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In 1945, a pair of Navy aviators performed aerobatics above Bethesda. Bad idea.

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I recently went through some old family letters and found one from June 30, 1945, about an air crash above central Bethesda. In the letter it said that two “stunting army fighter planes” crashed over the National Institutes of Health. What can you tell me about the accident?

Edward Tabor, Bethesda

Anyone milling around outside the Sidney Lust theater on Wisconsin Avenue on the afternoon of June 30, 1945, was treated to something more dramatic than a black-and-white film: a man in a parachute coming to rest in the street in front of the movie house.

This man was Lt. j.g. C.W. Arnott of the U.S. Naval Reserve, who had until very recently been piloting a Grumman F6F Hellcat. His airplane was in a heap. Three heaps, actually — two big and one small. The tail was resting near the front yard of a house on Battery Lane owned by the Van Durand family. The fuselage and wings were in a vacant lot on Edgemoor Lane. The propeller had landed in the yard of 4821 Montgomery Ave.

Arnott’s plane may have been in three pieces, but amazingly, he was in one. Even more amazingly, no one on the ground was injured, despite the bulk of Arnott’s crippled Hellcat skimming the Acme supermarket, crashing into a vacant lot behind a People’s Drug Store, and bursting into flames 100 feet from an apartment house.

What had happened?

An hour and 10 minutes earlier, Arnott had taken off from East Field, a Navy facility in Norfolk. He was joined by Ensign R.J. Juhl, who was also piloting a Grumman Hellcat, the fearsome fighter plane.

As they headed north, the pair practiced formation flying. Near the National Institutes of Health, at an altitude of between 3,000 and 3,500 feet, Juhl’s plane struck Arnott’s. The propeller of Juhl’s aircraft sheared off the other plane’s tail assembly. Arnott managed to bail out of his mortally damaged Hellcat. Juhl circled once, then flew to Bolling Field in Anacostia, where he landed.

A crowd quickly formed near the burning plane, which fire departments from Bethesda and Chevy Chase doused. Armed military police arrived to guard the wreckage and prevent any photographs from being taken.

According to a newspaper account found by the Office of NIH History, “Police and military authorities have capped a tight censorship on the details.”

Of course they did. The war had ended in Europe seven weeks earlier, but Japan would not surrender until Aug. 15.

You can imagine the conversation Arnott and Juhl had with their superiors when they got back to Norfolk. The tone of that discussion is captured in the official flight accident report the Naval History and Heritage Command was able to unearth for Answer Man. It recounts the facts of the incident, from the hours each pilot had under his belt (811.8 for Arnott, 650 for Juhl) to the wind direction (at 270 degrees, it was from the west).

The typed report notes that both of the airplanes were still in their run-in period, necessitating that the pilots make occasional, prescribed changes in the manifold pressure of the engines.

The naval aviators explained they had each been checking their run-in sheets “and failed to see each other in time to avoid the collision.”

A likely story.

Eyewitnesses said the planes had been “stunting.” Don’t forget that across from NIH was the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Answer Man can imagine the two pilots showing off for their Navy brethren. The official accident report notes: “[It] is believed the pilots were executing maneuvers in the form of rolls, and the accident occurred upon the completion of one, or shortly thereafter.”

The accident was blamed on pilot error, specifically 50 percent “carelessness” and 50 percent “inattentiveness.” Arnott and Juhl were confined to quarters for 10 days.

On the day of the crash, the feature film at the Lust theater was “I Married a Murderer.” A week earlier, a more fitting movie was on the screen: “God Is My Co-Pilot.”

The royal treatment

While we’re on the subject of World War II: In last week’s column about the Secret Service protection of Norway’s royal family at Pooks Hill, Answer Man mentioned that the princesses, Astrid and Ragnhild, were taught by a governess. That may have been the case at first, but by 1942 all three children attended Whitehall School on Wilson Lane in Bethesda.

“This was a small private school — preschool through eighth grade — and the main building was an old frame mansion,” wrote Ellen Lovell Evans of Charlottesville.

The District’s Lucia S. Hatch went there, along with her younger brother, Adam.

“Adam came home one day and very excitedly announced that he was in a class with a boy who had the same name as his daddy,” Lucia wrote.

Their father’s name was Harold. The new classmate was Prince Harald.

Tyler Peter was in Harald’s class. He remembers going to birthday parties at Pooks Hill. The prince even came to Tyler’s party at the Chevy Chase Club, accompanied by a security detail.

In May 1942, the princesses competed for the Whitehall team in the Landon School horse show. According to the Evening Star: “Both rode well and Princess Ragnhild took a fourth ribbon.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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