Throughout Middletown’s history, there has been several plane crashes due to the international airport that we have housed for nearly 47 years, along with the previous airport Middletown Air Depot that was built in 1917. Most of these accidents landed in the Susquehanna River, but others have crash-landed in a variety of places, including crashing into a downtown home/office!
Here are the details of the major crashes in Middletown since the 1900s all the way to the most recent crash in 2019 are described below. As a warning, these crashes are sometimes fatal and told in detail.
Going back to 1929, Middletown experienced its presumably first plane crash with a C-2 Fokker trimotor monoplane. On January 11th at 1:30pm, the U.S. Army Transport plane took off from the Middletown Air Depot, the military air transport service for the now-retired Air Force Base. The aircraft was returning to the Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. filled with requested supplies. It was piloted by Lt. Robert Angell, 29 years old, and carried eight other men. For an unknown reason, the plane lacked the ability to gain the altitude it needed for a safe flight, something the pilot noticed almost immediately. He attempted to circle back around to land since he knew something was wrong, but lost vital altitude needed to land safely. The pilot chose to crash the plane in Lower Royalton in a vacant lot that is bordered by Penn, Canal, and Allen Streets since it was the only option to keep the bystanders safe. Five of the men on board were instantly killed when they were thrown out of the plane as it broke it half. The three remaining men were rushed to the Harrisburg Hospital, but died within minutes of their arrival. Some mechanical workers at the Middletown Air Depot investigated the plane after it crashed but, were never able to find a reason for its failure.
A couple of years later in 1942, there was another military plane crash. On September 22nd, a U.S. Army Air Corps P-38 Fighter aircraft took off from the retired Olmsted Air Force Base. The plane was flown by 2nd Lieutenant Herbert N. Smith, who was born in San Angelo, Texas. Smith first took off for his destination and noticed the plane acting unusual, so he returned to the base to have it inspected. He then took off again after the plane was examined, but still saw no improvement. At that point, the pilot realized that the plane was going to crash, and its landing point would be right on the Middletown High School. To avoid this, Smith pulled the plane upward to the best of his ability but ended up slamming into wires attached to telephone poles. This collision resulted in the plane clipping the side of Dr. O.H. Swartz Sr.’s home/office, at Water and Spring St., taking part of the curb and five panels off Dr. Swartz’s cast iron fence down with it. The plane burst into flames, meaning Dr. Swartz, a general practitioner, was unable to get close enough to assist the pilot. Once the plane caught fire, the porch and awnings of Dr. Swartz’s house caught fire, causing further damage to the house. Many onlookers from both the high school and the people on Dr. Swartz’s street saw the plane crashing from the sky, trying to figure out what had happened and how they could help. The pilot ended up dying in the yard after crashing but took no one else down with the plane. After analyzing the events that had happened, everyone had concluded that the pilot gave his life to save the town since the safer landing areas were populated with people. His brave sacrifice and quick thinking allowed for only a house with water and fire damage to be the worst thing to come from the crash, making this plane crash unique and memorable.
As more people dug into the history of plane crashes in the past, it became evident that the Susquehanna River that Middletown partially holds has been a widely used crash spot for many planes in similar situations as the ones seen above. Within only a couple of years of the 1990s, the river has engulfed four different plane crashes! In 1991, a crew of people removed a plane that crashed in the York county area of the river. Only a few years later in February 1993, a single engine plane lost power and the Mechanicsburg native pilot Christopher Plitt crashed into the iced river near Highspire. He said to chose to crash there since no where else was safer; it was his best and only option. To follow suit in July 1995, a twin-engine Cessna 337 Skymaster II lost power and ended up crashing into a shallow part of the river. To conclude with the 1990s crashes, there was another in July 1996, when a family of three was flying from Maine to Tennessee but had to make a pitstop at the Capital City Airport to refuel their plane. One of the two engines on their plane refused to work as they off took, causing their plane to crash into the river. The plane type was identified as a Piper Aztec. It is extremely likely that each one of these planes that crashed into the Susquehanna River all had to be pulled out using a heavy-duty helicopter with a sky crane attached to it due to the weight and shape of the planes.
At the end of the crash lineup is Middletown’s most recent plane crash that occurred in 2019. On Friday, October 4th, 2019, at around 5:30pm, a Piper PA-46 six-seat single engine (Piper Malibu Mirage) plane crashed into the Susquehanna River. The plane, built in 1984, was coming to the Harrisburg International Airport from the Greater Rochester International Airport in Rochester, New York, carrying two passengers onboard. Pilot Cecil D. Rowe explained that he did not know exactly what went wrong, but he knew he was not going to make the landing strip he was cleared for when he was attempting to land. As the pilot realized this, he contacted the air traffic controller at the time saying that he was not making the runway, implying he will be landing elsewhere. The river ended up being the safest choice for both the passengers and the plane, which is why the pilot was commended for his quick thinking. As other aircraft masters ran through simulations of the plane crash, each has determined that the pilot made the absolute best decision that allowed for the passengers to walk away safely. After crashing, the passengers and pilot were able to exit the plane on its wing and swim to safety. It was found that the plane was left intact when it crashed, meaning no pollution was done to the river as well. In the end, there could not have been a better outcome for this crash than what was done on that day, making it an incredibly lucky conclusion to a scary event.
These crashes have given our town a series of ups and downs with tragic losses of innocent people and miraculous saves that filled the air with relief and joy. By learning about these plane crashes and its victims, we can successfully honor the fallen and appreciate the knowledge and experience gained by our pilots today that have continuously saved the lives of many by landing in the Susquehanna River. Though some of these crashes were tragic, it has allowed for our town to improve upon its air navigation so devasting results like the ones seen in the 1900s will not have to be repeated. The river in Middletown has become the go-to spot for crash landings of pilots because it is the safest option for the passengers and planes, increasing its significance and value to our town for being the beacon of survival for all of those in danger. As our knowledge and expertise in aircraft flight expands throughout time, we can strive for the ideal that our history of plane crashes finally ends here.
Story prepared by: Alexis Jefferson
Administrator. “The Airplane Crash of 1929.” Borough of Royalton, PA, Borough of Royalton, 6 June 2009, www.royaltonpa.com/index.php?e=8.
Gleiter, Dan. “Crashed Plane Remains in Susquehanna River near Three Mile Island a Week after Going Down.” Pennlive, Patriot News, 12 Oct. 2019, www.pennlive.com/news/2019/10/crashed-plane-still-in-susquehanna-river-see-the-latest-photos.html.
Marroni, Steve. “’He Had No Other Choice’: Pilot Praised for Safely Bringing Plane down in Susquehanna.” Pennlive, 8 Oct. 2019, www.pennlive.com/news/2019/10/he-had-no-other-choice-pilot-praised-for-safely-bringing-plane-down-in-susquehanna.html.
Middletown Area Historical Society. 34th Annual Middletown Colonial Arts & Crafts Fair. Triangle Press, 2009.
Middletown Area Historical Society. 36th Annual Middletown Colonial Arts & Crafts Fair. Triangle Press, 2011.