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Plane's Wheel From 1959 Virginia Crash Gets An Emotional Return

Mark Cline and a team of volunteers steer the spooled wheel over exposed rocks
Mark Cline (left) and a team of volunteers steer the spooled wheel over exposed rocks. (Photo: Hawes Spencer for VPM News)
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The crash site lies on private property near the town of Crozet. (Hawes Spencer)
The crash site lies on private property near the town of Crozet. (Photo: Hawes Spencer for VPM News)
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Buck's Elbow Mountain was foggy on October 30th in 1959 and 2019. (Hawes Spencer)
Buck's Elbow Mountain was foggy on October 30th in 1959 and 2019. (Photo: Hawes Spencer for VPM News)
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One of the most lethal plane crashes in Virginia was Piedmont Airlines Flight 349, which claimed 26 lives on a late-October night in 1959. A local artist recently led an expedition to return a piece of the wreckage to the site. VPM's Hawes Spencer found that the intersection of objects, memory, and sacred places can hold emotional power-- even 60 years after a fateful night.

Transcript:

Long before he began his career in fiberglass sculpture, Mark Cline of was aware of the last flight of Piedmont 349.

Mark Cline: Because I grew up Waynesboro and heard about this plane crash all my life, but when I was little, that was more like a legend.

The crash became more real for Cline several years ago when he traded two fiberglass eagles for a wheel that had been scavenged from the wreckage.

Cline: Almost immediately, I felt the wheel didn't belong with me.

That summer, the wheel was out in the sun, and the tire popped, and Cline’s discomfort grew.

Cline: Every time I walked past it, it just bothered me to have it. It was like having a piece of the Titanic, I guess. History doesn't really belong to anybody in particular. It belongs to everybody.

The disappearance of Flight 349 captured national attention. It took two days to find the wreckage. The story was memorialized in this song by Shenandoah Valley musician Slim Garrison. 

(Music: "Crash of the Piedmont Airlines" by Floyd Garrison)
On a night in October, 1959
A big plane was flying of the Piedmont Airlines.
Over the Blue Ridge Mountains, it was flying so high.
Then suddenly it was crashing into the mountain side.

Sole survivor Phil Bradley is carried away from the crash site in 1959. (Ed Roseberry)
Sole survivor Phil Bradley is carried away from the crash site in 1959. (Photo: Ed Roseberry)

Decades later, Cline told the crash's sole survivor, Phil Bradley, that he’d find a way to make the plane’s wheel into a memorial.

Cline: Well, he's since passed away, but a promise is a promise; and today the promise is coming to fruition.

On the 60th anniversary of the crash, Cline and a group of volunteers drove to the top of Buck’s Elbow mountain with the nearly 300-pound aircraft wheel, mounted inside a massive steel spool. The crew wrestles this heavy piece of history down steep slopes, over fallen trees and  mossy boulders.

The forest was quieter when the sole survivor Phil Bradley lay here immobilized by injuries and wondering if help would ever come. Wanda Willis k new Bradley-- who died six years ago at the age of 87.

Wanda Willis: Sixty years ago Phil was in this mountain by himself for 36 hours, and here we are all together, and it's still eerie, you know. It's very overwhelming.

A machete and a chainsaw helped speed the spool. (Photo: Hawes Spencer)
A machete and a chainsaw helped speed the spool. (Photo: Hawes Spencer)

Historian Henry Wiencek isn't surprised by the tide of emotions unleashed by this trek down the mountain, which overlooks the town of Crozet.

Wiencek: The very remoteness of it gives it a certain poignance and the fact that it was a very lonely place to die. 

And while people feel the tragedy of this event, he says there are other layers of meaning.

Wiencek: There's also a sense of restoring to the dead what belongs to the dead. It's like marking a battlefield; the bodies have been removed, but it's as if part of the spirit remains there.

Dave Whetzel, nephew of crash victim Louis Sheffield, peers at the wreckage. (Photo: Hawes Spencer)
Dave Whetzel, nephew of crash victim Louis Sheffield, peers at the wreckage. (Photo: Hawes Spencer)

As the group reaches the crash site, a few sheets of crumpled aluminum on the ruined tail of the DC-3 are all that remain. And now the plane’s wheel. The group reads the names of the victims.

Group: George Wendell Hicks, flight attendant. Nyle A. Bischel.

Dave Whetzel reads the name Louis Sheffield, who was "Uncle Billy" to him.

Whetzel: Billy treated me like a son, even though he was my uncle. He didn't have any children, so he  always would buy me sports equipment and just take a real interest in my life.

At the site, Whetzel is surprised by his emotions.

Whetzel: Usually a pretty tough guy. But I'm not today.

After tucking a list of the names of the dead under the wreckage, sculptor Mark Cline seems relieved. 
 
Cline: This is putting some of the healing into place, so I'm very thankful that we had all the muscle and all these people that volunteered to make this a reality today.

As the group begins trudging back up the mountain, dense fog fills the forest, and a misty, steady rain falls, just like 60 years ago. From Buck's Elbow Mountain, this is Hawes Spencer for VPM.