National Guard Plane Crash

Charleston Gazette
April 9, 1951

19 Area Airmen Killed as C-47 Crashes Near Kanawha Airport

Two Officers Hurt As Plane Hits Hill, Bursts Into Flame

Member of Former State Air Guard Unit Were Enroute Here to Attend Funeral of Maj. Sutherland; Second Craft Turned Back by Weather

By Robert D. Horan
(Staff Writer for The Gazette)

A plane-load of Charleston area airmen crashed within eight miles of Kanawha Airport yesterday, killing 19 men and injuring two in the worst air tragedy in Southern West Virginia history.

The men were enroute here from Godman Air Force Base, Ky., to attend the funeral of a brother pilot who died in a crash Thursday.

The C-47 plane, carrying nine officers and 12 enlisted airmen, clipped the top of a hill about eight miles northeast of Kanawha Airport.

It crashed into an isolated area and skipped more than 400 feet, bursting into flame, before the fuselage came to a stop.

Witnesses said the entire hillside was streaked with fire.

Another plane of airmen also on their way here for the funeral turned back to Godman.

It was piloted by Lt. Col. James K. McLaughlin of Charleston, deputy commanding officer of the 123rd fighter-bomber wing, of which the men are members.

Plane Turned Back

Officials at Godman said the plane turned back because of the miserable weather.

McLaughlin was quoted that his ship was hovering over the Nitro direction station at the time its sister ship crashed.

Radio operators at the control tower at Kanawha Airport said they received a call from the fatal plane at 11:56 a. m., advising them that the plane was on its way in.

Airport officials said the message probably came immediately before the crash, since the plane was only four air-minutes away at the time.

The two injured men were taken to Staats Hospital, where attendants said they had a 50-50 chance of surviving.

Burned Badly

They were identified as Capt. Harry K. Blackhurst of Charleston and Maj. Isaac E. Bonifas of Portland, Ind.

Both were burned badly about the head, face and hands and were under sedatives.

Both were conscious, although visitors were not permitted.

State Police said they obviously were thrown clear as the plane nosed into the earth.

Wreckage of the plane was scattered over an area 250 feet wide by 100 feet long.

A section of earth was gouged out on the side of the hill where the plane struck. It then apparently vaulted over the top of the hill and struck 50 feet on the other side, where it sheared off trees.

Trees Burned

Several Air Force veterans said if the plane had been 30 feet higher it would have cleared the hill top.

Trees and brush in the vicinity of where the plane hit were burned by flames from the wreckage.

The right wing and part of the left wing were torn off at the second point of contact and the fuselage skidded on 400 feet before it came to rest.

Only the rear half of the plane and part of the left wing were intact after flames were put out with carbon-dioxide extinguishers from Charleston Fire Department and ambulances.

Fuselage Disintegrated

The front of the fuselage either exploded or melted. It had disintegrated.

Only twisted bits of wreckage and melted pieces of metal were left. There was nothing left of the cockpit.

Both engines were side-by-side 400 feet downhill from the fuselage. Their propellors [sic] had been torn off.

One lay by the fuselage and the other was near the right wing.

Honor Guard

An air filter lay a few feet away from the engines.

A webbed belt of the type used for safety belts was found downhill from the fuselage.

A crew of six from the Civil Air Patrol set up radio headquarters at the crash scene and maintained contact with the airport where another 30 or 40 air patrolmen stood by.

Lt. Glen Sprouse, public information officer for the Civil Air Patrol, flew over the burning wreckage twice. He said the plane crashed three-quarters mile off course. He added that, when the visibility cleared a little, the runway on which the C-47 was to have landed was within sight of the crash scene.

"I have never seen an air crash in which the story was so clear," Sprouse said, "you could see that the plane lost a wing at the initial impact, then slid on its belly for three or four hundred feet along the ridge."

Among those who manned radio facilities at the crash were Lt. Don Weirs and Warrant Officer Bill Perry, Sprouse said.

The airmen were to comprise an honor guard for the funeral at St. Albans yesterday of Maj. Woodford W. (Jock) Sutherland, 34.

Sutherland, who was also stationed at Godman Air Force Base, was killed in a ground crash when his F-51 collided with another fighter at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

Most of the men killed were fellow airmen who had served with Maj. Sutherland in the 167th fighter squadron of the West Virginia Air National Guard before it was inducted into Federal service.

At the time of the crash it was misting rain and the ceiling was almost at tree-top level.

Residents near the rugged hill where the plane crashed said it sounded "like an awful explosion" when it hit.

One described it as being like "a large artillery shell going off."

Ambulances were summoned by Mrs. Eleanor Copen and Carl Nichols, both of whom lived near the scene of the crash.

Airport officials, notified of the accident, summoned ambulances, state and Charleston City Police and Air Force officials.

Access to the crash was a two and-a-half mile muddy road which wound from the foot of Polly Hill on Sandy Creek.

Ambulances were unable to navigate the road. One jeep-ambulance made the trip, but could only carry one stretcher at a time.

Before it arrived, an Air Force weapons carrier traveled one-quarter mile up the road, but was forced to stop because of mud.

The injured men were led to the home of Jack Copen by Copen and Mrs. Goldie Seabolt, who also lived nearby.

Put to Bed

The men were put to bed and awaited help.

One was taken off the hill in a tractor owned by Nichols and the other was carried in a stretcher.

The 19 men remaining in the plane were removed after flames were extinguished and the hot metal had cooled sufficiently for entering.

They were charred from flames and some were unidentifiable.

More than 20 city and state police, sheriff's deputies and military policemen were required to handle the flow of traffic which traveled out to the scene.

Automobiles filled with the curious jammed both sides of Elk River and back roads leading to the foot of Polly Hill.


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