50 Years Ago Today – How Philip Ippolito Landed His Airplane On The George Washington Bridge
The world was amazed in 2009 when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed his hobbled jetliner on the Hudson River without any loss of life. It was an incredible feat of savvy piloting.
A forgotten episode of amazing aeronautical maneuvering occurred 50 years ago when on Sunday, December 26, 1965, 19-year-old Philip Ippolito of the Bronx, made a successful emergency landing on the top level of the George Washington Bridge.
Ippolito had rented a 34 foot wide Aeronca Champion single prop plane for $10 per hour for two hours from Ramapo Valley Airport in Spring Valley, NY. He planned on a morning joy ride to visit a former flight instructor friend in Red Bank, NJ. Along with Ippolito was a friend, passenger, Joseph F. Brennan Jr., 39. The pair departed from Spring Valley at 9 a.m.
About 20 minutes into the flight at an altitude of 3,100 feet over Manhattan, the engine began to falter. Ippolito kept trying to revive the engine but it was not working. With the plane losing altitude rapidly and the engine sputtering, Ippolito looked over the icy Hudson River and thought of trying to make a water landing. He asked Brennan if he could swim to which Brennan replied, “Not a stroke.”
Ippolito quickly thought about his options on where to make an emergency landing. The New Jersey Meadowlands, which Ippolito thought would be too soft and swampy from recent rain and the George Washington Bridge looming a couple of miles ahead to the north with relatively light traffic. With no time to lose, Ippolito turned the plane around and headed for the bridge.
As the plane approached the bridge, the engine had completely conked out. Battling wind gusts of up to 28 miles per hour, Ippolito banked the plane to the left, weaving it successfully through the bridge’s suspension cables, each 89 feet apart, and headed towards New Jersey as he descended to the bridge’s roadway. Ippolito made his way towards the two unused lanes of the bridge’s center roadway where a small divider was set up to separate east and westbound traffic.
Ippolito glided in at 90 miles per hour and as he touched down the plane’s wingtip barely clipped a tanker truck which ruined what would have been a perfect landing. The impact with the truck spun the plane around and forced the nose to grind into the roadway. As the plane came to a halt a couple of hundred feet later, the windshield shattered, the propeller bent and pieces of the wing and struts were scattered along the road.
The driver of the tanker truck Woodrow Leone told the New York Times, “I was driving along about 40 when I happened to glance in my side view mirror and I saw this plane coming up on me from the left. It was a funny feeling I didn’t know what to think or do.”
Emerging from the plane, Ippolito had bruises all over his body and Brennan lost a tooth and had a deep gash on his chin. Other than that, there were no other injuries and both men were released from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital the following day.
Maybe the most incredible thing about the entire incident is that after the plane crashed, traffic kept moving.
Drivers on the bridge who witnessed the landing slammed their cars to a halt to stare in disbelief. But as jaded as New Yorkers are, drivers quickly resumed their trips. When the the Port Authority police arrived they kept traffic flowing as they told rubberneckers to move on, there’s nothing to see here!
In 1967 the Federal Aviation Administration concluded their investigation of the crash and charged that Ippolito had failed to check the fuel tank cap which came off during the flight causing the plane to lose fuel and the engine to sputter. The F.A.A. claimed that when Ippolito landed he was not in an emergency situation, implying the entire episode was a stunt! Elizabeth Bowers, the F.A.A. hearing officer, concluded Ippolito could have made a safe landing at Teterboro Airport five miles away instead of the George Washington Bridge, which was not an appropriate place to make an emergency landing.
Ippolito’s pilot license was suspended for six months. Upon appeal in April 1968 Ippolito was vindicated and his suspension was overturned.