Thursday, March 18, 2021

A Tragedy on Granby Street: Part 1


The tragedy was covered on the front page of the Virginian Pilot on December 10, 1958. Note the tail of the plane visible in the picture, as well as the four air crew killed in the crash. (Virginian Pilot/TCA)

By Captain Alexander G. Monroe, USN (Ret.)
HRNM Docent & Contributing Writer

Just after noon on December 9, 1958, an AJ-2 Savage (Bureau number 130416) aircraft assigned to Heavy Attack Squadron Fifteen (VAH-15) crashed near the intersection of Granby Street and Bay Avenue on its return to Naval Air Station Norfolk. The entire aircrew was lost and two infants in a nearby house also perished. The accident was the first in the city in which civilians were killed.[i] It led citizens, Navy and civilian, to consider the hazards of military aviation in a congested area and to further develop ways to reduce these dangers. The Commandant of the Fifth Naval District, Rear Admiral F. Massie Hughes, an experienced naval aviator, opined that dangers “would be a continuing problem as long as we have aircraft flying over our heads…”[ii] Concurrently, he stated that there would be a need to “look progressively and constructively in order to stay ahead of such heartbreaking trouble.” Editorial opinion was similar,[iii] though the Norfolk Virginian Pilot’s editors said that an important ingredient in the investigations underway would be determining whether the decision to bring the aircraft home was “sound doctrine.”[iv] In the years since 1958, certain steps have been taken to lessen danger, including publication of Air Installations Compatible Use Zones Study for Naval Station Norfolk. The difficulty of conducting high density aviation operations in the area shared by three military air facilities and a major civilian airport remains vexatious to this very day, just as Admiral Hughes observed in 1958.
The same AJ-2 Savage (Buno 130416) that crashed in Norfolk is seen on the runway at NAS Glenview, Illinois in 1958 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

There was nothing to suggest that there was anything inherently dangerous about the local refueling mission of December 9, 1958, which was to service naval aircraft from NAS Oceana. The plane was in a mechanically sound “up” status. From September 9 to November 14, the plane had flown thirty six and a half hours in local training flights and some farther afield (Chicago and Newfoundland).[v] The maintenance history was “one of relatively little trouble.”[vi] Further, the pilot, Lieutenant Commander George Wilson, had a strong record of 3,500 flight hours and “could be expected to handle any emergency in a correct and positive manner.” His co-pilot, Ensign Fred Melton Clancy III, who replaced his regular co-pilot, had been involved in a situation necessitating an emergency landing at NAS Oceana in October that year and had reacted well to it.[vii] Their plane, with the radio call sign “3 Revolver,” departed NAS Norfolk on runway 28 at 10:40am with 10,000 pounds of 115/145 aviation gasoline and 8,000 pounds of JP-4 jet fuel on board, climbed to 22,000 feet and joined aircraft waiting for refueling at 11:00am near Weeksville, North Carolina.
An AJ-2 Savage refuels a F3-H2 Demon in 1958. (National Naval Aviation Museum)

The mission proceeded as briefed until about forty-five minutes into the evolution, when the pilot reported to the NAS Norfolk tower that he was experiencing engine trouble, discontinued refueling of a Navy jet, began dumping JP-4, and reported that he was returning to base. The first receiving aircraft’s pilot reported that the refueling hose known as the drogue was still deployed and dumping was in progress. No indications of engine malfunction such as vibration, smoke, and fire or other unusual conditions were observed. At 12:03pm the VAH-15 base radio received a call noting that both engines were cutting out at 17,000 feet and one minute later notified Norfolk Tower that both engines were cutting out at 6,000 feet. He was 3 miles east of the Naval Air Station and requested immediate landing. The pilot was given an altimeter setting, instructions for left turns, and a track that would bring him over Willoughby Bay and safely into runway 10.[viii]
A hand drawn map featured in the newspaper on December 11 to illustrate the flight path of the stricken AJ-2 plane, and its crash site. (George Tucker/Virginian Pilot/TCA)

Though the pilot acknowledged the instructions, he did not communicate his intentions. Before the crash eyewitnesses James H. Miller and W. W. Mason noted that the left engine and the centerline jet engine appeared to have failed and that the aircraft was in a ninety degree bank with the right wing down. There was no fear or urgency in the tower tapes as the co-pilot, Ensign Clancy, went down the pre-landing checklist according to Commander Tazewell Shepard, Jr., the squadron’s commanding officer. It was assumed that the aircraft commander was attempting to land on runway 28.[ix] Tragically, the AJ-2 Savage crashed near the intersection of Granby Street and Bay Avenue about one half mile short of the runway. In so doing, it demolished or destroyed homes at 8935, 8939 and 8954 Granby Street, the residences of, respectfully, T. H. Hill, W. C. Poore, and Lieutenant and Mrs. Joseph Tondera and their three children. It also damaged a load of 750 fifty-pound bags of potatoes in a truck operated by Charles Sheppard of Suffolk.
(Virginian Pilot/TCA)
Potatoes lay strewn across the road from the cargo truck struck by the plane, as naval personnel watch firefighters try to douse the flames. (Virginian Pilot/TCA)
Initial efforts and action focused on survival and rescue of those in the aircraft and homes struck by the plane and in the resulting fire. Admiral Hughes and Navy rescue crews responded rapidly. Mrs. Edna Bellamy, the maid for the Hills, was the only occupant of the house at 8935 Granby Street. She was terrified by the fire all around her and was rescued by two Navy sailors. Though badly shaken, she had the presence of mind to rescue the Hill’s shivering fourteen-year-old cocker spaniel, Tag, and wrap the frightened animal in her coat.[x] The Poore home at 8939 was unoccupied because the owner and his family were at DePaul Hospital where he had been scheduled to have surgery. Neighbors of Lieutenant and Mrs. Tondera attempted to rescue the two infants, one of whom was but fourteen days old, but were driven away by a sudden explosion. Both Mrs. Wilson, the pilot’s wife, and Mrs. Tondera were treated for shock at the NAS Dispensary, and Lieutenant Tondera was airlifted ashore from the submarine USS Requin (SS 481). The scene documented in the Virginian Pilot was one of devastation and poignant sadness to include one image of Father Philip Shannon, NAS chaplain, giving last rites of the Roman Catholic Church to the Tondera children.[xi]
(Virginian Pilot/TCA)
The post-crash period was one for recovery and perseverance in the face of tragic loss of the entire aircrew and the Tondera children. Kind neighbors gave the Tonderas shelter and seclusion, as other neighbors did for the Poore family. In time, the grieving Wilson and Tondera families traveled to their hometowns to lay their deceased to rest. The squadron held a memorial on December 11 at the NAS Norfolk Chapel in the Woods. High Requiem Masses were concurrently held for enlisted men Patrick Toomey and John Delaney at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at the Naval Station. Ensign Clancy rests in the Arlington National Cemetery.[xii]

Check back next week for the second part of this story.

Special thanks to Troy Valos at the Sargeant Memorial Collection, Slover Library, for his assistance providing scans of the Virginian Pilot's coverage of the accident. 


[i] “ 2 Infants, 4 Airmen Die in Crash on Granby,” Norfolk Virginian Pilot, December 10, 1958, p.1.

[ii] The Plane Tragedy, Product of the Air Age,” Norfolk Virginian Pilot, Richard Mansfield, December 11, 1958.

[iii] “Tragedy at Ocean View,” Norfolk Ledger Star, Editorial Page, December 12, 1958.

[iv] “Search for Causes in a Tragic Crash,” Editorial Page, Norfolk Virginian Pilot, December 12, 1958.

[v]   OPNAV 3750 Aircraft Accident Report 1-58, December 31, 1958 (hereafter cited as AAR 1-58)

[vi] See above at enclosure (19).

[vii] See again AAR1-58, pp.100.

[viii] Ibid., p.101., See also, drawing from Norfolk Virginian Pilot of December 11, 1958, p.1

[ix] “Last Minute Engine Trouble Cause of Navy Plane Crash,” Norfolk, Virginian Pilot, Richard Mansfield, December 11, 1958, p. 1.

[x] “Stories of Fright, Heroics on Granby Street,” Norfolk Virginian PilotDecember 10, 1958, p.1. 

[xi] See again endnote x above and also “Pilot’s wife saw crash,” Norfolk Virginian Pilot, Betty Bradley, December 11, 1958, p.1.

[xii] See again note above

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