On May 29, 1945, at approximately 22:10 local time, an AT-11 crashed and burned near the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton. The aircraft, with four people onboard was enroute from Hammer field near Fresno, California to Mills Field at San Francisco, California. The AT-11 assigned to the 2619th AAFBU at Carlsbad Army Airfield in New Mexico was on an administrative flight at the time of the accident. At the controls was twenty-one year old pilot Lt. Richard C. Price. Also onboard was F/O John C. Gardiner, Lt. Paul S. Leung and Private Lester C. Longhurst.
When Lt. Price eased the twin engine AT-11 off Runway 11 at Hammer field he was as prepared for the marginal Contact Flight Rules (CFR) flight as any pilot could have been. He knew the weather, he knew the aircraft and he had a backup plan if the weather got too bad. What he didn't know was the route over the mountains. He knew he had to follow the Amber 1 Airway to San Francisco, but he failed to notice the high terrain along the flight path when he filed for a cruising altitude of only 2,000 feet.
The young pilot had brought the aircraft up from the Marana Air Base in Arizona and had crossed the Tehachapi mountains in very poor weather just the day before. He stated to the Weather Officer at Hammer Field that even though he was trained to fly on instruments, he was not too anxious to do so at night over unfamiliar terrain again. And, if the weather got too bad, he wouldn't hesitate to return to Hammer field and wait for conditions to improve.
At the briefing before takeoff, Price and the Weather Officer studied the weather maps and determined that CFR flight could be maintained to Mills Field by way of Pacheco Pass. Pacheco Pass is today a main automobile route through the coast range of mountains when going to the San Francisco Bay or Silicon Valley area from the San Joaquin Valley. Now VFR pilots can follow Highway 152 all the way through the pass. The mountain range is not particularly high, but there are some danger spots for the unfamiliar pilot, especially if traversing the area at night.
To the south is the very distinct looking Cathedral Peak which is 3,481 feet high, and to the northwest is Mt. Hamilton which rises to 4,400 feet above sea level. The Lick Observatory is on the top of Mt. Hamilton. Today's modern navigational charts show that there are many 3,000 foot high peaks and ridges in the same general area on the north side of the Amber 1 Airway. The charts also indicate that 4,800 feet above sea level is the minimum safe altitude to fly when crossing the mountains around Mt. Hamilton.
But in 1945 instrument flying and aerial navigation was still in its infancy. Pilots would navigate along Airways listening to the "A" and "N" signals from ground radio stations to help them stay on course. It was a vast improvement over the "follow the railroad tracks" or "go direct" method of earlier years. If followed properly, a pilot could safely fly cross-country over a pre planned route, without fear of getting off course or lost, but the altitude they chose to fly was pretty much up to him to establish.
After Lt. Price received his weather briefing from Lt. Joseph Hamilton, the Weather Officer at Hammer Field, he proceeded to the Airdrome Officer to file his Flight Plan. The Airdrome Officer, Lt. James F. Luna, reviewed the Flight Plan and discussed the weather and intended route with Price.
In an interview after the accident, Lt. Luna stated that Price was well aware of the weather and did not want to fly in instrument conditions if he didn't have to. Following is a quote from Lt. Luna's statement when asked if Price was willing to complete the trip on instruments if necessary:
"No, definitely not! The idea was entirely that he was coming back if the weather didn't look good. He had come up from Marana and he had a similar situation in the Tehachapi Pass, and he said he was not any too eager to do it again. If anything was worse than that, he was not going to go through it!"
The only item not specified on the Flight Plan was the cruising altitude, but in a last minute statement by the pilot, he said he would fly at 2,000 feet. This altitude did not alarm the Airdrome Officer, because it seemed that Price was quite capable of making the trip safely. He was very concerned about the weather, and made it very clear that he was willing to come back if necessary.
At approximately 21:00 Lt. Luna approved the Flight Plan, so Price left his office and proceeded to pre-flight the AT-11 prior to takeoff. At approximately 21:15, as Lt. Price was warming up the radial engines, Lt. Luna was drawn back to the Flight Plan one last time.
He looked at the weather reports again, then he studied the route by referring to the large map on the wall. He was immediately struck by the fact that there was some high terrain on both sides of the Amber 1 Airway rising up to well over the proposed 2,000 foot cruising altitude selected by Lt. Price. He also noted that it was not possible to go over Pacheco Pass with only 2,000 feet of altitude. In fact there was one peak very near the entrance to the pass that reached up to more than 2,400 feet.
Luna became somewhat concerned with the selected altitude. Surely Lt. Price selected that altitude so as to stay below the overcast in the vicinity of Hammer Field. Surely Price intended to climb to a higher altitude when in the clear. But this flight was going over the pass at night, and "Surely" wasn't good enough to ensure safety.
So at 21:25, as the AT-11 was taxiing to the run-up area for Runway 11, and the pilot was going over his takeoff check list, Lt. Luna decided to revise the cruising altitude. He notified the Base Dispatcher to contact the aircraft and advise them that the cruising altitude had been revised to 3,000 feet. Lt. Price acknowledged the altitude change as he was completing his engine run-up, so the tower cleared him for takeoff at 21:28.
Lt. Luna did not intend for the AT-11 to stay at 3,000 feet for the entire flight. He figured that Lt. Price would start his climb to clear the Pass, once he was clear of the clouds in the San Joaquin Valley. Even at 3,000 feet, the AT-11 would have cleared the terrain of Pacheco Pass, but only if it stayed on the Amber 1 Airway.
Lt. Price's last takeoff did not attract undue attention from the tower. After lining up on the runway, Price would have compared his compass like Directional Gyro to ensure it corresponded to the runway heading of 110 degrees. He would have then set his altimeter to the field elevation of 333 feet. Then, after a last minute scan on his engine instruments, it was time to advance the throttles to full power.
As the throttles moved forward, the AT-11 began to gather speed and move down the runway. Price expertly held the nose of his aircraft on the centerline while looking out the left side of the cockpit for guidance. The AT-11 had conventional landing gear, which meant that Lt. Price could not see over the nose until there was enough airspeed to raise the tail off the ground.
The runway lights would have flashed past the aircraft at an ever increasing pace, until at approximately 40 M.P.H. the tail would have raised off the runway. Now Lt. Price had a clear view of the runway ahead. As the speed approached 100 M.P.H., he applied a little back pressure on the control column and the AT-11 slowly lifted into the damp night air for the last time. The tower could only see the navigation lights as the aircraft made a down-wind departure and disappeared from view to the northwest.
By the time the aircraft was heading in a northwesterly direction, the landing gear would have been retracted and climb power would have been set on both engines. We can only speculate what happened to the aircraft from that point on. There was no further radio contact with the flight. All that is known for sure, is that the aircraft did not arrive at Mills Field as expected. It simply disappeared.
Six days later, on June 4, 1945, the mystery was solved when the wreckage of the AT-11 was found at the 3,300 foot level, on the slopes of Mt. Hamilton. All occupants had been killed instantly. The time of the accident was established by the wrist watches found on the deceased crew. The time of impact with the mountain was 22:10 local time. The flight had lasted just forty-two minutes.
Recreating the accident, as it might have happened, it would seem that Lt. Price had allowed his aircraft to wonder to the north about five miles off the Amber 1 Airway. The absence of the "On course" tone in his radio earphones should have told him to make a course correction. It is not known why he was off course, or why he did not realize the situation and correct it.
At his cruising altitude of 3,300 feet, the accident should actually have happened sooner than it did. The flight path, as plotted on a chart, passed within several hundred yards of a 3,800 foot peak on the right side, and passed directly over a ridge that was 3,200 feet high before hitting the mountain at the 3,300 foot level. The peak was just ten miles before impact, and the ridge was fifteen seconds before impact.
In the dead of night, with no ground lights or beacons, Lt. Price was oblivious to the dangers around him. In all likelihood his first sign of trouble was when a large tree came crashing through the Plexiglas nose of the AT-11. At that speed he would not have had time to react, and was most likely dead before the aircraft hit the ground.
The investigation revealed that the AT-11 had plowed through a heavily forested hillside, before exploding and falling to the ground where it was partially consumed in the post crash fire. Airplane parts, as well as personal effects from the crew, were scattered over a wide area.
The AT-11 was so totally destroyed that, after recovering the remains of the crew, what was left was pushed into a hole and buried on the spot.
The blame for this accident was placed on the Airdrome Officer at Hammer Field, as well as the pilot, Lt. Price. Lt. Luna. was faulted for approving a flight over high mountainous terrain at night, with only 3,000 feet of altitude. He should have advised the pilot to climb to at least 4,000 feet. At that altitude he would have missed all but the very peak of Mt. Hamilton, which was far off the Amber 1 Airway to the north.
Lt. Price was faulted for allowing his aircraft to wonder off the established Airway, and for not being aware of the rising terrain on both sides of his flight path. It was felt by the Investigation Board that perhaps Lt. Price was attempting to remain clear of the clouds and had intentionally diverted to the north in doing so. The exact reason for this accident may never be known.
Today the remains of the AT-11 rest in a shallow grave on a lonely hillside not far from the Lick Observatory high atop Mt. Hamilton. Thousands of visitors to the Observatory pass near the accident site every year, but none know it is there. The site is known but to a few, and in the last fifty-six years has been visited by fewer still.
In an upcoming story, I'll tell you what it's like to stand on the very spot where this accident occurred so many years ago. I'll describe the personal items found at the site, and show you color photographs of the remains of this once proud War Bird. And I'll tell you why late in the afternoon of our visit, when the light began to fade and the shadows grew long, we almost felt as though Lt. Price and his crew were there with us, watching our every move. Not threatening in any way, but just saying:
"Thanks for remembering us!"
Don R. Jordan
here to read about our visit to the crash site.
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