Planes Collide Near National Airport Killing 55; D.C. Loses Home Rule Advocate

P-38 Lightning (Wikipedia)

P-38 Lightning (Wikipedia)

A horrific air disaster occurred on November 1st, 1949 near National Airport. An inbound passenger flight from Boston collided with a small military plane, killing everyone on board.

This was the front page article of the Washington Post the following morning, reporting on the worst airliner disaster in U.S. history. Among the victims were Congressman George Bates of Massachusetts, Helen Hokinson, New Yorker cartoonist and Michael Kennedy, former Congressman from New York.

Fifty-five persons aboard an Eastern Air Lines passenger airliner were killed here yesterday in mid-air collision with a war surplus fighter plane purchased by Bolivia.

The airship, broken in two by the descending P-38, plunged without flames to the bank and deep water of a Potomac River bend, just south of National Airport. The crash occurred at 11:46 a.m.

Sole survivor of the crash, the worst in American airplane history, was the Bolivian ace pilot of the fighter plane. He was in critical condition last night at Alexandria Hospital, with a broken back and fractured skull.

Eastern Air Lines DC-4 (1940s)

Eastern Air Lines DC-4 (1940s)

Stunned locals watched the disaster unfold about 300 feet above the Potomac as the faster and more nimble P-38 sliced the four engine passenger flight just aft of the wings. The front of the aircraft dropped into the deep waters of the Potomac, taking the crew and half of the passengers with it to the bottom. The rear of the aircraft veered to the left, plummeting into the slime-covered banks of the river.

Map of crash scene

Map of crash scene

Erick Rios Bridoux piloted the P-38, which had been purchased as war surplus by the Bolivian government. Bridoux was an expert pilot and civil aviation director in his country. He had taken off from National Airport just 10 minutes prior and was in radio contact with the tower during his flight.

The tower instructed him to circle the airport once and follow the Eastern Air Lines flight on approach to land. Bridoux did not acknowledge this command and the radio operators frantically called for him to steer clear of the passenger plane. They helplessly watched as the faster military plane rapidly approached the DC-4, slamming into its tail, plunging both aircraft into the Potomac.

The Post gave a gruesome account of bodies being ejected over 100 feet from the fuselage, with severed appendages and decapitated bodies being pulled from the waters. Sergeant Morris Flounlacker was on duty at Bolling Air Force Base and jumped into the frigid waters to swim out and save the sinking Bridoux. Just as he reached the pilot, Bridoux lost consciousness. He awoke in Alexandria Hospital, unaware of the details of the event and the extent of the disaster.

The Washington Post reported that the accident was especially tragic for the District of Columbia because Representative George Bates was a staunch congressional ally and the ranking Republican member of the House District Committee. He had worked tirelessly to obtain approval of the plan for home rule.

Washington would not receive congressional approval for home rule until 1973.


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  • woodrowfan

    On what date did the airplane crash occur?

  • Charles Hazelwood

    I thought it strange to mention the name of the Bolivian pilot that was the cause of this disaster in glowing terms and the truth is he was incompetent and the Captain of the Eastern airlines plane was a WWII veteran and a real hero flying the “HUMP ” during the most dangerous part of this conflict. He also just happened to be my cousin and deserves recognition. His name was Capt. Charles Hazelwood

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