The landing gear on the aircraft had malfunctioned after takeoff. The day after the crash, Chapman told a reporter from the Washington Evening Star: “The decision to jump was my decision, but the decision as to where to jump was the tower’s.” He added: “I’m very distressed about the whole thing.”
A judge would later find Chapman not guilty of manslaughter, but note sadly that “hindsight is proverbially better than foresight.”
Morningside, then a community of about 1,500 people, lies at the end of one of the runways at Andrews. Some residents were already irritated by what they felt was dangerous activity right above their heads.
The B-25 Mitchell was a twin-engine bomber with a distinctive upright twin tail. This particular plane had undergone maintenance on its landing gear, which on the B-25 was arranged tricycle-style: a single wheel under the nose and two wheels in the center of the fuselage under each wing.
The plane took off from Andrews at 11 a.m. that Sunday morning. Chapman had 1,800 flying hours and had received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in Europe during World War II.
The crew knew straight away there was still a problem with the recently repaired landing gear. The three wheels did not retract into the fuselage and were hanging down partially.
Chapman brought the plane to a higher altitude and put it through violent maneuvers he hoped would shake the gear down completely. The left wheel dropped down and locked but the right gear and nose gear were stuck one-quarter of the way up.
Landing a bomber on its belly could be done relatively safely — “With all wheels up, we’d have tried it,” Chapman said — but the uneven arrangement of the gear meant the plane would likely cartwheel when it touched down, killing the airmen.
Chapman conferred with the tower at Andrews while repeatedly steering the plane to and from Annapolis, burning off fuel. Suspecting that a problem with the bomber’s hydraulic system was to blame, the Air Force attempted a truly bizarre fix. A second B-25 took off from Andrews carrying cans of hydraulic fluid inside a burlap bag. The sack was lowered from the leading plane at the end of a 1,000-foot rope, but the rope oscillated so violently it was feared it would foul the propellers.
“We were within a foot of grabbing the bag about 10 times,” Chapman said, “and the three of us spent about two hours trying to grab it.”
After the plane had been in the air for more than four hours — and the fuel gauge was creeping toward empty — the decision was made to abandon ship. The tower gave Chapman a heading of 120 degrees, a course that should have steered the plane to the Chesapeake Bay, 13 minutes away. Two fighter planes were scrambled to shoot it down over the water.
Capt. Robert T. Sander and Staff Sgt. Joseph E. Albright bailed out first, over Andrews. Chapman checked the autopilot and followed them. As he floated under the canopy of his chute, Chapman saw the bomber immediately deviate from the course he had set and begin spiraling toward the ground.
The B-25 came down at the intersection of Suitland and Lombardy streets. It hurtled along the ground, shedding bits of metal, before smashing into the 300 block of Poplar Road. A house was pushed from its foundation and then erupted in a fireball.
Inside the home were Samuel Snyder, an Air Force master sergeant, his wife, Dorothea, and their daughters, 6-year-old Kay and 8-week-old Rene. Visiting from New Jersey were Samuel’s sister, Violet Guyer, and Violet’s husband, Irvin Guyer.
“Someone get my children,” Dorothea Snyder screamed as she was pulled from the burning house.
It was too late. The two girls were killed in the inferno, along with their uncle. The three other occupants were seriously injured but survived.
Chapman was indicted on three counts of manslaughter. A judge found him not guilty. In the civil trial that followed, the survivors were awarded a total of $234,507.87, at the time the largest such settlement made in that court.
Ten days after the crash, the Air Force banned pilots from bailing out of crippled planes over Washington. It directed them to steer planes toward the Atlantic Ocean before jumping out “at an altitude which would preclude the return of the aircraft to the Washington area.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.