Coast Guard Aviation Tragedies


Funeral Plane Crashes in Snow Storm
January 22, 1957

By Ken Freeze

Republished By Permission


Blinding snow and aircraft have never been a good match. On the night of January 22, 1957, it became a deadly combination for the crew of U.S. Navy RD5-3 No. 50869.

The four-engine Navy transport, the military version of the DC-6, was less than two minutes from touching down at Willow Run Airport outside Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Although the name might be deceiving, Willow Run was not a small out of the way airport. The beginnings of Willow Run Airport dates back to 1941 when Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh built the worlds largest bomber facility at the airport. After the war, the bomber plant was converted into a luxury passenger terminal. Commercial airline traffic was transferred from Detroit City Airport, and Willow Run became Detroitís principal airport through the 50ís. Today Willow Run Airport is the largest cargo airport in the country.

In 1957, the airport was Detroitís main commercial field about 25 miles southwest of the city with the latest radar and instrument approach equipment. For the time, it was equipped to handle aircraft in all but the most adverse weather conditions.

The Navy RD5-3 was en route from Albuquerque to Glenview Navel Air Station near Chicago. Bad weather over Peoria, Ill, had caused it to be diverted to Willow Run. Onboard the craft besides the seven aircrew was the body of Navy Lt. Comm Charles R. Walton, being taken back to his native Detroit for burial. The 38-year-old Naval reservist had been killed in a two-plane collision near Albuquerque the Sunday night before.

On board the plane were Commander Benjamin G. Preston of Glenview, Ill.; Lt Joseph Pietro, 32 of Chicago; Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. William Sale from San Diego, Machinist Floyd Birt, 32, of Arlington Heights, Ill.; Seaman Eric N. Starr, 20, of Boston; Machinist Adolph Meisch, 30, of Glenview, Ill. and Thomas Burke, 22, of Chicago.

As the plane settled into its glide pattern for Willow Run Airport, the ceiling was closing in rapidly. Snow had begun falling heavily only 20 minutes earlier and the ceiling had dropped from 900 feet to only 550 feet.

When the plane was just two minutes from landing, it suddenly dived and crashed on to some vacant land. Six of the seven onboard were either able to crawl or were pulled out of the wreckage. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. William Sale wasnít so lucky. Although they managed to get him fee of the wreckage, he died en route to the hospital.


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