunderstorms moved through the New England region at various times/locations during that afternoon/early evening. It is fairly clear that the small plane carrying Ms. Fältskog (and others) encountered one or more of those storms. In short; a bad - if-not-outright-dangerous-weather afternoon/evening to be flying in that area.
(Original text:)
Many ABBA/Agnetha [aŋˈneːta] Fältskog fans are familiar with the basic story: In the final stages of ABBA's 1979 U.S. concert tour, Ms. Fältskog and other members of the band's entourage boarded a small private jet to fly from New York to Boston. (For a show there that evening.) Unfortunately their October 3, 1979 afternoon flight possibly came near what became one of the worst storms in modern Connecticut history. (Or just following it. Please see analysis further below.)

(http://ams.allenpress.com/perlserv/?request=get-abstract&doi=10.1175%2F1520-0493%281987%29115%3C1655%3ATWLCTO%3E2.0.CO%3B2&ct=1 This image is in the public domain because it contains materials that originally came from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, taken or made during the course of an employee's official duties.)

Carl Magnus Palm's "Bright Lights, Dark Shadows" ABBA biography has the best description of what the crew and passengers of the unlucky flight subsequently endured in the skies over New England, thirty years ago. (Pages 414-15.) Suffice to say it was a harrowing experience for all involved, as the small jet was buffeted by stormy conditions and had to change course more than once. According to the Mr. Palm's description, fuel was running low when the plane finally was able to make an emergency landing at Manchester, New Hampshire. Ms. Fältskog and others were understandably shaken, but managed to travel to Boston and proceed with the concert that night. (BTW: Other band members including ex-husband Björn Ulvaeus traveled separately to the show, as was ABBA's usual procedure for parents of children. Pls. see "Bio" section, via link.))

For many fans, etc., however, here's the brief description that's usually found for this event:

"The last scheduled ABBA concert on the US soil, in Washington, DC, was cancelled due to Fältskog's extreme emotional distress she suffered during the flight from New York to Boston when the private plane she was on was subjected to the extreme weather conditions (see Windsor Locks, Connecticut Tornado) and for a long time couldn't land."

Without flight time/flight path information, we may never know how close Ms. Fältskog's plane was to the unusually-moving thunderstorm that spawned a violent F4 tornado at around 3pm local time. The short-lived but devastating storm ripped through the Windsor Locks, CT area, causing three deaths, several hundred injuries and more than $400 million in property damage (adjusted).  (Note: The north-moving, strong tornado  traveled near Connecticut Route 75, just east of the airport. Though several outer buildings were damaged/destroyed, the operating airfield itself was not.) It was the most destructive single storm ever to occur in Connecticut, a distinction it still holds to date. It still ranks as the ninth most costly tornado in U.S. history(Update: 5/20/13 Moore, OK 'F5' tornado may likely move it down the (awful) list...6/1/13 El Reno, OK EF5 tornado, unfortunately as well...))
(Continuing:) A rare event for the region, especially in October. (And by the way, I'm told that snow was reported barely a week later that year at the same location...)

A couple of questions pertaining to the ABBA flight come to mind:

Question #1: Were there other strong storms in the area that afternoon, and around what times? Per page 1665 of the A.M.S. article (cited below), this answer appears to be a "yes"; with damaging winds, etc. in the Boston, MA area (from different storms vs. Windsor Locks) before 5pm (local time), and progressing through the area until at least 6pm.

Question #1a: Even if the ABBA jet wasn't involved with it as it became tornadic, did they possibly encounter the dangerous storm cluster beforehand, as it moved northward through the Connecticut River valley? (Pls.see below for a couple of "educated" guesses.)

Related info.: Here's a recent link to a 1985 TV interview where Ms. Fältskog briefly talks about her experience. (And adds interesting comments about flying in general, watching from the cockpit, etc.) Updated note (per below): In the more complete translation of her comments featured in a newer YouTube show upload (comments after about the 11:30 mark), it sounds as though Agnetha is referring to a planned landing at a Boston airport. Off-site link, new window opens: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibAJ88WD1jw 

At any rate, we may never know exact answers, especially to the second question. However, in 1987 a detailed, American Meteorological Society (AMS) journal article was published about the '79 Windsor Locks tornado.
As I have more than a passing interest in severe weather phenomenon, etc.,
I'll be studying this article for more information. Any interesting findings will be added below. Please note that the professional AMS article is much more comprehensive and detailed than my analysis, which follows.  
(Riley, G.T., and L.F. Bosart, 1987: The Windsor Locks, Connecticut Tornado of 3 October 1979: An Analysis of an Intermittent Severe Weather Event. Mon. Wea. Rev., 115, 1655–1677.)

The first such item is a significant illustration from the article (Fig. 22. pg. 1669, bottom left, PDF document), showing one set of unusually moving ("left-moving") thunderstorm cells from that day; (one of ) which eventually became tornadic at Windsor Locks.

This image is in the public domain because it contains materials that originally came from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, taken or made during the course of an employee's official duties

Though I lack key information (e.g., the ABBA jet's departure time from NYC), perhaps a bit of "mostly-informed" analysis can still be attempted.  If interested please read on. As will be seen, the ABBA plane may have come close to a very "nasty" storm:

In part based upon Mr. Palm's description of the flight (noted above), and also based upon my own reading of the AMS article (cited); we probably know the following: 1.) The 10/3/79 ABBA concert in Boston was apparently scheduled for 8pm, EDT. 2.) Per the AMS article, a "short squall line" (of storms) was developing in southwestern Connecticut (north of New York City (NYC)), about 1:30pm, EDT. (Pls. see figure 20, page 1668 in the AMS article, PDF document. Local (10/3/79) time assumed as Eastern Daylight Time.) Note: The AMS report employs UTC time including in published figures. Link to a UTC conversion chart (I'm using the EDST column). 3.) Again per the AMS article, another set of storm cells rapidly tracked northward from the ocean south of Long Island (east of NYC) and up through Connecticut (CT), between about 12 noon and 3pm, EDT. Pls. see figure 22, above. Per the article, these (unusually) northward-moving storms (with heightened cloud tops) merged with the other (northeastward moving) storm cells (from southwestern CT), "after"  2pm. (Pgs. 1664-5, 1674.) 4.) The Windsor Locks tornado began (on the ground) just around 3pm (EDT). (From a "prominent" mesocyclone showing cloud tops in excess of 42000 feet. (Pgs. 1655, 1665.)  Downburst winds were reported from at least one nearby community in association with the tornado. The dangerous storm cell(s) continued on into central Massachusetts - quickly becoming non-tornadic - and dissipated by around 5pm (pg.1665).). 5.) Yet other strong thunderstorms developed (eastward) in the Rhode Island/southeast Massachusetts, then Boston areas; starting after 4pm (EDT) and progressing until the 6pm hour (through Boston). (Pls. see Figure 20 and pg. 1665 in the AMS article. PDF document.))
6.) The ABBA plane apparently turned back toward New York once, then turned again back toward Boston. (From Mr. Palm's account.)

In sum: Clusters of strong storms were in progress/developing north and east of NYC (i.e., along or near the ABBA plane's likely flight path), around 1:30-2pm, EDT. (And after.)

(I am not a meteorologist, so please consult the cited, professional AMS article for greater detail. If interested, my cursory interpretation of some of this article's findings indicates that a key (atmospheric) factor (of several) in formation of the (eventually) tornadic storm at Windsor Locks was (later determined to be): The "intersection" of an advancing cool "pocket" of air aloft with "a tongue" of warm, moist, unstable air present in the Connecticut River valley (pg. 1675). )

Continuing: Assuming that the ABBA jet intended to fly a fairly direct route from New York to Boston (a reasonable assumption, though a central one), what time might it have left NYC to reach Boston? Since the flight took off at all, another assumption is that severe weather warnings were not out (yet) or available for its planned flight path. Though a few storms were already developing in areas around NYC after 1pm (see figure 20).

The ABBA plane reportedly carried other ABBA entourage personnel (i.e., besides Ms. Fältskog). So, if the Boston show was to start at about 8pm, a guess is that the ABBA personnel would perhaps want to be on the ground there at least three or so hours prior to the show, for various preparations. I don't know this, of course. It is a guess. And a significant assumption. Mr. Palm's account confirms that it was an afternoon flight, though.

Looking at commercial jet flight times (today), it takes about one hour and ten or so minutes to fly from New York's JFK airport to Boston's Logan. The ABBA plane was a small, private jet (per Mr. Palm's account). So it might have been able to fly the route faster, but perhaps not by a significant amount.

Under normal circumstances, if ABBA intended to reach Boston, say, between 4 and 5pm local time they would have needed to depart from New York sometime between about 2:45-55pm and 3:45-55pm. Given the approximate times of storms noted above, and Mr. Palm's account indicating that "the airfield... ["....of their designated airport..." (emphasis added)]...had been completely obliterated by the tornado...." (page 414); here are some of my interpretations:

1) It remains in question where ABBA's flight was originally intended to land. (I.e., Boston's Logan airport, or Connecticut's Bradley airport (in Windsor Locks, CT).) Other accounts I've viewed, including Ms.Fältskog's above also employ words like obliterated and "vanished" to describe what seems to be a destination airport. Knowing the originally intended landing airport is key, as we'll see. Update: Per the better-translated YT interview linked above it seems more likely that the destination airport was in Boston... 
2) If the original destination was Boston, given the approximate storm times and locations noted above, plus my suggested NYC departure time "window" (above), the ABBA flight missed the Windsor Locks storm cell at its most dangerous, but likely encountered other strong storms that were nearing Boston around 4pm (and afterward, until 6pm). 3) If the original landing destination was Windsor Locks, with a subsequent car trip of at least an hour or so to Boston, ABBA's plane would have possibly left NYC about one hour earlier than the above-suggested time window. (According to current commercial flight info. it still takes about an hour to fly from New York to Windsor Locks.) To get into Boston by 5pm, via Windsor Locks, ABBA's plane would need to be on the ground there by no later than 3:45pm.  (Leaving NYC by around 2:45-55pm.) This scenario again appears to have them missing the tornadic storm cell, but obviously (would have been) affected by its aftermath. If they wanted to be on the ground somewhat earlier (say, 3pm at W. Locks, which would mean about a 2pm or slightly later NYC departure), they would clearly have come much closer to encountering the dangerous storm(s).(I.e., storms were progressing in the Connecticut River valley after about 1:30-2pm. See more, below.) 4) Another scenario that I can think of (given what we know, and the 2:45-3:45 pm possible NYC departure) would be that Boston was ABBA's original landing destination, but they then attempted to choose Windsor Locks as an alternate, when learning of/encountering bad weather after they were in the air (from NYC). However, this scenario doesn't seem accurate, per Mr. Palm's account (pg. 414). He writes that: "...the plane was unable to land at their designated airport...The airfield had been completely obliterated by the tornado, and the pilot decided to turn back to New York." From Mr. Palm, we also know that they then turned around again, though we don't know how much time this took. With Bradley Airport "out", it would appear that the ABBA jet continued onward toward Boston, only to apparently be affected by another, separate "set" of strong storms nearing that city. Their plane circled (per page 415) and was eventually forced to land in Manchester, NH (north of Boston).

So the answer to my second question, above, depends upon a couple of pieces of information that I don't have. But, as it's reported that their pilot heard of the problem at Windsor Locks in advance and (initially) turned back, it seems that ABBA's jet perhaps did not directly encounter the storm cluster which produced a tornado at Windsor Locks. (Though it could have come close.)

Since we have incomplete information, however, I'll add another point (picking up on a scenario from above):  5) Interpreting figure 22, etc. from the AMS article, if the ABBA plane departed NYC somewhat earlier than the "window" surmised above; e.g., after approximately 1:15pm to about 2:15pm that afternoon, they would likely have come much closer to/encountered the unusually moving storm cells (which eventually produced the tornado). That is.... if they planned a mainly direct flight route. And such a "close encounter" seems likely (in this "earlier" departure scenario), whether Boston or Windsor Locks was their landing destination. I.e., either (direct) route would probably have flown a portion over the Connecticut River valley, where storms were  present/merging/moving northward (after about 1:30pm). Learning when the ABBA jet departed, and how long the plane was in the air prior to hearing(?) about the dangerous Windsor Locks situation is key to further analysis of this earlier-departure scenario.

That (mercifully?) completes my amateur analysis of the very unusual weather that the ABBA jet could have been near, during the afternoon of October 3, 1979. Though I'm not informed enough to draw firm conclusions, to me; all who were on that flight should feel relieved that they landed safely. And escaped greater disaster. Thirty years ago in New England, it clearly was an awful (weather) afternoon to be flying.

Legitimate comments/corrections are welcome. Thanks to all interested; and who read this far.....

Blog note: This post is backdated to better fit within the overall order of posts here. It's actual creation date is September, 2009.

P.S. A link to a recent local news story describing the tornado, from 30 years on: http://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local-beat/Remembering-The-Windsor-and-Windsor-Locks-Tornado-30-Years-Later-62410147.html

Link to my full blog: http://star4abba.blogspot.com/

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