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Julian Harvey’s Crash of the B-24
By Nancy E. Sheppard

CB24 imageAs we have discussed in previous columns, military aviation has played a pivotal role in creating the modern Hampton Roads Peninsula. With N.A.C.A. (now NASA) setting up shop and Langley Field becoming a centrifuge of military aviation, new tests, discoveries, and innovations were made right in York County and Poquoson’s backyard.

In 1944, the U.S. Army had a problem: their new, Consolidated B-24 "Liberator” had quite a few (literally) fatal flaws: when crash landing into water, it tended to break apart and sink within minutes, taking with it an alarming rate of casualties. Of the 50 B-24s that crash landed into the English Channel between 1943 and 1944, 31 broke into two or more pieces and drowned approximately 24% of the crewmen. This was an unacceptable statistic but the Army was not willing to give up the ship quite so soon on the B-24. So, they turned to Langley and N.A.C.A. for help in improving the craft’s current design.

That summer, N.A.C.A. flew to Langley Field a B-24 European-front war veteran, "Ellie Mae,” as the first in three planes that design improvements would be tested on by way of ditching experiments. Her nose art was covered, she was painted a ghastly shade of yellow with a thick black line along the center of her fuselage. A 1/8” steel plate was welded to her underbelly and an escape hatch installed onto the roof. Lastly, it was decided that her crew compliment would be reduced from the normal 11-man to simply two: a pilot and co-pilot.

Chosen to undertake the test voyage on "Ellie Mae’s” final flight was Major Julian Harvey as her pilot, and Col. Carl Greene as co-pilot. Harvey was a decorated war veteran who flew with the 93rd Bomb Group in 29 missions over Europe, including as part of the Ploesti Raids. He received a Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters. Aside from being a decorated war veteran, Harvey was a dashing man that made women swoon and a charming personality that won over his comrades.

N.A.C.A. chose a favorable spot for the ditching in the James River that ran parallel to the Newport News shoreline, near (the original) James River Bridge (located where the fishing pier is now, adjacent to the new James River Bridge). The water was deep enough but wouldn’t allow for the plane to drift too far before recovery could occur. The date for the experiment was set for September 20, 1944.

Like all ominous story beginnings, that morning was gloomy and the air dense with fog. Ever the optimist and confident in his flying, Harvey had absolutely no qualms flying in these rather unfavorable (for experimentation purposes) conditions. "Ellie Mae” was rolled onto Langley Field’s runway, weighing approximately 44,000 lbs., with Harvey at the helm and Greene next to him. Both men wore football-style helmets for some semblance of added protection. Without hesitation, her engines roared to life and she proceeded down the runway and up into the sky without incident.

But what happened next… well, that’s for next week.

To continue following this story and find out the connection between "Ellie Mae” and murder, pick up next week’s copy of Yorktown Crier-Poquoson Post!


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