On October 3, 1979, a pilot with no guidance from the ground made a decision to abort his landing. That pilot’s actions would save lives and go down in Connecticut's history.
“There’s a fairly well known story. A United Airlines flight I think it was a Boeing 727 a commercial jet liner of that era was on final approach to Bradley during the storm,” described Nick Hurley, curator of the New England Air Museum.
Piloting Flight 220 that day was Captain George Deihs, a former Army pilot with 25 years of experience with United Airlines.
“Obviously, conditions were terrible it had been raining most of the day it was very very dark but the pilot was still confident he could land on runway 6,” Hurley said, narrating the tale.
What Deihs didn’t know was that an F4 tornado was about to cross Runway 6, the same runway he was about to land on.
“He could barely see a thing visibility was terrible the winds were really straining the aircraft and all of the sudden he learned he was completely alone because everyone in the air traffic control tower fled,” Hurley explained.
That left him with no choice but to abort the landing.
“He opened up the throttle he pulled the nose up and basically went full power to pull out of the storm,” Hurley said.
Deihn, who is now retired, is credited with saving 114 lives that day. Deihs now lives outside Chicago.
He, his daughter and his son spoke with NBC Connecticut about that October day.
His son Jay and daughter Susy helped him recall the day.
“He had pulled up during a tornado and basically the entire airport was wiped out and good thing he did pull up we have a bunch of letters,” they explained.
Passenger wrote letters to Diehs thanking him for saving their lives.
Read the Letters Sent to the Pilot Who Flew Away From the 1979 Tornado
“One passenger did say they say they saw the funnel cloud outside the plane and thought this is it you know time to say my prayers.”
While United Flight 220 climbed back into the sky, the tornado carved a path of destruction through Windsor Locks.
“The damage is multi-millions. All aircraft over on this side of the airport including the air museum with the older aircraft is completely wiped out it’s really a sad sight to behold,” Leo Cordier, the former airport manager, told reporters after the storm.
“It was a direct hit on the museum it couldn’t of been worse if we had planned it that way unfortunately,” Alan Reed said.
Reed, who is now a volunteer craftsman for the air museum, worked just around the corner at a machine shop when the tornado hit.
“We could hear people yelling and screaming all over the place,” he said. “We walked out to the front of the building out by the main road and looked down the road and just couldn’t believe it, it was like a bomb went off.”
Forty years later the air museum is bigger than ever with over 55 aircraft on display throughout three large hangars, and the story of United Airlines Flight 220 continues to be a highlight of that day.