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Commissioner Bradley #553 “The Lone Survivor of Piedmont Flight 349”

The story of Piedmont Flight 349 and Commissioner Bradley #553


It was the fall of 1959, and Scarsdale, New York teenager Janet Silberman had been planning to accompany her parents, a top cigar company executive and an avid photographer, on their trip to Virginia. Her younger brother had just begun his freshman year at Staunton Military Academy, and the Silbermans envisioned a getaway to see him as autumn foliage erupted in the Shenandoah Valley.

But when a handsome Yale student invited the 16-year-old Janet to a football game, her plans for the weekend changed. She was in the stands in New Haven on Saturday, October 31, when a close family friend, who was also the family lawyer, suddenly appeared.

“I didn’t realize you went to Yale,” she wisecracked.

“I’m sorry, Janet,” replied her grim-faced friend. “But the game is over for you. The plane your parents were on is missing.”

Fifty years ago this month, near the Blue Ridge in Western Albemarle County, a commercial airliner disappeared while carrying a crew of three and 24 passengers. Only one survived.

A plane old DC-3

Until Friday, October 30, 1959, Charlottesville had never been the center of a search for a missing plane, and Piedmont Airlines had never had a crash.

A regularly scheduled flight out of Washington with stops in Charlottesville and Lynchburg before its final destination in Roanoke, Flight 349 was a favorite for businesspeople and affluent vacationers.

Just a night before the new moon, there was little light on this cloudy but otherwise unremarkable autumn night. Flight 349 was running 19 minutes behind schedule when it took off from National Airport at 7:49pm.

As the plane taxied along runway 33, a union organizer on his way back to his home town of Clifton Forge tapped Ruth Silberman on the wrist and pointed out a gleaming nighttime view of the Washington Monument.

He couldn’t have known just how much Mrs. Silberman might appreciate the scene. In fact, the adventurous mother of two and amateur photographer had once taken an unpressurized plane ride over Rio de Janeiro to snap a photo of that city’s giant statue of Christ. On this night, however, no camera in hand, she simply agreed politely.

That was the last time he spoke to his fellow passengers.

Twenty-four passengers

Further up in the cabin, the only other woman aboard the plane, Lynchburg resident Marguerite Whitehouse, was returning with her husband, Lawrence, from a trip to New York City that combined shopping for her with business for him. The Whitehouses were well known in Lynchburg, as, along with another family, they owned the company that made ChapStick. While trips to the big city were common for the wealthy couple, their grandson says they usually took the train.

Then living in New Jersey, a young Radford native was returning home for his grandmother’s funeral.

A quartet of engineers was heading back to Babcock & Wilcox, the Lynchburg-based nuclear components firm. A trio of DuPont employees who’d been in Philadelphia were returning to Waynesboro.

Also on the flight was Jimmy Helms, the 32-year-old veteran of the UVA Drama scene, on his way home from a conference.

Other passengers included a pipeline engineer going to see his son in Charlottesville, a pair of textile executives making a sales call in White Sulphur Springs, and a former Nelson County School Board member who ran the American Cyanamid plant in Piney River.

The last seat

If it now looks antiquated, the DC-3 was the cutting edge of aviation when introduced in 1936. Overnight, it transformed the airline industry by making cross-country flight practical for the first time.

Prior craft, such as the Ford Trimotor, had hard wicker seats, no sound-proofing, and they couldn’t fly long distances– such as New York to Chicago– without stopping to refuel, says Gloria Dalton of the Carolinas Aviation Museum.

“The DC-3 changed everything,” says Dalton. “It was the height of luxury.”

With a pair of Pratt & Whitney engines, the DC-3 could move up to 24 passengers with its quieter cabin, individual overhead lighting, and– in the days before airplane air-conditioning– a then-novel passenger-controlled air-circulation system.

Even with its audacious reliance on just two engines, the McDonnell Douglas vehicle had proven so dependable that over 10,000 were manufactured, mostly for the military as troop and equipment transports. Among these was ill-fated plane number N55V.

Three years after the end of World War II, in the growing North Carolina city of Winston-Salem, a new airline was born. Piedmont had every reason to tout a safe fleet and pilots, as the War’s end had unleashed thousands of highly-trained flyers and a veritable armada of aircraft. Piedmont’s first fleet was 100 percent DC-3s.

By the time of the crash, Piedmont had moved into the jet age, but the 15-year-old “Buckeye Pacemaker” had flown 26,339 hours without serious incident.


By Friday at 7:30pm, the time of scheduled departure, 23 of the plane’s 24 passenger seats had filled. An engineering equipment rep who lived in Ivy, Robert C. Ashcom, had a ticket to get home for that flight, but he was delayed, so one of two standbys would take his place.

That lone empty seat was located at the right rear of the cabin. Unlike the port side chairs, which were arranged in pairs, each starboard seat was on its own.

At 7:49pm, the cabin door closed, and Phil Bradley, the union man who’d left home on Monday, must have felt relieved. He got the seat.

Something in the sky

The world in 1959 was a different place. Dwight Eisenhower was president, but as the Charlottesville Daily Progress was reporting that week, a dashing young Senator from Massachusetts was gaining traction in the wide-open presidential race just a year away. Local gossip centered on the recent opening of Charlottesville’s first suburban strip mall, Barracks Road Shopping Center, where a Kroger grocery had already debuted with multi-week fanfare, including a massive searchlight to sweep the skies.

On the night of the fated flight, a UVA undergrad named Rey Barry was outdoors in the broadcast booth at Albemarle High School. A novice radio reporter for AM station WCHV, Barry was providing color commentary for the Friday night football game between the Albemarle Patriots and the visiting Waynesboro Little Giants.

From the school on Hydraulic Road, Barry recalls, he could see the beam from the searchlight, washing the cloudy sky from a mile and a half away. But the festive light may not have been the only unusual thing moving overhead.

Atop the bleachers and walled off from the din of the stands, Barry says that around 8:30pm he detected the sound of an airplane above the cloud ceiling. A plane six miles south of the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport and heading west made no sense to Barry.

“We heard a plane flying low from east to west,” says Barry. “That’s a route, in those days, that no commercial plane ever flew.”

Barry couldn’t get the sound of the plane out of his head, so when he returned to the station around 10 o’clock, he decided to call the airport to see if a plane were lost. Getting a terse “no comment,” he realized that he was on to something.

Final approach

Although the crew was cruising under instrument flight rules above an overcast layer, at least one passenger– a frequent-flyer– at 4,000 feet up, could see the usual landmarks such as the lights of Culpeper, where an older brother was stationed as a state trooper.

Ahead in Charlottesville, according to the latest weather report, there was a broken layer of clouds at 1,500 feet with 10 miles of visibility.

The frequent flyer, who had seen the glow of the Kroger searchlight on a prior flight, allegedly saw it again illuminating the clouds.

The cabin lights were lowered, and passengers were instructed to fasten seatbelts and extinguish their cigarettes in preparation for landing. They could feel the pull of gravity as the plane began its descent.

The passenger was expecting a little swing to the left and then a right turn of just over 180 degrees for the final approach to the airport, something pilots call their “procedure turn,” the last move before landing.

But aboard the plane, something didn’t seem right.

“It didn’t make one turn,” the passenger would later say. “It made several turns– a couple of various and sundry turns.”

Was the pilot in search of the runway? Could a commercial plane really get lost?

When the Kroger searchlight appeared for a second time under the right wing, the flyer figured that the bad weather simply meant Charlottesville was going to be bypassed for the next stop, Lynchburg.

Perhaps George Hicks, the flight attendant (or purser as he was titled), had the same idea, as he began arranging a tray and pouring four or five cups of coffee.

Then came an unmistakable sound that reverberated through the cabin: the lowering of the landing gear.

The plane continued its descent, and the vehicle began turning again. By this time, Flight #349 should have already landed.

Its final move must have been a starboard turn because, according to the government report, the right wing was dipped about 10 degrees, and the plane was heading north-northwest, as if nearing the end of the procedure turn.

A group of passengers at center-left in the cabin were laughing. And then it happened.

The frequent flyer instantly recognized the sound of tree branches brushing the right wing and glanced at his wristwatch. It was 8:40pm.

The laughter ceased as the plane began yawing to its right through the thick canopy of limbs and leaves. The trees responded by progressively shearing off the right wing.

Next, according to the government report, the fuselage began rolling to the right. Finally, after hurtling 144 feet through the forest, the vehicle lost its left wing as it nosed into the rocky slope of Bucks Elbow Mountain.

A reporter’s suspicions

Driving home from the radio station around midnight, the young reporter decided to pursue his hunch. Then living north of town off Proffit Road, Rey Barry swung by the airport and quickly spotted enough commotion to confirm his suspicion.

In those days, besides covering local sports, WCHV was a music station. Whatever news it carried came out of teletype machines from the Mutual and ABC radio networks. That is, until October 30, 1959 when the 22-year old Barry smelled a scoop.

“I dispatched myself to this news assignment,” says Barry, “but I had no tape recorder– just a pad.”

After a hectic Friday night at the airport phoning in reports about fearful relatives and a search with few clues, Barry stretched out in the terminal and went to sleep.

The next morning, having convinced a helicopter crew that they needed someone who knew the local terrain, Barry secured a spot.

But it was fruitless amid the fall foliage which dotted the landscape in a cacophony of colors. As big as a DC-3 might sound going over a football game, in a search spanning a four-county area and hundreds of square miles, it was a tiny speck on the forested, mountainous terrain.

The search is on

By the time the fuselage reached the ground, it had been ripped apart. Although the cockpit was practically obliterated by the impact, the nose itself was 40 feet up in a tree above the rocky, densely forested mountain.

A visitor to the site was struck by the fact that, besides the horrific human carnage, every body was now shoeless.

It was a time before many commercial airliners were tracked with radar or carried a distress beacon or the now-standard “black box.” And although Russia had stunned the world two years earlier by launching Sputnik, the satellite-driven Global Positioning System, or GPS, was still decades away.

No one knew where Flight 349 had gone.

There were scattered reports coming in from across Central Virginia of a low-flying plane that night. State Trooper Felix A. Bradley Jr., based in Culpeper, was particularly upset. His younger brother, Phil, was on that plane.

‘Angry waves’

Phil Bradley was a native of Clifton Forge, who gave up an apprenticeship with the C&O Railway to join the Navy during World War II. Aboard the S.S. George E. Badger, he ferried men and machines– including 60-inch searchlights– across the English Channel on D-Day to the beaches of Normandy.

After college, he turned his attention to helping the working man as a labor organizer for the International Association of Machinists. Returning from a multi-day AFL-CIO meeting in Oklahoma City, he had an extended layover in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, where he bought a copy of Exodus, Leon Uris’s fictionalized account of the settlement of Israel. But after spending much of the flight watching the lights of towns along Route 29, he’d read only 13 pages by the time things went awry.

Since the passengers had been told to prepare for landing, they were strapped in. But the same couldn’t be said for their seats; all 24 were ripped away from the floor.

Something else happened at impact: a giant hole opened up nearly the entire right side of the passenger compartment. Seats and humans were tumbling through the hole.

One passenger remembers getting smacked in the face by the ground as he and his seat rolled. He spat out a tooth. The last thing he remembers before impact was a “roaring sound like an ocean of angry waves breaking upon a beach.”

That passenger was the union organizer from Clifton Forge, Phil Bradley.

A cheering crowd

“The wings started hitting the trees, and then I started ducking,” says Bradley. “They were all laughing, and then– whammo– we hit that mountain.”

While about half the victims piled up inside the fuselage, 33-year-old Bradley was among those flung through the hole and onto the rocky mountain.

“I hollered to see if anybody would respond– to see if anybody was alive.”

There was no response except for a “high-pitched, blood-curdling howl,” something he later ascribed to wildcats.

As Bradley lay immobilized in the dark, he called out again for survivors. Groping to establish his surroundings, he felt a muscular leg and knee. Like him, the passenger was still strapped into his seat– but when Bradley called out to him, he was met with silence.

Finally, Bradley prepared to stand.

“I checked myself for internal injuries and lacerations, and didn’t find any. So I took my seat belt loose and started to get up, and that’s when the first pain hit. My left foot was going opposite of my right foot.” His left hip was badly dislocated.

Bradley reached into a pocket and retrieved an L&M cigarette and his lighter, but a whiff of aircraft fuel was enough to dissuade him.

Despite the presence of over 100 gallons of fuel on board, just two or three small fires erupted and then extinguished themselves.

A light rain began falling. While the two-tenths of an inch helped prevent additional fires, it was enough to soak clothing. The temperature fell to 43.

“This may not sound all that cold,” says UVA climatology expert Jerry Stenger, “but without shelter this is indeed enough for hypothermia to set in.”

As Bradley waited for help to arrive, he could hear the sound of a cheering crowd and a marching band. He could hear cars and an occasional train.

He thought he must be near Charlottesville and figured help would soon be on the way.


Bradley realized that initial search-and-rescue efforts would be hampered Friday by darkness. But Saturday morning held the prospect of rescue.

Unfortunately for Bradley, who didn’t sleep all night, Halloween Saturday dawned as a diorama of death.

As he spat out another tooth dislodged by the prior evening’s tumbling exodus, he could clearly see what surrounded him: shoes, luggage, countless pieces of jagged metal– and many of the 26 bodies.

A big black bear and her cub walked over, paused, and moved on. Bradley wondered if lighting a small fire would accelerate his rescue. Unable to move, and therefore unable to escape if it should spread, he decided against it.

By 11am, fog began to shroud the crash site and lasted until 2pm. Even after the fog lifted, he could only listen helplessly as rescue aircraft flew over– but never seemed to spot the rip in the trees through which he was peering.

Alone, injured, and hungry, Bradley was facing weather conditions that would, climate expert Stenger says, compound his misery and jeopardize his life. While Saturday’s daytime temperature climbed as high as 60, it dropped to 47 that night. And while the first night had been calm, winds picked up on Halloween, with sustained winds of up to 32 miles per hour measured at lower elevations.

“On top of the mountain,” says Stenger, “they would, no doubt, have been even higher, with stronger embedded gusts.”

The second night’s winds, Stenger notes, “would have been bone-chilling.”

Though immobilized from the waist down, Bradley managed to grab a nearby blanket and hunkered down.

The CAB investigates

The inquest began immediately with teams from Piedmont and the Civil Aeronautics Board (predecessor to the National Transportation Safety Board) arriving in town even before the plane had been located. Two months later, the CAB convened two days of hearings at the Monticello Hotel (now a condo tower called 500 Court Square). Bradley was interviewed at bedside, as he was still recovering in the UVA Hospital from one of the worst hip dislocations they’d ever seen.

Although there were scores of locals who thought they heard something that night, testimony included claims from just four Western Albemarle residents.

Among them was Free Union raccoon-hunter named Gilmer Walton, who allegedly heard a plane “rattle the trees” over Sullivan’s Mountain.

Miller School teacher Lillian G. Foster said she heard it from her home near the school.

There was an “awful noise,” said Mrs. Virgil James of Crozet. “It woke me up and seemed to be coming right into me.”

Crozet secretary Naomi F. Hicks said she was outdoors when she heard a sound like an explosion. “At first I thought it was dynamite,” she was quoted in the Daily Progress. (Hicks noted that she passed her tip along Saturday morning to the wife of a state trooper and to the Albemarle Sheriff’s office, but no one interviewed her.)

At this point, the off-course-plane/pilot error theory was moving full throttle, and several bits of evidence seemed to support it. For starters, the plane may have been in the air too long for a normal approach. Another factor was that “at least three persons at the airport specifically listening for Flight 349 stated they did not hear it.”

The plane was found to be at its maximum allowable take-off weight, but as no adverse handling issues had been noted, the government moved in different directions.

Another sleepless night

For Bradley, Halloween might have held the prospect of rescue. Unknown to him or anyone else, he was lying on a southeastern flank of Bucks Elbow Mountain, just two and half miles from a bustling little town called Crozet. He could hear cars honking, dogs barking, and occasional human hollering. But not for him.

Sunday, November 1, dawned with clear skies. By this point, Bradley had been on the mountain for nearly 36 hours, and a new visitor brought the prospect of additional terror. A lone turkey vulture, so-named for its distinctive red head, swooped in and began staring at Bradley.

Within an hour, dozens of turkey vultures had arrived. Bradley, fearing that his eyes would be plucked out, picked up a stick and began swinging.

A glint in the trees

Perched inside an Air Force helicopter over Crozet in the early morning light of Sunday, Sergeant Robert A. Mondragon of Andrews Air Force Base, thought he saw a glint of sunlight on metal. Or maybe just a dead tree.

“I had ’em circle over again,” he was quoted in a newspaper. “I could see no signs of life.”

It was around 7:30am, and Phil Bradley would soon be on another journey.

About 30 minutes later, the first official to reach Bradley was Sergeant John Weis, who had come down from his Massachusetts station at Otis Air Force Base.

“I sure am glad to see you,” Bradley reportedly told Weis. “I’m all right.”

But according to Barry, it was actually he, the youthful newsman, who made the first– if almost accidental– land contact. He and veteran Daily Progress photographer Rip Payne (some of whose photographs accompany this story) had prevailed for a ride on a military helicopter. Also aboard, says Barry, was State Trooper John Pannell who– after Mondragon’s copter hovered over the site– urged Barry to go back to the mountaintop to get the helicopter pilot to hover again.

But the copter had already left, so Barry headed back down a slightly different route and stumbled right into the gory scene.

“Don’t step on that stick,” someone yelled. It was Bradley, who knew his chair was perched on a branch.

Barry reported that Bradley, who doesn’t recall any of this, wanted to know what took so long. More ominously, he said that everyone else was dead.

One thing they agree upon is that it may have been the first time in U.S. commercial aviation history that a crash left a sole passenger survivor.

The site

Lester Seale Sr., an elderly man living at the foot of Bucks Elbow, had just taken his Friday night bath and had turned off his lights to go to sleep shortly before the impact. “He heard a big boom,” says his grandson, Warren Seale.

When word began circulating the next morning about a missing plane, what the elder Seale heard set some in Crozet abuzz. But not everyone.

“I was a 12-year-old kid, and I didn’t pay much attention to it,” says Warren, then living on what’s now called Crozet Boulevard. Still, Seale recalls that around the waterworks, what’s now Mint Springs Valley Park, his father conducted a fruitless search on Saturday.

“But we got up on Sunday morning, around eight o’clock, and there was a helicopter overhead, and my dad said, ‘I bet they found that wreckage.’ And then we heard it on the radio.”

Knowing the local terrain, the Seale family– parents, a cousin, and even their little brown dog– got there mere minutes after the first rescuers.

“It just looked like a giant bush-hog had topped the trees,” says Seale. “When I looked at the plane, the whole right side was missing– it was opened up like a giant can-opener. It was a mess.”

Witnesses to disaster

Later on Sunday, there were 200 spectators, according to a contemporary news account, who gathered at Scott Stadium in hopes of watching helicopters bring in bodies. Most, if not all, reached the morgue in ambulances.

In an era that preceded such distractions as PlayStations and on-demand video, authorities knew that rubbernecking disasters– or even plundering them– were spectator sports they wanted to avoid. Alvin Toms was sent to the crash to keep those things from happening.

Then employed in Crozet as assistant manager of People’s National Bank, Toms considered his prouder calling serving on the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department.

The 27-year-old Toms was awake Sunday morning when, around 8 o’clock, the siren atop the old Cold Storage building sounded.

“When the fire whistle blew,” says Toms, “I took off.”

Arriving in time to see Bradley carried up to the mountain top, Toms quickly found himself working a victim-recovery operation.

“It was not a pretty sight,” says Toms, who spent several hours putting bodies on stretchers and then carrying them up the steep slopes to the peak of the mountain. Late that afternoon, Toms got a new job: site security.

He and two other firefighters– D.W. Sandridge and Chief Jack Apperson– were asked to stay with the plane all night. Each armed with a gun, the trio took positions around the wreckage, he says, ready to protect themselves from scavengers, whether animal or human.

As it turned out, the only visitors were a party of three men who showed up around 8am Monday, and although Toms still suspects they had thievery on their minds, the trio turned back without incident.

One man’s anguish?

The government and Piedmont Airlines conducted “exhaustive flight and ground checks” including flying 25 hours of test flights and bringing in experts from the Federal Communications Commission to see whether the various radio beacons might have acted erratically or whether unauthorized radios– such as those operated by the company then known as Sperry Marine– might have interfered. Sperry was exonerated.

The weather was considered, as was engine failure, but both propellers were rotating on impact. And then the government looked at the captain.

Pilot George W. Lavrinc (pronounced LAV-rinse) was born in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania and learned radar from the Navy during World War II. Afterwards, he went to work in ground communications for Panagra, an airline serving South America.

After marrying Bonnie Maupin in Ecuador 1948, Lavrinc began taking flying lessons and became a Piedmont co-pilot in 1951.

Based in Norfolk, he began raising a family. But the marriage was strained, and Lavrinc underwent what the government called “psychotherapy” in 1953 and 1954.

Around the time of his promotion to captain in 1957, he received further therapy– and then again in 1959. When Piedmont transferred Lavrinc to Arlington, he left his family behind in Norfolk. And then the marriage slammed into a mountain of its own.

According to the divorce suit Lavrinc filed, his wife had “manifested interest in other men.” She counterclaimed desertion.

As an investigation by Time magazine later found, Lavrinc began getting deeply involved in religion. He found a fundamentalist church in Arlington and began keeping a journal whose final entry read, “Thank God! Victory at last.”

Zeroing in on Lavrinc’s mental condition, the government claimed his anxiety was so profound that his last round of psychotherapy included– after trying four other drugs– a presciption for Thorazine, a dosage to be taken three or four times a day.

“The consensus,” according to the government report, “is that Captain Lavrinc was so heavily burdened with mental and emotional problems that he should have been relieved of the strain of flight duty while undergoing treatment.”

Although the autopsy found no trace of any drugs in the pilot, it was the first time, Time noted, that the government had laid blame for a crash on mental duress.

A ‘lateral omission’

But the pilot’s distress was just a part of the government’s theory. The specific mistake was “a lateral omission,” even though the course was one that Lavrinc had regualarly flown for several years.

It involved flying west out of National Airport and following V-140, one of the so-called highways-in-the-sky. V-140 bends 21 degrees over a radio beacon in the Fauquier County village of Casanova. At 8:12pm, co-pilot Bascom Haley reported that, two minutes earlier, the plane had crossed Casanova.

There, the flight should have made the 21-degree turn to stay on the air highway. Failing to turn would have put it on a path to the Shenandoah Valley– or on a collision course with the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“Piedmont Airlines had a reputation for successful mountain flying,” says Don Rieger, a retired Piedmont flight trainer.

Though 90 years old, Rieger says he clearly remembers Lavrinc.

“He met the requirements, yeah,” says Rieger, who assisted on the investigations.

When Lavrinc was up for a promotion about 18 months before the crash, Rieger, thinking Lavrinc needed more navigational experience, advised against it. Lavrinc was promoted anyway.

Working back from the time spent in the air, which may have taken about 10 minutes longer than usual, the government posited a theory of a plane simply failing to make its left turn at Casanova and then, when it made what was supposed to be its second left turn, a 27-degree move near Stanardsville, it had travelled far longer than necessary and was perilously off-course.

In support of its version of events, the government theorized that co-pilot Haley, despite Air Force training and 1,678 hours in DC-3s, must not have noticed the failure to turn because Captain Lavrinc had a habit of keeping the dashboard lights somewhat low.

“I’ve only met a dozen pilots in 40 years,” says Rieger, “that are really super duper.”

And apparently Lavrinc wasn’t one of them.

One son’s anguish: Wayne Lavrinc

Few felt the impact of the crash quite like the son of the pilot. Not only did he lose his father at the tender age of seven, he’s had to live for more than four decades with the government’s blame.

Growing up in Norfolk, the son says, airplanes were not just a job; they were integral to the family’s life. His parents met when his mother was working for Braniff in the reservations department.

George Wayne Lavrinc Jr., who goes by “Wayne,” remembers his father as a stickler for detail.

“I remember he would walk around the plane and kick the tires and hold down the ailerons. He would do this religiously.”

For seven-year-old Wayne, the final months of life with his dad were a time of ascending adventures.

“Back then the airlines were different,” explains the son. “They would fly an empty flight from here to Raleigh. I remember staying in hotels with swimming pools. It was cool. I went with him instead of a baby-sitter.”

Wayne alleges that, contrary to the gloomy portrayal of his parents’ marriage, just a few days before the crash, his parents, who had never actually divorced, made plans to become a family once again.

As for the “victory at last” comment in his father’s journal, the son imagines– contrary to any fanatical innuendo at which Time may have been hinting– that it might have simply referred to a marriage on the mend.

Another view from ALPA

The title of the classic air-and-space story, The Right Stuff, describes an elusive quality reserved for only the greatest in the flying fraternity. As the book by Tom Wolfe revealed, when a brother pilot bites the dust, there’s often a rush among the brethren to blame the newly deceased.

That didn’t happen when ALPA, the Airline Pilots Association, began looking at Flight 349.

While the government report had provided a drawing showing a probable flight path, it omitted any portrayal of the underlying topography.

The government theory requires one to believe that a plane cruising at 4,000 feet with permission to descend to 3,000 feet crossed the Blue Ridge twice, once near 4,051-foot Hawksbill, the highest peak in the Shenandoah National Park, and then again near 3,587 Hightop Mountain.

“While it would be possible,” ALPA opines in its own report, “for an aircraft proceeding as described to clear various high peaks en route, the probability is so remote that it is discounted as a possibility.”

One pilot was so intrigued, he decided to fly the government theory himself. In July of this year, Gordonsville Municipal Airport-based Skip Degan, who teaches flying, took off in his single-engine Cessna and picked up V-140 in northern Virginia. He survived, but barely.

“It was threading the needle,” says Degan. “I flew as close as possible to the CAB route, and there’s not a lot of terrain to keep you alive.”

Degan says that any tiny variation in course or elevation would have spelled his doom.

“You look out your window,” says Degan, “and these peaks are above you or right at your level.”

Though the flight didn’t disprove the government theory, Degan finds the ALPA report more compelling. Even Rieger, the stern trainer who recommended against Lavrinc’s promotion, reveals that the government’s report left out other crucial information.

For instance, ALPA notes that the flight failed to respond to three radio voice calls made between eight and 12 minutes before the crash. That’s never been explained.

And then there was potential radio interference. The government found that the navigational radio retrieved from the wreckage appeared to be properly set by the crew for a descent into Charlottesville. But what if the beacons on the ground weren’t working?

Although the pilot who guided the Buckeye Pacemaker on its northbound journey to Washington noted no radio problems, ALPA noted “several complaints by pilots” about erratic signals around Charlottesville.

More ominously, Charlottesville’s radio beacon wasn’t alone on its frequency.

Just three-and-a-half miles from the crash, ALPA investigators parked at the McCormick Gap Overlook on the Skyline Drive and found to their horror that when they tuned their radios to 284 kilocycles, what was supposed to be the Charlottesville frequency, they actually picked up an overriding signal from Hagerstown, Maryland.

The Hagerstown airport had already been granted the dubious right to operate its signal five watts higher than Charlottesville. And when ALPA investigators tracked down the beacon’s private owner, Rieger says the man admitted that he occasionally cranked the power up even higher to overcome interference.

“He said, ‘I will tell you that to your face,” says Rieger, “but if you put me on the stand, I will deny it.'” (Fifty years later, neither Rieger nor a reporter were able to identify the speaker for a response.)

But with the help of a ground crew at the Charlottesville beacon, ALPA pilots ran two test flights to learn what might happen to an inbound flight if the Charlottesville beacon, a pre-transistor array of vacuum tubes, conked out.

ALPA pilots watched, stunned, as in each case, as soon as the Charlottesville beacon powered down, the needle on the Automatic Direction Finder, or ADF, swung around to a “direct bearing” toward Hagerstown.

“In the event either flight had continued to fly and complete a normal ADF approach utilizing the information then displayed in the cockpit,” concluded ALPA, “both flights could have expected to crash on Bucks Elbow Mountain within a few feet of where Flight 349 crashed.”

The government report contained no mention of Hagerstown.

Theory #3

Some claim that the real reason the plane crashed was the searchlight at Barracks Road Shopping Center.

“I can’t tell you how many people I interviewed for my book,” says author Coy Barefoot, “who say the searchlight confused the pilot.”

Bradley (whose ship delivered 60-inch searchlights to Normandy on D-Day) finds that fairly preposterous. For one thing, he had seen the Kroger searchlight on at least one prior flight, and Shopping Center founder David Carr confirms that the searchlight may have remained in place for two weeks– maybe more.

There’s a bigger problem with the theory: pilots flying under instruments don’t navigate via festive advertising lights.

And there’s yet another problem with this theory: it wasn’t mentioned in either the government or ALPA reports. The tale apparently developed in the ensuing years among Charlottesvillians long on business lore but unfamiliar with air navigation.

That wouldn’t be the only legend to grow up around the crash. There were rumors of corpses hanging from trees, but all would-be rescuers interviewed for this story dispute that. Warren Seale, the 12-year-old bystander, confirms what’s in the government report, that nearly all the bodies remained strapped in their seats, though he recalls that one man in uniform was found wrapped like a horseshoe around the base of a tree.

Ever since Bradley was discovered, the site of his ordeal has provoked public fascination. Seale recalls that throughout the fall and winter of 1959, a steady stream of visitors would visit his father’s nearby peach orchard– long after peach season ended– because the parking lot made a convenient launch pad to Crozet’s new tourist attraction. The uphill path was slickened by the steady stream of curiosity-seekers.

“It was like ants,” says Seale, “a line of people just being nosy.”

Seale also recalls, on his own Sunday forays up the mountain, noticing that the wreckage got smaller and smaller as a new wave of visitors arrived: aluminum scavengers.

“You could see the ax marks,” says Seale, who heard talk of a Waynesboro-area scrap business buying up the pieces.

The site

For Robert Buford, a now retired Richmond lawyer, the crash wasn’t the attraction. He bought part of the Bucks Elbow mountaintop in 1964 as a weekend retreat. In fact, he’s not sure if the wreckage lies on his land or on that belonging to an adjacent lumber company.

As he ushers a reporter along a path to the steep ravine holding the plane’s remains last month, he points out evidence of black bears: heavy rocks that have been recently flipped in a search for grubs.

Today, unless one has a good friend like Buford living in one of the handful of houses on the private and padlocked Bucks Elbow Mountain Road, a voyage to the site means a hike, one that’s long and steep.

Bryce Allison made the hike last New Year’s Eve. Armed with a GPS device, the Richmond software expert parked in Mint Springs Valley Park and set off on the trails maintained by Albemarle County.

“There’s one place where you feel like you’re going almost straight up,” says the veteran hiker who found grades of up to 40 percent along the four-hour, 6.1-mile journey.

Bodies and the body of Christ

Bradley has had parts of his story picked apart over the years– including his contention that he heard a football game. The closest one that night was at AHS, where reporter Barry was stationed on Hydraulic Road, about 12 miles away.

“Yes, he could have heard that event,” says British sound expert Tim Wilton. “It would have needed to be an evening with the correct atmospheric conditions– a low cloud layer and calm or near calm wind conditions.”

The larger question posed to Bradley, however, is why he survived when others did not.

Witnesses to the devastation agree that the mass of bodies may have given Bradley a cushion, and Bradley doesn’t dispute that, but he points to something– or someone– else: Jesus Christ.

As Bradley tumbled out of the airplane, he claims he saw a vision of Christ, there on the mountain. Barefoot, shrouded in mist, and wearing a flowing white robe, the spectre allegedly told him simply, “Be concerned not. I will be with you always.”

This part of Bradley’s story wins acclaim, particularly when he relates it to service clubs and church audiences, for whom he is a popular speaker.

One journalist asked Bradley if he ever gets asked what Jesus might have said to the other 26 people.

“No, I’ve never had that,” answers Bradley. But he admits that one crew member’s relative came close.

“Well, look,” says Bradley, “you believe what you want to. But I know what I saw.”

He says that after a pastor urged him not to worry about what purpose might have been served in sparing his life, he learned to stop trying to discern a purpose and just embrace life. And after spending a Halloween night cold, wet, injured, and surrounded by 26 corpses, he says he’s never again felt fear.

Where are they now?

For Piedmont Airlines, it was the burgeoning company’s first fatal crash, but it wouldn’t be the last. In July 1967, a Piedmont 727 jet from Asheville to Roanoke collided with a private plane, in an 82-fatality accident blamed solely on the private pilot– even though the Piedmont crew may have been distracted by a cockpit ashtray fire.

In 2005, a citizen petition, delivered with the assistance of local members of Congress, pointed out that, contrary to earlier claims, the private pilot had correctly reported his heading. That led the NTSB, the CAB’s successor organization, to reopen the case, though the government board upheld its original finding.

In the case of Flight 349, the government has never reconsidered its claims. And many of the people involved in this one grew old and died.

The man who spotted the wreckage, Air Force Technical Sergeant Robert A. Mondragon, died in 2004 at the age of 81. A veteran of World War II and the Korean conflict, Mondragon never got around to telling his children how he saved a life with his eagle eye– though his son, Robert A. Mondragon Jr., now living in Denver, went on to a military career of his own.

The man whose life he saved, Bradley stuck with his career in labor and kept flying Piedmont Airlines– including many rides on DC-3s– until Piedmont retired them in 1963.

Bradley has grown fond of telling people, “I have no fear or worry since then.” Indeed, 21 years after the crash, he earned his own pilot’s license, eventually accumulating nearly 2,000 hours up in the skies.

Another seemingly unlikely pilot is John Silberman, the boy who lost his parents on their way to visit him in Staunton. While Silberman, through relatives, declined an interview, the internet is abuzz with tales of his exploits as a pilot of vintage military planes.

Silberman’s sister, now a grandmother of five known as Janet Yaseen, moved in with her father’s brother, who married her mother’s sister just eight months after the crash. Janet went on to careers in culinary arts and jewelry design.

Amazingly, no one interviewed for this story professed any awareness of the ALPA report– not even ALPA. It was an enterprising aviator/journalist named Ron Mentus who asked the National Archives for documents pertaining to the crash and found it.

ALPA contended that most of the supposed “psychotherapy” for the pilot was mere marriage counseling, and as for the tranquilizers, it turns out they were to control a facial tic that Lavrinc was experiencing.

Sitting inside his living room in Norfolk, with his wife Jolynn at his side, now 57-year-old Wayne Lavrinc, an iron worker, reads the document and expresses shock that it didn’t get wider attention.

“They always blame the pilot,” says Lavrinc, as his eyes well.

Where is he now?

Ironically, Bradley’s ordeal didn’t stop when he got to UVA Hospital. It was a young medical intern named Frank McCue, later famous as the UVA football team doctor, who put Bradley’s badly dislocated hip back into place by putting the patient on the floor and yanking.

When Bradley was finally released from the Hospital on Christmas Eve, the four inches of falling snow made the ride beautiful, but the ambulance driver got lost near Staunton and ran out of gas four miles from Clifton Forge.

Sadly, the wife who kept vigil for Phil Bradley died four years later in an automobile accident. In 1970, Bradley and his new wife, Zella, welcomed a child, Philip E. Bradley Jr.. Today, Bradley lives in Monroe, North Carolina, a proud grandparent to three grandchildren.

As the years passed, the story of the man who spent 36 hours on a chilly mountain would be eclipsed by larger plane crashes. But 10 years ago, Bradley decided that Flight 349 and the people who lost their lives deserved commemoration, so he funded and designed a memorial. In 1999, with the permission of Albemarle County and the help of his son, Bradley dedicated the monument, which now stands at the base of Bucks Elbow in Mint Springs Valley Park.

Unshakeable in his belief that he saw Jesus standing three or four feet off the ground, Bradley made the granite marker, inscribed with the names of the victims, three feet square and four feet high and terminating in a point, as he says Christ’s hands were raised on Bucks Elbow Mountain.

Flight 349 has long been billed as the only time a passenger in a scheduled American commercial airliner had been a sole survivor. However, there have been others. There was a little girl plucked from a Michigan wreckage in 1987 and a man yanked from a burning plane near Galax in 1947. But for the act of surviving alone for 36 hours, Bradley’s ordeal remains singular.

In 1997, when Bradley penned a book about the crash, he noted in the introduction that he wrote it for the public and as a reminder for his son. The main message, he says, is simple: “Never give up.”

In 1999, Phil Bradley unveiled a memorial to the accident. Planned and built at his own expense, the memorial consists of a granite marker engraved with the names of all the victims underneath a small pavilion. It stands in Albemarle County’s Mint Springs Valley Park, within sight of the mountainside where the plane slammed into Buck’s Elbow Mountain.

In 2009, on the 50th anniversary of the crash, Bradley hosted a commemoration that brought together first responders, aviators, and family members of the victims. Phil died after a short illness in 2013.

Updated: February 6, 2022 — 7:09 pm
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