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.

23 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….

    • My brother, Gary Herr, was the passenger in the Cessna. He was an 18 year old Navy Seaman stationed with Bruce David Pollock. He was from Bemidji, Minnesota. It has been 43 years now since the accident. Still so hard to believe he was killed in an accident such as this. So rare. What a horrible loss. My heart goes out to the other families who lost their loved ones that day as well.

      • Dora, I am very touched by your response and realize, more than ever, the impact this day had on so many lives. The accident was in my mind for forty years and I felt compelled to share my feelings in a few paragraphs..It has been gratifying to here from you and the other family members who have shared the unique qualities of the individuals involved. It has helped me understand your loss…
        .. thank you sincerely, Vinton

        • Vinton, I also am Gary Herr’s sister. Regarding Bruce Pollock, my parents were told that Bruce’s mother had already lost both her husband and an older son before this accident, and Bruce was the only immediate family member that she had left. My heart went out to this lady. At least we had each other to lean on to help us through our loss.

  • 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.

  • Vinton,

    My name is Matthew McAlhaney of Beaufort, SC and my father, Henry T. McAlhaney was the co-pilot on the Convair. While I was only 6 years old at the time of his, David and the others death, the magnitude of the event and the havoc it brought about was not lost on me then nor is it now. I had hoped someone would parse from this tragedy a piece or two that could serve others well- I now trust your article has done exactly that. I too have thought of David, the others who were killed and their families on many occasions…none of whom I have ever met. We are forever linked though through a love of aviation and a desire to serve one’s country. For the record, my brother, sister, mother and I are all alive, we are well and we are respectful of my father and his achievements in his short 33 years on this earth. I am certain David’s family feels the same about him.
    Thank you for writing this article.

  • Matthew,

    It is an honor to read your comment and I sincerely appreciate the kind words. You have helped me understand the sacrifice that was made by the families and crew involved in this accident. It is good to know that you and your family are doing well and that your love of aviation has not diminished. Your Dad must have been a special man to instill that love at such a young age.

    I was at the Williamsburg airport last week and the memories are still there. We will be moving there in a couple of months. I guess things come full circle. Hope you will write if your ever up that way.

    Vinton

  • Thank you Ron… Many memories there especially now that I’ve retired and living in Williamsburg… Fly out of JGG now… I guess you may have known Mickey Baker and John Lawrence from those days… Take care!

  • Vinton,

    My brother, Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Bachman was aboard the Convair in this collision. He was a 29 year old newlywed that had just transferred from Nellis AFB to Langley to be closer to our family in Ohio. I was 17 years old at the time, and another brother was 20. Bob had been married a short 6 weeks when this tragedy took his life, and him away from us. The marriage that wasn’t long enough to produce children. We had not met his new bride yet, it was planned for a February party at our Cincinnati home. Instead, she flew to our home, alone, with an Air Force accompaniment to make funeral and burial plans with our parents. She carried his mangled wedding band that was given back to her after the bodies were found. I will neve, ever forget my parents reaction to this terrible tragedy. They were never the same. Dad couldn’t wrap his brain around how this could’ve happened and needed some kind of answer that he never got. Only after my parents passed did my other brother find the actual report online. I printed the entire amount of pages explaining every detail, rolled it all up, put a rubber band around it and placed it in my fathers vase at his gravesite, walking distance to Bob’s. My brother, Jim and I, make sure we keep Bob’s memory alive. I have named one of my sons after him. For so many years we were upset that someone else’s “ joy ride” had killed so many, but now we understand how things really were back then, and feel differently.

    Thank you,
    Sherry Bachman Spencer

  • Sherry,

    Your comment was very touching and I am sincerely sorry for your loss. Thank you for helping me understand the impact this accident had on your family, and for your brothers service to our country. I will never take for granted the sacrifice made by those involved, and how this accident, and others from that era, aided in the development of improved traffic avoidance technology.

    Sincerely,

    Vinton

  • Vinton,

    Thank you for the reply. My brother, Staff Sgt Robert C Bachman, had been stationed in Okinawa and helped fly radar jamming to clear the path for our bombers. He appeared to be fearless to me. He would tell our nervous mother that he firmly believed people do not die unless it is their time. He truly believed in providence. We were all relieved when he was back on U.S. soil and stationed at Nellis, then transferring to Langley. I have to say, the combination of remembering his true belief in providence, and you, Vinton, letting me know that this collision has helped to save more lives and make the Hampton Roads area safer skies to fly means the world to me.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you,
    Sherry Bachman Spencer

  • I lost a family member in this part of history.
    I was awakened early in the morning, still in my pjs and placed in car. I remember waking up and seeing a steel erected bridge and realizing we were close to my uncles in Virginia.
    I asked my mother and father why were we in uncle Franklin’s state?
    I was answered the most horrific thing I could have heard, uncle Franklin had been in a plane crash, this man would visit his sister the first thing when settled down.
    He would see me and take his glasses off and box with me on his knees and he saying watch the left and tag me with his right.
    The lives of our families forever changed that day.
    My uncle was in the air force and has always been an unknown hero in my book, of course in 1975 I was only 7 years old.
    I know there is a memory of a talented pilot, which lost his life and helped to change aviation safety, but unfortunately I also lost my hero.
    Prayers for all which still remember.

  • Thank you Ken for your comment…. Hope this article honors your uncle as well as the others… It will always be a strong memory for me…

  • TSgt William Smith was a passenger aboard that T29. If my memory serves, he was part of a maintenance team assigned to Hq. Tactical Communication Area on Langley AFB. I was also a TSgt at the time, in Langley’s 1913th Communications Squadron. TSgt Smith and his team had visited our squadron not long before this accident. I didn’t know him well, but I remember him as a competent, dedicated, and friendly NCO. Tragedies like this hit all of us hard, especially when we lose comrades.

  • I can’t believe I came across this article after all these years and the research I’ve done online in reference to my Dad’s plane crash – I’m the daughter of Robert G. Sanford an Airforce Staff Sergeant that was aboard the Convair as a passenger. I was 8 when it all happened and remember all of it, the notification from the Airforce at our front door late in the night, the news, tv etc – as if it just happened. I have read all of the NTSB’s report that’s available online and completely understand how it happened – I will say that I too heard this was a “joyride” which is clearly false information. So thank you for writing this, because that’s one piece of the puzzle I could never understand. God bless all that lost their loved ones and to those that were lost. PS. Mr. Land I’m actually a Georgia native and we had only been stationed at Langley in Hampton, VA for a couple of years. After loosing my dad we came back to Georgia and I live pretty close to you in Cumming 🙂

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