Thursday, March 25, 2021

A Tragedy on Granby: Part 2

(George Tucker/Virginian Pilot/TCA)

By Captain Alexander G. Monroe (Ret.)
HRNM Docent and Contributing Writer

This is the second part covering the December 9, 1958 crash (Part 1 available here) of a Navy AJ-2 tanker airplane into a Norfolk neighborhood. 
(Virginian Pilot/TCA)

The task before the investigators at Naval Air Force Atlantic Fleet, at the Naval Aviation Safety Center, and in the Squadron was to determine what happened and why. The initial thrust of the investigation was reported in the Virginian Pilot on December 11. An unsigned piece noted that “two smashed engines probably hold the grim key to Tuesday’s tragedy in the 8900 block of Granby Street.” An anonymous investigator opined that, “we are not overlooking the possibility that fuel ready for transfer had been commingled with the Savage’s fuel supply.”[i] The aircraft was removed from the crash site and taken to the Overhaul and Repair Department of the Naval Air Station where investigation began. It was colored by the statement of the investigator noted above. Though a reconstruction layout was not possible because of the extensive destruction of the airplane, the wreckage was sifted and components worthy of study were removed and photographed.[ii] Fuel samples from the aircraft were removed for comparison with those taken prior to take off. The upshot of the examinations was that no JP-4 contamination was found in the plane's fuel tanks and there was no evidence of contamination in the pistons, cylinders or carburetor.[iii]
Headline from December 11, 1958 (Virginian Pilot/TCA)

(Virginian Pilot/TCA)
The cause of the engine malfunction and resulting crash remains speculative, and opinions of the entities conducting the investigations and the endorsers have never been made public. Provisions of federal law, calculated to encourage frank discussion of causes and protect the privacy of those whose performance is under scrutiny--and their families--prohibit such disclosure. It is thought that the safety of Naval Aviation could be improved by non-disclosure.[iv] The squadron commanding officer wrote a final endorsement to the accident report on February 13, 1959. Heavy Attack Squadron 15 was disestablished two days later.[v] His endorsement and those of others, to include Commander Naval Air Force Atlantic Fleet, were heavily redacted. There have been at least five other major air crashes since December 9, 1958, at or in the immediate vicinity of Naval Air Station Norfolk (now known as Chambers Field on Naval Station Norfolk). The accidents have resulted in nine fatalities and involved Patrol, Transport, and Electronic Warfare aircraft. The first and last involved crashes into Willoughby Bay and Ocean View Beach, and one involved an approach and “hard landing”[vi] of a P2V Neptune aircraft in rain with visibility reduced to half a mile.

Though it has taken time to issue regulations that would reduce the likelihood of aircraft accidents in a high density area such as Hampton Roads, initial steps have been taken with the publication of Air Installation Compatible Use Zones studies with respect to Naval Station Norfolk’s air facility Chambers Field. The studies set forth regulations applicable to various governmental entities in the vicinity of Chambers Field. They also establish zones in which construction and occupancy are constrained by existence of the airfield. It assigns various functions and responsibilities to certain entities. For example, in certain areas, such as the approach end of runway 10/270, development is prohibited. On the departure end, the intensity of use of existing structures in the civilian community may not be increased. Such regulation would be within the authority of the Building Commissioner of the City of Norfolk. The Plans of Development would be reviewed by Navy staff to determine if they were in conflict with aviation operations. The resulting apparatus has evolved over a number of years, though its operations have not been without some turbulence as Norfolk has grown.[v]
The 1958 crash was the first in Norfolk in which civilians died (Virginian Pilot/TCA
At the time of the December 9, 1958 crash, it was opined that diverting the aircraft to the Naval Air Station at Oceana in what was then relatively pristine farmland might have been a preferable course of action, rather than attempting to reach the home station. However, the area around the station has been built up over the years, and aircraft operations now present a hazard to nearby residents. Although most citizens in South Hampton Roads accept the risk of accidents, they do occur occasionally with devastating results. Since 1967, over 25 air crashes have occurred on the station or in the vicinity of Oceana.[viii]
An F-4 from VF-41 flies over NAS Oceana in 1971. The area was even more rural in 1958. (Wikimedia Commons)
As happens in the Navy, those whose lives were touched by the events of December 9, 1958, moved on, and many are now deceased. A major thoroughfare overlooking Hampton Roads on Naval Station Norfolk is named for Admiral Hughes, who died on December 23, 1960, while on active duty. The CO of VAH-15, Commander Shepard (later Rear Admiral), went on to the staff of Commander Naval Air Force Atlantic Fleet, as Air Operations Officer in USS Essex (CV 9), as Naval Aide to President John F. Kennedy and Commanding Officer of USS Aucilla (AO 56)[ix] and USS Princeton (LPH 5). The squadrons configured for refueling, VAH-15 and 16, were disestablished about 60 days after the terrible crash. In fact, by the summer of 1959 all VAH squadrons had been re-designated RVAH (reconnaissance) Squadrons. What is admirable and lasting is that various Navy and civilian organizations have taken action to lessen the risks and problems that emerge when, as Admiral Hughes aptly expressed it, “we have aircraft continually flying over our heads,” though there may, as a practical matter, be only so many preventative steps that may be taken.


[i] “Wreckage studied for clues to crash,” Norfolk Virginian Pilot, December 12, 1958, p.1.

[ii] AAR 1-58,  p.96.

[iii] Ibid.,pp.70-73; See also CO NAS NORVA(Code 98E/310/869 F11 Ltr of 24 December 1958.

[iv] United States Code, Section 552(b)(5) and United States Code Section 552(b)(6)

[v] The West Coast Heavy Attack Squadron, VAH-16, was disestablished fifteen days earlier. 

[vi] Bureau of Aircraft Accidents (B3A) entry in the case of Norfolk Chambers Field NAS; “Neptune Crash Hurts 6,”  Norfolk Virginian Pilot, Al Edmonds, July 22, 1964.

[vii] For some recent friction see Official Warns about Threat to Naval Station’s Airfield,” Eric Hartley, Norfolk Virginian Pilot, March 17, 2016, p.1.;“Norfolk business owner says she’s broke, stuck in limbo after debate over Navy’s flight path,” Norfolk Virginian Pilot, Eric Hartley, p.A1. September 8, 2016; “Seven months later, banquet hall back on track to open in Navy Crash zone,” Norfolk Virginian Pilot, Eric Hartley, p.A1. September 10, 2016.

[viii] “Life in the flight path, noisy, unnerving,” The Norfolk, Virginian PilotAlec Klein, Sherrill Evans and Angelita Plummer, June 20, 1992. p. A9; “Mayhem from above, amazingly no deaths reported in Navy Jet crash; dozens displaced after Hornet’s  crash destroyed Beach apartments,” Mike Hixenburg and Kate Wiltrout, Norfolk, Virginian Pilot, p.A.1., April 7, 2012; “Oceana has had 25 plus crashes over 4 decades,”  Norfolk, Virginian Pilot, Bill Sizemore, April 7, 2012.

[ix] Captain Alexander G. Monroe, USN (Ret.), author of this blog, served as an Ensign as Gunnery Officer on board Aucilla during the period of Captain Shepard’s deep draft command tour.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I knew Delaney and Toomey, at Breezy Point, 63 years ago. It was a sad day.
Bill Gillies