The Forgotten Crash Of 1950

The first F-86s to land at Kanawha Airport, crashed just 3 minutes after takeoffMarch 22 1950 was a cloudy overcast day in the Kanawha valley with drizzle in the air.  On this day two F-86 jets were warming up at Kanawha Airport ready for takeoff.  These were the first F-86's to ever land here,  as production jets of any type had only been in operation for about two years.  The reason these jets had landed the day before was sort of an emergency in itself:  They had run low on fuel.  Because of the scarcity of jets and jet fuel,  the pilots would have to wait for fuel to be delivered from Dayton Ohio the following day.  So,  Lt. Col. A.F. Reinhardt (43) and Capt. George Evans (28) spent the night in Charleston, and even visited the old "Press Club" during their stay.  

The two were veteran pilots of the war,  and were based out of Kirkland Field,  Albuquerque New Mexico.

At around 12:19 pm on March 22nd,  the jets roared down the runway in formation almost wingtip to wingtip.  The Press covered the event live, including a radio station.  About 3 minutes later,  both jets crashed into the ground at 500 miles per hour near the Coal River town of Emmons WV.  One jet entered the earth vertically, blowing a hole over 10 feet deep and 30 feet across.  The other hit about 300 feet up the hill at less than vertical,  but still digging a huge hole in the earth.  The resulting double crash was so violent that only a few larger pieces were recovered and those could be carried away by one man.   The crash of one jet was about 100 feet from a house  in which three people were home. One was a baby named Jean Parcell, and she lives in the same house today.  The following are reports of the event.  Be aware that some misinformation was printed as is the case with almost all disaster stories.  This was later corrected or inconclusive...

F-86 Jets
This photo shows the jets on the ground at Kanawha Airport.
I believe that's one of the pilots looking into the cockpit, and possibly the other on the ground.



F-86 jets
Kanawha Airport was still brand new at this time, with more improvements on the way.

(The above two photos courtesy of  Yeager Airport Archives)






March 22nd, 1950
Jet Crash





The following is from the Charleston Gazette,  March 23rd 1950

Jets Fall; Pilots Die In Crash

Two Air Force F-86 jet fighter planes crashed yesterday in a rugged mountain section about 20 miles from here, killing both pilots. Time of the crash was set at 12:19 p.m., less than two minutes after the two planes took off from Kanawha Airport.

An eye-witness said the two planes brushed wings at about 5,000 feet and plummeted downward, disintegrating as they hit the earth with a deafening explosion that severely damaged a house 50 yards away and blew the pilots to bits.

The two pilots were identified as: Lt. Col. A. F. Reinhardt, 43, a native of Huntington, Long Island, N. Y., and Capt. George W. Evans, Jr., 28 of Laurel, Miss.

The scene of the crash was Gripp Station on Coal River, a small hamlet about a mile from Emmons, the nearest post office.

The two crafts were en route to Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Ala., from Washington, D. C., and they were to proceed to Kirtland Base, Albuquerque, N. M. A fuel shortage had forced the two to make an emergency landing Tuesday at the Charleston field to await shipment from Dayton, Ohio.

Eye witnesses said the planes exploded in a blinding flash as they struck the ground. They fell about 50 yards apart on the hillside, tearing out great chunks of earth. A two-feet square piece of a fuselage was the largest fragment of either plane that was found. Only a few scattered pieces of either man could be located in the wreckage. Small pieces of clothing and wreckage were blown over a half-mile area.

A house about 60 yards from the crash scene was nearly blown from its foundation by the force of the explosion. Owner of the house, P. A. Parcell, a 41-year-old coal miner, said his house was badly damaged by the blast. A metal piece of one plane was blown completely through one wall into the living room. Present in the house at the time was Parcell's wife, Vivian, his three-month-old daughter, Jean, and an uncle, J. E. Whittington. Whittington said he was standing at a kitchen window when the planes hit and erupted in a blinding flash. "I saw a flash," he said, "then all of a sudden the window blew out and the dirt started flying in my face."   Whittington said he was scared so badly that he ran into another room, closing the door behind him.

Mrs. Parcell said she thought lightning had struck the house and immediately grabbed up her baby and ran from the house. "When I reached the road in front of the house," she said, "1 looked up on the hill back of the house and saw the two fires, pieces of stuff were flying all through the air."

Apparently the only eye witness to the actual crash was bearded * Wheeler Holstein, a farmer who resides in a remote section about three miles from the scene.  "I was shoveling coal in from a truck into my house." he said "when I looked up and saw those planes flying together across the valley." All of a sudden," he said, "I saw their two wings come together and they started falling toward the ground across the mountain." Holstein said he also saw smoke pouring from the rear of the two planes, which is believed to have been their jet trails. Holstein described the event to a Gazette reporter who had climbed to the top of the towering mountain in search of a scene of the crash.

Shortly after the two ill-fated planes took off yesterday, the Kanawha Airport radio tower cracked with inter-communication between the two departing fliers:
"Where are you?" asked one voice, believed to have been Col. Reinhardt....  "Right on you." Came the reply.... "Well, don't fly too close," came the retort.

That was the last heard from the two men as they traveled approximately 600 miles an hour in the two craft, described as "Sabre" fighter planes.

Early reports that the planes had struck a power line were discounted by State Police and Army officials, who pointed out that the line was about 300 yards below the top of the mountain over which the two jets flew. Power line No. 5 carrying 66,000 volts from the Cabin creek power plant to the South Charleston Naval Ordnance plant, was severed as the planes plunged earthward. A 10 mile area around the crash scene was without electric power.





There were no broken limbs on trees from the top of the mountain to the place where the planes exploded into the ground, indicating that they plummeted vertically to the earth after their wings came together in the air.

Late last night an Army board of Inquiry was reported en route from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base at Dayton, Ohio, to make a formal investigation of the crash.

In response to a request for information, Air Force headquarters in Washington, D. C. said Col. Reinhardt graduated from Arlington, N. J. high school in 1921, worked for the Sanders Reinhardt Co. in Allentown, Pa., from 1927 to 1937, was an employee of the Washington D. C. Post newspaper before entering the Air Force in 1942.  Reinhardt's wife is Mrs. Carole Reinhardt. Capt. Evans was a flight lead of the 93`d Fighter Squadron of the 81st Fighter Group at Kirtland Field, Albuquerque, N. Mex.
Evans attended school at Ellisville, Miss. His mother, Mrs. Etta H. Evans, resides at Laurel. Reinhardt served with the 15th Air Force during World War II and from 1947 to last August was stationed at Wheeler Field: Hawaii. Evans served with the 9th Air Force during the war and was stationed afterwards at Wheeler Field.

Results of crash were summed up in terse report of Cpl. Cohen to his headquarters in which he said "only a handful of the pilots was found."  The remains will be at Cunningham mortuary, pending further orders from Air Force officials.

Ironically, the same day of the crash, the Air Force announced the 815t Fighter Interceptor Wing to which both pilots were attached, was being ordered to the Pacific Northwest to protect key defense installations.


Reports were printed in both the Charleston Gazette and Daily Mail newspapers on the day before and several days after the above article,  including this eyewitness report from Adrian Gwin, a veteran reporter for the Daily Mail, who said the scene of the crash was an "awesome and spectacular sight"....

"There are pieces of bodies and the two planes over an area of roughly four square acres. "I saw two feet severed just above the ankles, the largest part of any body remaining. "One plane hit beside a small dirt road at a community known as Grippe, which is half a mile from Emmons. The other hit 200 yards away up the slight slope of a hill. "Both planes made craters roughly 40 feet square and about 10 feet deep. "I saw a torn patch bearing the name of Lt. Col. Reinhardt. It was a crash pass that would permit him to go through police lines when crashes occurred so that he could investigate. "I saw torn bits of clothing and little pieces of flesh, including a part of an arm, part of a scalp and a bit of a shoulder. "There were scattered bits of maps and papers. "There was no piece of the planes left that could have been carried away."



So how did I come upon this forgotten story?

Jerry and Dick Miller checking out the crash site

I had heard bits and pieces of this story over the last 30 years from a couple of friends who were actually at the crash site when it happened.  One was Danny Davidson... the other Dick Miller.  At the time Danny told me a bit about the crash,  it was (to me) like all the other crashes that have happened in our area:  hard to locate now, or hard to get to.  But in the summer of 2008,  Dick Miller mentioned (almost in passing) about the crash as we were talking about the Ashford WV area.  As I had just driven right past the crash site and didn't realize it,  I asked Dick to help locate the exact area.  Naturally, Emmons is a tiny spot in the road and I simply could have asked anyone old enough,  and they would have pointed it out.  But I wanted the man who actually helped pick up the pieces of the crash to join me in my mini adventure.  As we pulled into the exact spot,  Dick said it looked right.  He was dead-on.  We later located the property owner and toured the area where the two jets buried themselves.  One site near the road was now grown over with vegetation.  This is the spot where the jet went straight-in and buried deepest.  They basically shoveled dirt over it, as there was nothing left to recover. 


BEFORE  I  GO ANY  FURTHER .....

Be aware that these crashes took place on PRIVATE PROPERTY.  The property owners are VERY private people... good country folk that like most.... are hesitant to have strangers appearing out of nowhere to bother them and trample their land.  My connection is my friend Dick,  who's family knew the property owners.  So take my advice and don't bother these people as they simply wont allow complete strangers on their property for the purpose of looking for relics or anything else.  Understood?  Great.

On the first day I took some photos.  On my second visit I brought my metal detector. The second spot further up the hill was the key,  as this jet came in at a slightly more horizontal angle and scattered debris for hundreds of yards.  The depression is still visible in the ground after 58 years.



Jet piece

This is the largest piece of either aircraft that they found.



Just as I imagined,  at the second site I located hundreds of pieces of aircraft,  mostly two inches long or less. (I didn't need to dig these up as my detector tells me how large and how deep something is.)  I looked at a couple of pieces anyway just to see if they looked burned or not.  They didn't.   I looked a little longer and hit a signal that looked interesting.  I started digging and saw the end of a piece, that continued further.  I finally removed it and discovered that stretched-out,  was about 2 feet long.  The property owner told me that it was the largest piece recovered since the initial crash 58 years ago.  I brought it home and cleaned it up,  and after studying this mangled piece,  I first thought it was part of the pilots seat,   but then discovered that it's part of the wing seal.  (I had no idea that old jets used nylon fabric this way)



A couple of background stories..

Dick Miller is known to many people in the Kanawha Valley and beyond.  A former pilot and business owner,   Dick has lead a pretty exciting life.  On the day of the crash,  Dick was a young worker at a local brick plant on MacCorkle Ave in Charleston.  He and a friend were listening to a live broadcast on the radio of the jets about to take-off from Kanawha Airport.  As the jets flew over his head,  the noise was deafening.  However,  due to the heavy overcast,  he couldn't see the jets in tight formation.  A couple of minutes later,  the radio announced that the jets had crashed near Emmons.  Dicks co-worker asked him if he knew where Emmons was.  He said "sure... I have family there".  So they got into a truck and started out to the site,  where they arrived just as the National Guard was pulling in.  The smoke was still heaving in the air as the National Guard commander barked orders to his men (and anyone interested) to help pick up the pieces.  Dick jumped in and assisted all afternoon.  He told me that the thing he never forgot was a chicken coop,  only feet from the site that survived,  along with the chickens inside.  On the chicken wire surrounding the coop was hanging tiny pieces of the pilot,  to which the chickens were pecking.  It's been learned also that that no one around would buy the chickens eggs after the crash.

Danny Davidson is also well known in his circles.  Danny took off for the crash site on his BSA motorcycle about 20 minutes after the announcement.  Due to the now heavy traffic on the very narrow road,  Danny had to take to the railroad tracks to make his way to the scene.

Earl Benton and Chet Hawes of the Daily Mail were there also.  They both arrived early enough to see the National Guard pull in.  Earl took many photos for the paper,  while Chet didn't have a camera with him because he was only at the Paper looking for a job that day.  When the crash came in,  the Editor told Chet to ride along with photographer Ray Wheeler.  When Chet returned,  he was hired on the spot and spent the next 40 some years at the Daily Mail.

I'm sure there were others there that I would later know....  but I wouldn't be born for 6 months.

Jet Crash in WV









My Opinion on the cause of the crash....

1.... The pilots took-off in very close formation.  Why?  In my opinion,  the Media.  There was Press all over the place and even a live radio broadcast.  The pilots I think,  wanted to put on a good show with these brand new jets that very few people had ever seen in early 1950.  However,  experts that I have talked to state that it was standard operating procedure for all military fighter aircraft to always fly in formation.  This seems rather odd considering the weather conditions on this day, but who knows... 

2... The weather was marginal.  The sky's were cloudy and overcast.  It was even drizzling rain.  When the pilots "hit the soup" that close together,  one simply became disoriented and "possibly" struck the other.  One rumor that's been going around for years is that one pilot got Vertigo and the other pilot followed him in to the ground.  This was even mentioned in the newspaper early-on as a "possibility".  But it was never proven. However,  I can't discount some sort of visual interference along these lines due to the proximity of the aircraft as they crashed at almost exactly the same second... and the fact that they both came-in nose first.  A mid-air collision of any type shouldn't have allowed for this pattern.  In other words, one plane should have struck the ground before the other,  AND in a different attitude had they collided in the air.  Moreover,  it's hard to understand why they didn't eject at 5000 feet IF they had collided.   Even if they'd wasted time trying to determine damage,  they still should have been able to eject in the "approximately" 10 seconds or so they had left.  So why didn't they even try?  It appears that they FLEW the planes into the ground,  so it's really difficult to determine the actual cause of the crash.    Also remember that the pilots spent part of the previous evening at Charleston's famous "Press Club".  These were hard core fighter pilots who had just left WWII behind a few years ago.  Did they have a little bit too much fun the night before? Could that have affected one or both in any way... especially considering the marginal weather conditions? We'll never know..... and really,  some 58 years later it doesn't matter.  What matters is that many pilots wound-up giving their lives in the pursuit of safer aviation.  Many had to die in order for us to be able to learn from their mistakes ... both man and machine,  and arrive at the place we find ourselves today,  where flying around the world on jets is no different than driving your car to the supermarket.....

I studied every article written.. too many to post here.  And they all agree with two things:


OFFICIAL FINDING AT THE TIME....

"It was certain that the accident occurred so swiftly and at such a low altitude that neither pilot had an opportunity to use the F-86 ejection mechanism that catapults the pilot from the single-seater craft 80 feet into the air and gives him an opportunity to use a parachute when trouble is encountered."


FINAL REPORT OF THE CRASH

Two F-86s with Lt Col Reinhardt leading the formation takeoff,  departed Kanawha County Airport,  Charleston, WVa  at 1217E  (12:17pm) for an intended, 500 foot on-top IFR flight, direct to Maxwell Field.  Lt Col Reinhardt in F-86 Number 49-1019 was leading.   Captain Evans in F-86, number 48-306  was on Lt Col Reinhardt's right wing.

At 1220E (12:20pm) they crashed into a mountainside fifteen miles south of the Kanawha County Airport, 3/4 of a mile east of Emmons, WVa

Eye witnesses at the scene of the crash stated that they were in a gentle turn to the left, and a slight descent, which steepened just before impact. Both pilots were killed in the crash.

The wreckage of both aircraft was scattered to the northeast of the impact point for a distance of approximately 3000 feet. No part of the wreckage was greater than five or 10 pounds.


The weather at the time of the crash was estimated 3000 overcast, 4 to 5 miles visibility in fog and light rain showers.

Both pilots were well qualified in fighter type aircraft and in instrument experience. Both held currently valid green instrument certificates.

It is impossible to determine the exact cause of the accident. The most probable cause is that the lead pilot experienced vertigo.



Here is just one of a dozen eye witness reports that I
have acquired from the official 108 page government report:

 

T E S T I M O N Y of Million J. Bock , given to Captain James G, Kuntz and Captain Vernon R. Stutta, 25 March 1950, at Charleston, West Virginia.

Q. Mr. Bock, we understand that you witnessed the takeoff of the two F-86's and that you had known Colonel Reinhardt previously.

A. Yea, that is correct. I knew Colonel Reinhardt from having served with him as a member of the 15th Air
Force in Italy. I was a B-24 pilot and was acquainted with Colonel Reinhardt for some time in Italy. He was 15th Air Force Engineering Maintenance Officer and Test Pilot. I had not seen Colonel Reinhardt since our service together in Italy in 1945. I read in the paper that he had landed here at Charleston the afternoon of the 21st and. was staying over, so I contacted him the morning of the 22nd in the Ruffner Hotel. He said he was just planning to go out to the airport and asked me to join him there. He introduced me to Captain Evans.

Q, What time did he arrive at the airport?

A. It was about 9:30 or 10:00 o'clock, I'm not sure.

Q. Were you with him while he filed clearance?

A. Yes

Q. Did he or Captain Evans appear concerned about the weather?

A. I don't think they were worried about the weather, however, they made a very thorough check of the
weather. I know that they considered three different flight plans., He first wanted to go to St. Louis, but weather was pretty bad, and then he asked about Memphis. Memphis wasn't too good either and they
finally decided to go to Maxwell.

Q. What were your impressions of the weather that day?

Well, it looked pretty bad to me, but, as I said before, both Col. Reinhardt and Capt. Evans did not appear to be worried about the weather.. In fact, I specifically asked him how the F-S6 was on instruments. He stated that it was a beautiful ship in any condition. I also talked to Capt. Evans about the weather and Capt. Evans stated he had complete confidence in, not only the airplane, but he respected Col., Reinhardt's experience and ability. His words were to the effect that, "I .would follow Col, Reinhardt anywhere". I know what he was talking about because my earlier association with Col Reinhardt had taught me that he was one of the finest of pilots. He was very safety conscious and also exhibited that that morning.` Some one at Operations, I don't remember who asked him if he would give the airfield a buzz job after takeoff. He refused emphatically and told them even if the weather had been CAVU,  he wouldn't do it because the flight he was planning did not leave room for any such exhibitions.

Q. Did you witness the takeoff, Mr. Book?

A. Yes, I went out with Col Reinhardt before he started his engines. He was waiting in the airplane for ARTC clearance before starting the engines.

Q. What were the weather conditions at that time?

A. It was raining very hard, both at that time and while they were taxiing out. It stopped raining just
momentarily before takeoff. It was raining so hard that Col Reinhardt had to close his canopy and I went back into Operations. His canopy vas frosted up when he first closed it, but it cleared up when he started up his engines.

Q. Were you in Operations at the time of takeoff?

A. No. I went back outside to watch the takeoff from the ramp.

Q, How did the takeoff appear to you?

A. They were in good formation. Col Reinhardt broke ground first; shortly after Capt Evans broke ground and I lost sight of them immediately after takeoff.

Q. You didn't see their climb-out after takeoff, did you?

A. No, they disappeared behind the hangar just after becoming airborne. I didn't get to see wheels-up.



Epilogue

Old aviation history has always fascinated me.  While some might say "this isn't THAT old",  you must remember that production jet aircraft had only been in existence for a couple of years at this time.  So now that I have time to pursue things that I didn't before, I enjoy "discovering" events that most people have already forgotten. 

What I find interesting about this case is the lack of information anywhere on the Internet.  Other than a couple of brief newspaper stories,  I couldn't find anything on these two men.  There are no other webpages concerning this crash as of this writing.  There is nothing on the Net to detail this event out of the thousands of military web sites posted.  Even the Squadrons commemorative web site mentions nothing about the crash.  So who knows what other information may arise from this simple page,  on two guys that seem to be forgotten....

* Also: It has been discovered that Wheeler Holstein may have been misquoted by the Gazette, or the Gazette accidentally used another persons comment,  as the official government interview with Mr Holstein states that he claimed there was absolutely NO contact between the two aircraft.  Also:  Mr Holsteins grandson was walking along the road (school was out for lunch)  when he and a friend saw the aircraft fly over their heads and then straight down. John Holstein was 12 years old at the time.  He told me that he absolutely witnessed both aircraft flying inverted (upside down) as they flew overhead and crashed.  This is the only witness to that fact,  and as John said: "Who would listen to a kid back in those days?".  Plus, his parents didn't think it appropriate to bother the "government" with a kids story.

As a side note:  When the power lines were damaged, all power to the area ended, including the lights and power down in the coal mines.  This forced many miners to find their way back out to daylight as best they could.


Finally


jet crash

I received an e-mail Nov. 2009 from the grandson of Lt. Col. A.F. Reinhardt.  In it he said:

Jerry:  Thanks for the story. My grandfather is Arthur F. Reinhardt. He was killed before I was born in 1955 so I never did know him. My mother and grandmother never really spoke about it, and they had no articles or any other information about the crash. At least now I have an idea about what happened.

Arthur F. Godwin

Turlock, CA


Both were F-86A-5 aircraft, with the following additional details:
48-306 with construction number 43675, delivered 9 September 1949 to 81st Fighter Group at Kirtland AFB, NM.

49-1019 with construction number 161-13, delivered 7 November 1949, to 81st Fighter Group, Kirtland AFB, NM.


SPECIFICATIONS (F-86A):
Span: 37 ft. 1 in.
Length: 37 ft. 6 in.
Height: 14 ft. 8 in.
Weight: 13,791 lbs. loaded
Armament: Six .50-cal. machine guns and eight 5-in. rockets or 2,000 lbs. of bombs

Engine: One General Electric J47 turbojet of 5,200 lbs. thrust
Cost: $178,000
Crew: One

PERFORMANCE:
Maximum speed: 685 mph
Cruising speed: 540 mph
Range: 1,200 miles
Combat ceiling: 49,000 ft.

The F-86 was developed in the 1940s following the end of World War II and was one of the most-produced Western jet fighters in the Cold War era.  More than 6,000 F-86s were manufactured by North American's Los Angeles, Calif., andColumbus, Ohio, divisions.  The first swept-wing airplane in the U.S. fighter inventory, the F-86 scored consistent victories over Russian-built MiG fighters during the Korean War, accounting for a final ratio of 10-to-1. All 39 United Nations jet aces won their laurels in Sabres.

Forerunner of the operational Sabre was the XF-86, first flown Oct. 1, 1947, by North American test pilot George Welch. A few months later Welch became the first pilot to fly the plane at Mach 1 (the speed of sound) in routine flight. Although technically rated as subsonic, the Sabre is no stranger to supersonic speeds. In September 1948, an F-86A set the

Sabre's first official world speed record of 570 mph. This mark was bettered in 1952 by an F-86D that flew at 698 mph. The "D" became the first model of a fighter to better its own record, in 1953, with a run of 715 mph.

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