Philadelphia's forgotten airline heroine needs a better memorial

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Engine 78 at the airport maintains this memorial to stewardess Mary Frances Housley, but it remains invisible to the public because of its out-of-the-way location. (Stu Bykofsky/Staff)

POUNDING DOWN ON sleet-slick Philadelphia International Airport Runway 09, the National Airlines plane skids off the tarmac, tears through a fence and crashes into a ditch.

Flight 83 is taking a deadly turn. With a mere five months on the job, Mary Frances Housley is about to become a national hero.

It is Jan. 14, 1951.

The dying DC-4 rests at an awkward angle as the left wing breaks off, rupturing the gas tank. Fire explodes, passengers scream and 24-year-old stewardess Housley, known to her friends as Frankie, bolts into action.

The lone stewardess - that's what flight attendants are called at the time - Frankie throws open the emergency door as men and women rush for it. "Take your time," she coolly commands them, as quoted in the Jan. 22re, 1951, Time magazine.

She swiftly moves through the cabin, helping passengers (including some soldiers and sailors) release their seat belts. She guides them to the door, which is 8 feet off the ground. When some passengers balk at making the jump, a firm shove from Frankie propels them out. Ten passengers escape this way, including one woman - Manuela Smith holding a 2-year-old - who cries that she's left an infant inside the cabin.

Instead of leaping to safety herself, with fire eating the plane, Frankie races into the smoke-filled cabin to rescue the baby.

She never emerges.

Flight 83 is the only fatality ever recorded at Philadelphia International Airport. The cause is reported to be pilot error.

After firefighters extinguish the flames, they remove the bodies of five women and two infants. One of the women is Housley, who is found lying in the aisle with her arms wrapped protectively around the body of 4-month-old Brenda Joyce Smith.

The story of the selfless stewardess makes national headlines.

Fifteen years later, Reader's Digest publishes "A Girl Named Frankie." The author calls her "the bravest woman in America."

Today, a marker honoring Frankie's heroism is at the airport, but is almost invisible.

Reader Jim Moran - who as an 11-year-old living nearby remembers seeing the remains of Flight 83 - pointed me to Frankie's story, his memory sparked by the calm bravery of Asiana cabin attendants when a flight from Seoul crashed at San Francisco's airport last month.

Flight attendants sometimes get a lot of guff - they are screamed at, or hit on, or treated as airborne waitresses. But in crises passengers get to see their true value. Starting in 1952, federal regulation required them for safety reasons.

The marker at Philadelphia International, paid for by the American Legion, gives Frankie's name, date of birth and death, and says, "She gave her life with unselfish heroism so others might live."

It is located on the front lawn of the Engine 78 firehouse in a dead-end corner of the airport that is hard to find even if you are looking for it. There is no pedestrian traffic.

The only people who see the monument are firefighters and their families, Fire Chief Pat Sweeney tells me. He's been at the firehouse for seven years and the first time he saw the marker he was moved to research who Frankie was and what she did.

The firefighters of Engine 78 planted flowers at the marker and they respectfully tend it.

"I admire her," Sweeney says of Frankie, a native of Knoxville, Tenn.

I do, too. Anyone hearing her story would.

The memorial was moved to the firehouse when it opened in 1987, airport spokeswoman Victoria Lupica tells me. It was previously in front of Engine 77, near where Terminal A West now stands, and was moved when Engine 77 and 78 were combined.

Why can't Frankie's memorial be in a more visible place at the airport where more people can learn about her and be inspired by her?

"We would certainly consider moving the monument to a more visible location and possibly inside the terminal building complex," Lupica says.

It's good to hear the airport is open to the idea, and one of the terminals seems appropriate.

That's what I think. What do you think? Can you suggest a better location at which to honor Philadelphia's heroine?

 

 


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