Michigan Aviation Archaeology
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R5D-3  #50869, Ypsilanti, MI - 22 January, 1957


The crew and passengers:
Pilot: Lt. Joseph Pietro, 32, Chicago, IL
Ensign Thomas Burke, 22, Chicago IL
Aviation Machinist 1/C Floyd Birt, 32, Arlington Heights, IL
Aviation Machinist 1/C Adolf Meisch, 30, Glenview, IL
Passenger: Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. William Sale, 35, San Diego, CA
Passenger: Seaman Eric N. Starr, 20, Boston, MA
Passenger: Commander Benjamin G. Preston, Glenview, IL

At  9:32 pm on January 22nd, seventeen year old Margaret Shea and her sister Iona were watching TV when an explosion rocked the home. Iona went to the back door and yelled that a plane had crashed into the gravel pit behind the family home. Immediately, James Shea ran toward the wreck to help and Margaret called the fire department. James was met halfway by Seaman Eric Starr, one the passengers of the plane asking for help. By the time they had reached the burning plane, all seven passengers had been pulled free as well as the casket of Navy Lt. Commander Charles. R. Walton who was being transported home to Michigan for his funeral. Cmdr. Walton had died in a training flight when two F-9F Cougar jets collided in New Mexico, the Sunday before. He had received the Navy Cross for heroic actions during WWII.

Because of a raging blizzard, it took longer for rescue vehicles and personnel to arrive on scene. Once there, they were greeted with gallons of hot coffee provided by Margaret, Iona and their mother. It took until 2 am for officials from three fire departments to extinguish the blaze.
The plane was a U.S. Navy R5D-3 transport, serial # 50869, a military version of the DC-4, en route from Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico to Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, MI (heavy snow near Glenview caused the plane to be diverted to Willow Run) and then on to it’s home base, Glenview Naval Air Station in Illinois. It was on approach to Willow Run when it crashed less than 3 miles from the runway. Because of the blizzard, the pilot, Lt. Joseph Pietro had already decided that if they had any hint of trouble, they would abort the landing attempt and try landing at Grosse Isle Naval Air Station a short distance away. That field was equipped for  Ground Controlled Approaches (GCA) which the R5D-3 was better suited for. The plane had touched ground, wheels down, on one the gravel pits ice covered ponds and skidded nearly 600 ft before coming to rest on an island between ponds. The cause of the accident was later determined to be a faulty altimeter. A frozen moisture drain caused the altimeter reading to lag behind as the plane descended.

While all aboard were pulled from the burning wreckage safely, tragically, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. William Sale died of his injuries en route to the hospital. Sale was the public works officer for San Diego Coast Guard Air Station. He was hitching a ride to Detroit to pick up a new car, fresh from the factory. He was survived by  a wife and a four year old son. The rest of the crew and passengers suffered mostly minor injuries.



The search for the crash site:

Crash site not yet located

R5D-3 Specifications:

  • Four Pratt & Whiney R-2000-11 engines
  • Performance: Max speed: 275 mph, Cruising speed:203 mph, Service ceiling: 22,300 ft., Range: 3,100 miles
  • Weights: Empty: 38,000 lbs., Gross: 62,000 lbs., Max: 73,000 lbs.
  • Dimensions: Wingspan: 117 ft. 6 in., Wing Area: 1,460 sf., Length: 93 ft. 10 in., Height: 27 ft. 6 in.