A young navy pilot comes in for a landing near a residential area and realizes he’s not going to make it. There’s a sudden crash and the terrible certainty that people have been killed.
But something almost impossible happens. It may be the split-second action by the pilot. Or maybe an almost-Easter miracle.
This wasn’t April 7, 2012 but April 13, 1944, and the place was Creeds, a farming community that is now part of sprawling Virginia Beach. It was four days after Easter.
The family of Paul J. Whitehurst Sr. had just settled down for the night. The large wooden house was packed with people: Whitehurst and his wife, Viola: his mother, Mahala; his brother, Aaron; two of their three children, Paul and Madeline. Upstairs were renters, a sailor, his wife and a baby, as well as another sailor’s wife and her baby who were spending the night.
The house was in the middle of a wheat field on Campbell’s Landing Road, near the intersection of Morris Neck Road.
At about 11:20 p.m., Ensign Luis Echenique was approaching Runway 18 at the Creeds Navy Auxiliary Air Station in an FM-2 “Wildcat” fighter when he apparently realized he was too low. What he saw was runway lights suddenly disappearing. They must have been blocked by a house. He had a split second to react.
He pulled up on the stick and tried to gain altitude.
There was a huge crash as the plane took off half of the roof. A newspaper account said bricks from a chimney showered the upstairs rooms “as one mother threw herself across her baby, on a bed. None suffered more than a few scratches.”
In the other upstairs bedroom, young Paul and his sister Madeline had been sound asleep. The plane just missed their side of the house, but the ceiling collapsed and debris fell everywhere.
The severely mangled plane ricocheted off the roof and landed in a tree beside the house. The pilot, although badly shaken, climbed out of the wreckage uninjured except for a few scratches.
Everyone had survived.
Last week after the FA-18 crash at the Beach, I got an e-mail from Paula Whitehurst Knight, the granddaughter of the house’s owner, remarking on the similarity of the accidents and concluding that if the pilot hadn’t reacted the way he did, “I probably wouldn’t be e-mailing you right now.”
Paul J. Whitehurst Jr., the son who lived through the crash, is now “three score and 16 years old,” as he puts it, and still farms the field where the accident took place. Knight’s husband, hog farmer and Republican state Delegate Barry Knight drove me out to visit him the other day.
We swung by the field and stood there talking. On the other side of the road the runway for the old Creeds Airfield is still there, but now sits beside a police tactical driving and K-9 training center. He pointed to the middle of the field of waving wheat where the house once stood.
Whitehurst, known to all as “P.J.,” was only 8 at the time. He said he awoke to a wild scene. “The next thing I knew, somebody was carrying me downstairs.” And he remembers his uncle Aaron “trying to get the door open. Mother and father carried us out; they were concerned about fire.”
Soon after, his father filed a damage report with the Air Station saying, “the house is seriously damaged – foundation and partitions are sprung. Roof of the house has been demolished. Destroyed two rooms entirely and 1 partially. . . Three chimneys and flu’s knocked down. Fence and gate demolished where plane landed. Back porch torn away from house.”
“In my opinion,” he concluded, “the house is a complete wreck and is beyond repair. I therefore file claim for a new house.”
Paula Knight says her father was too young to remember the details of a likely settlement. “They all moved to his uncle’s house for about two years before they moved to Princess Anne Road.”
The era, it seems, was full of plane accidents. “It seemed something happened just about every day,” Whitehurst said. “There were right many accidents.”
He doesn’t reflect much on what might have happened, although “You’re talking about a matter of a couple of feet.” [Any lower and] “it might have taken out a lot of people.”
But he added, “I don’t really think much about it, tell the truth.”