Flights and Phantoms, Part 2: Lives Lost

January 3, 1949, was like any other cold January day when 1st Lt. Neal R. Webster started his navigation training flight from Omaha to Tulsa and then back again.  But on the return trip, his luck did not hold.  He was cleared to fly from Tulsa to Topeka, but during the flight, the fog thickened, and because of zero visibility the Topeka airfield was forced to close.  So Webster had to change route, and Lowry Air Force Base, the technical training base in Denver, notified the next closest airfield, Olathe Naval Air Station.  With only 150 yards of visibility, they readied for the possibility of a rough landing.  Just the  previous week crews in Washington, D.C.,  had faced a similar situation when they had to guide President Truman’s plane during low-visibility conditions. They were successful, and the Olathe airfield used the same techniques to prepare for Webster’s landing, but with more tragic results.

Aerial view of New Century AirCenter

Aerial view of New Century AirCenter, site of the former Olathe Naval Air Station.

Low on fuel, Webster was in constant communication with the Olathe tower.  Those in the tower were steering him in, but because of the limited visibility the building came upon him all too soon.  He flew right into the side of the Administration Building, just past Hangar 43.  The engine shot from the plane and sailed into the air knocking a hole in the building’s roof. The plane was instantly engulfed in flames, rising higher than the roof of the building.  Because of the fog these flames were hardly discernible.  Bricks were strewn everywhere, even breaking the plate glass windows on the south wing.  Damage included a bulge in one office’s ceiling and the side wall suffered extreme damage.  A deep furrow was created along the length of the building, and later parts of the plane would be found as far as 200 yards away.

Administration Building of the Olathe Naval Air Station, circa 1945

Administration Building of the Olathe Naval Air Station, circa 1945

The ground crew rushed to assist and immediately extinguished the fire. Since the front of the plane was completely demolished, they were forced to pry the pilot and an unexpected passenger from the underbelly of the wreckage.  Webster was pronounced dead at the scene, but the unknown passenger was alive and rushed to the base hospital.  He regained consciousness but died six hours later.  Initially the only trace of this person’s identity was an illegible signature on the flight forms.  His baggage later revealed he was Pvt. Thomas Ruse from Lowry Air Force Base.

A man in uniform stands before a Naval Air Transport plane, circa 1945

A man in uniform stands before a Naval Air Transport plane, circa 1945

Immediately following the accident strange occurrences started happening.  One eye-witness claimed that someone walked from the plane crash, but that person was never found.  Witnesses started claiming to hear whistles, footsteps, voices, locks refusing to lock and doors opening unaided.  More than once people have claimed to see a man in all white on Hangar 43’s catwalk.  Dubbed the “Commander,” his purported sightings have caused some to question whether or not Webster still walks at the site of the Olathe Naval Air Station.

The Naval Air Park at New Century AirCenter

The Naval Air Park at New Century AirCenter

While the Olathe Naval Air Station was officially decommissioned in 1969, Johnson County acquired the property in 1973.  New Century AirCenter, as it is now titled, includes a business park with over 64 companies, a rail center and the airport. Also onsite is the Naval Air Park, a small park honoring 16 Navy and Marine service members who trained at the station but “did not return from deployment.” Along a winding path are street signs commemorating the names of these 16 aviators.  All lives lost continue to be honored in memory and encapsulated in lore through the present day and beyond.

See more photos and learn more about the history of the Olathe Naval Air Station from JoCoHistory.org at http://bit.ly/ONAShistory.

-Terri Bostic, Johnson County Library

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