After Six Decades, Wheel Returned to Plane Crash Site

Oct 31, 2019

Volunteers push a landing wheel from Flight 349, which crashed in October 1959, back to the crash site.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

Sixty years ago, a Piedmont airliner crashed into Bucks Elbow Mountain near Crozet, killing 26 of the 27 people on board. Yesterday, one of the plane’s landing gear wheels was returned to rest at the crash site. WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi reports.

DIFFERENT VOICES: Pilot George W. Lavring. Co-pilot Bascom Lee Haley. George Weldon Hicks, flight attendant.

These are a few of the names of those who died on Bucks Elbow Mountain on Oct. 30, 1959. Yesterday, more than a dozen people huddled by the remainder of the wrecked fuselage on a steep, wooded slope, commemorating the passengers of Piedmont Flight 349. It was cool and foggy, as it had been on that day 60 years ago.

A landing gear wheel had been taken from the site shortly after the crash, and passed through different hands over the years before coming to local artist Mark Cline.

Artist Mark Cline
Credit Randi B. Hagi

CLINE: Philip Bradley, the sole survivor, he got in contact with me a few years ago, and he wanted me to do something with this wheel, once he found out that I had acquired it. This was just, I think, the best way to honor these people.

Bradley passed away in 2013, but Cline never forgot the promise he’d made.

CLINE: I really feel good that we were able to put this back into place, I feel like this is where it really belongs … couldn’t have done it without the team of people that showed up, really good people, lot of muscle, a lot of people that were dedicated. I mean, it wasn’t real easy to get down that mountain.

To get it down the mountain, they suspended the wheel, which weighs more than 250 pounds, in a rolling framework made from a large, steel spool. Five or six people at a time guided it through the woods, over logs and rocks, slipping their way down over wet leaves.

One of the volunteers, Dave Whetzel, is the nephew of Louis Sheffield, who died in the crash.

Dave and Sharon Whetzel.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

WHETZEL: He was on his way to our house in Roanoke, Virginia, to visit with us for the weekend, my aunt was there, and we were waiting for his plane to arrive at the airport … I was nine years old when he passed, and he was, never had any children, I don’t think they could, so he was like a second father to me. He was very close, took me to sporting events, kind of got me interested in baseball … One of the last memories, my uncle was a big baseball fan, and he was going to take me to the World Series the next year.

Whetzel had gone looking for the crash site 15 years ago, but he didn’t find it. Until yesterday –

WHETZEL: It was kind of emotional. I always wanted to see it.

For Fred Woods, this was his second trip to the site. His first time was a few days after the crash.  He, too, was nine years old at that time.

Fred Woods
Credit Randi B. Hagi

WOODS: … he walked us right to it. I do remember that there were shoes, womens’ purses that were all, you know, the belongings just scattered every which way, and for a kid, nine years of age, it was, it was a big deal. Like I say, that was the first week of November, 1959.

Joe Trecca, of Scottsville, came with his son to help return the wheel. He builds model planes in his spare time, and he learned about the crash when a co-worker gave him Phil Bradley’s memoir.  Trecca said the ill-fated plane was a model DC-3.

Joe Trecca
Credit Randi B. Hagi

TRECCA: It’s been in service for a long time, and it was the first passenger-carrying plane that was successful for the airlines … it’s got a lot of other names, too, they call it the Gooney Bird … Even after 60 years, they still use ‘em. They used them in World War II, and then they were called the Dakota. They were used in the Vietnam War, so they’re really a multi-purpose aircraft.

Mark Cline’s cousin, Wanda Willis, also made the trek – she maintains a Facebook page commemorating Flight 349. She was five years old on that day, and remembers her parents following the news coverage of the crash.

Wanda Willis
Credit Randi B. Hagi

WILLIS: … my Dad, who had a musical background, decided to write a song about it. So he wrote his song, and he sang it for years, and it was a part of our family. And he finally was able to meet Phil Bradley, and when he met Phil they connected right away, and became very good friends … For me, it’s emotional because of knowing that song for so long, and knowing that Phil would have been so happy to get that wheel back here.

Willis didn’t want to sing her father’s song, but she was willing to recite some of the lyrics.

A group shot of the volunteers and members of the media who trekked down Bucks Elbow mountain to the crash site.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

WILLIS: It was a night in October, 1959. A big plane was flying, of the Piedmont airlines. Over the Blue Ridge mountains, it was flying so high. Then suddenly it was crashing, to the mountainside.