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Was there an airplane crash at an Azalea Festival?

Ben Steelman
Air show crash

An Air Force C-123 transport plane burns after crashing during an air show on Sept. 24, 1961, at what was then the New Hanover County Airport. (Photo by Philip Morgan)

No. You’re thinking of the crash of an Air Force C-123 transport plane during an air show on Sept. 24, 1961, at what was then the New Hanover County Airport.

The two-engine propeller plane was carrying members of the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights parachute team from Fort Bragg for a skydiving exhibition before an audience estimated at nearly 100,000. The air show, sponsored by Wilmington TV station WECT in cooperation with the Civil Air Patrol, had been an annual event since 1958.

The crash occurred about 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, as the C-123 apparently stalled on takeoff. “It dipped, tried to climb, then pancaked on the grass,” recalled airport ground crew member Charlie Nixon, in an interview years later with the StarNews. “It hit and bounced 60 feet as the wings collapsed and caught fire.”

Three crew members were killed, apparently almost instantly: Capt. John E. Markel, the co-pilot; Technical Sgt. John M. Lesso, the flight engineer; and Army Spc. 5 Robert T. Turner, the unit photographer for the Golden Knights. Twelve people were injured, including a number of StarNews and WECT photographers and some WECT executives.

The death toll might have been higher except for adroit maneuvering by the crew of an Air Force H43-B Huskie helicopter, which used the backwash of its rotor to retard and push back the flames so rescuers could reach the crew and passengers.

Nixon would earn a citation for breaking the C-123’s windshield and pulling out the pilot and the body of Capt. Markel. Army 2nd Lt. Douglas C. Runnels later received the Soldiers Medal for repeatedly entering the aircraft’s burning cabin to rescue those inside. PFC Robert J. McDonnell was awarded the Soldiers Medal for refusing aid, although injured, until passengers who had been more seriously hurt were removed from the plane.

One of the civilians aboard, James S. Craig Jr. of Wilmington, was severely burned and was airlifted to Brook Army Medical Center in Texas for treatment. He died of his injuries on Oct. 14, 1961.

An account executive at WECT, “Jimmy” Craig had long been active in American Legion Post 10. He is credited with coming up with the idea of bringing the decommissioned battleship USS North Carolina to Wilmington as a floating war memorial, and he convinced state officials and local civic groups to support the plan. At the time of his death, he was serving on the USS North Carolina Battleship Commission.

 Craig, 50, had apparently boarded the flight in order to photograph the North Carolina’s future berth on the west bank of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington. Sadly, he missed the battleship’s arrival in the Port City on Oct. 2, 1961. Battleship Commission Chairman Hugh Morton later arranged for a “Jimmy Craig Day” to be declared at the memorial.

The crash remains fixed in the memory of many area residents since a WECT camera crew happened to be covering the air show live at the time and recorded the carnage as it happened. According to witnesses, the wreckage continued to burn for more than an hour. It was the first fatal incident at Wilmington’s airport. No further air shows were held there for many years thereafter.

On  Oct. 6, 2010, Murrie Lee of Wilmington added: “Mr. John T. McNeill, a staff photographer with WECT on board the plane, also died in a Texas burn center as a result of injuries that he received.”

User-contributed question by:
Daniel Colwell

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13 Responses to “ Was there an airplane crash at an Azalea Festival?”

  1. On October 1, 2010 at 11:57 am Aloma Hardison wrote:

    I was working in the Radiology Dept at the old James Walker Memorial Hospital at the time of the crash. I recall one of the Knights that actually had green paint from the interior of the aircraft embeded in his mouth.

  2. On October 4, 2010 at 4:05 pm WG Brown wrote:

    You did not mention that another employee from WECT wall also aboard the plane and eventually died. He was John McNeil, a photographer.

  3. On October 6, 2010 at 9:56 am betsy wrote:

    I was at that Air Show and when it started up I told my husband to be that something didn’t look right. The next thing we knew it came down with a whoosh and everyone in the crowd was quietly saying oh NO oh NO
    My heart stopped beating when I realized it was for real and not just a trick….The thousands of people were as quiet as a church on Monday morning. I think of that accident whenever I go to an air show and I still get a sick feeling when I see a plane take off. It is a moment I will never forget mostly because of the composure of the crowds silently leaving…..I can tell you it was an awful day

  4. On October 6, 2010 at 10:07 am kathy dombroski wrote:

    Thank you. I watched live, on WECT, as many others did, on the day, with horror, as the crash occurred. I did not know about the helicopter pilot using the rotors to clear the flame for rescuers. I do remember the airport was very crowded that day, as most airshows have been. They are really amazing events to watch, either on TV or in person.

  5. On October 6, 2010 at 10:54 am CDM3 wrote:

    My dad, C. D. Martin was on that flight and survided by the grace of god, and had to endure a great amount of pain and sorrow from the loss of his close friends (Mr. Craig,Mr. McNeil and others, and also having your wife and parents witness this tragedy . But he knew, he was a lucky man to have survived.

  6. On June 17, 2011 at 11:27 pm Charlotte Turner wrote:

    One of the crew members killed that day was my father Robert T. Turner. I was six years old and the oldest of 4 daughters. My mother was pregnant with her fifth daughter. I remember the day well. I think the air show was being televised that day and my mother was watching. I was playing outside waiting for him to come home.
    It has been almost 50 years and I still think of him everyday.

  7. On September 27, 2011 at 9:22 pm Bill King wrote:

    I was a twelve year old Boy Scout attending the Air Show.
    Several of us were sitting atop the County Fire trucks by the old County hangar. We were just scared out of our wits. We witnessed the whole crash. AJ Grady, and employee of the county airport yelled up to us to hurry and get off of the truck. His son James Grady stayed on the fire truck as it raced towards the burning crash. When we saw the fire truck stop and start to use their hoses on the burning aircraft, we saw our friend James running as fast as he could back towards the hangar.
    We remember watching the Helicopter spray foam from his devise hanging below his helo. Most of us who were on that fire truck fifty years ago, still are best friends.

  8. On January 21, 2012 at 10:33 pm Randy Allen wrote:

    Iwas at the airshow that day and remember it like yesterday. I was 15 years old and when the crash occurred,I was standing at that time at Pennington Flying Service and witnessed the whole accident.I am trying to find someone who was at the Emergency Entrance at James Walker when the helicopter landed on the old tennis court to unload several patients. Dr. Olin Perritt was on board the helicopter ,but no one that I can find has a picture of the helicopter landing. Several airshows past three members of the Golden Knights that were on that airplane were invited and came back to Wilmington,what a wonderful reunion we had!I shall never forget that horrible tragedy.

  9. On April 26, 2013 at 4:26 pm Susanne Lyons Maxey wrote:

    My husband, William F. Maxey, was the pilot of the C123 that crashed on 9-24-1960. The co-pilot, John Markel, had the same injuries that my husband had, but John was put on a stretcher and according to our friend, Dick Thorndike, who was also on the Thunderbird team, Bill was like a bear who they couldn’t get to lie down. Apparently, when Bill called for “Gear up” the co-pilot’s sleeve retracted the Flaps when he reached to lift the wheels . Bill got the plane off the runway & that was all she wrote. Once they finally got Bill to the hospital, he was lyng on a gurney in the hallway when a doctor came by & saw they he was choking on his own blood and did a pen- knife tracheotomy. Unfortunately, John was not as lucky. Bill’s injuries were mainly to his face where the yoke smashed it, His mouth was wired shut for almost a year. He took his nourishment threw a straw where his teeth used to be. I went through 2 blenders during this period! He was in Walter Reed hospital for approximately 5 months & then was an out-patient for another year. I can’t remember how long it was before he was back on flight status, but I think it was about 8 months.
    My husband received 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses after serving in Viet Nam. He retired as a Lt.Col and died on Jan. 18,2010. He had over 20,000 flying hours!
    He was a wonderful man, a good husband & great dad to his 3 children, Eric, Michele & Jennifer!

  10. On April 26, 2013 at 4:44 pm Si Cantwell wrote:

    Thanks for sharing that. He sounds like a heck of a guy.

  11. On May 26, 2013 at 11:25 pm Charlotte Turner wrote:

    My father was Robert T. Turner, one of the servicemen killed instantly in the crash. This article is the most informative one that I have been able to find. I learned facts about the crash that I never knew before I read the article. It is amazing that so many people were at this air show. I hope this article remains available to the public in the years to come.

  12. On May 28, 2013 at 10:44 am Si Cantwell wrote:

    Thank you, and thanks to your father for his service.
    MyReporters are archived and will stay on the Web for the foreseeable future. I’m glad you enjoyed this answer.

  13. On November 21, 2013 at 9:27 am Darlene Engebretsen wrote:

    Here is something you may not know about the crash. The very first person to enter the burning plane and rescue victims was actually Douglas Runnels. At first, everyone sat there in shock, apparently too paralyzed by fear to try to help the burning victims, even the rescue and emergency people who were on stand-by. Doug was not jumping. He was actually the announcer for the Golden Knights that day. But after a brief time, he put the microphone down, ran across the runway, and began trying to help victims out of the burning plane. It took a few minutes before other people began helping also. Even then, not everyone made it. Who knows how many more people may have died if he hadn’t gotten the ball rolling and started helping the passengers that day?
    How do I know all this? Rev. Dr. ( PhD ) Runnels is a friend of mine. It did take some time to get the story out of him, as he is reluctant to play the hero. Nevertheless, Doug is a real hero. Since the plane crash he and his wife Rachel have raised three lovely, successful children and they have grandchildren. The Runnels live in northwest Arkansas. Ms. Runnels is a practicing attorney. I know that Doug was actually an army ranger for awhile, as well as a fine professional photographer. He went on to receive four college degrees, one of which is from Harvard.
    Douglas was a Protestant minister for many years, and more recently, was an English professor. He only retired recently for health reasons. Doug is a wonderful, smart, funny human being with a big heart. His wife is an equally accomplished person. Although I no longer live in Arkansas near Dr. Runnels, I feel honored to know this true American. When he was called to serve others, he responded quickly.

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