Sunday, April 23, 2017

Great Lakes 2T-1A, N315Y: Fatal accident occurred May 14, 1968 in Warminster Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania

Dramatic stunt plane crash in Warminster, Pennsylvania,  all but forgotten 49 years later

The death of a patriotic stunt flyer in 1968 is a little-known chapter in the history of the former Naval Air Development Center.

NTSB Identification: NYC68F0499:

A spring morning in Warminster unfolded as pilot Paul H. Maguire expertly flew a stunt that required him to invert the plane, dive shallowly, climb straight up, level off, dive straight down, pull up sharply and hit the runway with tires smoking.

Aerodynamically impossible, watching pilots raved. "An excellent job," concluded a top aviation expert who saw Maguire execute the difficult Square Loop aerobatic maneuver above the field at the Naval Air Development Center.

May 14, 1968 was a day for big events at the base, and big names as pilots rehearsed for an air show scheduled four days later.

Nicholas E. D'Apuzzo, a national authority on airplane construction who had recruited Maguire for the event, was on hand. Tom Snyder, an up-and-coming Philadelphia broadcaster, arrived a little late with a cameraman. Even Maguire's aircraft was notable, a bright-yellow 1931 Great Lakes Special 2T-1A biplane built for legendary barnstormer Tex Rankin.

Two years earlier, Maguire had flipped the plane into a cornfield, damaging the right wing. The veteran flier repaired the damage and continued practicing and performing tricky aerial maneuvers.

At the NADC airfield, Snyder broke in on a huddle of officers discussing the air show set for May 18. The event was an Armed Forces Day promotion for the military, which was none too popular in the depths of the Vietnam War. A TV segment highlighting aviation skill would give the base much-needed positive publicity.

"My cameraman didn't get that. Could he do it again?" Snyder asked.

Maguire took off a second time, unaware of fatal vulnerabilities in his aging aircraft.  

Seconds aloft, first the upper right, then the lower right wing crumpled and wrapped around the body of the plane. Maguire throttled back the engine, overshot the runway and slammed nose-first into the grass. He was killed instantly.

Among Cold War-era casualties in Bucks County, the stunt pilot's death is one obscurity among many. Much local history of that period has yet to be told. Even Maguire's granddaughters, who grew up in Colorado, know little about what happened to him.  

This account is based on an interview with Navy retiree Emil DiMotta of Fleming Island, Florida, an NADC test pilot who saw the crash; a news story from May 15, 1968 in the Bucks County Courier Times; DiMotta's account posted in 2016 on the Naval History Blog; and "Eyewitness to a Crash," an article written by D'Apuzzo and published in EAA Sport Aviation magazine in January 1969.

Maguire was a 51-year-old Navy Reserve officer and insurance executive who lived in Abington Township with his wife and daughter, had gotten a taste of aerobatics in the service and had been stunt flying for 30 years.

His plane had been modified with a new engine from Continental Motors, new plywood supports on the wings and Cessna landing gear, all installed before he bought the craft in 1963. D'Apuzzo, who lived in Ambler, had advised Maguire on repairing the upper right wing after the earlier crash.

Cold War heats up Warminster

In the late 1960s, the air base buzzed with military activity, plenty of it classified and all of it heavy-duty.

When then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wanted to halt enemy truck traffic on the strategically vital Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam War, he approached the scientists and pilots at Johnsville, recalled DiMotta. Decades of aerospace and defense research took place at the NADC, some of which is just coming to light.

DiMotta, a young graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy stationed there starting in 1966, flew test missions for every kind of airplane-related weapon or spy gadget resident scientists could come up with. Pilots are a daredevil lot, but it was scary work.

"There's at least three, if not four near-death experiences I had at Johnsville," recalled DiMotta, now 78, in a phone interview from his home a few miles from Naval Air Station Jacksonville. 

Once, on the way back from a top-secret mission in the Bahamas, his plane developed problems. He did not have enough fuel to make it to Warminster or Willow Grove, so he headed for Maryland's Patuxent River Naval Air Station and its 10,000-foot runway.

"I had to climb over the wing and have the crew put on their parachutes, and four civilian engineers. We told them where the hatch was. You kneel down and tumble out," he said. DiMotta planned to climb to 1,000 feet and have everyone bail out over the Chesapeake Bay.

Instead, "For 42 miles (air controllers) talked us all the way down," he said. He sighted the runway through cloud cover at 300 feet, landed and bounced back into the air. "The airplane can't steer, it can't stop," he recalled. "It took two of us to manhandle it so it wouldn't crash. We climbed out of the airplane, civilians and all, and we knelt down in the rain and kissed the ground."

There were not a lot of houses around the NADC then, but locals were well aware of base operations. "I really kept the mothers in the neighborhood unhappy, I'd come flying over their roofs, 50 feet, at 2 o'clock in the afternoon," DiMotta recalled.

Now and then things were less serious. Periodically, he said, a group from the base would sign out a DC-3 and hop down to Roanoake, Virginia, for lunch at the house of a fellow officer's mother.

Stunt flight turns deadly

DiMotta knew and respected danger, and good flying, and pilots. When he and a crowd of about 100 others watched Maguire's first flight that day, "We just stand there with our mouths wide open, still not believing what we had just witnessed. A Square Loop! It can't be done, but we just saw it," he wrote in his blog.

Maguire landed and got out of the plane, "wearing a Navy flight suit with a white silk scarf draped around his neck," DiMotta wrote. "He looks like he has just stepped out of a barnstorming magazine from the 1930s." 

This was tailor-made for TV, and rising star Snyder was keen to get the best visuals possible. At 32, his telegenic presence had earned him the evening news anchor chair at KYW-TV in Philadelphia. Later, as the hugely popular host of "Tomorrow with Tom Snyder" on NBC, he was both widely viewed, and viewed by some critics, as "personal yet abrasive" and "pompous."

A career-making caricature by Dan Aykroyd on "Saturday Night Live" was still years in the future. But Snyder was brash enough in 1968 to interrupt preparations for the air show and ask for a dangerous aerial re-enactment.

Maguire was game. He took off heading west, the TV camera in position. But his second Square Loop went disastrously wrong.

D'Apuzzo, who praised the pilot's first flight, estimated Maguire was flying between 140 and 150 mph and climbing at 45 degrees for about 100 feet when the fabric on the upper outer wing panel on the right side of the plane began "ballooning violently."

Bits of wood, metal, fabric and paint rained down on spectators, who ran about dodging the debris.

Maguire fought to level the plane. The upper injured wing folded backwards, then the lower wing.

"The airplane did a complete-turn involuntary snap roll to the right following the general direction of the runway," D'Apuzzo recorded. Then the wounded craft began veering to the left.

"It gradually stalled and slowly started to fall almost flat, D'Apuzzo reported. "The rate of descent became faster and the nose started to drop. It hit the ground hard in about a 70 deg. nose-down attitude about 200 ft. past the end of the runway in a soft grassy plot. It bounced once, and then settled in a twisted crumpled mass.

"The engine appeared to be operating normally and, by the time the airplane stalled, it sounded like it had suddenly been throttled back."

Onlookers sprinted to the site as the airplane fell "as if in slow motion," DiMotta recalled in his blog. "Then there is stillness, broken only by the screaming siren of the approaching crash vehicles. Men have reached the airplane and, in a Herculean show of strength, they lift and flip the plane right side up."

Paramedics remove Maguire and lay him on the grass. Then they switch off the ambulance lights. "We know it is over," DiMotta wrote.

Snyder's cameraman captured the doomed flight. On that night's newscast, the anchorman used the station's footage as well as film shot by people standing on the roof of the main building at the NADC, according to DiMotta.

In the latter, "You can see the pilot," he wrote. He is holding up the upper wing with one hand as he attempts to steer the crippled plane."

DiMotta recalled the newscaster, tears in his eyes, praising Maguire for turning off his engine and the gas to avoid a fire if his plane hit a building. "And then the screen went blank." 

Snyder, who died in 2007, still has a following. Several YouTube clips are devoted to his network interviews with pop stars and politicians, but none could be found of the local newscast where he was part of the story.

Maguire's plane was a disaster in the works, and the best that can be said of the incident is that it didn't happen during an air show.

"The trailing edge of the wings had dry rot, and he didn't know it because it was covered with metal skin," said DiMotta in an interview.

D'Apuzzo had detailed knowledge of the damage from the earlier accident. He and "at least a half dozen qualified mechanics inspected the area, including the front spar," he wrote in EAA Sport Aviation. "I also looked at it with a magnifying glass and could not detect any damage."

"I  . . . suggested that he remove the fabric for several rib bays beyond the apparent damage. He was rather reluctant to remove too much fabric since he had an air show scheduled the following week and did not want to take any chances on not being able to get the repair finished in time."

But Maguire fixed the damage, adding new ribs and new "skin" to the leading edge. That section of the plane survived the crash. "The failure was found to have taken place about 15. in. inboard of the repaired area," wrote D'Apuzzo, who died in 1997.

This failure involved the spar that, contrary to D'Apuzzo's and the mechanics' earlier evaluation, had been damaged in the earlier crash and fatally strained during the intervening two years of flying. Federal Aviation Administration investigators came to the same conclusion.

"It was going to happen the next time they flew the plane anytime," said DiMotta. "It could have happened during the air show when there were thousands of people (watching)."

The accident, and its aftermath, still gives him nightmares. As soon as he knew the pilot was dead, DiMotta's commanding officer ordered him to take the base chaplain to Jenkintown and inform Maguire's widow. 

Though young, DiMotta was a veteran of every kind of hazardous aviation duty, in the air and wrangling the catapult and arrester gear on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. But not this duty.

He had never even heard of a CACO, or Casualty Assistance Calls Officer, until his commander told him that was his job for the day. The chaplain offered to tell Beatrice Maguire the bad news.

A waking nightmare 

They drove to the Maguire home on Fairacres Road, where kids played in the back yard. Beatrice has been listening to the radio and was aware of a crash in the area. Through the front door, she glimpsed the two men getting out of the car.


"Before we could say anything, she slumps back against the open door. She knows," DiMotta wrote. 

He was traumatized too. "I had never seen anybody die up close and personal before," he said. "Never been shaking his hand, and five minutes later, he's dead." The base canceled the air show and held a tribute to Maguire instead.

The memory of one small plane crash seemed to get lost in the uproar that was 1968.

Just two days before Maguire's crash, enemy artillery shot down a U.S. Air Force plane evacuating civilians in Kham Duc, Vietnam, killing 155 people, including the crew and civilian evacuees. At the time, it was the deadliest air crash in history. Elsewhere, the nation reeled with assassinations, student unrest and violence associated with civil rights demonstrations. 

The year following his death, Maguire's widow and daughter moved to Colorado Springs, where Beverly, who was about 14 at the time, trained and competed in figure skating. She later married and had three daughters, but neither she nor her mother told them much about her dad's death or its aftermath.

Beatrice never remarried, according to Beverly's daughter Christiane Mikles, who lives in Arizona. Her grandmother died 27 years ago and her mother in 2016. Mikles and her sisters are trying to trace their family tree.

"I sort of knew a story, but we didn't know it in that detail," said Mikles. All she and her sisters heard was that there was film of their grandfather's death.

DiMotta often dreams about Maguire's last flight. The widow's cry of anguish still wakes him from sleep. He blogged about the incident in detail and feels Maguire should have the honor of remembrance.

"The guy was such an interesting person," he said. "Most people didn't know who he was. He was just very happy that he was getting a chance to demonstrate what he could do with the airplane.

"He was an excellent pilot." 

Original article can be found here:

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