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Airport to hero: Get lost

Dead flight attendant will remain buried out of sight

A version of this story ran in some editions Monday.

WHILE PHILADELPHIA condemns a hero to a lonely corner of our airport, the Florida Aviation Historical Society next month will induct Mary Frances Housley into its Hall of Fame.

She was the flight attendant, known as Frankie, who surrendered her life on Jan. 14, 1951, in the only fatal crash at Philadelphia International Airport. She was 24.

On a flight from Newark to Norfolk, National Airlines Flight 83, with 28 aboard, made a scheduled stop in Philly early on a Sunday afternoon. Due to pilot error, it landed long and hard on icy Runway 09. It skidded off the tarmac, and crashed through a fence and into a ditch, coming to rest at an awkward angle. The left wing of the dying DC-4 broke off, rupturing a gas tank, which exploded into a fireball.

Panicked passengers screamed, some with their clothing on fire. What Frankie then did resulted in her being called the bravest woman in America, with a memorial placed at a central location at the airport.

The lone flight attendant on board, with just five months on the job, Frankie threw open the door as men and women rushed for it. The Jan. 22, 1951, Time magazine quoted survivors as saying Frankie coolly commanded them, "Take your time."

She swiftly moved back and forth through the cabin, helping passengers (including some soldiers and sailors) release their seat belts, leading them to the door, eight feet off the ground. When passengers balked at jumping, a firm shove from Frankie got them out. Ten passengers made it to safety this way, including a woman - Manuela Smith, who was holding a 2-year-old - who cried that she had left an infant inside.

Instead of leaping to safety from the burning plane, Frankie went back into the cabin for the 11th time.

She never emerged.

After firefighters extinguished the flames, they removed the bodies of five women and two infants. One of the women was Frankie, found lying in the aisle with her arms wrapped protectively around the body of 4-month-old Brenda Joyce Smith.

The story of the heroic flight attendant made national headlines.

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

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

The memorial gives Frankie's name, dates of birth and death, and reads, "She gave her life with unselfish heroism so others might live."

The memorial originally was placed in front of Engine 77, near where Terminal A-West now stands, but was moved when Engines 77 and 78 were combined in 1987. It's now 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 passenger traffic.

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

In recognition of Frankie's inspirational story, she will be inducted into the Florida Aviation Hall of Fame at the Aerospace Center for Excellence in Lakeland on April 10.

When I heard that, I decided to follow up on my August 2013 column, in which I suggested Frankie's memorial be moved to a more prominent place at the airport.

Frankie was a hero. Her example lifts the status of flight attendants, who are sometimes treated like airborne waitresses, and explodes the outdated stereotype that courage is a quality restricted to men.

"We would certainly consider moving the monument to a more visible location and possibly inside the terminal building complex," said Victoria Lupica, then the airport spokeswoman.

The airport has since changed its CEO, its spokeswoman - and its mind.

"We think it's wonderful that she'll be recognized by the Florida Aviation Hall of Fame, but we're going to leave the monument at the Engine 78 firehouse," said Mary Flannery, manager of marketing and public affairs. "It's an appropriate spot, since they are the airport's first responders."

But no one sees the monument there, I complained.

"The firefighters can see it, they see it every day," said Flannery. "I've seen how they do plant flowers around it and take care of it. It's a very appropriate spot."

The firefighters are devoted to it.

Engine 78 Deputy Fire Chief Pat Sweeney told me he's happy to have the memorial at his station: "I admire Frankie very much, and I would consider her like one of ours in the fire service, because when she died, she was doing what firefighters do."

Engine 78 has 67 firefighters, including eight women, and they all know Frankie's story. "It's become part of this station," Sweeney said, adding, "If this airport were to recognize Mary Housley, the firefighters would like to see it in addition to this memorial."

Which gave me an idea.

How about a mural inside a terminal? I asked Flannery.

While the airport uses local artists for displays, "we don't do murals, we don't do big, long wall displays," said Flannery.

So it looks as if my idea is as dead as the hero Frankie Housley, unless someone gives it another think.

215-854-5977 @StuBykofsky