Wreck Hunters: Uncovering the History of Unlucky Aviators

The wreckage of lost aircraft tell their own stories.

Wreck Hunters Feature

Wreck Hunters Feature

Climbing over large boulders blocking the mouth of a narrow, sandy canyon near Joshua Tree, California, I stopped to catch my breath. Somewhere on the steep, rock-strewn hills just ahead, the remains of a TA-4F Skyhawk lay undisturbed. At 3:07 p.m. on Oct. 23, 1969, the ill-fated jet on a training flight originating in Yuma, Arizona, spun in from 31,000 feet, exploding on impact. The 29-year-old pilot bailed out successfully and hiked down this very canyon seeking assistance. His 24-year-old copilot wasn’t so lucky. His ejection seat malfunctioned, and he perished. No one had visited this crash site since its cleanup shortly after the crash. If our group could locate the site, we would be uncovering a story that had remained untold for 44 years.

**THE HUNTERS AND THE HUNTED **

Ryan Gilmore is the leader of our group of seven. Ryan is a wreck hunter. Wreck hunters are also known as wreck finders, aviation archeologists or aviation accident historians. Although popular in some circles, the name “wreck chaser” is considered a pejorative, sounding a bit too much like ambulance chaser. A few of the hunters are pilots, but many are not. Some specialize in a certain era, such as World War II or the Cold War, and only a small number have any formal archeological training. The wreck hunter’s mission is to find, document and preserve crash sites. They’re also interested in discovering and recounting the stories of the star-crossed pilots, their crews and passengers — those who perished and the lucky ones who survived.

Wreck hunting is a worldwide avocation that started in post-World War II Europe with interest spreading to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. With thousands of military and civilian crash reports on the books in the United States alone, wreck hunters won’t soon run out of sites. Just for the record, wreck hunting is not generally considered to include the recovery and restoration of vintage aircraft.

To date, Ryan has 190 wrecks to his credit. He hopes that the Skyhawk will be number 191. Ryan, who has a degree in archeology and works as a consulting biologist, started wreck hunting in high school. “I liked hiking, and I liked planes,” he says. When he was 16, Ryan hiked towering Mount Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California and found one wreck there. “I went back soon after and found another one, but I didn’t start seriously hunting until about five or six years ago,” he says.

Joining Ryan in the search are G. Pat Macha, a retired high school teacher and well-known wreck hunter; his son and elementary school teacher Patric J. Macha; pilot Chris LeFave; retired park ranger Tom Maloney; myself; and one other searcher. Just three of us are pilots. All group members are based in Southern California, and all are experienced wreck hunters, except me — this is my first search.

A meticulous researcher, Ryan obtained the military crash report and the local sheriff’s report for the Skyhawk. By matching crash site photos with terrain and other data contained in the reports, he found the probable location of the aircraft, and he’s sure we are nearing it. After climbing over the boulders, we fan out over the terrain keeping our eyes out for anything that doesn’t seem to belong there. If Ryan is right about the location, we could expect to find small pieces of aluminum, possibly recognizable parts, fragments of personal items and maybe even larger parts that have washed down the hills or were left behind by the Marine Corps recovery team. A couple of us continue up the dry, rocky wash to climb a hill where you might expect debris, while others search the canyon walls toward the mouth of the wash. Alas, we find nothing.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Before lacing up your hiking shoes, Ryan suggests you get detailed information. “More than 90 percent of the job is research,” he says. “That means getting the crash report, a police or sheriff’s report, and sometimes, these documents aren’t worthwhile at all as far as locating the wreck. You can also look up newspaper articles, talk to people and consult books like Pat’s.”

Ryan is talking about G. Pat Macha, search team member and the author of three books on aircraft wrecks. Fascinating reading for armchair wreck hunters, his books are often used as sources to find the locations of downed airplanes in Southern California. If you’re in another part of the country, you’ll find many other books and websites that describe crash locations.

Pat has been an aviation accident historian — his preferred nomenclature — for more than 50 years, with the bulk of his about 1,000 finds located in the mountains and deserts of Southern California. “My goal is to document every crash site on my list in California, including the Channel Islands,” he says. “I’m at about 80 percent now.” Since he retired from his job as a high school teacher 10 years ago, Pat has been at it full time. A large map with pushpins showing the locations of wrecks he has found and other wrecks he hopes to find dominates his garage-based home office. The map should be particularly interesting to pilots, since numerous crashes are near the tops of mountains and in mountain passes — telling the sad stories of those who almost made it.

Once you know the approximate location of the crash site, find out if it is on private property. If so, you must get permission from the owner to access it. Our Skyhawk is on Bureau of Land Management land, but to get to it, we had to walk through private property. We got the owner’s permission to cross beforehand.

THE THRILL OF THE HUNT

From the side of the rocky hill I’m scaling, I hear the guys shouting and waving to come back. They have found the site. Ryan finds the first piece of twisted metal within arm’s reach near the entrance of the wash. Other wreckage is located farther up the adjacent desert canyon wall, including a piece of the aircraft’s 20-millimeter cannon. I find a fragment of a jet turbine blade. Chris is sorting through debris, which turns out to be the cockpit impact site. He finds a piece of the headset cord. It’s an exciting moment for us, since we can be fairly certain this cord belonged to the copilot, and we are the first to see it since 1969.

Search team member Chris is a pilot and former rodeo rider, and he loves everything about aviation. He became interested in the hobby when he was in the Civil Air Patrol about 15 years ago and helped spot wrecks. “I wanted to see them on the ground,” he says. “I like to hike, so I combine hiking with the excitement of the find.” Chris has found about 100 wrecks since he got the hunting bug. Like many wreck hunters, Chris favors World War II sites, but he also has visited civilian wrecks and the crash site of a C-130 resulting from the first known wing failure of a fire-fighting airplane near Pearblossom, California.

Finding the aircraft crash site in the first place can be tough — even using modern tools like GPS and Google Earth. Despite all his research, Ryan was not sure we would find the Skyhawk. Vectors to crash sites noted on early military crash reports are not always accurate. At the site itself, the major parts of the wreck have often been removed, leaving only a debris field that’s invisible on Google Earth and could easily be walked through without noticing it.

Pete Noddin, a safety manager in the paper industry, hunts wrecks in northern Maine where dense woods present a unique challenge. “Unlike in the West, you can’t line up photos to match with terrain because of the trees,” he says. “I combine old-fashioned tracking and interviewing of locals with GPS to keep track of where I’ve searched — and to find my truck,” he laughs. “In Maine, it can take many years to find a crash site.”

If you are tempted to pocket a souvenir or scavenge parts, they may not be yours for the taking. The Navy retains custody of all its ship and aircraft wrecks unless specific, formal action is taken to dispose of them. The Air Force con-siders aircraft that crashed before 1961 formally abandoned. However, there are also state and federal laws that determine ownership. We don’t have ownership concerns with the Skyhawk wreckage, since we will not be removing any artifacts. Preservation of the site and respect for crash victims dictates that it’s best to leave the artifacts right where you found them. Besides, as Chris points out, “It’s easier to store photos than actual pieces of aircraft.”

THE HAZARDS OF THE HUNT

While anyone can be a wreck hunter, reasonable physical condition is a must. Consider the strenuous 20-mile round trip hike to the location of an Air Force Douglas C-47B transport that crashed about 500 feet below the peak of San Gorgonio Mountain in 1952, killing 13 people. This was Pat’s first find back in 1963, when there were no trails to it. Today, the trail goes right through the wreckage, but the hike is still a tough, two-day adventure in good weather.

Dealing with snakes, bears, mountain lions, bees, poison oak, rough terrain and bad weather are other considerations. Pat lived to tell about meeting a bear face-to-face in the mountains of Mammoth Lakes, California. Also, hunters must be aware of tripping over marijuana growers and meth labs. The welcome mat is not out at those places. You can also get lost or fall and injure yourself. A GPS and personal locator device are must-haves if you get serious about wreck hunting. Your cell phone may not work in a remote canyon.

Wreck hunting also requires patience. Ask Trey Brandt, a real estate professional and an avid wreck hunter with 23 years of experience and more than 400 finds. Specializing in hard-to-find crash sites, Trey, who lives in Phoenix, spent 11 years and made 25 attempts before finding a P-51 Mustang. “It’s about perseverance,” he says. “You can talk to landowners, research articles, and then it’s just boots on the ground.”

Wreck hunting can be expensive and time-consuming. Purchasing crash reports, driving to the site, meals, gear, emergency equipment, etc., all add up — not to mention the hours of research you’ll be spending before you leave home.

SAVING SITES FOR THE FUTURE

Back on our remote mountain in Yucca Valley, California, we were about to make a rare find. Digging in the cockpit impact area, Chris unearths the face of the copilot’s watch. It was an emotional moment for all of us and one more reason to approach all crash sites with respect. True to our way of thinking, we examined the watch, photographed it and then returned it to the site. While not adhered to by all wreck hunters, our preservation philosophy resonates with Craig Fuller of Phoenix.

Craig is a former flight instructor with a background in aeronautical science and aviation safety accident investigation. These days, he’s a property manager who’s also working on a master’s degree in archeology. Craig is a well-known wreck hunter. While he doesn’t keep track of the number of wrecks he’s found, Craig estimates the total to be between 500 and 1,000. For anyone interested in finding wreck sites, Craig is a man to know about. He has all the declassified accident reports from the Army Air Forces, Air Force, Navy and government up to 1955 on microfilm, housed on a mind-boggling 3,000 reels.

Deeply involved in wreck hunting since high school, Craig thinks it’s important to develop a code of ethics among those who find sites. “It’s up to us to preserve the sites,” he says. “These are historic sites that should remain available for future visitors.” Craig does not give out the locations of the sites he’s visited, believing that the hunt is more interesting if enthusiasts do their own research.

The upside is that crash sites are getting easier to find with GPS, Google Earth, message boards, email and other readily available tools. The downside is they are more likely to be vandalized, with little left for future visitors to see. That’s why most wreck hunters do not reveal exact locations. Trey agrees with Craig. “If we share coordinates, they will be plundered, and the stories will be lost to future generations,” he says.

WILL THEY EVER BE FOUND?

Some crashes and their ill-fated pilots have captured the imagination of wreck finders and the public. Arguably, the most famous of these is Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan, who disappeared in the vicinity of Howland Island on July 2, 1937, while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. Several highly publicized attempts have been made to find their Lockheed Electra, and stories abound about the fate of the famous pilot and navigator, but so far their final resting place remains a mystery.

On October 26, 1944, Women Airforce Service Pilot Gertrude Tompkins Silver vanished while ferrying a P-51D from Mines Field in California (now LAX) to Newark, New Jersey. Time, technology and luck may find her remains, which Pat and others believe lie under several feet of muck in Santa Monica Bay.

SEEKING CLOSURE

Wreck hunters soon discover that the personal stories of the pilots, passengers and crew members are a part of what they uncover at a crash site. Often, family members wish to visit the crash site.

Several years ago, Craig received a request from the husband of a woman whose father was killed in 1952 when she was just 3 years old. Her father was flying a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star near Lake Mead, Nevada, and collided with another aircraft. With her 50th birthday nearing, she wanted to go to the crash site. Coincidentally, Craig had been at the site three or four weeks before. Craig took family members to the site of the crash on a tiny outcropping in Lake Mead. The group almost immediately found a cockpit rail, so they knew they were in the right spot. The husband found a small piece of glass and had it made into a teardrop necklace, so his wife would have a memory of her father close to her heart. “It was the most emotional moment I can ever recall,” Craig says.

After visiting numerous crash sites, Pat developed Project Remembrance Team, a group of volunteers who give time and resources to grant the requests of next of kin. Requests include visiting the crash site, placing a memorial marker or sometimes even viewing the site from the air. Special consideration is given to family members of lost servicemen and women. When relatives wish to visit the crash site, Pat facilitates their journey. “Sometimes, the family members stay with us the night before we go, so I can prepare them for what they’re about to see,” he says. “It can be very emotional.” Other wreck finders take the direct approach and contact family members when they find personal items, such as dog tags or clothing. Because of the sensitive nature of crash sites, Pat cautions would-be wreck hunters. “Remembering that we are touching the past during crash site visitations is an important message for those interested in our avocation,” he says.

LESSONS LEARNED

Every crash tells a story that can help prevent another tragedy, and the Skyhawk is no exception. According to the aircraft accident report Ryan obtained, the cause of the stall/spin was unknown, but the pilot’s inability to recover is attributed to inadequate spin-recovery training and incomplete spin-recovery procedures in the flight manual. The accident investigation further revealed that the rear ejection seat failed mainly because of the design deficiency of the installation. Numerous recommendations were made, including better pilot training, more flight tests, and additions to the flight manual based on the results of the flight tests.

We ended our visit to the Skyhawk’s unplanned destination with a tribute to the copilot and by making a short video documenting the discovery of the crash site. Having accomplished our mission, we walked down the canyon, each with our own private thoughts. I was reminded about how a sophisticated flying machine can be turned into a debris field in a matter of seconds. It’s something to think about when you’re trying to sneak through a cloud-shrouded mountain pass.

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