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What happened to the plane that crashed near Bolivia on June 18, 1965?

David Covington
StarNews

The markers on the Ellis family graves show an airplane. Contributed photo.

Q. Members of the Ellis family are buried at Greenlawn, the victims of a plane crash near Bolivia on June 18 1965. What happened?

A. The reader sent us photographs of the grave markers of one family in Greenlawn Memorial Park Cemetery. Each of the markers has an airplane on it.

Here’s the story:

THE TRIP

Early Friday evening of June 18, 1965, the family of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ellis was en route from Beaufort, S.C., to their former home of Wilmington in a private plane, N1838D. That Sunday would be Father’s Day.

Five people were aboard — Robert William Ellis, 30, pilot; his wife, Sally Mae Yopp Ellis, 28; and their children, Robin Susan, 9; Robert W. Jr., 6 years and 2 days; and Glenn Phillips, 3.

Mr. Ellis was manager of the Beaufort County Airport. He had logged 275 hours in the air. Mrs. Ellis was planning on obtaining her pilot’s license also.

The Ellis family had left Beaufort at 7:30 p.m. on this 75-minute trip in order to attend the wedding of Mrs. Ellis’s sister, (Clara) Frances Yopp, the next day at 4 p.m. Daylight Savings Time was not federally mandated until the 1967 year, but our area did observe DST, so sunset would occur at 9:30 DST. Thus they had an all-daylight trip ahead.

About 9:30 p.m., one of the Ellises radioed the FAA tower at Wilmington for landing instructions.

THE CRASH

Their trip had now taken them into a stormy area, and the cardinal rule of non-instrument flying is that you must be able to see the ground in order to keep the airplane trimmed right. The aircraft crashed, nose-first, into the Green Swamp about seven miles northwest of Bolivia. Two people living in the area had heard a noise, above the rain and thunder, about 9:30 p.m., which they thought might be a plane crash.

Search parties of Highway Patrolmen found the wreckage early Saturday morning, about 12 hours after the Ellises had begun their journey. Southeastern North Carolina had experienced record rainfall in the two weeks prior to this trip. The engine, passenger area, and tail section had tunneled deep into the swamp, leaving the wings behind on the ground. There are photographs of this in The Sunday Star-News of June 20, 1965. No bodies were to be seen.

It was not until Saturday evening that the family could be recovered. A dragline from Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point, 22 miles away, opened a hole 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep, enough to get the family out of the wreckage. The engine was deeper still.

(A dragline is an earth excavator. A backhoe or a dozer might be used also, but would get mired in a swamp. A dragline has its bucket at the end of a cable on a boom, so that the main tractor unit can be on firm ground and still reach out into the muck.)

THE FUNERAL

The wedding was postponed, and finally occurred on July 11, 22 days later.

The four parents of the deceased couple, all living in Wilmington, made the funeral arrangements.

Five ministers, including one from Beaufort, S.C., conducted the funeral service on Monday, June 21, at 4 p.m., in the Oleander Chapel of Coble’s Funeral Service, 3915 Oleander Drive. According to Frances Yopp, now Frances Y. Hill, and others, it was a very, very largely attended funeral.

Services featured a semicircle of five white coffins, and the trip to Greenlawn Memorial Park was accomplished by five white hearses. The family is lined up, oldest first, just east of the flagpole of the “FG” section. The cemetery plots required to bury five souls, in a line together, were arranged via a swap offered by a family friend.

The bronze emblems on the memorials (Greenlawn has no tombstones) were chosen from a vendor’s catalog of such items, provided by Greenlawn. The airplane featured on each emblem is almost the same as the one they died in, Beechcraft Corporation’s Bonanza V-Tail 35. The emblem shows a rectangular passenger window, but the Ellis aircraft was a model 35C, new in 1965, and had a teardrop-shaped window there.

THE PLANE

The family loved planes, and one of the most beloved aircraft in civilian aviation history is the Beechcraft Bonanza. Model 35 Bonanzas, the most popular high-end private aircraft for several decades after WWII, were made from 1947 until 1982, the longest that any plane in history has been in production. These planes are easy to spot – the tail section is V-shaped instead of the usual T-tail of vertical fin and crosspiece.

This V-Tail design has been controversial, however, and several sources claim that it gives the aircraft a narrower envelope for safe handling.

“If a pilot was going to hand-fly in clouds he had to be both good and attentive. Left to its own devices, a V-tail would be in a spiral dive in a heartbeat. A VFR pilot in clouds was almost autodead,” writes Richard Collins in an aircraft blog.

“The V-tail design gained a reputation as the ‘forked-tail doctor killer,’ due to crashes by overconfident amateur pilots with high-level skills outside aviation … and in-flight breakups,” according to Wikipedia

Overall, the fatal accident rate of V-tails is often estimated as at least double the rate of competing aircraft.

In February 1966, the CAB (Civil Aeronautics Board) ruled on the cause of the Ellis family’s crash: “continued VFR flight into adverse weather conditions” and “exercised poor judgment.”

VFR means Visual Flight Rules, basically saying that the pilot must be able to see the ground.

IFR, or Instrument Flight Rules, are required when “outside visual reference” is lacking. Mr. Ellis was not IFR rated, i.e. qualified to fly by instruments instead of visually.

According to pilots and the NTSB, any time a non-instrument-qualified pilot flies into a cloud, much less a storm, and thus loses the visual reference, there is a strong chance of a crash. Planes are always trying to slide sideways in a slant, like a Frisbee that has run out of energy. Without a ground reference and a horizon by which the pilot can adjust, this slant will continue, increasing the speed and angle of the aircraft until it is in an unrecoverable, sideways dive.

The NTSB account of John Kennedy Jr.’s plane crash on July 16, 1999 states that “spatial disorientation, as a result of continued VFR flight into adverse weather conditions, is regularly near the top of the cause/factor list in annual statistics on fatal aircraft accidents.”

 

THE STATISTICS

A judgment of pilot error was not an unusual one by the authorities, and chancing a trip through a storm, instead of turning back or landing short of a destination, was frequently a cause of aircraft crashes in that era.

In fact, private aircraft crashes were far more common then than now.

In the decade begun in 1965, in NC, 9 aircraft accidents claimed 5 or 6 lives each, totaling 53 deaths. There were also 123 other crashes that killed 1-4 persons each, for 273 total fatalities.

Thus 132 crashes killed 326 people over 120 months in North Carolina.

The Ellis family accident was the Wilmington area’s largest air crash since the January 6,1960, crash of National Airlines Flight 2511, which killed all 34 on board. This incident was due to a dynamite bomb on board with one of the passengers. That plane’s crash site, at the west end of Randolphville Road off U.S. 17, was not so far away from where the Ellises would end up almost five years later.

RELATED LINKS:

Was there an airplane crash at an Azalea Festival?

Do aircraft landing at Wilmington International Airport ever get fined for flying too low over residential neighborhoods?

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