November 6, 2020

The Devastating 1978 Helicopter Crash That Claimed Eight Lives in Derry, PA

A helicopter crash killed eight bystanders at the St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church during a three day Labor Day event in 1978. The accident occurred when a Hughes 269C helicopter crashed into the crowd, killing eight and injuring nineteen during a ping-pong ball drop.

The helicopter was piloted by Pam Nelson of Nelson Aviation and was contracted by the church on behalf of Leo E. Allison, the church janitor and event organizer. Both Leo Allison and his 15-year-old daughter were also in the helicopter during the crash, but were not seriously injured. Pam Nelson also survived the crash.

Pam Nelson claimed the the engine of the helicopter shut off while hovering above the crowd, although a later investigation and test from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported that the engine did not malfunction. Nelson was not held criminally liable for the accident, but was forced to resign her pilot's license.

The FAA also discovered in their investigation that Nelson Aviation canceled a new engine purchase for the helicopter only weeks before it had crash. Furthermore, Nelson Aviation failed to conduct a full engine inspection and overhaul at 1,000 hours flight time and even knew of "excessive wear" on the throttle linkage, which would be the main cause of the engine malfunction.

Other videos related to helicopter accidents as heard from the episode.

Man cuts arms off in helicopter blades

Twilight Zone Accident

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10 comments on “The Devastating 1978 Helicopter Crash That Claimed Eight Lives in Derry, PA”

    1. Well, there you go! Finally some clarification. Nicole and I are WW2 fanatics, we gobble up every documentary we can find. Thanks for the comment!

  1. Jon, you said that Americans are the chosen people but that is a scary thought as that would mean for the last four years, Donald Trump is literally the chosen one

  2. Jon, thanks for doing the story I suggested. Though I’m not from that town, I split my time between Pittsburgh PA and Charleston SC and one of my friends who grew up there told me a lot about this, and the aftermath of the town.

    Thanks for doing this podcast (all three of you). You make my 11 hour drive between cities each month seem to go a bit faster.

    I have another good suggestion about two sisters of an Iowa senator who were murdered in their home on my street a few years ago. Also, never covered.


  3. Jon - Please contact me. I'd like to talk. This could be very helpful to others in both healing and closure. Like I mentioned, I'm retired US Army and over 25 years Active Duty. If we want to talk Aviation - 2-6 CAV, Illesheim, GE, 10th Aviation BDE, Ft. Drum, and 28th Aviation BDE, 28th DIV. As a Chemical Officer - I've worked the spectrum of assignments, but my tours with the Aviation assignments have spanned over 6 years and I may have a perspective that can help.

  4. Hi there, I grew up in Derry, PA. I found your podcast while researching the accident for something I'm writing. I've since relocated, but my parents still live there, and my dad grew up down the street from the church (he remembers blood running down the street-the church sits atop a slight incline). I didn't learn about the accident until I was almost 18, the town is so traumatized that no one talks about it, hence why there's no memorial--nobody wants to remember it. Just a few things you may find interesting: You mentioned in the episode that Leo Allison may still be alive, but sadly no, he's since passed away (I used to sit on his porch when I was little while my parents chatted to him..I'm now 32). The church is still called St. Joseph's, St. Martin's is another nearby church in the dad still attends Mass every Sunday there. Another commenter mentioned that the church has not had another festival since, that's incorrect, they resumed when I was a kid (probably around 1995 or so) but they did indeed cancel them for many years after the accident. Finally, I actually attended the Catholic school attached to the church for Preschool and a small child I ate lunch in the cafeteria that had been used as a morgue and I had no idea until I started talking to my dad about the aftermath of the accident.

  5. My best friend lives in blairsville pa about 20 minutes away from Derry. Derry is a very blue collar hard working type town . it is also home to my 2nd favorite strip club . lakeside lounge. What. Up lexie!!

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