A Backcountry Adventure

Sometimes a hike is just a hike. Sometimes picking huckleberries is just another excuse to explore. Sometimes we find strange and unusual things in our State Parks, and it starts a new chapter in our lives.

Mat Walden lives near Elk, at the base of Mount Spokane, and he thoroughly enjoys living so close to such a big playground. He frequently criss-crosses the Park on foot or on skis, and he often brings his family on these backcountry tours. He readily confesses he isn’t a Mount Spokane expert; then again he can pinpoint on a Google Earth screen most of the trailheads, logging roads, stone shelters, ski area boundaries, snowmobile routes, or nearly any other feature from memory.

A few years back, he discovered some plane wreckage, and when he returned home he did a little online research. He learned that he had found the debris field of a significant KC-135 plane crash from September of 1962. He wasn’t surprised to learn about the one plane crash, but he was amazed to learn just how many planes have crashed into Mount Spokane.

A Series Of Plane Crashes

Generally speaking, ski resorts follow a theme when naming their ski runs or trails, but a quick glance at the Mount Spokane ski map suggests they bucked that idea long ago. No doubt the trail names emerged as the area grew and the resort evolved, however one run secured its name through a distinct tragedy.

On the far southern end of the ski area boundary, near the base of the main bald spot that faces the city, a skier can cruise down the enjoyable, short and engaging B-29. This run earned its name from a terrible accident in November of 1947 in which a Boeing B-29 Superfortress was flying too low over Mount Spokane in bad weather and crashed.

John Linder and Tom Kinzer were plowing the road up to the old ski area on Mount Spokane that night. A few minutes in either direction, and the plane might have hit them. According to the Spokane Daily Chronicle, the Sheriff said, “Linder and Kinzer went immediately to the crash, but found no sign of life. They went about five miles down the mountain to the lodge to a telephone and notified the sheriff’s office.” When Linder and Kinzer returned to the crash site, they “heard men calling for help, “ and they found two of them alive. The two survivors were treated at the ski lodge and then transported to the hospital.

One year earlier in October 1946, bad weather also wrecked “Crazy Trader Lonza”. Rudolph Lonza was an Army Air Corps flight instructor during World War II and a skilled pilot. On Halloween evening, 1946, he attempted to fly home to Spokane from Helena, Montana, but a severe storm over the Bitterroot Mountains compromised his flight pattern. He was aiming for Spokane Airport (now Felts Field) when Mount Spokane got in the way. He smashed into the southeast side of the mountain, roughly at the 3,500-foot level. Consensus from the experts suggested the cause of the crash was heavy icing on the plane.

Skip ahead almost fifteen years, and Mount Spokane hosted the worst accident (at the time) of a Boeing C-135 class airplane. On September 10th, 1962, a KC-135A BN Stratotanker left Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, South Dakota but never made it to Fairchild AFB. This crash made national news for several reasons: 44 people died, 39 men from the 28th Bomb Wing were relocating to Fairchild while their runways were simply being repaired and repaved, and they all died a mere ten minutes from safety. The plane mowed down a 200-yard stripe of trees, according to Col. Floyd R. Cressman of Fairchild, but the main crash site has since been logged. The magnitude of this crash immediately called for a comprehensive investigation, which included representatives from the Civil Aeronautics Board, the Federal Aviation Administration, and Boeing Aircraft Company, and a five-man crash-probe team from Norton AFB, California.

Barely five years after the brutal 1962 KC-135 crash, a second KC-135 crashed into one of Mount Spokane’s ridges about three miles southeast from the summit. Newspapers report that Jerry Dietz and Del Kerr of Idaho used their snowcat to find the wreckage. The main fuselage and tail were the only identifiable parts, and that suggested the plane did not skid after it crashed into the snow-covered forest around Quartz Mountain. The tanker was escorting a group of McDonald-Douglas F-4C Phantom jet fighters from Hickam AFB, Hawaii. In addition to the four-man crew, the aircraft was transporting five airmen back to Fairchild. Dietz said he was led to the crash when he found a burned sleeve lying in a trail. This crash appears to be the most mysterious of the group.

Visting The Sites

By every possible measurement, Mount Spokane dominates Eastern Washington. Though it doesn’t reach the same heights as the Cascades or the Selkirks, it is the tallest peak in the area at 5889 ft/1795 m. Even more impressive, Mount Spokane State Park is the largest of all of Washington’s State Parks at 13,919 acres. Essentially bad weather plus human error caused all of the plane crashes, but it didn’t help that the large and remote hill made investigations, let alone rescues, next to impossible.

Wayne Hamann, now 87, accompanied his father on the 1962 rescue efforts. Although Mr. Hamann is still quick with a joke, he frequently admits his memory isn’t what it used to be. The years have blurred the event, but he recalls reading about all of the Mount Spokane crashes through the decades. Hamann reports “We’ve used the moon for target practice, but can’t seem to keep planes off those hills.”

Visiting the crash sites might not be the same challenge it was over 50 years ago, but it genuinely makes for an interesting and revealing outing. Some sites are fairly simple to find, and other sites require someone to lead you to the exact spot. However, the most important thing to remember about all of these sites is that they are historical sites as well as final resting places, and they all deserve respect. Please do not remove any wreckage.

Obviously, the B-29 site appears on the ski resort map. The ski trail itself does not follow the B-29’s crash path but only crosses it at one point. The ski trail then angles back towards the lodge at the base of the resort area. The site is basically clean and evidence of the crash has nearly vanished, but the huckleberry picking during the prime season is fabulous. One can park at the Big Spring Picnic Area approximately 1/2 mile up the Summit Road that starts near the snowmobile parking area. Or, continue to the Bald Knob Campground, and traverse east to the ski run. While driving to the summit of Mount Spokane, one can view the sign for the B-29 ski run at mile 2.2 on the Summit Road.

Truth be told, the crash site for “Crazy Trader Lonza” is a well-kept secret. Though Rudolph Lonza crashed within the State Park, the crash site on the east side of the mountain is not openly public knowledge. Proof that it’s well hidden can be traced to the fact it took over a year for searchers to locate the wreckage.

The 1962 KC-135 poses a particular problem. It’s relatively close to the road, but it’s excruciatingly difficult to find. This site became the seed for this article, and it’s visited regularly, but it’s still very tough to describe because after the area was logged it was quickly overgrown by lots of underbrush. A rugged vehicle with decent clearance is required.

Starting on Hwy 2, take the Elk/Chattaroy Exit. Follow East Elk Chattaroy Road until it splits and take a right onto East Tallman Road (near North Dunn Road). Stay on Tallman—the road morphs into North Tallman road and then back to East Tallman road. This road twists and turns quite a bit and eventually becomes North Blanchard Creek Road. When the pavement ends, it’s approximately 5.7 miles to the parking spot. Continuing on Blanchard Creek Road, one will eventually see a yellow sign that reads “Summer Road Ahead” – it’s now approximately 1.2 miles to the parking spot.
The road passes a few piles of litter and it has lots of tangents, but stay on the main dirt road. Park at a wide, four-way, dirt-road intersection, in a grassy spot, across from a brown sign that reads “Entering Mount Spokane State Park.” This sign is tough to see while driving to the area, however, the intersection appears in one of the few wide spots and it’s at the very corner of the logged area. Some computer scouting on Google Earth is strongly recommended if only to pinpoint North Blanchard Creek Road and see where it crosses the logged area.

Looking up towards the summit of Mount Spokane, one can see across the half-mile wide logging zone. There’s a massive dirt barrier in place to seal off the old logging roads from motorized vehicles, however it’s quite simple to walk over. Climb up and over the hillside barrier, and follow the plain, unmistakable logging road for about a quarter of a mile, then cut right or uphill over three more barriers. Just past the third barrier, looking left towards Mount Spokane, one can see another faint logging road that parallels the first one. Follow this one into the thick brush—depending on the foliage and your eyesight, you should begin seeing bits of metal and chunks of aluminum shortly.

The 1967 KC-135 rests in an extremely popular portion of the park, but only the most dedicated investigators ever really find its resting place. First, consider one accident report description: “they finally found the bulk of the wreckage near the top of Linder Ridge (4,856 feet), approximately one-quarter mile north of Quartz Mountain.” This statement places the wreck fairly close to the Nova Hut on the Nordic ski trails.

Drive to the Selkirk Lodge, just past the snowmobile parking area. Arial photos and eyewitness accounts suggest the wreck is below the Hemlock cross-country ski trail not far from the second junction. From the air, the gouge in the hillside is visible if you know what to look for, but the site is very difficult to identify on the ground due to the thick brush and steep hillside. Keep in mind the ’67 wreck received the most scrutiny, and nearly every fragment was carted away for the investigation.

The Last Kc-135

While every crash site is unique, it’s very strange that Mount Spokane State Park hosts two KC-135 crashes in a 5-year span. Both crashes were in foul weather and both were conducting instrument arrival procedures when they crashed. That procedure calls for a clockwise circle around the Mount Spokane area before turning into final approach for Fairchild AFB.

Considering the first KC-135 crash still echoed in the memories of the search and rescue forces, the Mount Spokane Ski Patrol and the Washington State Patrol made concerted efforts to search for the second plane in the same vicinity as the first plane. Only after Air Force officials analyzed their radar data a little bit closer did search parties expand their investigation.

At the time of the accident, winds over the mountainous area were reported to be in excess of 100 mph, however an aircraft that size would not have been influenced by turbulence so drastically. Some aviation investigators surmised that icing could have caused the accident, however the pilot hadn’t reported any problems and there had been no emergency distress signal. Others posed the idea that there must be something wrong with this flight pattern since it was the second crash in five years. An investigation team was formed, the wreckage was removed and studied, and a military task force wrote up an accident report for the Air Force.

On February 3, 1967, the Air Force announced that the investigation into the crash of KC-135, No. 56-3613, had been concluded. Colonel Culbertson, Accident Investigation Board chairman, stated that the cause would not be made public and declined to comment on whether the accident resulted from human error, flawed procedures, or mechanical failure. Although the accident all but duplicated the earlier KC-135 crash, Culbertson said that there was no similarity. That accident had been caused by navigational error combined with adverse weather conditions, whereas the cause of the ‘67 accident was secret. Culbertson added that although the landing approach pattern to Fairchild AFB over Mount Spokane State Park would not be altered, board-recommended changes in the “particular instrument procedure” had been put into effect to prevent any further accidents.

High Terrain And Runways

The harsh reality is that one plane crash is one too many. While the majority of Mount Spokane visitors see the Park as a winter playground or a summer training spot for running and biking, the mountain can offer so much more for anyone willing to explore. This collection of events is only a sliver of the historical things that have taken place up there.

A combined total of 59 men lost their lives in the plane crashes in the State Park. The full reports are archived at each plane’s home Air Force Base. Perhaps someday there will be a memorial for these men somewhere in Washington’s largest state park. It’s worth considering.

In response to questions about the KC-135 crashes, 92nd Air Refueling Wing Historian, Dan Simmons, wrote, “Unfortunately, bad weather and high terrain—and particularly when there is high terrain near the approach to a runway—have been the cause of many tragic accidents throughout aviation history. Aviators who lost their lives in accidents such as these did not die in vain. These tragedies spawned more advanced navigational and radar systems as well as ground proximity warning systems to mitigate the inherent dangers involved with aviation. As a result, today’s flying environment is much safer than it was decades ago. The aviators who lost their lives in these crashes were dedicated and professional airmen, and it is important for us to remember their service to our country.”

Ever since Charles Lindberg impressed the city by visiting the Spokane Fairgrounds in 1927, the local aviation community has grown and evolved. In many ways, Spokane’s aviation history reflects the highs of the nation’s aviation history, and local pilots and airports have earned national recognition. While the flying community remains strong and impressive, local accidents such as those within Mount Spokane State Park confirmed the need for greater safety in instruments, procedures and accuracy.

Clearly, these military planes were not shot down by a foreign enemy, however the men gave their lives for their country nonetheless. If you choose to visit any of these crash sites, consider it an opportunity to remember the incidents and the timeframe that contributed to the events, and to honor those men who lost their lives in our local area.

Sometimes a hike is just a hike. Sometimes picking huckleberries is just another excuse to explore. Sometimes we find strange and unusual things in our State Parks, and it starts a new chapter in our lives.

Update:

The above article about the cluster of plane crashes found in Mount Spokane State Park proved to be an interesting story to a wide range of people. Following the release of the feature article, a number of remarkable emails revealed greater details about some of the events, as well as some corrections worth noting.

Steve Reynolds found the most glaring error. The article incorrectly stated there were four plane crashes, when in fact there were five. On December 13, 1995, a Cessna 340A crashed into Mount Spokane at about 6:15 PM. The pilot, and sole occupant of the aircraft, was fatally injured when he slammed into the west side of the mountain. Searchers reported the debris covered a 300-yard area. “The tail section is the only thing intact. Everything else is in six-inch pieces,” says Sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Finke.

The pilot had flown to Spokane from Yakima, where the Cessna was based. He arrived at about 3PM and waited for a passenger who did not show up. After discovering that his passenger was in Sandpoint, the pilot took off again and headed northeast. Poor weather and poor visibility proved to be the leading causes for this tragedy.

Reynolds recalls how he found the Cessna crash in the spring of 1996 while looking for a good snow slope to teach and practice self-arrest with an ice axe. “Most disturbing—but poignant—was a small cleared spot, in the middle of the impact sites and next to some small alpine trees, where latex gloves and a syringe or two had melted out and were laying on the bare ground. These were immediately adjacent to a wooden, hand-made cross that was only very recently placed at the very location where apparently medical first responders had tried in vain to save the pilot.”

For obvious reasons, the article touched a lot of pilots. Among those that responded, Tom Brattebo of Liberty Lake offered some interesting remarks on flight procedures. As a B-52 pilot stationed at Fairchild AFB shortly after the 1967 KC-135 crash, he recalls particular approach instructions where pilots were required to find Mount Spokane by radar to make certain they cleared the mountain.

Strangely enough, Brattebo also recalled a peculiar incident back around 1994 when he worked at a first-aid station for a NORBA (National Off Road Bike Association) crosscountry race. “I was the ‘older guy’ with a bunch of ‘kids.’ We were watching a part of the course that extended north from the end turn on the Shadow Mountain cross-country ski trail. Some of the kids started bringing me pieces of aluminum that I recognized as pieces of military aircraft. I had been at WSU in 1967 and remembered that crash story.” Tom had actually found the very crash site that influenced his local safety procedures as an Air Force pilot.

Far and away, the most distinguished email came from Bill Williams. He actually served on the rescue and recovery crew for the horrific 1962 KC-135 crash, and he was bold enough to share some first-hand details. He remembers the bus ride from Fairchild, the gray weather all day long, and the gruesome scene of the tragedy.

“My image of the site is not limited to what I saw. The smoke that enveloped the hillside reeked of jet fuel, burned rubber, burned trees, and burned people. It was an odor that I’ll never forget. Later I discarded my fatigues, as I believe most of the other men did as well. Whether it was my imagination or not, it seems that I could not escape that odor for days after we finished our work. I think it had been absorbed by my hair and skin. As I’m sure you can imagine, the work that we had to do to extract our men from that wreckage was unpleasant and distressing.”

More than anyone else, Bill provided specifics that were still tender almost 50 years later. In a crazy turn of events, a few years after the accident, Bill graduated from college with a Master’s degree in Experimental Psychology, and then landed a job at Boeing. He worked alongside the distinguished human factors engineer Konrad Kraft on a team that researched a series of Boeing 727 landing accidents.

The 1947 B-29 wreck ranks as the only Mount Spokane plane crash with survivors. Sgt. Marshall Fine and Sgt. Truman Haley survived the horrific ordeal, and Haley actually continued his military service. Truth be told, Haley joined the U.S. Cavalry Division of the Army in 1938 because he loved horses and they did not have Jeeps until 1941. Later on, he went into the Air Force Corp. Following the B-29 crash, he was released from service in 1948. Next he reenlisted in 1951 and served in Korea. Truman Haley stayed in the Air Force until he retired in 1962.

Truman Haley’s sons recently confirmed plans to visit the site of their father’s plane crash. Fueled by Donna Larson, a Spokane Prime Timer and a former Mount Spokane Ski Patroller, Haley’s descendents are headed to the Bald Knob picnic area of Mount Spokane in mid-September to visit the B-29 ski run. They are both eager to see the site of their father’s memorable plane crash.

All in all, this collection of plane crashes remains a touching and memorable subject. Including the 1995 Cessna plane crash, the total number of lost lives equals 60. Perhaps someday a memorial in Washington’s largest State Park might pay tribute to those service men.

While most articles about Mount Spokane normally flaunt the huckleberry picking, the skiing, or the superb mountain biking and trail running, there’s abundant proof that the Park holds a multitude of backcountry adventures and uncommon experiences. There’s a rich history in those mountains, and while the series of crashes is tragic, there’s a truly unique opportunity to research this aviation history up close.