The Day A Plane Landed On The George Washington Bridge

50 Years Ago Today – How Philip Ippolito Landed His Airplane On The George Washington Bridge

Philip Ippolito and passenger Joseph Brennan Jr. walked away from this emergency plane landing on the George Washington Bridge December 26, 1965. photo: Life Magazine

Philip Ippolito and passenger Joseph Brennan Jr. made an emergency landing on the George Washington Bridge, December 26, 1965. photo: Life Magazine

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.

Flight path of Philip Ippolito - illustration New York Times

Flight path of Philip Ippolito 1: Plane embarked 2: engine problems 3: GW Bridge – illustration New York Times

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.

Philip Ippolito weaves through the George Washington Bridge's suspension cables towards New Jersey - photo: New York Times

Philip Ippolito weaves through the George Washington Bridge’s suspension cables towards New Jersey – photo: New York Times

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.”

Plane lands on George Washington Bridge. photo: Life Magazine

Plane lands on George Washington Bridge. photo: Life Magazine

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.

8 thoughts on “The Day A Plane Landed On The George Washington Bridge

  1. Jason Smith

    Phil was my flight instructor and inspired me to to become one myself. We became close friends and flew and laughed for 37 years. Phil passed away at home Sunday, December 19th 2021 comforted by his love Theresa. Phil was a great pilot and a wonderful human being and I will miss him terribly.

  2. Bob Orlove

    Phil taught me how to fly when I was a student at the Academy of Aeronautics in Queens, NY. He was a great instructor. I remember going out over the Great South Bay and doing spins and spin recoveries with him, which was beyond the training syllabus in those days.

  3. niicholas Di Brino

    had known the family and also phil and his brothe;r good people they resided in the Van Nest section of The Bronx, namley Barnes ave near Van Nest ave. a very bright person was phil holding a small aircraft lic at very young age. When this distressted aircraft made this emergency landing you might say it made world news in those peaceful nothing happned of such a magatude of such a local occurance Nicholas D.B Van Nest Historian

  4. Cary Wolinsky

    Phil was my flight instructor in the summer of ’72 out of Islip on Long Island. Unfortunately, I ran out of funds and never did complete my training.

  5. JC

    This evening, while visiting old friends in NJ, I reminisced of the day when we were heading to church in the Bronx one Sunday morning and passed by a plane that had crashed in the middle lanes of the GW bridge. I said I was probably about 10 so it must have been in the mid 60’s. I then wondered if by some chance there was something on the internet about it and to my surprise found this article. I recall being fascinated that this plane had landed on the bridge but as the article stated, traffic just kept rolling by as if it were just another vehicle accident.

  6. Jaymay

    The pilot ran off with my wife in 1999… ( he was also my flight instructor in 1974, when I was 19) 🙂 but I’m much happier now…


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