Fiftieth Anniversary: The Final Flight of Piedmont Airlines 349
by Phil James
Even as Phil Bradley struggled to clear the dirt and leaves from his mouth, a succession of images ricocheted through his mind. In the several rows of plane seats in front of him, passengers had just been laughing merrily. Then, a scraping sound “like the roaring of an ocean,” followed by a bright light that had momentarily illuminated the steep, rugged terrain of Buck’s Elbow Mountain. And just as quickly, all was swallowed up in darkness—the only discernable sounds being his own heart’s pounding and labored breathing.
It was shortly past 8:30 p.m., on Friday, October 30, 1959. For Bradley, seriously injured and wracked with pain, the late-evening slowly passed into a long, sleepless night. For 36 lonely hours he lay captive in the unfathomable reality that surrounded him: a situation from which no man before had ever escaped. Sleep never visited. The world was eventually allowed a unique glimpse into a horrible event that stretched through three days, and beyond.
Ernest Philip Bradley was no stranger to life-threatening circumstances. He had served his country in the Navy during World War II, and participated in the fateful invasion of Normandy in June 1944.
Born in May 1926 in Clifton Forge, Virginia, “Phil” was nurtured by that community throughout his formative years when the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway’s presence defined the Allegany town. Phil’s father was a machinist foreman for the C&O and Phil followed in his footsteps, becoming a machinist apprentice in 1943. Following the war he returned home and to his job with the C&O, and within several years earned his Journeyman Machinist papers.
His involvement with the International Association of Machinists Union led to work as a Grand Lodge Representative and, eventually, Federal Mediator. The last week of October 1959 found him traveling on union business.
“I had been at Oklahoma City at Tinker Air Force Base, setting up committees inside, people who know people in the plant, and I’d meet with them,” Phil recounted.
“I had been out there for a week. Went out Monday and came back Friday night when I hit this mountain. I was on standby for this flight because I had missed the flight that I had reservations on [in Washington, D.C.] because of bad weather in Chicago, and we were late leaving. When I got into Washington I had already missed the flight so I was put on standby for this flight and I was the last one to get on the plane.”
Piedmont Airline’s ill-fated Flight 349 departed Washington, D.C. at 7:49 p.m., 20 minutes behind schedule, en route to Roanoke, with scheduled stops at Charlottesville and Lynchburg. All seemed normal to the 27 persons onboard as they proceeded toward Charlottesville. The Douglas DC-3, at full capacity and with its crew of three, had a reasonably smooth flight, though there was just enough turbulence at the 4,000-foot cruising altitude to keep the Fasten Seat Belt sign lit.
For reasons that may never be fully understood, Flight 349’s path deviated from prescribed procedures near Casanova, a little southeast of Warrenton. Accordingly, it was most likely already well off-course when it executed its next turn, which should have been made near Rochelle, south of Madison. Whether because of operational error or signaling malfunction, the flight was south and west of its intended location when it should have been completing its runway approach at Charlottesville, where eight passengers planned to debark.
At least three people at Charlottesville’s four-year-old airport were outside listening for the approach of the overdue aircraft. None of them was ever able to detect its whereabouts due to the deviated flight path.
Finding witnesses who can account for slight irregularities in otherwise routine patterns can be difficult, but not always impossible. Several large out-of-doors opportunities were taking place in the Charlottesville area on that cool fall evening.
The Ridge Drive-In Theater on Rt. 29 North was still packing in the crowds as it enjoyed its tenth season in business. While the unfortunate air passengers were unknowingly missing their intended mark further north of town, hundreds of carloads of drive-in patrons at The Ridge, oblivious to its plight, were chuckling at the antics of Andy Griffith, who was starring in No Time For Sergeants on the theater’s six-story-tall outdoor screen.
Likewise, at Albemarle High School, west of the drive-in, Coach Ed Null’s Patriots football players were only 30 minutes into their own struggle to keep up with a strong team from Waynesboro. The well-attended benefit event was closer to the probable flight path, but with boisterous bands and enthusiastic fans, few in the stadium could have noticed the plane’s droning engines.
The most publicized event near Charlottesville that weekend was the grand opening of Barracks Road Shopping Center. The 21 stores in the area’s newest shopping venue had already begun to entice crowds away from the city’s venerable downtown shopping district. That Friday evening they were also hosting a showing of the new 1960-model automobiles by 15 Charlottesville car dealers. Additionally, a live orchestra was providing free musical entertainment and free pony rides were available for the kids. The lunch counter at People’s Drug Store was selling 30-cent hamburgers, billed as the “Best in Town.”
Though the weather was cool and a low cloud ceiling threatened to prove out the weather forecast that called for occasional rain, the crowds did come. Some attendees may even have been “guided” to the event by the shopping center’s advertising to “FOLLOW The BEAM” of their large searchlights to the event. One witness of the airplane’s errant course, though, remembered the beams emanating upward from the shopping center: Phil Bradley made note of the searchlights at Barracks Road and the special reminder they were to him personally.
“I know we came over Charlottesville because at Barracks Road Shopping Center they had those searchlights,” he vividly recalled. “The beam from that light came up and hit right under our right wing—right up through the clouds. A 60-inch searchlight. I know we carried a ship load of those things over to Normandy at Omaha Beach on our first trip: 90mm guns, the men that manned them, the ammo and the searchlights. The next night those things were going full blast on that beach up there!”
Sadly, the lights in Charlottesville that evening were only searching for customers and the doomed plane continued on toward the broad spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Brief minutes later, descending with landing gear down and wings tipped 10 degrees off-level, as if beginning the turn for its final approach to land, the plane’s right wing tore through 180 feet of the treetops on Buck’s Elbow Mountain. An instant later it collided head-on against the 30-degree up-slope of the rocky, heavily wooded hillside, 500 feet below its 3,100-foot summit.
In 1959 there was no Mint Springs Valley Park in western Albemarle County near Crozet. At the time, the most significant feature in that area near the foot of Buck’s Elbow Mountain was a lake and pumping facility that supplied water to some of Crozet’s residents. The winding road that bisected the rugged hollow provided access to the farms and old orchards which once grew on the surrounding mountainsides.
Across the C&O railroad tracks not far to the south was one of Crozet’s newer subdivisions, Orchard Acres. Homes were still being erected around that small community’s circle drive. The newest resident there in October 1959 was the family of E. B. and Naomi Hicks.
“We had just moved to Orchard Acres,” recounted E. B. Hicks. “I was putting up a clothesline. Daddy was up there with me and he had gone in. They were watching something on television.”
Naomi Hicks, E.B.’s wife, interjected, “It was 8:36 in the evening. Man From Blackhawk was coming on.” [This television show aired on ABC from 8:30 until 9 p.m. in October 1959.] “E.B. was putting up a new clothesline for me. Wanted me to come out there and ‘sanction it’. So I went out and looked at the new clothesline and was standing there and I heard it just plain as day. And I knew something had hit the mountain. Just instinctively I knew, ‘cause the sound came from that way. I said, ‘What in the world was that?’”
“I thought it was a wooden bridge up here at Ted Bowen’s,” said E.B. “Do you remember that bridge you humped up on and it had the wooden slats in it? It sounded to me like something hit it real fast. That’s about what it sounded like. I was working at Berkeley [a development north of Charlottesville] and the planes came in right over our heads. I had got so used to that I reckon it went right over my head and I didn’t pay attention to it. It might have been throttled back. I don’t know. After I heard that the plane was missing, I knew. It sounded, oh, like you’d throw a drum against a rock or something. You’d hear the hollow part in it. You could tell it wasn’t solid.”
At the moment of impact all of the passengers’ seats were ripped from the floor and propelled forward; those in the front half of the airplane were found together. The rear half of the passenger compartment broke away from the front, flinging many of those persons out of the plane.
It was at that moment that Phil Bradley experienced a life-defining event; one which he continues to share 50 years afterward.
He clearly recalls: “From the time of impact until I’m getting dirt and leaves in my mouth—from the impact until before I hit the ground I had a vision of Christ standing there. And I could see him looking right at me, like you are, his eyes blinking and his lips moving. And he said to me, ‘Be concerned not. I’ll be with you always.’ He was standing there about three to four feet off the ground. The light from his robe lit the side of the mountain. I haven’t had a worry since, and no fear since.
“I felt fine. I didn’t think that I was hurt ’til about five or ten minutes. I hollered to see if anybody responded. Nobody responded. No screaming or hollering or any of that. So then I checked myself for internal injuries and lacerations and I thought I didn’t find any, so I thought I’d be able to get up and walk away from there. Took my seat belt loose and started to get up and that’s when the first pain hit. My left foot was going the opposite of my right foot. That first night I was in too much pain. I was awake the whole time. It was about 38 degrees that night. Pretty chilly.
“The next morning it was getting daylight and I could start to see around and could see all this mess around me. What I went through at Normandy made it possible for me to emotionally overcome what I saw up there. That was a mess on Omaha Beach that morning. Good Lord, have mercy!
“It wasn’t too long before a bear came out of the woods with a little cub, walking over toward where we were. I thought, huh-oh, just keep going, you fuzzy rascals. She stood up on her hind legs. The little cub was just jumping around. She came down on all fours and just went on off into the woods. Last I ever saw of her. A lot of snakes and spiders. And ants.
“Saturday it got clear from around eleven ’til about two. The fog lifted. I could see planes flying over. Then the fog came back in and I was there Saturday night.”
The Civil Aeronautics Board’s Aircraft Accident Report, released April 24, 1961, made this terse statement regarding the time of the plane’s disappearance: “When the flight did not land as anticipated a radio search was made, which proved futile. A ground search was begun as quickly as possible and supplemented by an air search the next day. Throughout that day both were seriously hampered by bad weather.”
“Disorganized chaos” is how one Air Force rescue expert later described the day and a half of searching by ground and air crews, according to Charlottesville’s Daily Progress newspaper. Searches were being made up and down the Blue Ridge Mountains, though continued rain and fog in the mountains precluded many of the air searches. As word of the missing plane spread into the public realm on Saturday, authorities began receiving calls from many who believed they had heard something out of the ordinary late Friday evening.
On Saturday morning as news of the plane’s disappearance made its rounds, E.B. and Naomi Hicks knew what they needed to do.
“Well, first thing,” said E.B., “a Virginia State Trooper was living on the other street over here. His wife said he had been out all night and she wasn’t going to wake him up. I told her what I wanted.
“Eddie Tomlin was the assistant fire chief here, and he was working over at the store. I went over there and told him, ‘Eddie, I heard that plane hit the mountain up here. I know that’s what it was.’ So I stood right by him and he called the sheriff’s office and told them what I had heard. Well, the information never did get to the airport. They flew around here all day Saturday, down below the mountain and everything. But the haze was still on the mountain.
“That night, Halloween, we told a county deputy, too, over in The Square. He told us they had spotted the plane down at Bristol somewhere—but that was an old wreckage of something.”
“We reported that we had heard it,” insisted Naomi, “but nobody would pay any attention. Who else do you turn to? It stayed hazy up ’til Sunday morning. That’s why they didn’t spot it, I reckon.”
The C.A.B. Accident Report stated: “On November 1, about 0800, the wreckage was sighted from a helicopter on the southern slope of Bucks Elbow Mountain, which is located about 13 miles west of the Charlottesville Airport. It was almost hidden by dense tree cover.”
Another grim reality of the accident scene was described by Phil Bradley: “That Sunday morning the buzzards came in. One buzzard—he was the lead man I reckon—he came in early and looked around and left. An hour or less after he left, 60 or 70 buzzards landed on the limbs all around through there. I found out from that experience that you cannot out-stare a buzzard.”
Albemarle County Deputy Sheriff M. W. “Mac” Sandridge Jr., who was living in Crozet at that time, stated, “I was off that day and was out on the side porch. You could see the helicopters circling up there on the mountain. The office called me and I got in the car and headed on up there. Took the Skyline Drive and came up like coming into Jarmans Gap and then turned left and went back up on the mountain. You could drive to within several hundred yards of where the plane was. It was a clearing up there. A lot of rocks. I know State Police Sergeant Ritter hit a rock and knocked the oil pan out of his police car. We had rescue units from Maryland and all around up there. Some of them had been down driving around the Parkway trying to find the location of it. The Army had a couple of big helicopters up there. A lot of people walked up there, up through the orchard from Mint Springs.”
Early into his third day on the mountain slope, Phil Bradley’s hopes were lifted by the sounds of helicopters circling directly overhead. “I always felt that if any rescue people came, they would come up the mountain, he recalled, “so that kinda confused me—they were coming down the mountain. When I heard them, I started calling out, ‘Plane wreck here!’ And that’s when they showed up.”
Phil Bradley’s memory banks are filled with countless kindnesses performed both on his own behalf and for the less-fortunate victims during the rescue efforts: “The dedication and perseverance of all the people in the area, all the rescue people from around pretty much the eastern part of the United States that were involved. Camp Lejeune had some of their Marines there—the marine helicopters. Just how well I was treated from my personal standpoint. How they just took care of it and took over everything.
“The way that they carried me from that crash site up to the top where the helicopter landed—that to me is durn near a miracle. They kept me on that stretcher and they wanted my feet higher than my head. I remember they were carrying me up and this guy was taking pictures and I thought I knew the guy and I said, ‘How you doing, bud?’ And I raised my hand up. He came over and said, ‘Do that again.’ He was a photographer for the Lynchburg newspaper and he got some kind of an award for that picture.”
Longtime Crozet resident Pete Farish had known Buck’s Elbow intimately before he arrived on the crash scene with the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department. He had lived for many years in his parents’ home at the foot of the mountain on what was once known as “the old Ballard place.” The Farishs’ house stood on the present site of the picnic pavilion, adjacent to Mint Springs Valley Park’s swimming beach.
“I hunted all over that mountain,” said Pete, “all the way over into Sugar Hollow—go up on this side. I have walked up there and back home, eaten lunch, and gone back again in the afternoon. I could blindfold myself and come away from up there. Right on top of the mountain was the Lone Tree. Nothing around it—that’s where it got its name. Just a lone tree. I’ve been up there several times. You could go to the Lone Tree two or three ways, but most of them went up that hollow on the left side where that plane crashed.
“The Ballard place went all the way around right to that hollow where that plane crashed. It had apple trees all up there on the side of that mountain. I ran spray machines around there. Rattlesnakes were a-plenty. I believe that when you were spraying, they left. But when you were cutting bushes they were everywhere. You’d kill them sometimes. One fellow would put them in a box and carry them to Crozet.
“Yeah, the Crozet firemen were up there. It came out in the paper the next day that the military covered the bodies and all. Never mentioned the Crozet Fire Department, but they did a lot of it. But that’s the way things happen.”
Les Gibson made the arduous climb to the crash site by foot from the bottom of the mountain. “I was over on Route 250 with my brother-in-law, Roy Graves. We saw a reflection—the wing reflected in the sun. I got a bearing to where it was and we came back to Crozet and took off. We went up there that Sunday morning, up through Sealville as far as you could get and then walked to the top of the mountain. We went clean to the top and they were lifting Phil Bradley off then. Everybody knew Phil. He had been in the plant [Acme Visible Records in Crozet] trying to organize the union. Then we had to come back down the mountain to the crash site. I’ll tell you one thing, it was a rough mountain. The National Guard and State Police were there. They strung ropes to hold onto. That’s how bad it was. They dropped some of them off the gurney and had to pick them up. It was so steep you couldn’t walk. It was tough carrying a body out from down in there. They had brought in helicopters but it was too windy to use them. So they got a bigger helicopter to take Phil out. It was really windy up there.”
Alvin Toms, Crozet Volunteer Fire Department Life Member, was one of several local volunteers who were called to duty more than once during the rescue and recovery efforts. During the era of the air disaster on Buck’s Elbow Mountain, he was one of many Crozet men who would sprint from their daytime places of business to converge at the fire house when the siren announced an urgent call for help.
“That Sunday morning when we got word where the plane crash was,” Toms recounted, “we started up Jarmans Gap to get to it. But we soon realized that wasn’t going to be the best way to go. We came back and went up The [Skyline] Drive and came from the top down. They stopped us at the top of the mountain, but they let us go ahead because we were a volunteer fire department. The Army-outfit group was already up there and they were in charge. There were ten or fifteen of us Crozet boys there and we did what they told us to do.
“We helped to pick up several [bodies] and put them on the stretcher. And helped to carry some up the side of the mountain. What I mean by ‘helped’: it would be four men on a stretcher. And don’t let anybody tell you that four men carried it all the way to the top. You’d go a little ways and somebody would relieve you.
“We came off the mountain around four o’clock that afternoon. Somebody from the Air Patrol called our chief, Jack Apperson, and said they wanted somebody to stay up there and guard the plane that night. Jack called me and D. W. Sandridge, and the three of us went back up there to the top of the mountain and walked back down to the plane. It was roped off. Nobody was there when we got there. We sat there on a big rock all night. Just sat there is what it amounted to. It was rather cold. We had big flashlights. All the personal belongings of the people were still there. The next morning about daybreak, here comes three guys down the side of the mountain. They didn’t have on business suits or anything. We told them they couldn’t come over there. No problems, but if we hadn’t been there—they were there to loot whatever they pleased. I’ll guarantee it.
“Some military people came to relieve us and we came off the mountain around nine or ten o’clock that morning. We returned to Crozet, went home, cleaned up and headed to work. I cannot tell you where it came from—it was 50 years ago—but that January each of us got a check for $28 for staying up that night and guarding the plane.
“Things like that, you don’t forget about in the next day or two. I have the weakest stomach in the world, I reckon. And I couldn’t eat for a while after that thing on the mountain.”
We each have milestone events along our life’s journey. For many in central Virginia, memories surrounding the crash of Piedmont Flight 349 remain vividly clear.
Bill Cale, oldest son of Albemarle County educator Paul Cale, grew up in Crozet in the 1950s. Though a teenager at the time, he still recalls that October weekend: “There was a place called The Lone Tree in a little indentation in the top of the mountain. We used to hike up there quite often. You’d go Railroad Avenue and go way back up in there and you could hike up to the top. We had a group of high school kids and there were eight or ten of us who were going to hike up there on Saturday of that weekend and the weather was so bad that we canceled it… That plane crashed within hollering distance of that trail going up. There was one survivor … I lived that pretty vividly for a few years after that, because it could have been very easy for our little teenage group of people to find that plane. I really remember that happening. I thought, ‘Thank goodness we did not go up.’ I’m not sure how you’d get that out of your mind if you stumbled over something like that.”
Over the past 50 years, Phil Bradley has been called on countless times to share publicly his unique story of redemption and faith. Since 1997, many others have learned of the saga through his book The Crash of Piedmont Flight 349 Into Bucks Elbow Mt. As Told By The Sole Survivor E. Philip Bradley, written by E. Philip Bradley with Richard F Gaya Sr. It is highly recommended reading.
He speaks reverently of many people in his life who have provided him unfaltering love and support, including: his late wife Evelyn who stayed by his side through his difficult recovery following the accident; his late brother Felix, a Virginia State Trooper who rushed to his side following the crash; his present wife, helpmate and co-laborer of many years, Zella; and his son, Brad, for whom he has great admiration.
Phil has consistently endeavored to use his unique platform to honor the memory of the other 26 persons on board Flight 349 that evening who did not survive. In 1999 he designed and had placed in Mint Springs Valley Park a memorial dedicated to those who perished nearby.
He explained, “I had that vision of Christ when we hit and I was thrown out. He was standing about three to four feet off the ground. Hence, this stone is three feet square and four feet high and comes to a [20-degree] peak like his arms were going to heaven. That’s how I arrived at the size of the stone.
“There’s something I think about every day. I’ve already thought about it today: Suppose you were already in that seat when I got aboard that night up there in Washington. I would have to have taken a seat wherever it happened to be ’cause it was only one seat left. Then would you have lived and I had died? Or would I have still lived by being in another seat? Or would I have died, or we all died?
“And I’ve had thousands of people ask me how come I survived.
“I was asked recently if I felt guilty having been the only one that lived. My response is always the fact that I didn’t make that decision. The good Lord made that decision and I can’t have any feelings one way or another, me being the only one that lived—because Christ made that decision, not me. I had another one who asked me what I had done with my life after that accident that maybe somebody could get something from it. I said the only thing I can tell you is live by example. I just live by example. What else could I do?”
Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County, Virginia. You may respond to him through his website www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003-2009 Phil James