In a matter of about four minutes on the morning of Sept. 24, 1955, four jets from Langley Air Force Base crashed just after taking off -- killing the men who flew them.
Newport News resident Thomas Stopski and Bob Boyden, of Florida, were there 60 years ago during one of Langley's most tragic accidents.
"I say to people all the time," Boyden said on a recent trip to visit Stopski in his Newport News home, "by the grace of God, I could have been one of them. Flying was a joy. It was no fun when you lost people like that."
The now-defunct 511th Fighter Bomber Squadron flew F-84F Thunderstreaks back then. Their mission: fly anywhere in the world with 24-hours notice armed with an atomic bomb.
That day, however, was just training: a transatlantic flight to an air base in England equipped with extra tanks of gas, rather than bombs. But a series of unfortunate events -- and poor decisions by leadership, as the two veterans tell it -- led to disaster.
Take-off was set for 4 a.m. Leaving that early should have allowed enough time for the 16 planes that were scheduled to make the trip to refuel twice in the air and land in England while it was still light. Stopski was watching from the control tower that day -- he would have been flying if he hadn't been injured in an accident five months earlier.
Boyden, a first lieutenant at the time, and another pilot, a colonel, were the first two off the runway, separated by just 10 seconds.
Boyden said they had been told to expect bad weather at about 5,000 feet. They later found out those readings were taken by a test pilot more than an hour before takeoff.
"So by the time we took off, we took scud, little patches of clouds, at about 300 feet, and we had solid overcast at 600 feet," he said.
The fourth jet had an issue at takeoff. The pilot managed to get into air by dropping the extra tanks of gas that were overloading the plane, causing a fiery explosion at the end of the runway.
Each plane carried two 450-gallon tanks inside the aircraft and two 230-gallon tanks outside under the wings -- if this had been a mission, an atomic bomb could have taken the place of one of the heavier tanks, the men said. At that weight, the under-powered F-84 required a 10,000-foot runway, but at the time Langley's was only 6,500 feet, Boyden said. So they strapped jet-assisted takeoff, or JATO, bottles to the belly of the aircraft.
"When you got up to 160 knots, which is 200-and-something mph ... you'd fire the JATO and it would boost you right into the air," Boyden said. "Now if anything happened and the JATO didn't fire, you're approaching the end of the runway going 200-plus mph, you had no choice, you'd have to jettison the tanks and in a clean airplane, it'd pop right off the ground. Bob Lester, the No. 4 on the roll, his JATO didn't fire. He had no choice -- he dropped the tanks and they blew close to the end of the runway."
Even with zero visibility because of the weather, Boyden said, he knew "something had happened -- 1,360 gallons of JP-4 (jet fuel), it just really lit up the sky. Even in the clouds where we were, there was a bright glow."
From mobile control, Stopski said he held up the rest of the aircraft, but with just 10 seconds separating each plane, two were already on their way down the runway. Both managed to take off, and turn right out of traffic.
A general in the control tower gave the order to resume takeoffs. Stopski said he was shocked.
First Lt. James Henley, who the men called Jim, was the next in line.
"I saw his run lights go up and come down, and explode when he hit," Stopski said.
Henley was 24, according to a story published in the Daily Press the day after the accident.
Then came First Lt. Peter Dolan, 23. He took off successfully, entered the cloud cover, and collided with Second Lt. Harold "Al" Waddell, 24, who had taken off just after the initial explosion and was apparently flash-blinded. Waddell was to be married two weeks after they returned from England, Stopski said.
The final pilot to take off was Second Lt. Roland Walls.
"They don't know if he had a complete electrical malfunction or what, but his JATO didn't fire and he didn't drop the tanks," Boyden said. "There were tire tracks some 1,600 feet off the end of the runway in the grass."
Stopski said he followed Walls' running lights up and then down.
"I was waiting for the explosion and there was just nothing," Stopski said. He believes Walls crashed out in the Chesapeake Bay. "To this day, to our knowledge, they've never found any of the aircraft or him out there."
According to Daily Press archives, Dolan, Waddell and Walls were declared missing for almost a week as crews searched the bay. On Sept. 30, 1955, they were all presumed dead. All that had been recovered was a suitcase belonging to Dolan and a life raft, like those used in the F-84s.
Boyden said those who successfully made it in the air joined up over Canada for their first refueling, then proceeded to England, where only 11 American bombers landed.
"We never knew what had happened until we got to Germany the next day," Boyden said. "I think they didn't want to tell us."
The underpowered F-84's service was short-lived. It was replaced after just three years by F-100 Super Sabers.
The Daily Press reported in 1955 that it was the most costly accident in recent memory, both in terms of human lives and aircraft. A historian with the 1st Fighter Wing, today's rough equivalent of the 511th Fighter Bomber Squadron, said since 1975 when the wing arrived at Langley, no accident compares in terms of loss of life.
Stopski and Boyden were full of stories of other close calls and what today's standards would deem reckless flight operations. This, after all, was just a decade into the jet age. But for them, it was fun -- until it wasn't.
Stopski was burned badly in April 1955 when his JATO bottles didn't fire at takeoff and he crashed in an Alabama cemetery.
"At that time you're talking to someone who was in their mid-20s. I felt if this was really dangerous, these smart colonels and generals wouldn't have us doing this," Stopski said. "I learned out there, that this is not always true, because some crazy stuff happened."
He retired less than a year later.
Boyden, who retired from active duty in 1957, joined the reserves and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1978. He called the 511th a "hard-luck squadron."
"That's 60 years ago, but it's still pretty vivid in our memories," Boyden said. "As bad as that morning was, it certainly wasn't the only problems we had in the 511th. There were others who were injured, killed. So it was a dangerous occupation, I guess."