I watched a B-26 (A-26) go down near Mitchel Field NY

UPDATED 6/29/2023: I grew up about a mile and a half from Mitchel Air Force Base on Long Island NY, almost directly under the main approach to Runway 30.  As such, I grew up seeing all kinds of aircraft in the pattern and at an very early age I could identify everything in the Air Force inventory by sight OR by sound.

That included many Navy aircraft operating out of nearby Floyd Bennett Field on the south shore near “Idelwild” (now JFK) airport.

They flew over our house low enough (approximately 400 feet on the 3 degree runway glide slope) that we could routinely see faces in the cockpits.  Sometimes we would even get a “wave” from the crew as we played in the street – and then run into the house to excitedly report this to my parents. I made plastic models of most of these familiar planes. (and a lot of others*)

I was in the first grade on November 2, 1955 at Meadow Lawn School in East Meadow (now McVey Elementary). We were working on an art project – making a weather vane from a wooden thread spool, a straight pin, a soda straw and some construction paper “feathers”.  I heard an aircraft nearby and understood that it sounded very unusual.

Looking out the window towards the north, across the play field I saw a B-26 Invader in a flat spin, wings level, headed downward.  I also recall thinking that I had seen 2-3 parachutes as it disappeared behind some houses, less than a half mile away. (Apparently there were no parachutes.)  I yelled to the teacher (Miss O’Kane) that I just saw a plane crash.
Sure Timmy….

Then we saw the huge black ball of smoke boiling upwards.  We all lined up at the windows and the teacher led us in an impromptu prayer. Not sure which of many variants the crashed plane was. A primary reference (Douglas Aircraft) stated the aircraft that crashed was delivered as an A-26C-45-DT model, tail number 44-35737. Representative A-26 Photo.

Note that despite nomenclature confusion, the Douglas B-26 Invader that crashed is a different, although roughly similar aircraft to the Martin B-26 Marauder. In 1948 the new USAF renamed the WWII Army Air Force A-26 Invader as the B-26. In 1965 they were renamed back as the A-26 for political reasons. Confused yet?

Representative B-26 Official USAF Photo

The plane was probably out of Mitchel AFB but crashed in a housing development in East Meadow, on Barbara Drive, off Hempstead Turnpike near the base.  It was a big deal at the time, one of several crashes in the area that eventually led to the closure of Mitchel in 1961.  The pilot and a crewman were killed.

I understand that loosing one engine in a twin is not extremely serious but accidentally “turning into” a dead engine in a tight turn – with low airspeed, can make that wing stall.  (eg: If the right engine quits, DON’T make a hard right turn.)  That can cause a flat spin,  unrecoverable when at low altitudes.  Obviously I don’t know what happened here.

I was able to visit my hometown in November 2013 and took the below photo from outside the classroom window at the school from where I witnessed the crash.

B-26 Flat Spin View

B-26 Flat Spin View

Above: The scene from outside the same classroom window at Meadowlawn School (now McVey Elementary) looking across the playing fields in East Meadow. That’s Meadowbrook Hospital on the right edge (now called Nassau University Medical Center). The two trees in the foreground did not exist in 1955, nor did the basketball court or the more distant trees seen here on the left.

The 61 Barbara Drive crash site is in the direction between the two basketball hoop backboards. I got a pretty unobstructed view of the aircraft going down, less than a half-mile from here. A sight that 6 year old kid has not forgotten.

B-26 Crash George Mattson: NY daily News

This photo photo was taken by George Mattson of the New York Daily News as he was flying in the area at the time and happened upon the crash site. This photo won him a Pulitzer Prize.  The crew wasn’t so lucky.

Fortunately no one on the ground was injured as the aircraft just missed the house but the resulting fire did set fire to the house and nearby car.  The East Meadow Fire Department is responding, just pulling out some hose from the truck.  The car probably caught fire from flaming AV Gas running down the rain gutter.

A close examination of the photo shows that the aircraft landed flat on its belly, however the right hand propeller blades are missing – the hub seems to be there. Possibly the cause of the spin/crash?  The nose, cockpit, both engine nacelles and the wings are still essentially intact, parts of the left prop are visible..The left wing appears to have separated.


Additional Musings:

During these years I saw thousands of aircraft including the C-47, C-119, C-46, C-54, F-86, T-33, F-94, B-25, B-26, C-124, F-84, F-100 among others.  I even saw a MIG-15 in USAF markings once and even a 5-engined B-17.  What?

Yup, I heard and then saw a B-17 with a nose-mounted engine and later assumed I had an overly active imagination as I recalled the scene.  Until I learned that the USAF DID fly such an aircraft as a flying engine test-bed. I saw it. This same aircraft also flew at times with a large radial in the nose.

B-17 with FIVE engines; four of them shut down and props feathered. The nose is painted with “Wright Typhoon”. That was a developmental engine that was more powerful than the B-17’s four 4 Pratt and Whitney 1200 HP radials combined, but ultimately that turboprop was unsuccessful.  (Official USAF Photograph)

As a result of all this activity, to this day, any time I hear an aircraft I will instinctively look up to identify it.  Along with watching “Steve Canyon“, “Sky King“,  “Navy Log“, “Air Power“, “Twelve O’Clock High“, “The Big Picture” and the other great 1950’s-60’s TV programs, I became very interested in aviation and the military in general.

(Incidentally, this B-17 engine test-bed aircraft, tail number (4)485813, was later declared excess and sold.  I understand that its aft section was used to rebuild another B-17 (4485734), ultimately being rebuilt back to its wartime configuration as the “Liberty Belle”.  Unfortunately the modern “Liberty Belle” was destroyed in a post emergency-landing fire in Illinois in 2011.  My buddy had previously gotten a ride in her sometime before the crash.)
Mitchel Field recollections:  Speaking of Mitchel Field (AKA Mitchel Air Force Base), some photo’s of the open house they held on Armed Forces Day, 1957.  My Dad took me there for a visit – you could actually TOUCH the planes we saw flying overhead every day! Wow! That’s me, age 8.

Mitchel Field Armed Forces Day 1957

Upper left – The C-124 Globemaster II, the largest cargo plane of the time. Two deck levels inside. Nicknamed “Old Shakey” it was a real monster. It used the same huge R-4360 radial engines as the B-36, the Spruce Goose and many others.  I remember climbing around on the red nylon web cargo nets rigged inside. Dozens of C-119 Flying Boxcar cargo planes lined up in the distant background (also powered by the R-4360’s).

I also saw an unmistakeable “beavertail” C-119J Flying Boxcar variant flying over our house on its way to Mitchel.  That was a modified C-119 with the clamshell doors on the aft fuselage that opened up and down versus the “left and right” configuration of the standard plane.

This design allowed their opening while in flight.  That beavertail aircraft was designed to catch re-entering Corona satellites as they parachuted down from space carrying photo’s of Soviet military facilities.  The plane would deploy grappling hooks of some kind, snag the parachute and then reel it the catch through the large rear opening.  Cool.

Upper right: Doing my best Dr. Strangelovian imitation of Slim Pickens. I just KNEW those fuel tanks were BOMBS! Pay no attention to the duct tape on the fuselage (blow-in door) of this F-84F Thunderstreak from the New Jersey Air Guard. A sleek looking early jet built by Republic, maybe 20 miles from here.

Lower Left: The Cessna 310 built for the military as the L-27A or later on, the U-3A. Unofficially known in the USAF as the “Blue Canoe”. Still a sleek looking aircraft. Remember the “Songbird” of Sky King TV fame?  Same basic aircraft.  But the real gem here is the twin rudders of the P-61 Black Widow just barely visible behind the U-3A tail. Wish we had gotten a photo of THAT one!

Lower Right: Peering into the cabin air conditioner air intake on an early C-130 Hercules. Thirty five years later I was riding in the back of one of these, flying from Mombassa Kenya to Mogadishu Somalia (while sitting on my flak jacket). Still a great aircraft!

Here’s a shot from the 1959 Armed Forces Day event: The one and only Sikorsky S-60 ever built.

Sikorsky S-60 at Mitchel Field

This large, piston engined helo was the only prototype ever built but it was found to be underpowered as it was being evaluated by the Navy. The design eventually evolved into the turbine powered CH-54 “Tarhe” and the civil S-64 “Skycrane” heavy lift helo’s.

This S-60 helo crashed in 1961, the surviving parts were stored and then further damaged by a tornado but is being considered for some kind of restoration – a rare (and unlucky) bird indeed. A Mitchel Field exclusive.

Here’s some real Mitchel Field Trivia. In the photo above, see those poles above and beyond the hangars behind the Helo? They have 2 horizontal cross-arms each. Those were lights for the the AFB baseball field. When Mitchel closed, those lights were donated to St. Raphael’s church in East Meadow and then installed surrounding the ball field behind the church school next to the “sand pit”.

Those fields kept a lot of us off the streets playing baseball and football in those days. I believe at the time that St Raphael’s had the only lighted ball field on Long Island except for Shea Stadium. I had a summer job at the field as a groundskeeper – one of my duties was to turn on those lights for night games.
* Speaking of Model airplanes – anyone else build these two?

Aurora Models

Aurora Models – Source unknown

I built them both. The “Zero” was my first model attempt, probably had lots of glue all over it! I suspect these two succumbed to flight testing off our roof, or possibly a Vikings funeral via a fire cracker while in a steep dive or twirled around on the end of a string….