All That Remains
Old aircraft crash scenes are littered with story fragments.
- By Howard James Stansfield
- Air & Space magazine, November 2002
(Page 3 of 5)
One evening, a group of us sets out on one of Fuller’s workshops, piling into trucks for a three-hour drive from Fuller’s home to the southeastern Arizona town of Wilcox. There, we spend the night at the home of Jim Fusco, a wreck chaser and friend of Fuller’s and Brandt’s. Early the next morning, Fuller and Fusco lead us to a site where in 1943 a B-24 plowed into a mountain. According to the Army Air Forces accident report, the bomber’s rookie crew got lost after departing Tucson on a night training mission.
Our trip illustrates an axiom of wreck chasing: The more inaccessible the site, the better the payoff. This site took us almost three hours to reach on foot, but we were rewarded by the sight of the World War II aircraft’s intact wings, complete with landing gear still tucked inside the wells, and aluminum skin that gleamed as if it had been riveted into place yesterday.
Fuller says his idea of a “dream site” would be one he stumbled across without prior knowledge, leaving him to “solve the riddle.” It probably would not take him long. If the wreck site is that of, say, a World War II-era Vultee BT-13 Valiant, he will tell you that the airplane likely spun in, because that type had among the most unforgiving spin characteristics of any trainer ever produced. Using one of the thick parts catalogs he carries with him, he can translate a tiny inspector’s stamp on a shard of metal into a precise part identification, right down to the plant where the part was manufactured.
G. Pat Macha, a chaser from California, shares Fuller’s fantasy: “The thing that gets me,” he says, “is the thought that there could still be something under the sun that no one has ever seen before.” Macha, a soon-to-retire Los Angeles high school history teacher who has written several books on the subject and who many consider the dean of wreck chasers, began hunting wrecks throughout California in the early 1960s. In the years since, he has visited more than 300 sites.
Macha is occasionally called upon to help solve an aviation mystery—identifying debris stumbled upon by hikers and forest rangers, for instance. Two years ago, he received a call that topped them all. The caller was Ken Whitall-Scherfee, a Sacramento attorney; his wife, Laura, is the great-niece of Gertrude Tompkins Silver, who had flown with the Women Airforce Service Pilots, the only group of women to fly U.S. military aircraft during World War II. One evening in 1944, Silver took off in a factory-new P-51 Mustang from Mines Field (now Los Angeles International Airport), detailed to ferry the aircraft to New Jersey for shipment overseas. Her first stop was Palm Springs, and she never made it. Silver became the only WASP to go missing. Whitall-Scherfee asked if Macha was interested in helping solve the riddle.
Macha was. He had long considered Silver’s disappearance one of the more intriguing aviation mysteries of the Second World War. After studying the official Army Air Forces report, Macha theorized that Silver had become disoriented shortly after takeoff when she flew into a fog bank that had rolled in over Santa Monica Bay, just a mile and a half from the end of the runway at Mines. Last September, Macha and a group of volunteers began planning a survey of the bay’s bottom with sonar scanners they’d been able to borrow. Unfortunately, technical and logistical problems (after the September 11 attacks, “we didn’t want to have to explain to the Coast Guard what we were doing under the flight path to LAX,” he says) forced the team to halt its efforts. Macha hopes to try the survey again sometime this year.
Trey Brandt has also worked with family members to help them find out what exactly happened to their loved ones. He recalls a recent example: During his first trip to the Stratofreighter crash site on Gray Mountain last year, Brandt spotted a wadded-up blue airman’s jacket wedged under a boulder. In one pocket he found a medal of St. Anthony, patron saint of, among other things, shipwrecks and seekers of lost items. In another pocket he found a set of dog tags belonging to one of the Stratofreighter’s crew members. The jacket, Brandt guesses, had been left there by a member of the Air Force recovery team, who had pocketed the dog tags while scouring the site. Brandt continued to search, and ended up finding the dog tags of four other crew members, along with personal effects, including a watch stopped at 8:54 a.m.—a little more than 30 minutes after the airplane made its last position report.
Back home, Brandt began doing what he does so well, eventually tracking down survivors of three of the five crewmen and returning the dog tags. One of the survivors was Doris Dees, widow of the Stratofreighter’s copilot, Charles Darwin Dees. Brandt contacted her at her North Carolina home in June 2001. “I thought it was some sort of scam,” she recalls. “I kept waiting for him to ask me to send him money.”