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Dec. 12, 1949: Bolling crash rescue boats pull 19 from Potomac crash

BOLLING AFB, D.C. -- At 8: 41 p.m. Dec. 12, 1949, Capital Airlines Flight 500, en route from Memphis to Washington National Airport, crashed in the Potomac. The DC-3 aircraft had stalled at an altitude too low to permit a recovery. Twenty-three people were on board Capital 500. Members of Bolling's crash rescue boat flight pulled out 19 survivors from the water.

That Bolling had its own operational airfield until 1962 is widely known. What isn't common knowledge is the flotilla of boats Bolling used for everything from ferrying high-ranking officers and dignitaries back and forth across the Potomac. In addition, there were crash rescue boats used to save the lives of pilots and passengers from Bolling and Washington National Airport.

The story of Bolling's maritime flight begins in 1942 with the Bolling Maritime Transportation Unit, a part of the transportation division. It's 40-foot ferry boats left hourly for the Pentagon. The ferries, called "beetles" due to their appearance, could each carry 50 passengers. The BMTU also had two "Air Staff boats," launches that could go twice as fast as the ferries, but carried only 20 general officers each.

Less than five years later, the ferrying mission was expanded to include a crash rescue boat section that had an Army rescue ship, a 46-foot salvage boat and two 22-foot runabouts capable of great speeds. In time, these boats became the 21st Crash Rescue Boat Flight. The Airmen who steered and maintained the fleet were generally mocked for not being involved with a flying mission.

The 21st CRB Flight supported the Naval Air Station and Harbor Police, as well as Bolling and Washington National, but not all incidents met with as much success as Capital 500.

On Nov. 1, 1949, a Douglas C-54B with 55 people on board en route from Boston to Washington National collided with a P-38. The only survivor of the crash was the P-38 pilot. It was one of the worst airline disasters in the region's history. Many people on Bolling could watch as the recovery dragged on for days. In response, the boatcrews focused on their training and cleared lines of communication for any future emergencies. Less than six weeks later, the crash of Capital 500 would test their resolve.

The rescue of Capital 500 was a watershed moment, not just for Bolling, but for crash rescue boat flights nationwide. The boatcrew Airmen, long derided by flyers for being the Air Force's "navy," had proven their contribution to their bases at a moment of great need and were praised for their training. The rescue changed the way the Air Force leadership saw the men and women who piloted the crash rescue boats.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg himself personally thanked the Bolling crash boat crews for their rescue of the 19 survivors of Capital 500.

The Air Force closed down the crash rescue boat mission nation-wide on June 30, 1956. Many of the World War II-era rescue boats in the Air Force inventory were now showing their age and deemed too expensive for the Air Force to replace.