Mid-air at 1,500 feet

I never knew Bruce David Pollock. I wish I had. More than likely, we crossed paths numerous times in 1973 or 1974, but for some reason we never met.

Vinton Land with Cessna 150
The author, preparing for his Private Pilot checkride, in the same airplane that would be involved in a mid-air two years later.

We both rented the same 1968 Cessna 150H, N50430, from Cavalier Flyers at ORF in Norfolk, Virginia. We were close to the same age. He passed his last third class medical on June 26, 1973, just two days after I passed my private pilot checkride in the same Cessna that would claim his life less than two years later.

The 1970s were a busy time for general aviation at ORF in Norfolk. The GI bill was attracting many young servicemen to the airport, and Cavalier Flyers was a thriving FBO at the time, located almost at the approach end of Runway 5.

Bruce Pollock was serving our country as a 19-year old Navy Seaman E1, who had accumulated 195 hours of flight time by the time of the midair collision that claimed his life on January 9, 1975.

There were two Cessna 150s on the flight line, one being N50430, which according to my logbook, provided most of my private pilot training including my check ride in June of 1973. In those days, N50430 had no transponder, and we frequently were asked to do 90-degree turns for identification when calling Norfolk Approach on 118.9.

The Tidewater area is a beautiful area for flying, and departures from ORF offer spectacular views of the Chesapeake Bay, the James River, and many historical landmarks along the way up the James towards Richmond. In those days, the Designated Pilot Examiner was located at historic Williamsburg, JGG, just 21 miles from ORF. It is a beautiful route from Norfolk, across the Elizabeth River, up the James, crossing the “Dead Fleet” and on in to Williamsburg. Langley AFB, with its 10,000-foot runway 7/25, is very visible to your right as you fly up the James towards Williamsburg.

There are many military airports in the Tidewater Area including Ocena NAS, Norfolk NAS, and Langley AFB, mixed in with the public airports: ORF, PVG, CPK, JGG, and in those days, South Norfolk. Langley AFB (LFI) was the home of NASA in the early days of the Mercury Space program. The Air Force and NASA shared the base during NASA’s formative days in 1959, and still do today. The original “7” astronauts trained there.

I flew this same route on a beautiful summer day in June of 1973 to take my private pilot check ride in N50430 at JGG in Williamsburg. This same route would prove tragic the evening o f January 9, 1975, for David Pollock and his passenger.

On the morning of January 9, 1975, a US Air Force Convair T29 (340) departed Langley (LFI), at 9:55 am on an Administrative Flight with stops at Shaw AFB in Sumter SC, as well as Key Field in Meridian, MS. The seven passengers and crew were on a round robin flight that would conclude with a return later that night to Langley. The 47-year old commander of the Convair was a very experienced pilot with over 6,800 hours of flight time.

Convair 340
The T-29 was a military version of a Convair.

It was a long day for the Convair crew. The route covered over 1,330 nm. At 3:20 p.m., the flight left Key Field in Meridian, MS for the last leg back to Langley. The flight was handed off to the final GCA controller at 6:34, 10 miles west of Langley on the extended centerline of Runway 7 and directly over the James River at 1,500 feet. They had been on duty for over eight hours and darkness had fallen on that January evening as they were handed off to Langley. They were just eight miles from touchdown.

David Pollock and his passenger had departed Norfolk that evening at 6:02 p.m. for what was supposed to be a one-hour sightseeing flight. They departed Runway 5 and requested a downwind departure, which was common for the flight up the James and across the city of Newport News. The path would take them across the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, and up the Elizabeth River where they would have joined the James River and turned northwest. Tragically, it would also put them directly in the path of the approaching Convair, just eight miles west of Langley on its final approach segment.

At 6:34 p.m., the GCA final Controller noticed a raw radar return on the Precision Approach Radar and issued a traffic advisory to the Convair: “Traffic 1 Mile, 2 o’clock, Northwest Bound.” A few seconds later, the two radar returns merged, and the wreckage of both planes fell in to the James River. There were no survivors. Seven passengers and crew on the Air Force Convair, as well as David Pollock and his passenger lost their lives that evening.

Ironically, N50430 is still listed as being registered to Cavalier Flyers, 6000 Robin Hood Road, Norfolk, Virginia. Time came to a standstill that January evening over the James River.

The NTSB later attributed the accident to the limitations of “see and avoid” and recommended that a TCA be implemented in the Tidewater Airspace. Ironically, the ARTS III system was being rolled out across the country at that time, but Norfolk had yet to be upgraded. Perhaps the altitude readout on the Cessna, or at least a transponder, may have helped avoid this accident?

Although a TCA was never implemented in the Tidewater airspace, I believe this accident resulted in the acceleration of the Class C airspace that now exists around Norfolk, as well as other procedure changes that have prevented other mid-airs of this nature in the busy airspace over Tidewater.

Ironically, the following statement is listed under the remarks section on the ILS 8 Approach to Langley:

CAUTION: INST IFR AND VFR HI PERFORMANCE FTR TFC WITHIN THE CLASS D AIRSPACE: EXTV UNCTL GENERAL AVN TFC BLW 3000 FT OVER JAMES RIVER AND CHESAPEAKE BAY. DEP TFC DO NOT EXCEED 1000 FT ON CLIMBOUT TIL DEP END OF RY.

I think often of David Pollock as well as the others who lost their lives that evening and how their loss has helped us enjoy safer skies. I hope someone who reads this will know the family of David Pollock and let them know that he is remembered for his service to our country and for his love of flying.

In the meantime, I will keep his memory as a reminder to always be attentive around mixed-use airspace and keep my eyes outside. I still wish I had known him.

8 Comments

  • Thank you for sharing. It is always sad to lose a fellow pilot. say what you want about the pilot brotherhood, but we all know it’s there. Make fun of it all you want, but knowing that someone is willing to take the risks and rip the rewards you so much love, is, by my definition, your brother.

  • Well said Biton and so very true. We’re all connected in some way along with the controllers, maintenance, manufacturers, and line crews that make flying a rewarding experience. It’s a unique fellowship. Thank you for your comment.

  • ” See and Avoid” seems like a boring practice to many pilots, particularly to the ones flying in uncontrolled airspace environment with scarce traffic.
    I met pilots, including ” check pilots” who have no concept of the ” see and avoid” program and its importance to aviation safety.
    A disaster such as the one mentioned in this article gets our attention for a while, some get terrified and some will remember a very close personal encounter, one that they never expected in their area.
    Many years ago a DPE in our area who by the way was a ” Pearl Harbor Survivor” was given the nick name ” Hawk-Eye ” for a very good reason, he was BIG on see and avoid practice and if the applicant did not perform well on that, a pink slip was very possible.
    I had the privilege to fly with my hero ” Hawk-Eye” and I sent many applicants to him for evaluation. He had a magic way to convince anyone that avoiding a mid-air collision was far more important than any other task in an airplane.
    I flew thousands of hours teaching single and multi engine students in a very busy environment practicing very strict collision avoidance techniques, courtesy of ” Hawk- Eye”, it paid off. But that is not to say I’m safe, it can happen on my next severe clear routine local flight. In fact statistics show, that is usually when it happens when it all seems quite and easy.
    See and be seen, a number one pilot responsibility.
    Share the skies, fly safe !!!!!

  • Chris,

    Excellent point.. The Cessna 150 mentioned in the story had no transponder, no strobes, no I-pad, or any of the other modern collision avoidance we enjoy today. The eyes were our only collision avoidance tool, and we were encouraged to always be looking. The practice area in those days was a beehive, and few, if any, training airplanes had a transponder. It must have been really tough for the controllers to identify our Cessna and Pipers making 90degree turns for identification. Maybe someone out there can share their experience dealing with these kinds of challenges?

    Fortunately, even then, collisions were very rare. This Cessna had over 3,000 hours of total time without an accident. It was just 5 years old at the time.

    I still think of the families involved in this accident.. It was a long, long time ago..

    Thank you for your comment….

  • Thank you for sharing this sad story. I live in fear of a mid-air collision more than any other mishap. I fly low for pipeline patrol and even if I take off with a spotless windshield, an hour at 500 feet will cover the windshield with bugs, making traffic spotting more difficult. In addition, I frequently fly through the airspace of small uncontrolled fields. I self-announce, but have often had conflicts with other aircraft not on the radio. Just this week I passed a Stearman in the opposite direciton at about 400 feet just off my right side, close enough to read his N-numbers. That wasn’t near any airspace at all. I have a Stratus and even a Zaon PCAS box but they have their limitations and low traffic doesn’t always show up. The ADS-B mandate will help somewhat but still a lot of aircraft won’t be required to use it, and most of them fly low like me.

  • Roca,

    Thank you for your candor and for your comment. Your experience is far more than mine in dealing with low altitude risks, and the associated midair threat. I recall participating in a couple of Civil Air Patrol missions as an observer many years ago. Those uncontrolled fields would pop up in an instant at 600’AGL and the risks were real.

    Just this week, a helicopter announced their position just 2 miles NW of our local field at 300′ AGL. They were cutting limbs from trees that interfere with power lines. They were using a 5 blade circular saw suspended beneath the copter.

    I can’t imagine what you folks deal with on a daily basis.

    Thank you again for your comment… My best to you.

  • Sorry for the loss of your friend; a tragic event. And you never really get over it… I’ve known several buds who were all lost in airplane accidents – at least fourteen over the years – probably more by now. I’m flabbergasted by the number of pilots I fly with who seem to hardly ever look outside the cockpit for conflicting traffic. I know they’re all focused on the intriguing new technology that glitters and glows before them. That too is tragic.

  • Thanks Dave for your comment. I don’t have a huge number of hours considering my age, but I’ve been around long enough to know two other highly experienced pilots, whom I thought invulnerable, that didnt make it due to a brief moment of inattention. Thank you again for your comment.

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