One has to wonder if the events of April 8, 1951, were going through the mind of Capt. Francis T. Evans on June 16, 1953.

On that April day two years earlier, the three-man crew of a crippled B-25 bomber had bailed out over Andrews Air Force Base. Rather than continuing to fly toward the Chesapeake Bay — as was expected — the empty bomber immediately dove to the ground, smashing into a house in Morningside, Md.

The crew survived. Three people inside the home, including two children, did not.

The pilot was charged with manslaughter and found not guilty. The government was ordered to pay $234,507.87 to survivors of those killed. And the Air Force issued a command: Pilots were to steer crippled planes toward the Atlantic Ocean before jumping out “at an altitude which would preclude the return of the aircraft to the Washington area.”

Of course, that presupposed the pilot had time for such a course. The crew of the B-25 had spent hours in a fruitless attempt to repair the aircraft’s broken landing gear. Capt. Evans did not have that luxury.

The 31-year-old pilot came from an illustrious aviation family. His father, Francis T. Evans Sr., was a Marine pilot who had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for doing the impossible. Experts had said no pilot could do a loop in a float plane. In 1917, Evans did it.

Capt. Evans’s younger brother, Douglas, would also become a decorated pilot. Evans himself flew 114 missions in a
P-47 Thunderbolt in Europe during World War II. In September 1944, a brief story ran in The Washington Post about how, after seeing a fellow pilot struck by antiaircraft fire, Evans divebombed three enemy gun emplacements, killing two dozen Germans.

The commander of Douglas Evans’s squadron remarked that it was a good thing the pilot of the U.S. plane struck by flak wasn’t a close friend, otherwise “Evans would have parked his plane and gone after them with his bare hands. I never did see a man get so fighting mad.”

On June 16, 1953, Francis Evans was on a training mission in an F-86D Sabre jet. After about 20 minutes in the air, a part failed, and the hydraulics system stopped working. Evans switched to a backup system and radioed Andrews that he was returning.

Then the backup system failed. As he flew over Forestville Elementary School, Evans was not able to control much beyond the speed of his aircraft.

Classes at Forestville had ended for the day. About 200 students waited for buses or played on the ballfield.

Witnesses were insistent that Evans stayed in his plane long enough to steer it toward some woods 200 yards beyond the school. Evans ejected before the plane went down, but he was too low for the parachute to open fully. He was killed.

Five months after the tragedy, Evans’s parents, his widow, Frances, and their 4-year-old daughter, Cynthia, went to the school for a ceremony unveiling a portrait of the pilot. Nancy, a daughter born just a few months after Evans’s death, was home with family friends.

Capt. Will F. Smith, commander of the 95th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, said, “This shows that a soldier can die bravely who does not fall before enemy guns.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a letter to be read at the ceremony. “The high courage of this remarkable young officer deserves to be immortalized,” Eisenhower noted.

In 1968, a new Francis T. Evans Elementary was built near where Evans’s plane went down. The portrait was moved to it. It is there still. In 2014, two Air Force master sergeants stationed at AndrewsPhillip Allen and Matt Cagle — constructed a display case for the painting.

Said Master Sgt. Cagle: “It’s a way we can pay tribute to a fallen warrior, even though it was a peacetime mission; a life was given to service and country above self.”

Ripples from a crash

After last week’s column on the 1951 B-25 crash at Andrews, Answer Man heard from Robyn B. Straub. Her grandfather, Irvin Guyer, was killed in that accident. Her grandmother, Violet, was seriously injured.

Irvin and Violet’s daughter — Robyn’s mother — Elaine, was just 9 at the time.

“This affected her her whole life,” Robyn wrote. “All of it.”

The initial financial settlement wound up being reduced by a court. Split among the survivors, it didn’t go far. The fatherless family was forced to sell their home and move into an apartment.

“I do know it really affected her sense of safety in the world and in people,” Robyn wrote.

Now 80, Elaine lives in Churchton, Md.

Wrote Robyn: “To read this today was so validating to her that this still matters.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.