Thursday, May 28, 2015

Aircraft accidents in Conecuh County, Alabama occurred almost 15 years apart

T-28B trainer plane.
While looking through some old editions of The Courant this week, I ran across an unusual coincidence. Almost exactly 15 years apart, Conecuh County suffered a pair of unusual aircraft incidents that grabbed headlines across the region.

The first incident occurred on the night of May 20, 1942 and involved eight planes that were on the way to Maxwell Field in Montgomery from Crestview, Fla. All eight planes encountered a storm that caused three of the planes to crash in Conecuh County. The other five planes crashed in Escambia County near Atmore.

All of those planes were flown by British cadets, who’d been assigned to Maxwell Field for training, and five airmen reportedly died in those crashes.

A huge search was launched in Conecuh County to find the missing planes and the last of the three to crash in Conecuh County was found on May 26, 1942. A search plane spotted that final missing plane late that day in Sepulga Swamp, about 20 minutes north of Evergreen. A ground party reached the plane early the next day in a “thick swamp in a rather isolated section.”

The plane was “totally demolished” and the pilot was found dead inside. The story didn’t give many details about the pilot’s identity other than to say that his last name was “Lowe.” The search party recovered his body and returned it to Maxwell Field in Montgomery.

Fast-forward 15 years into the future to the night of May 23, 1957 when a T-28B trainer plane flown by Navy Ensign Richard Frank Polich of Chicago crashed and exploded in Conecuh County. Polich bailed out after the plane’s engine caught fire at 2,000 feet, and the plane proceeded to crash on the farm of M.M. Cardwell about five miles west of Evergreen on the Loree Road.

The plane exploded when it hit the ground, but no one was injured. The plane hit the ground at an angle and parts of the plane were scattered over a wide area. The wreckage burned “fiercely” for a few minutes after the crash.

Polich, who was stationed at Whiting Field near Milton, Fla., drifted to the ground by parachute and landed about a mile from the crash site. On his way to the ground, his chute became entangled in a tree, but he made it down to the ground without a scratch.

A witness named Frank Dean saw the plane crash and called the Evergreen Fire Department. Dean wasn’t the only one to see the crash as other witnesses in a 10-mile radius saw the burning plane streak through the sky, and others reported hearing the plane explode when it hit the ground. Dean  rushed to the scene as did a sizeable crowed that included an “entourage of dozens of cars, which swell to hundreds” as word spread about the crash.

Newspaper reports from that time noted that the May 23, 1957 crash was the first crash of a Navy plane in Conecuh County since the Navy started using Middleton Airfield as a training site in April 1956.

Was it a coincidence that both incidents occurred around the same time in May or was there something more at work? Do the night skies become less friendly as the atmosphere makes the transition from late spring to early summer? Who can say, but one thing is for sure nowadays: The Navy no longer conducts training flights at night in Conecuh County, according to officials at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola. 

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