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On March 13, 1974 a Convair 440, N4819C (19 Charlie), slammed headlong into the side of a darkened peak just minutes after taking off from runway 12 at Bishop’s high desert airport. Complacency by the flight crew while on a night flight in mountainous terrain was listed as the cause of this accident. At the time of this accident I was living in Ridgecrest, California, which is about one hundred and twenty miles farther south along Highway 395. I had been in Bishop the day of this accident, and in fact had been out to the local airport just hours before this Convair departed on its final flight
Two months after the investigation was completed, I climbed the peak to the crash site and had a look for myself at the complete and total destruction that such an accident can have on an aircraft and its human cargo. The human factor of this accident was still all too evident when I arrived. Visiting a crash site decades after an event is one thing, but seeing first hand the personal items from the passengers and crew still lying scattered, torn and burned around the barren mountain peak was overwhelming. It was a sight I shall never forget.
The small picturesque town of Bishop, elevation 4,128 feet above sea level (M.S.L.) is located at the extreme north end of the Mojave Desert. It sits in a narrow valley surrounded on two sides by mountains. To the north the valley narrows to about seven miles and gradually rises as it approaches the ski resort at Mammoth Mountain. To the south of Bishop the valley opens up to about twelve miles wide with low-lying hills that are the remnants of an ancient volcanic flow. Leaving Bishop by air, and going north or south, is not particularly dangerous even at night, or in marginal weather. There is a fairly narrow corridor that the pilot must remain within, but at least in those directions there is room to climb to a safe altitude.
However, to the east and west the terrain rises much more rapidly. On the west side is the majestic and awe-inspiring Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, which rise up to more than 12,000 feet within ten miles of the airport. Over the years this formidable barrier between the Mojave Desert and the San Joaquin Valley to the west has claimed hundreds of aircraft that have tried to cross over these lofty and often obscured jagged peaks.
To the east are the White Mountains, which are a formidable barrier in their own right! Within three miles the terrain rises to one thousand feet above the airport elevation. Beyond three miles the terrain rises much more rapidly to more than 11,000 feet. Very few aircraft can depart Bishop and go directly east or west without first making a series of climbing turns to reach a safe crossing altitude. In hours of daylight the departing pilot can easily see the dangerous peaks and maneuver to keep clear. The IFR-SID (Instrument Flight Rules-Standard Instrument Departure) for the Bishop Airport also keeps the departing aircraft well clear of all higher terrain. It requires an altitude of at least 8,000 feet before going beyond two miles from the airport boundary. To obtain the necessary altitude, an aircraft must climb in a tight circular holding pattern around the Bishop VOR (navigational radio beacon) until reaching at least 8,000 feet. The larger the aircraft, and the faster it travels, the bigger the circles!
But departing Bishop at night, even in VFR (Visual Flight Rules) conditions, is another matters altogether. Particularly on a dark, moonless night! There is no contrast or lights in the hills to identify the high ground. The area looks like a flat piece of colorless cardboard, with a slight silhouette of the peaks against the night sky. There is nothing to indicate impending danger to the unwary or unknowing pilot. It was just such conditions that would mean disaster for this Convair, its four person crew, and the thirty-two passengers onboard that March night.
The aircraft was owned by Sierra Pacific Airlines and was designated Flight 802. That day it was chartered to Wolper Productions of Burbank, California. Wolper Productions had been filming a documentary entitled “Primal Man” near Mammoth Lakes during that week. Flight 802 was to bring the actors, the film crew, and all of their equipment back to Burbank after the days filming.
Flight 802 was originally scheduled to pick up its passengers at the small Mammoth Lakes Airport, located 45 miles north of Bishop, after its regular daily scheduled passenger flight. But due to maintenance problems at the Burbank airport, another Sierra Pacific aircraft replaced 19 Charlie on the morning trip. By 5:30 p.m. on the day of the accident the maintenance problems had been corrected, and the Convair finally departed at 6:14 p.m. But due to flight restrictions, governing night VFR departures from the very small Mammoth Lakes Airport, Flight 802 had to land at the larger Bishop Airport, and then wait for the passengers to arrive by bus from Mammoth.
The flight from Burbank to Bishop was conducted under VFR conditions, and at 7:10, when the aircraft was in the vicinity of Bishop, the crew contacted the Tonopah Flight Service Station (FSS) by radio and canceled their VFR flight plan. The crew then "air filed" an IFR flight plan for the return trip from Bishop to Burbank. The proposed departure time from Bishop was 8:00 p.m. The proposed route was listed as, “VFR-direct Bishop (VOR), IFR - Bishop (VOR), direct Friant (VOR), V459 Lake Hughes (VOR), V165 Lang (VOR), direct.”
This route would take the Convair over the high mountains to the west, which meant it first had to climb to at least 8,000 feet, as prescribed by the SID, while remaining within two miles of the Bishop Airport. The SID further required a “Step” climb to 15,000 feet before making the westward crossing to Friant. Of course under VFR flight rules, none of this is required, and it is entirely up to the pilot to see and avoid the high terrain.
The flight crew that night was Captain Albert J. Evans, age 50, and First Officer Paul T. Dennis, age 26. Mary Joanne Parker was listed as the Flight Attendant. Also in the cockpit was an observer pilot trainee. Harold R. West, age 45 was occupying the jump seat behind the Captain. West was a Pilot-in-Command trainee for Sierra Pacific Airlines, and was on his very first flight into the Bishop airport.
Captain Evans had flown into Bishop eight times in the last ninety days, with three of those flights being conducted at night. He had already made one round trip into Mammoth Lakes on the morning of this accident, and had more than 9,900 hours of flight time to date.
First Officer Dennis had also made one round trip to Mammoth Lakes that morning. Dennis had just recovered from the flu virus, and had been bedridden for the last four days before reporting for work at 5:15 that morning. A later Post-Mortem examination would show that his stomach was completely empty at the time of the accident. That fact could have been a major factor in the cause of this accident, as you will read later. He had accumulated more than 2,800 hour of flight time to date
Mary Joanne Parker was the only Flight Attendant onboard the flight. She had joined Sierra Pacific Airlines on November 14, 1973, and was designated a Check Flight Attendant on January 25, 1974. She was just 19 years old when she perished with the others in this horrific crash.
The passengers and equipment arrived at Bishop shortly after 8 p.m. and the loading began. The Sierra Pacific Airlines passenger agent assigned to Bishop supervised the loading. When the equipment was secured in the cargo compartment, and the passengers properly seated, the flight crew took their position on the flight deck. However, their IFR clearance still had not arrived by the time the engines were started.
The airport manager, and the passenger agent, was observing the aircraft on the ramp during engine start. They reported that Captain Evans was in the left seat, Dennis was in the right seat and West was in the jump seat located between the pilots. Through the dimly lit cabin windows the passengers could be seen as they began to settle in for the short flight home. They had worked hard that day and were tired. Now all they wanted was to go home and rest. Some were talking quietly to the person next to them, who in turn would answer with a slight nod of the head. Others were attempting to get some sleep with their heads back, or against the window. Miss Parker was last seen walking down the isle as if checking seat belts.
At 8:20 p.m. over the airport unicom frequency came the taxi alert from the crew. Finally, 19 Charlie began to move toward runway 12 to begin its last flight. There was nothing unusual about the flight so far, and no one paid much attention as the aircraft began the engine run up and pre flight check. As the crew checked the magnetos and propellers for proper operation the engine sounds were strong and powerful. The aircraft strained at the brakes as the propellers bit through the cold night air.
At 8:21, as the aircraft was taxiing away from the loading ramp, the crew established radio contact with Tonopah once again. This time they advised Tonopah that they were taxiing for departure, and requested activation of their IFR clearance. When the run up was completed, the clearance still had not been received from Tonopah. The crew was advised of a slight delay, and that Tonopah would call them back in a few minutes with the clearance. So Captain Evans decided to depart under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), and begin the climb while waiting. He announced his intentions over the unicom with. “Bishop traffic, Convair 4819 Charlie is departed runway one two. Will be climbing VFR over Bishop.”
Once on the runway and lined up, Captain Evans released the brakes and advanced the throttles to maximum power. Soon the navigation lights of the Convair were seen moving down the runway with ever increasing speed. Co-pilot Dennis would have been scanning the engines instruments looking for any abnormalities. But there were none! After the normal lift-off Dennis reached over and lifted the lever to raise the landing gear, and soon the Convair began the long steady climb for altitude. The airport manager watched the aircraft pass abeam of his position and then disappear behind a large hanger. He never saw or heard the aircraft again.
At 8:24 p.m. the Convair again established contact with Tonopah Flight Service. This time they reported that they had departed Bishop at 8:20, and were climbing VFR while waiting for the IFR clearance.
Finally, at 8:28 p.m., Tonopah Flight Service had received the IFR clearance and attempted to call the Convair on the standard Bishop radio frequency of 122.6 Mhz. But there was no answer. Tonopah made another attempt without success. After many more attempts on other frequencies, the Flight Service Specialist contacted Oakland Center and reported that he had lost contact with the Convair as it was climbing VFR over Bishop. Both controllers began a radio search for the missing aircraft. There was not much more that they could do at that point.
There were several witnesses who observed the aircraft in flight at about 8:26 p.m. Three of them were located at the base of the foothills to the east of the airport. They later reported that they saw the red and green lights, and heard the engines of a large airplane flying parallel to the mountain range. The engines sounded as if the aircraft was in a climb situation, and sounded smooth and strong.
They watched the aircraft pass over them and continued to observe it for about one minute. Then, to their shock and horror, they saw a large burst of flames, and a few second later heard a loud explosion reverberate through the hills. Flight 802, non-stop Bishop to Burbank, had ended far short of its intended destination.
When the sound of the explosion reached the airport manager's office, he immediately went out side, walked around the large hanger, and looked to the southeast. There, high up on the hillside, he saw a large fiercely burning fire that lit up the whole mountainside. He feared the worst, and a sickening feeling came over him. He immediately went back into his office and called the Tonopah Flight Service Station. He reported a large fire and explosion in the White Mountains east of the airport, and requested the status of Flight 802.
He was told that Tonopah had lost contact with the Convair at about the time of the explosion. Both men now knew that a terrible accident had just occurred, so Tonopah initiated the accident notification procedures.
When the airport manager hung up the phone, he went back outside and watched the fire burn for hours. There was nothing anyone could do, but watch. It was a pitch-black night, with no moon. Rescue and fire equipment could not find their way up the steep slopes to the wreck site. The flames were plainly visible from the streets of Bishop. But all they could do was stand there and watch the fire burn all night.
During the night a rescue helicopter arrived and attempted to land at the site. But the night was too dark, and neither the helicopter pilot, nor his passenger could see the approaching terrain. All they could do was cautiously fly in the direction of the flames. If there were any survivors, there was nothing anyone could do for them at that point.
But there were no survivors. The aircraft had hit the 6,280-foot high peak at the 6,100-foot level and killed all onboard instantly. It was a terrible tragedy, with great loss of life. And it was being played out for all to see from the valley below. The aircraft had struck a foothill in the White Mountain range about 5.2 miles southeast of the Bishop airport.
Depressions in the earth made by the right wing leading edge and the right propeller and engine showed that, at impact, the aircraft was on a heading of 175 degrees magnetic and in a 25-degree right wing down attitude. The wreckage was scattered over an area 1,083 feet long and 120 feet wide. Parts of all major sections of the aircraft structure and flight control surfaces were found in the wreckage area.
The breakup of the aircraft was extensive in all wing and fuselage areas. Portions of the fuselage main body, center wing section, and cockpit were consumed by ground fire. The tail section had broken away from the main body at impact and came to rest about 40 feet up slope from the initial impact point. The landing gear and the wing flaps were found to be in the retracted position at impact.
Both engines were separated from their wing mounts by the force of impact, and both were severely damaged by impact forces and ground fires. There was no sign of pre impact failure in either of the two engines.
The propellers had separated from the engines as well. Parts of the blades were found all through the wreckage area, and showed deep gouges from impact with the rocky terrain at high rpm. Measurement from the respective propellers showed that both engines were turning at approximate 2,500 rpm at impact. And the pitch of each propeller indicated that both engine were set to a high climb power setting at impact.
As part of the investigation flight tests were conducted to
the probable flight path the aircraft took after departing
The test aircraft was a Piper Navajo. The test aircraft
an average climb speed of 145 KIAS (Knots Indicated Airspeed), and an
climb rate of 600 feet per minute. Using those figures, which
approximate the settings used by the Convair crew after departure from
Bishop, it was determined that the last flight of the Convair would
lasted approximate 6 to 7 ½ minutes.
Flight tests in a Convair flight simulator were also conducted. It was determined that the most likely flight path after takeoff was a climb straight ahead to 500 feet above ground level (AGL). Then a climbing right turn, using a 20-degree bank, directly back to the Bishop VOR located in middle of the airport. And then fly a heading of 120 degree to the accident site.
The climb performance of the Convair type aircraft over the
time (6 minutes) and flight path, using standard operating procedures,
would have placed the aircraft at more than 1,000 feet higher that the
Based on this information it would appear that the aircraft should have been approximate 900 feet higher when it crossed the impact hill than it actually was. The question then became, what caused the crew distraction during climb out that prevented the aircraft from achieving the climb rate and altitude that it was capable of with the power setting in use?
After the wreckage was thoroughly examined, it was concluded that there was no logical reason to believe that a mechanical or electrical malfunction in the aircraft caused this accident. The cause of this accident was listed as “Pilot Error” The crew simply did not take the proper precautions after departing Bishop to see and avoid the high terrain to the east of the airport. Even though the visibility was reported to be more than thirty miles, the dark, moonless night made it impossible to recognize the impending danger to the east. The crew simply did not see the rising terrain it was flying over moments before impact.
This fact was proven by one of the witnesses who saw the lights from the aircraft shirting the low lying hills while flying parallel to the mountain range one minute before impact. While doing so, the aircraft just skimmed over the crest of several smaller hills before colliding with one at the 6,100-foot level. If any terrain were visible to the crew at all, they would have been startled to see rocks passing by mere feet below the aircraft, and would have had plenty of time to pull up. Even a short rapid pull up would have given the aircraft enough altitude to clear the impact peak.
The only possible clue as to what the crew distraction was on that night, may be found in the accident report itself. As was previously stated, the first officer had been ill with the flu virus. He had only reported back to work that very morning, after canceling a flight the previous day. After reporting for work at 5:15 a.m. on March 13th, he had been in duty status for fifteen continuous hours. It is possible that something had occurred to the First Officer during the climb out that caused the entire flight crew to divert their attention from the task at hand (i.e., flying the airplane).
It’s possible that the First Officer had become air sick due to his weakened condition. This could explain why his stomach was found to be completely empty during the autopsy. Or perhaps because of his weakened condition, he was simply not as alert as he should have been, and never informed the Captain that the aircraft was getting to far to the east of the airport boundary to be safe. Both the Captain and the First Officer had flown into Bishop on several occasions, and should have been quite aware of the dangers to the east. For unknown reasons, they both just plain forgot!
On my visit to the crash site just two months after the accident, I had the opportunity to see the remains of the aircraft before anything other than the victims had been removed. It was a dreadful sight indeed. I approached the site on foot from the small hill to the north. As I came to the top of the hill and peered over its crest there before me, just across the ravine, was the wreckage of flight 802. I was so overwhelmed at what I saw, that I had to sit down on the hillside for a few moments and just gaze upon this tragic scene where so many had perished.
I could almost hear the big radials as they passed directly over the very spot where I was seated. And as I sat there and looked at the point of impact from where I was seated, I realized that the aircraft could not have been more than five or ten feet above me as it crossed this spot. It indicated to me that the aircraft was nearly in level flight for the last five seconds before impact. I wondered what the crew and passengers were doing as they flew by, not knowing that they had just five more seconds of life. I could not dwell on these thoughts for long, and soon turned my attention to the aircraft itself.
The largest piece was the empennage (tail section), which was lying nearly intact about 200 feet below the crest of the hill. From that point to the top of the hill was nothing but burned and twisted wreckage unrecognizable as having once been an airplane. At the very top, and just to the right, was the very badly damaged right engine.
After a few moments I had the scene firmly imprinted in my mind’s eye, so I decided to have a closer look. I made my way to the east around the ravine, and in a short time was standing at the edge of the debris field. The closer I got, the more overwhelmed I became, and the more aware of the human factor involved.
The evidence was all around me. Personal items from the passengers were scattered everywhere. Shoes, wristwatches, and coins were still in place where they fell. And everywhere you looked were the signs of their profession as actors. Stage make-up, props (items used in the production), cans of film, and camera equipment were scattered about. All of it showed signs of impact forces and fire.
The most unnerving sights were the aircraft seats laying about the hillside. Nearly everyone had a wooden stake driven into the ground beside it. On that stake was a number. The number represented the person who was found in or near that seat. These people all had names, families, and lives before boarding the Convair that night. I wonder who they were?
One of the most unnerving finds was a seat that was found on the very crest of the hill and just to the left side. A stake in the ground displayed the number 9. But the one thing that made this seat stand out more than the rest was a lapel button pinned to the headrest. It was about two inches in diameter. The button was red in color, smoke and fired damaged, and had black printing on it. What the printing said sent chills down my spine. The inscription on the button read: “I met my Waterloo.”
And on the ground near the seat was a very badly burned ladies wristwatch. The non-metallic wristband had been burned away, and the crystal was missing. But the minute and hour hands were still present. They showed that the watch had stopped at 8:27 p.m.
After thirty minutes on site, I had seen enough, so I made my way back around the ravine. I had seen more than I had expected to see. The sight will forever be etched in my memory. And as I came back to the spot on the preceding hill where a short time before I had sat in awe, I again stopped to look at the wreckage. I shook my head and thought that if only there was just a little more pressure on the right rudder peddle, or even a little more nose-up trim, the aircraft would have missed the hill completely. And all those wonderful people would now be home with their families and friends.
What a tragedy!