It came to the mountain at 160 miles per hour, shrouded in fear, fog and death.
It came down the mountain as a curious memento of tragedy and history, claimed by local teenagers who had been to the mountain, saw the twisted wreckage and helped with the mangled bodies.
It will return to the mountain on Oct. 30 — 60 years to the day the 286-pound, 45-inch diameter DC-3 landing gear wheel from Piedmont Airlines Flight 349 slammed into Bucks Elbow Mountain near Crozet. All three crew members and 23 of 24 passengers died.
Mark Cline, a Waynesboro native who, from his Natural Bridge studio, creates figures and statues from fiberglass and foam for theme parks and attractions across the world and a troop of friends and assistants will roll the landing gear wheel from atop the mountain to its final resting place adjacent to the other wheel still at the crash site.
In the meantime, the wheel rests in state at Albemarle County’s Mint Springs Park, next to a marble memorial honoring those who perished in the crash.
“I had heard about the plane crash all my life but it was more like a legend until about seven years ago. That’s when a man named Kirk Bailey said he owned the wheel which was in a shed on his property in or near Crozet,” Cline recalled.
“Kirk had been a big fan of my work for years and offered to trade me the wheel for two eagle statues I made for him,” Cline said. “Immediately after receiving the wheel, I just thought something felt wrong about ‘owning it.’ Then that summer, it popped in the hot sun. I felt pretty awful about that.”
The next year, Cline got a phone call from out of the blue.
“Phil Bradley, the sole survivor of the crash, called me up and asked if I would consider creating some kind of memorial with the wheel. I promised him I would as I knew for certain at that point it didn’t belong with me,” Cline said.
Bradley, who organized the memorial at the park, died of pancreatic cancer in 2013.
“I never got a chance to create the memorial that I had discussed with Mr. Bradley,” Cline said. “I cannot think of a better memorial than to return the wheel.”
The official investigation into the crash tells the story in simple facts.
A combination of heavy flight traffic, issues on the ground and problems at the gate made Piedmont Airlines Flight 349 about 20 minutes late leaving Washington National Airport, now known as Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, on Oct. 30, 1959.
The aircraft, designed as the premier airliner in the 1930s and a mainstay of World War II cargo hauling, got off the ground at 7:49 p.m.
Using rudimentary flight instruments, especially compared to today’s computer-controlled cockpits, the fully-loaded flight flew at 4,000 feet with its maximum allowed weight of 25,300 pounds of passengers, luggage and fuel.
Navigating by radio beacons, the plane made it to Springfield and then headed to the next beacon at Casanova, following a set and standard airline flight path. It reached Casanova at 8:10 p.m. There, the flight path turned left by a matter of 20 degrees toward a beacon at Rochelle and then on to Charlottesville.
Investigators believe the crew missed the turn, putting the aircraft out of the flight path and between eight and 11 miles west of the approach to the Charlottesville’s airport, right about at Bucks Elbow Mountain.
The Piedmont crew contacted the Charlottesville tower at 8:18, saying they would be coming into the airport and would have about 250 gallons of fuel on board when it left for its next stop, Lynchburg.
The cloud ceiling at the point was 1,500 feet, with 10 miles visibility and overcast skies at 4,000 feet.
At 8:25 p.m., the crew told Washington air traffic controllers the plane was over Rochelle and expected to be to Charlottesville in about five minutes.
“You can put us out at 4,000,” the crew radioed.
It was their last transmission.
At 8:40 p.m., with landing gear down, the airliner went into right turn to line itself up with the Charlottesville runway. But instead of free and clear airspace over the airport, the right wing began clipping tree tops above the 30-degree slope of the 3,100-foot-tall Bucks Elbow Mountain.
The tree strikes progressively tore the right wing from the DC-3 and the plane yawed and then rolled to the right, traveling 180 feet from where it first struck trees to where it slammed into the rocky mountainside.
From the nose to the wings, the cabin crushed in the crash like a can. From the wings to the tail, the fuselage broke apart as it crushed, ripping all of the passenger seats from the floor and scattering them about the crash site.
In one seat, still buckled in, was Ernest Philip “Phil” Bradley, a union organizer who was coming home after a business trip in Oklahoma City. He was the last to board the plane in Washington, after missing his connection on an earlier flight. He took the last open seat in the rear of the cabin.
“I ducked my head down,” he recalled in 2009, adding he then heard “a tremendous sound, a crunching of metal” before being thrown some 65 feet from the plane. He recalled trying to get out of his seat to stand up, but realized his feet were pointing the wrong way. He lay near the wreckage for two days before rescuers found him.
He was the only survivor.
The crash would stay with Bradley the rest of his life. In 1999, he erected the monument to the fatal flight and its victims. In 2009, he organized a ceremony to thank first responders and those who had rescued him.
“I don’t know how Phil came about my number,” Cline said. “But come to find out as we talked that my great uncle, Floyd Garrison from Port Republic, was Mr. Bradley’s barber and had written and recorded a song about the crash. His daughter, Wanda Willis, my second cousin, maintains the Piedmont Flight 349 Facebook page.”
Cline found out after acquiring the wheel that he has family ties not just to the area but the crash and the rescue.
“My relatives from the Crozet area were the ones that were thrown off the mountain in the 1930s to make way for the Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive, so I have several relatives still living in the area who remember the crash,” Cline said. “Some of them helped with the rescue and recovery of the crash. I didn’t know any of this at the time.”
Cline said he also discovered some of his relatives were among those who rolled the ill-fated wheel down the mountain a few years after the crash.
With his family connections and his promise to Bradley, Cline talked with others about what to do with the wheel. The consensus was to put it back. He secured permission from the land owner and, with the help of a local welder, created a way to roll the tire down from the mountain top by creating a larger wheel around it.
Thus began Cline’s Operation Ezekiel — a wheel within a wheel — to return the landing gear to a final resting place.
“I believe once we get there, we will release the wheel against the remains of the landing gear which is still there,” he said. “There are no plans to leave a plaque or anything like that there. I feel the memorial at the foot of the mountain at Mint Springs Valley Park is sufficient.”
Cline said he is unsure what ceremony, if any, he will stand on once the wheel is in place.
“At most, I suppose we will just read off a list of the victims and perhaps place the list inside what is left of the fuselage,” he said. “I feel right about it. I can’t ‘own’ that wheel. I can’t own history. History is for everyone.”