By Graham Healy

In 1979, the former World Champion, Freddy Maertens was going through a massive slump in form. Since winning the world title in 1976, his form had been very erratic. He had won races such as Paris-Nice, Vuelta a España and Het Volk.

However, he had also had numerous problems which were being attributed to various reasons. It was said that he had an alcohol problem, or that it was due to a dodgy knee. An excessive use of drugs was also being cited. Whatever the reason, by mid-season 1979 he hadn’t won a race.

In May of that year, Maertens decided to visit doctors in the United States to see if they could determine what it was that was causing him problems. While on his trip to the States, he had an incredibly narrow escape. On the flight to New York, Maertens commented to his friend Paul de Nijs that there seemed to be a strange noise coming from one of the engines.

They disembarked at JFK Airport in New York, and the place continued on to Chicago. Shortly after take-off from Chicago, one of the engines of the DC-10 fell from the wing. American Airlines Flight 191 crashed near the end of the runway, killing all 271 people on board. It remained the worst air disaster in US history until September 11, 2001.


Flight 191 seconds before crashing.
Flight 191 seconds before crashing.

Air crash investigators would later determine that the cause of the crash was due to improper maintenance procedures which had resulted in the separation of No.1 engine from the wing and a subsequent loss of control. It emerged that the incorrect maintenance had occurred back in March.

For Maertens, he had been incredibly lucky that the pylon rigging structure holding the engine to the wing had held on just long enough.


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