Listening recently to the Uncontrolled Airspace podcast, I was surprised to hear that James R. “Jim” Greenwood — a Washington native, aviator, journalist, FAA official and Learjet executive who died in November at age 91 — once flew an airplane under the 14th Street bridge.
I have been unable to find any reference in public library papers to anyone flying under the 14th Street bridge. It seems to me this would be pretty daring in almost any kind of airplane. Does Answer Man have any pictures of such an event? Did it really happen?
— Brian Carlson, Reston
Well, Jim Greenwood said it happened, and who is Answer Man to doubt him? As for pictures, it’s unlikely there are any. Greenwood said his stunt happened in 1946, a time when people didn’t have cameras on their cellphones. They didn’t have cellphones, either. And because it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, no photographers were set up to capture the event.
It must be made clear that the bridge Greenwood flew under is not the current 14th Street bridge. He flew under what was known as the Highway Bridge, a span that was removed in 1967. Still, it was only slightly higher than the bridge that’s there now.
If anyone possessed the gumption to do it, it was Greenwood. He was born in 1920 and learned to fly at 16. He earned money with a daredevil parachuting act. He served in the Navy during World War II, rigging parachutes and testing them, and invented parachute equipment. After the war, he did a stint as a reporter at the Alexandria Gazette.
One day in 1946, he took off in an open-cockpit Fleet biplane from Beacon Field, an airport south of Alexandria.
“This one afternoon, I was out flying, and I got this impulse to do something a little bit different,” Greenwood said in an interview that’s posted on YouTube.
He spotted the 14th Street bridge.
“I knew I had enough clearance — it wasn’t a whole lot — but I knew I had enough,” Greenwood said. He flew the plane under the bridge — and under the cars that were on the bridge.
“A lot of traffic stopped there to watch that idiot do what he was going to do next,” Greenwood said.
It was the last time he flew under a bridge. (But not the first. Greenwood said he’d flown under a bridge in St. Louis.)
Greenwood went on to do public relations for Beech Aircraft and Learjet. Between 1970 and 1973, he was director of public affairs at the Federal Aviation Administration. He returned to Learjet as a vice president and is credited with helping to popularize executive jet travel.
“James Greenwood was a very, very rare person,” said Jim Davis, a pilot who met him when they both worked at the FAA. “He knew everyone in aviation, from the top of the food chain to the bottom.”
There is something about bridges that some pilots find irresistible. In 1911, Lincoln Beachey, a 24-year-old pilot who worked for Curtiss, flew under the arch of the Falls View (also known as the Honeymoon Bridge) at Niagara Falls. Beachey was also famous for flying through airplane hangars, their doors open at each end. (His stunt flying eventually killed him.)
In 1968, a Royal Air Force pilot flew his jet under the top span of London’s Tower Bridge. He was cashiered from the service. During the Vietnam War, it was not uncommon for Navy pilots to take off from their returning carriers and fly underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
There is no specific FAA directive against flying under a bridge, but there is one that says pilots must maintain an altitude of 1,000 feet over populated areas and another about not endangering people or property on the ground. This basically means zooming under a bridge is a no-no that can cost a pilot his or her license — or worse.
In August 1996, a Cessna made a successful swing under a bridge at South Padre Island on the southern tip of Texas, then swung around to go under it again. On its second pass, the plane struck a bridge pylon and crashed into the water, killing both occupants.
In the FAA’s online archive, you can find an article about flight safety and how to encourage pilots to exercise good judgment.
“In general aviation, nearly one-third of the accidents are associated with an unwarranted low-level maneuver,” wrote the author. “NTSB records are loaded with case histories of accidents attributed to reckless flying.”
The writer? Jim Greenwood, the man who flew under the 14th Street bridge.
Remember: Without questions, there can be no answers. Send your questions about the Washington area to firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.