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50 years after a plane crash killed 4 Bellefonte civic leaders, a son finds site of tragedy

by on August 30, 2019 9:49 AM

They were first a party of three. But as Harold Flick steered his single-engine plane south toward the state capital from Bellefonte Skyport, he didn’t feel he could safely make it to Harrisburg through the overcast sky.

He returned with his two passengers: Bellefonte Mayor Sidney Willar and fellow Jaycee (Junior Chamber of Commerce) member Gerald Robison.

That afternoon of September 4, 1969, the three were on their way for a photo op and to drum up support for the upcoming Big Spring Bicentennial celebration – an event the Bellefonte Jaycees were helping to plan – later that month. According to newspaper reports, they were going to meet Daniel Clemson, a Bellefonte resident and administrative officer with the State Auditor General’s Office; Dr. S.K. Stevens, the executive director of the state Historical and Museum Commission; and Clifford McConnell, chief engineer of the Department of Forests and Waters. Stevens and McConnell were scheduled to be speakers at the bicentennial celebration.

Back on the ground, Flick phoned his business partner, Robert Dunlap, around 3 p.m., telling him he would be coming to work after all that day at the Dunlap Motors dealership along Benner Pike. Dunlap suggested that instead of skipping the meeting, they should take his plane, a larger, faster craft outfitted with weather instruments.

The last time Flick would speak to his wife would be when he phoned her before climbing aboard Dunlap’s Piper Comanche.

In a flash of fire and a thunderous boom that reverberated throughout Port Royal and surrounding farmland, the four men were killed when the plane struck the top of Tuscarora Mountain.

Stacey Flick, Harold’s sixth child, recalls September 4 was the first day of school. Though he was only a boy of 7, the day is vivid to him, in the way only terrible days can be. He recalls his father talking to each of the seven children, telling them he expected a full report at the end of the day. Harold took Stacey and his little brother Randy up onto his lap and raked their faces with his beard (“that was how he let you know he loved you”) before telling them to mind what their teacher said.

Stacey says they knew something was wrong when they came home from school.

“By the time we got home – and we had a long lane to walk, about a half-mile from the school bus stop up to our farmhouse – it was easy to tell something was wrong,” he says.

Shirley Snyder is Harold’s eldest and was 15 years old in 1969. She remembers the moment they knew they would never see him again.
“We all knew he was flying to Harrisburg, and having complete faith in everything, we hadn’t worried,” she says. “But someone accidentally called the house asking for another one of the men who was on the airplane with Daddy. We hadn’t heard from him and he always called. And so we all went on preparing ourselves, laying our clothes out and getting ready for school the next day, just kind of forcing ourselves to do the things we would regularly do, on pins and needles. I did that, and I went over and sat with Mom. Then she saw Bill Stanton’s car. And my mom was quiet. My mom never raised her voice and raised seven children. But she screamed a scream that I will never forget.” 

Snyder has other flashes of memory from that time: standing next to the casket (closed, and never opened) for hours and hours. The procession to the church. A line of cars stretching beyond sight. Her mom dressed in black. It reminded her of seeing the Kennedys on TV at her father’s office after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Newspaper clippings from the Centre Daily Times say hundreds attended memorial rites for the four men at Trinity United Methodist Church. Among the officiants at the gathering was Clemson, who in addition to his role in the Auditor General’s Office was president of the Area Council of Churches.

“We have a mandate to join together to realize the dream they were working for,” Clemson said.

The Jaycees were active community organizers open to men ages 21 to 35. Snyder recalls going door-to-door with her mother to gather signatures in support of the pool at Governor’s Park as one of the many projects her father was a part of. The Jaycees organized the soap box derby, arranged the Miss Centre County pageants, and raised money for all sorts of public projects, says David Smead, who still lives in Bellefonte. He is a former Jaycee who was 28 years old at the time of the crash.

Smead, whose first-ever plane ride was with Dunlap, very well could have been on that plane. Robison asked him to go to Harrisburg that day, but Smead declined since he had to frequently fly for work and didn’t care much for flying anyway.

A Jaycees meeting was scheduled for that same night. Smead says the news had broken by then that the plane had crashed and all they could do was stare at the floor of the Undine fire hall before adjourning. Smead says he and a handful of others went to the Robison house on Logan Street with some money for his wife, and recalls walking into the household fresh with grief and seeing the kids crawling up onto their mother’s lap. He would later be a pallbearer for both Flick and Robison.

Acting Mayor Hugh Manchester issued a proclamation to put the borough into official mourning. One resident described the town’s mood to the Altoona Mirror on Friday, the day after the crash: “It was quiet. A depressed atmosphere. A feeling of tremendous loss. Just terrible to lose men of these ages – potential and present leaders.”

The Big Spring Bicentennial Celebration preparations continued under the pall of grief. The Jaycees did consider canceling the celebration, but decided the following week to soldier on.

Flick and Robison sat on the bicentennial committee, with Flick as its chair. The celebration from September 18-20 was to acknowledge the discovery of the spring by Europeans during a survey trip about 200 years before, as well as the gift of the spring itself to the public from Maj. William Reynolds in 1879.

Festivities kicked off with the crowning of the water princess, who was none other than Snyder herself. She recalls it was exciting to talk to all of the reporters, but of course the whole affair was cast in shadow.

The celebration went on with a reenactment of the discovery of the spring, dancing, school bands, a parade, speeches, competitions between the Logan and Undine firefighters, and a memorial to the four men who were killed while on their public mission.

The crash site

In the mid-1990s, the Flick family attempted to find the site where the four men had perished and had to be carried down the mountain by hand, then Jeep by state police, firefighters, and Civil Air Patrol members – the very same Civil Air Patrol in which Dunlap and Flick were members.

The family’s first few tries to find it were unsuccessful. It was only this past July that Stacey Flick would finally see the crash site for himself. He, his son, and son-in-law finally laid eyes on the wreckage he had spent so much time hunting.

It’s not easy to find a plane crash. Stacey initially approached it with only a vague sense of where the plane went down. Public reports list neither the correct coordinates nor the correct altitude. Anyone who has driven between Centre County and Harrisburg has driven past the crash where Route 322 turns into a more east/west road heading just past Port Royal.

Stacey pieced it together over the course of more than 20 years. He had photos that were given to him of the crash taken in the 1970s, but no one was able to tell him exactly where it was. He talked to firefighters who were on scene that day and other locals in the Port Royal area, including Donald J. McClure, who was a 12-year-old farm boy at the time. McClure told Stacey he heard the plane flying low, then a subsequent crash, but never saw exactly where it made impact. Residents of Port Royal report the plane flew low, right over the racetrack, and impacted a few miles to the east of town.

Stacey approached the problem as he would in his professional life: systematically. He is a supervisor for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry and sometimes helps in search-and-rescue efforts for plane crashes. By working the area as a grid, piecing together the flight path, and gathering human intelligence, he was able to finally locate the site on a hot July 4 day, racing against a rainstorm.

Much of the mountain can be climbed by vehicle along old paths, but it takes about another 40 minutes to bushwhack on foot to the site over rocky terrain. The plane rests in a sort of level trough near the top of the mountain. It’s on private ground, so Stacey tracked down and received permission from the property owner and state game authorities to get access to the parcel.

The metal has, of course, corroded over the years and the forest is slowly beginning to creep back over this foreign object. But there is still plenty to see on the relatively level area of Tuscarora Mountain.

Stacey presumes they hit the side of the mountain at high speed and Dunlap wouldn’t have had much time to throttle back when they began to clip the trees. Much of the wreckage is embedded in the ground and hidden from view. The engines were thrown far from the fuselage.

Both Flick and Dunlap were interested in aviation. Dunlap’s twin-engine Comanche in which they were flying was a popular craft. According to a history written for InFlight in 2000, the late 1950s saw a large number of single-engine PA-24 Comanches coming off Piper assembly lines, perhaps in response to aluminum aircraft coming out of Beech and Cessna – compared to Piper’s cloth-wrapped steel tubing in earlier models. The Comanche sold well through the 1960s, eventually producing the PA-30 Twin Comanche, outfitted with a pair of 160-horsepower Lycoming engines. Early models were capable of at least 180 mph, and later turbo-charged ones could do 220.

The crash report from the National Transportation Safety Board, available with an easy Google search, lists adverse weather conditions of drizzle and fog at the accident site and zero visibility. The probable causes are listed as “inadequate preflight preparation and/or planning,” and “continued VFR (visual flight rules) into adverse weather conditions.” The remarks say only “struck fog shrouded mountain.”

There are conflicting reports as to the timing that afternoon. The NTSB lists a time of crash as 3:23 p.m., while newspaper accounts put it at 4:23 p.m. It was more likely the latter, since Clemson told the CDT he expected to get them from the airport at 5:30 p.m.

Some surfaces are doused with yellow paint that Stacey assumes was stored in the plane and exploded upon impact. First responders described yellow paint dashed against the trees. One NTSB inspector told The Mirror someone had ordered the bodies held at the site for investigation, but that it wasn’t him. Whatever the case, it wasn’t until Friday afternoon that the bodies were brought down the mountain and delivered to the care of Wetzler Funeral Home.

Remembered today

In Talleyrand Park, near the bust of Abraham Lincoln, are four light posts each with plaques at the base memorializing Willar, Robison, Dunlap, and Flick. Smead hopes to one day have a single plaque at eye level with all four of the men’s names and an explanation of the public mission they were on when they died.

Bellefonte Borough’s government will hold a ceremony at 6 p.m. on September 4 in Talleyrand Park to mark the 50th anniversary of the crash.

Willar, 76, was a stone mason originally from Nova Scotia. He fought in World War I and was reportedly decorated by King George V for service in the Gallipoli campaign. He was also a former Pennsylvania state policeman. He was survived by his wife, Emma, and three children: Sidney Jr., John, and Margaret.

Dunlap, 47, originally from Clinton County, was survived by his wife, Marion, and five children: Bonnie, Connie, Diane, Bobby Jo, and Mary Beth. He was active in a number of organizations such as the Elks, Masons, and Civil Air Patrol. He was best known as part owner of Dunlap Motors.

Robison, 29, graduated from Bellefonte Area High School and worked in the College of Engineering at Penn State. He was survived by his wife, Janet, and children Brenda and Kim. Smead recalls that he was in a band. He was a drummer and singer.

Flick, 35, originally of Unionville, was survived by his wife, Shirley, and his seven children: Shirley, Shelley, Sherry, Harold, Susan, Stacey, and Randy.

It’s natural to think of what your parents were doing when they were the age you are now. Both Stacey and Snyder recall their 35th birthdays as they reflected on all their young father had accomplished by that time.

“On my birthday I went up to the graveyard,” Snyder recalls. “I spent the evening there. It’s not real far from our home. It’s beautiful. I did a lot of reflecting. I had a lot of tears. Our life changed dramatically. … I just felt that Dad was so, so young.”

Harold Flick talked openly with his family around the dinner table about his aspirations for Bellefonte, as well as his personal ambitions. He had dreams of running for public office, his children say. He was also working toward improving Bellefonte Skyport. He lobbied for public parks. He was slowly buying up pieces of mountain ground in Bald Eagle Valley to one day develop a ski slope. He was present during one of the local ribbon-cuttings for Interstate 80. He had a boat and cabin at Lake Raystown and loved to ski. He worked with horses and kept a breeding stallion.

The family didn’t have a lot to remember their father by: they had lost their home and all possessions to a fire just two years earlier. It was a dramatic story in its own right, with the patriarch throwing the children out of a window while Snyder caught them after a 14-foot fall.

Stacey recalls his father was devoted to his the family. It was why he sat the children down and told them he expected a report at the end of the first day of school on September 4, 1969.

“He really wanted to make sure we understood and did the best we possibly could in striving for the future,” Stacey says. “It was easy to tell at a young age, 35 years old when this crash occurred, that he had gone for the American dream.”

 

Sean Yoder is a freelance writer living in Bellefonte.

 

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