On Sunday morning, March 15, 1964, many residents of Apalachicola were arriving for the morning’s services at the various churches around town. As people greeted one another before going inside, they were startled to hear the roar of two deep blue jets approaching the airport west of town. A loud crash signaled that one of them had not made the runway. It was a Blue Angel jet from Pensacola, returning from an airshow in West Palm Beach. An engine malfunction had crippled the plane and the pilot attempted to glide in to the Apalachicola runway, only to crash short of the runway, killing him.
Lt. George L. Neale, 30, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had been a Navy aviator since 1955. Prior to assignment to the Angels, he was an F8U Crusader pilot in VF-174, known as the “Hellrazors” attack squadron, and VF-84, referred to as the “Jolly Rogers.”
He joined the Blue Angels in 1962 and flew initially in the number 3 position, the left wingman. Later he would be in the number 4 position on the world-famous flight team.
That morning, at 9:38 a.m., the six members of the team took off from Palm Beach International Airport in their F-11A Grumman Tigers, escorted by the team’s cargo airplane Douglas R5D Skymaster. Climbing to 22,500 feet, they headed northwest towards Pensacola and home. The flight was expected to take one hour and 10 minutes.
Some ways into the flight Neale’s plane began to lag behind the others. He notified the leader that he was experiencing engine vibrations and was going to divert. He was advised to go to Tyndall Air Force Base, and Lt. Frank Mizzadri, flying in the number 5 position, was detailed to escort Neale down.
Experiencing severe vibrations and an engine temperature of 1000 degrees, Neale shut down his engine. He switched to manual fuel control, but when he attempted to relight the engine, the same problems persisted.
Once again he shut down his engine. By this time he was flying at 22,000 feet. Sighting an airport, he was advised by the Tyndall control tower that it was the Apalachicola airport. Neale decided to try landing here.
His jet was rapidly losing altitude as Neale lined up along runway 23 for a landing. Mizzadri was flying about 500 feet to his right, slightly behind and above him. As his unpowered plane continued to drop, he saw he was not going to make the runway. He ejected at an altitude of 150 feet.
Linda Glass, a freshman at Chapman High School, was sitting on her grandmother’s front porch, reading, when she heard the planes approaching. Looking up she saw the canopy fly off and the pilot eject.
Neale’s ejection seat had enough thrust to throw him clear of the plane, but it was an older seat design and did not have enough force to throw him high enough. Before his parachute could fully deploy, at about 11:15 a.m. he hit the ground on the north side of Bluff Road, landing in the roadside ditch in front of Bud Wesson’s house. His plane hit the ground just to the south side of the road, gouging a 26-feet-long hole and missing an unoccupied house by about 50 feet. The wreckage sheared off a 50-foot pine tree about two feet above the ground as it broke apart. The area was sprayed with jet fuel from the aircraft, but the debris did not catch on fire.
W. H. Meadows, who lived 200 yards from the crash site, witnessed the crash with his son, Billy. They ran to assist, as did Glass. Neale was still breathing when they reached him, but he only survived a few minutes before he died from his injuries.
Cleve Randolph, the airport manager, had noticed the plane in distress and called Tyndall. They acknowledged they had received a “May Day” call from the Navy pilot and dispatched an ambulance to assist.
Mizzadri circled over the town to attract attention and then landed at the airport. The cargo plane carrying the Blue Angels ground crew and equipment also landed at the airport to provide what assistance they could. Soon the military had the crash site cordoned off and prevented the taking of pictures, but not before the Tallahassee Democrat had snapped a picture for its Monday edition.
The Navy investigated the accident and determined the cause of the engine vibration to be a failed main bearing support assembly. Neale was faulted, however, for not following proper procedure and for not ejecting from the plane above 10,000 feet when he was unable to restart his engine.
Neale was survived by his wife, Donna, and his mother, Katherine Neale.
The crash site is at the curve of Bluff Road in front of Charles Thompson’s house at 1001 Bluff Road.