Captain Arlie J. Nixon and the Airliner on Fire in Iceland
NJM: Arlie, you mentioned something about a fire in Iceland. What, exactly, was that about?

Arlie: To this day we don’t know how it started. It might have been from a pinhole-sized
leak in the hydraulic strut on one of the wheels. Momentary torching from the engine as
we idled could have ignited it. The fire occurred at 2:09 am April 29, 1955. As I recall,
the plane was going from Frankfort, Germany to New York City, with a fuel stop in
Iceland. We had maybe 35 or 40 passengers and a crew of 7. The plane was a Lockheed
Super G sleeper we called The Purple Banana. It was for the big shots!

NJM: Why did you call it The Purple Banana?

Arlie: Because it was very special and a purple banana, if ever there were such a thing,
would be very special. It was similar to a Pullman sleeper on a railroad. The passengers
had berths to sleep in while the plane crossed the ocean. When the fire was discovered,
all of the passengers were asleep except for Jack Warner (President, Warner Bros.
Studios) and his wife, who were sitting at the bar.

We stopped for fuel in Iceland at the military airbase of Keflavik. It was night time, 35
degrees, raining and very windy. We had taxied roughly two miles away from the
terminal. When the fire started we were doing our check-list at the end of the runway, just
prior to take-off. The tower told us that the #1 engine was torching. Torching can occur
when there is a problem in the air to fuel mix. Flames then shoot out of the engine’s air
intake. I started to adjust the engine to suck in the flames, but could not see a problem on
the #1 or any other engine, for that matter.

Then I realized that the flames might be underneath the plane. I had the engineer open the
service door in the floor of the cockpit and, Nancy, at that moment I was very sorry that I
had ever left the farm! I could see that the tires and wheels were on fire. I didn’t think any
of us would get out alive. Do you know what magnesium is?

NJM: Other than it is a mineral, no.

Arlie: Magnesium is used to make Fourth of July sparklers. At that time it was also used
to make aircraft wheels because it was light-weight.

The rubber tires were on fire. The magnesium wheels were on fire like gigantic sparklers.
And on top of all that fire were five thousand gallons of gasoline! The tires could easily
explode and blow holes in the gas tank.

There was just one door through which passengers could enter and exit and that was near
the tail of the plane. It was 12 feet down from the door to the ground – too far to safely
jump. I shot down to the exit and left the crew in the cockpit to shut down the plane. The
stewardesses dealt with the passengers. The purser was already struggling to install the
canvas escape chute. It was supposed to hook in the door. In the dark and the confusion
the purser nearly installed it backwards. So, while the passengers were shoving against us
to exit, we somehow managed to get the chute correctly turned around. I thought they
were going to push us out the door before we could get it setup. The first passengers out
were supposed to hold the bottom of the chute, but they took off instead. Finally some of
the crew were able to get out and secure the bottom of the chute.

I appreciated the way Captain Sully made two trips through his plane after he put it in the
Hudson. My final task was to make two trips through my plane, looking for possible
remaining passengers. One was a drunk who was sitting in his berth in his boxer shorts,
unsuccessfully trying to put on his sock. Problem was, his big toe was the only part of his
foot inside the sock and he hadn’t figured it out. I told him to get out. He said, “I have to
get dressed.” I hauled him out of the berth and said, “Get dressed tomorrow. Now get
your ass out of here!”

Then I found the Warners at the little bar. Mrs. Warner had taken a sleeping pill earlier
and on top of that had several drinks. Mr. Warner was gently patting her cheek and
repeatedly saying, “Wake up, Sweetheart. We have to get off the plane”. I told Warner
that he should go now and I would take care of his wife. He left. I said, “Ma’am the plane
is on fire and you have to get off.” She said, “I’m not going!” and passed out.
Understand, Mrs. Warner appeared to weigh nearly as much as I did. Even if I had been
able to carry her honeymoon style, the aisle was too narrow for that to be done. But the
adrenalin was really pumping! I draped her left arm over my left shoulder so that the
front of her body was pressed to my back. Then I half dragged and half piggy-back her
down the aisle, got her on the chute and off the plane. The crew on the ground picked her
up like a sack of flour and carried her away.

We were supposed to be able to evacuate the plane in three minutes in an emergency. I
believe we did it in two.

We told the tower that the plane was on fire. The fire engine took three minutes from call
to starting the foamite. The fire was quickly extinguished. Then the engine went back to
the station, leaving the passengers and crew behind in the wet, nearly freezing Icelandic

NJM: You mean they just abandoned you? They didn’t try to take anyone back to the

Arlie: That wasn’t their job. Their job was to put out the fire. Now days they would
have done more. They notified other parties to pick us up. Those people had to get out of
bed, get dressed and bring a bus to the wreckage. And then, they couldn’t find us. After
exiting the burning plane, the passengers had scattered into the night like a bunch of wild
chickens. Once the fire was extinguished and the fire truck had gone it was pitch black
and we were somewhere in a two square mile area. The rescuers couldn’t even find the
plane in the dark. It took perhaps as long as one hour to locate and pick us up. In the
meantime, I did what I could to keep them from freezing. I had people who wore no
shoes stand on the feet of people who were wearing shoes. I organized them into a snailshell
spiral in which the person at the outside end rotated to the inside end of the spiral.
That way everyone had a chance to get a little warmer. Finally help arrived and we were
taken to the airport hotel.

Actually the plane was saved. The only things destroyed were the tires and the wheels.
The next day I took the crew back to the plane to retrieve baggage. We piled it in the
hotel lobby. I asked if anything was missing. Mrs. Warner said that she had a mink stole
when she got on the plane. We returned to the plane and found it nearby on the runway. It
was completely dry.

One of the passengers said he had been carrying $38,000 in cash and had left it behind in
a pillow slip. Nancy, he must have known how gasoline explosions play out. If you are in
the center of the explosion the intense heat will kill you, but will leave your body
apparently untouched. It does not incinerate in that location. At any rate, I took him to the
plane and stood there while he counted out $38,000 to his satisfaction.

When there was an accident, the policy was to send another plane and a relief pilot to fly
it. The pilot at the time of the accident was flown out as a passenger and not allowed to
fly until there had been an investigation. However all of the passengers signed a letter,
initiated by Mr. Warner, that they would not fly with any captain, except Captain Nixon.
The relief pilot, Captain Joe Carr, phoned the airline’s management and got the OK.
While waiting at the hotel, Jack Warner and I became friendly. At that time TWA had the
Ambassador’s Club at some airports for high-dollar passengers. Warner said, “I want
you to meet my wife and me in the Ambassador’s Club for a drink.

I said, “Sir, employees are not allowed in there.” Warner said, “They’re going to let you in.”
Later he wrote a letter to the president of TWA. It said, “If you don’t let Captain Arlie Nixon join
the Ambassador’s Club, you can forget about all of your Hollywood business”. I became
member #335 and the first employee to belong to the Ambassador’s Club. Also, Warner
gave me his business card and on the back he wrote, “Please admit Captain Arlie Nixon”.
That card got me into a lot of movies.

I also spoke to Mrs. Warner. “Ma’am, I know it’s not polite to ask this question, but I
have been wondering how much you weigh. I carried you down the aisle and I don’t
know how I did it.” She replied, “Captain Nixon, I weigh 185 pounds and I don’t know
how you did it, either.”

I knew of one commercial airline captain who jumped out the window when his plane
caught on fire and left all of the passengers and crew on board to die. Sometimes I
wondered, if I were in that situation, would I yell, “Follow me!” and jump out the
window? However, during the fire in Iceland, I was so busy and so focused on what I was
doing and what should be done next, the possibility of abandoning the people and the
plane never even crossed my mind.

They repaired the plane at a cost of over $500,000 – a lot of money in 1955!


Copyright © 2009 Nancy J. Mayfield
All Rights Reserved.