Poplar Springs Bomber Crash

Compiled By: Peter J. Gossett

The hectic evening of January 26, 1944, in Poplar Springs was one that the people of the area did not forget for the rest of their lives when an airplane fell out of the sky, burned, and killed four crewmen. The aircraft was a RDB-7B with a serial number of W-18311.

From the Advertiser-Journal on January 28, 1944:

"With the bodies of four Army fliers removed from the wreckage of a large Army plane which fell near here Wednesday, officials of the Courtland Air Base were reported investigating the crash.

The plane, a two-engine medium bomber from Laurel Field, Miss., crashed and burned about 5 o’clock Wednesday afternoon at Poplar Springs, about nine miles south of here on the Jasper highway. The plane fell about a quarter mile from the highway.

Those killed were: [Second] Lieut. Clyde J. Wilson [0-749142], Kansas City; [Staff] Sgt. Lloyd P. Hansen [19019055], Kenmore, N.D.; Sgt. Dewey W. Barham [18166466], Forth Smith, Ark.; and Cpl. Phillip D. Tardiff [36556649], Detroit. Their relatives have been notified. The plane was on a combat training mission from the Army Air Field at Tullahoma, Tenn., to its home station, Army Air Base, Laurel. Officials from Laurel verified the plane and its crew.

While the cause of the crash is not known it was stated a board of Army Air officers has been appointed to make an immediate investigation of the accident.

A Poplar Springs farmer, O.D. Tidwell, saw the plane flying low, headed north, and then apparently try to turn about just before it crashed. Mr. Tidwell told Sheriff Ollie Hunter the plane did not burn immediately and that he rushed to it and had pulled one of the bodies about half way out when the plane exploded and caught fire.

All the men appeared to be dead before the fire, he said.

Sheriff Hunter went to the scene with Tax Collector Mack Lovett and Claude LeMay, of Double Springs. They, with the help of Mr. Tidwell and Balos Rowe, a farmer, removed the bodies.

Officials from Courtland Air Base brought an ambulance and removed the bodies to a Decatur funeral home.

The plane was on the tall end of a squadron of 16 planes on a routine flight from Tullahoma, Tenn. to Mississippi. The plane burned all night, and there was nothing left this morning except the tail, two wheels, and one wing."

Excerpts from the accident report:

Description of Accident: On 26 January 1944 at approximately 2200Z RDB-7B Airplane No. W-18311, 2nd Lt. Clyde J. Wilson Pilot, crashed nine miles south of Double Springs, Alabama, 1/4 mile east of Double Springs—Jasper Highway. All four occupants of the aircraft were fatally injured. This aircraft was one of a formation of sixteen A-20 airplanes enroute from Northern Field, Tullahoma, Tennessee to Laurel Army Air Base, Laurel, Mississippi, with Major Lawler B. Reeves, 410th Bombardment Group in charge of, and leading, the flight. The flight had taken off from Northern Field at 2120Z with current and forecast weather very poor. As the flight proceeded en route the ceiling and visibility kept lowering until in the vicinity of Double Springs; over a heavily wooded area, the formation had lowered its altitude to 100-300 feet above the ground and had to maintain a very tight formation so as to maintain visibility within the formation. Pilots in the formation stated that they had to resort to instruments frequently. At about 2200Z a civilian, Mrs. Ralph Tidwell, noticed the formation flying overhead, and saw Lt. Wilson’s ship, detached from the formation, heading earthward in a steep dive, and crash. Because very few trees were broken the ship apparently did dive at a very steep angle. Her husband, who had also observed the crash, reached the scene of the crash several minutes later and attempted to remove bodies, but the ship exploded and burned. Only one person in the flight, Tech. Sergeant Marler, noticed Lt. Wilson’s airplane abandon the formation at about this time. Sgt. Marler was riding in the nose of a ship in Lt. Wilson’s element, and he noticed Lt. Wilson’s ship abandon the formation by executing a 90 degree turn to the left. No personnel in the flight actually witnessed the crash.

It is the opinion of this Aircraft Accident Committee that;

a. Sixty-five percent of the responsibility of this accident is due to the Flight Leader, Major Reeves:

1. Carelessness in not securing complete weather information.

2. Negligence in not properly considering the adverse weather; in failing to heed the forecaster’s recommendation to cancel the flight; and not properly briefing all pilots in the flight of existing and forecast weather.

3. Poor judgment in attempting flight; in not turning back prior to encountering the low scud at treetop levels with accompanying restricted visibilities; and in maintaining such a low altitude while flying instruments rather than climbing to a higher altitude.

b. Twenty-five percent to negligence and poor judgment on the part of the Tullahoma Operations Officer for issuing a contact flight rule clearance to such a large formation flight with current weather so close to minimums and a forecast of instrument weather.

c. Ten percent to poor technique on the part of the Pilot.

d. There is no evidence of failure of engine or materiel, or exhaustion of fuel supply.

It is the opinion of the Aircraft Accident Committee that this accident occurred because the pilot, after leaving a formation flight at very low altitude through extremely poor weather and restricted visibility, either was unable to make an immediate switch-over from contact to instrument flying or was attempting to fly contact when instrument conditions were prevalent, and in so doing, lost his orientation. The steep angle at which the aircraft struck the ground evolves a possibility that the pilot may have recognized the imminent crash and in trying to prevent it, over-controlled to such an extent as to bring about a high speed stall. In any case the pilot’s error caused an excessive loss in altitude, resulting in the crash. No mechanical failure was indicated.

Statement of Ralph Tidwell: "On 26 January 1944 at about 2200Z a number of planes came over my house. Some of them were going west and some southwest. They were about one hundred feet high. I looked east and there was a plane about a quarter of a mile behind the others. It was going down on its nose when I saw it. I ran to it in about five minutes and started to pull a man out when the plane exploded and caught on fire. I sent for the sheriff of this county and he came and we got the bodies out of the fire as fast as possible."

Statement of Mrs. Ralph Tidwell, February 1, 1944: "At about 2200Z on 26 January 1944 I saw about fifteen airplanes flying into the southwest. The clouds were low and it was raining. When we first saw the formation of planes, they were flying just above the tree tops. I saw a plane fall out of the formation and into the ground. After the plane hit the ground, my husband and I proceeded to the scene of the crash. My husband had stepped up on the wing of the plane to get a man out, when the left wing exploded and the plane caught on fire. My husband ran back from the plane and we watched it burn, then we notified the sheriff of this county."

Statement of Lawler B. Reeves, Major, Air Corps: The undersigned received a CFR clearance for eighteen A-20 type airplanes, from Wm Northern Field, Tullahoma, Tennessee to Laurel Army Air Base, Laurel, Mississippi at approximately 1600 January 26, 1944.

Lowest ceiling listed along the route was 1200 feet. This was the ceiling given for Meridian with a forecast of ceiling there lowering to 800 to 1100 feet after sundown. After studying weather map, inquiry was made as to what would cause ceiling to lower. Weather Officer stated that nothing on the map should cause ceiling to lower but it often did when air became cooler after sundown. Take-off time was set for 1615 with ETA 1:45. Official sunset was 1828 CWT at Laurel on date of clearance. This would give approximately one half hour’s safety factor for expected lowering of ceiling at destination.

Take-off was started at 1620. One airplane did not take-off because of a gas leak. Tower called flight leader and stated that 17 airplanes had taken off and cleared his from tower frequency. After turning to 4835 kc, inter-phone frequency, one airplane returned to field because of engine trouble. Element leader knew of this but failed to advise flight leader.

After take-off, circle was made of field to gather elements, last box was in take-off position as flight leader approached field upwind. Last box leader had been advised to take off straight ahead and join formation as it passed over field. This was accomplished by holding airspeed down to 180 MPH until formation was assembled. After seeing last box (644th Bomb Sq.) approach formation on the right, undersigned ordered all airplanes to increase airspeed to 210 MPH. Corrected heading of 209 degrees was taken and held with altimeter reading of approximately 1500 feet sea level. (Leader’s altimeter had been checked with field level at Wm Northern Field.)

Formation was assembled in following manner: 647th Bomb Sq. box leading, 646th Bomb Sq box echeloned to left of leader, 645th Bomb Sq box to the right, and 644th Bomb Sq box echeloned to right of 645th box. Standard formation had been for squadron airplanes to be echeloned to right as follows: 647th, 646th, 645th, and 644th. Leader noticed 646th box to left but did not order them back because of restricted visibility. Space was apparently left by 645th and 644th boxes for resumption of standard formation because leader noticed them flying one box space back and to the right.

Formation passed over Wheeler Reservoir just east of Decatur, Alabama, on course. Primary training planes were noticed flying off practice field in that vicinity.

As formation passed over Addison, Alabama thirty miles south of Decatur visibility seemed to darken ahead. Undersigned gave following order over interphone radio: "All A-20’s fly close formation through bad visibility." Descent was started gradually to 1000 feet indicated in order to keep better position check in bad visibility.

About ten miles south of Addison, Alabama formation started hitting scud. It was pretty well broken and almost constant contact could be kept with ground and leader visually checked position at intersection of Double Springs, Jasper Highway and Clear Creek. Scud was light enough for leader to see entire airplane of pilots flying number two and three positions while in scud. Either in scud or during break he noticed lead ship of box on left flying in close formation. Light rain was encountered in scud, but not heavy enough to impair vision on leader’s windshield, however other planes reported much heavier rain. In spite of frequent contact with ground, leader was holding course, altitude, and attitude by instruments to facilitate easier flying for wingmen. Leader noticed that ground elevations seemed much higher than 400 and 500 feet elevations listed on map. Lead ship never went below 1000 feet indicated because of this and the ragged bottoms of the scud. In spite of altimeter reading and listed terrain elevation, it is believed formation was within 300 to 400 feet of terrain.

After passing over high-line near Saragossa, Alabama leader noticed scud was very thin and above it was a solid overcast approximately 3000 feet. He then ordered all airplanes to resume altitude of 1500 feet. Lower scud soon disappeared.

In vicinity of Gordo, Alabama, leader gave following order: "All A-20’s take heading of 190 degrees and tune in on Meridian Radio 239 kc." This was of further restricted visibility. A very light shower of short duration was encountered in vicinity of Pleasant Ridge, Alabama, but visual contact with ground was not hampered. … Heading of 259 degrees was taken. Shortly after passing over Gainesville CAA Field, formation passed into good visibility with high broken overcast. These conditions continued to improve and at Lauderdale, Mississippi formation was ordered to resume original heading of 210 degrees.

Formation arrived Laurel Army Air Field at 1805 CWT. Leader then noticed that two planes were unaccounted for. On checking he learned that the planes were missing from the 645th Bombardment Squadron flight. The element leader had never along the entire trip, advised the flight leader that two of his airplanes were missing.

Subsequent investigation revealed that one plane had crashed ten miles south of Double Springs, Alabama and the other had made a landing on a practice field near Blytheville, Arkansas without damage.

Pilots had been thoroughly briefed at Lawson Field, Georgia on January 16, 1944, as to procedure of all elements in case of going under overcast or in case of poor visibility.

They were ordered to maintain same level as leader and to fly close formation under those conditions. Two element leaders were advised at Wm Northern Field that weather office gave only 1200 feet at Meridian. Investigation reveals that 644 and 645th Bomb Squadron elements did not comply with order to close in on leader before hitting scud. The former element broke out on top at 5000 feet and joined formation again near Lauderdale, Mississippi. The 645th element, with two planes missing, lost contact with the leader element when scud was encountered and also climbed out on top at 5000 feet. The[y] rejoined formation near Pleasant Ridge, Alabama. Both element leaders stated that clouds were solid during their climb to the top. This condition probably prevailed only at point they started climb because it was only twenty miles further along course that undersigned happened to notice ceiling of approximately 3000 feet above the scud.

Statement of Raymond Marler, Tech. Sgt.: "Everything was normal until we started running into fog somewhere south of the Tenn. River. At first we were going in and out of the fog and the formation was very tight. At this point I saw the #3 ship slide out of the formation to the left. This ship was piloted by Lt. Wilson. It made approximately a 90 degree turn and resumed straight and level flight before I lost sight of it."

Statement of 2nd Lt. Air Corps Station Weather Officer Gerald L. Shak: "Major L.B. Reeves came into the weather station with his clearance and asked to have the weather for a formation flight. Before any weather had been placed on the clearance, Major Reeves himself had checked the box marked ‘CFR’ and had specified the altitude of 1200 feet. The weather was written onto the clearance and the hazardous weather was relayed verbally to Major Reeves by Lieutenant Ickes. Lt. Ickes advised Major Reeves against making the flight. Lt. Ickes told this officer that Major Reeves was in a hurry to take off…In my estimation, weather was an important factor in causing this accident, whether it be the primary or secondary cause."

Statement of Lt. Clyde W. Ickes: "A cold front was oriented Northeast-Southwest about 500-600 miles west of this station. An overcast was observed at this station on this date. This overcast lowered slowly from 5,000 feet in the early morning to 1200 feet in the early afternoon, remaining that way until 1930 CWT when the overcast began to rise. The visibility was three to four miles all day. Stations in this vicinity and along the route of the flight observed the same type of conditions. The time of the accident was approximately 1700 CWT. Verbal information given was that a head wind would be encountered and that the ceiling would tend to lower slowly. It was explained that ceilings as low as 800-1000 feet might be encountered and that the visibility would be four to five miles and greater."

Aircraft Damage:
Airplane Type: RDB-7B; A.C. No.: W-8311
Engine Type: L-R-2600-23; A.C. No.: L-42-175306
Engine Type: R-GR-2600-A5B0; A.C. No.: R-58367
Total Time on Airplane: 1365:10
Total Time on Engine: L-558:10; R-207:25
Airplane and Engine: Completely demolished