On January 11, 1945, another aviation accident would claim the lives of two more young airmen training to fly a large complex machine of war. Lt. Robert I. Fletcher, age 23, was not long out of flight school when he and his Radar Operator, Wilkie L. Cunningham took off from the Salinas Army Air Base in California for what was to be their last flight. The mission, which was a night navigational training flight, coupled with the unexpected loss of an engine in flight, would prove to be more than this young crew could handle at that stage of their training.
Lt. Fletcher earned his Army Pilot rating on April 15, 1944, and had accumulated 287 hours of flying time up to the night of the accident. The aircraft, a TP-70B, was based at Fresno's Hammer Field, but the training was being conducted at the Salinas Army Airfield near Monterey, California.
The flight plan that night called for a cross-country flight from Salinas to Chico AAF, then to Stockton AAF, Bakersfield AAF and return to Salinas. Several aircraft on the same mission departed Salinas at about the same time, with #682 departing at 18:50. An hour before departure all crews were briefed for the Radar Navigation training mission. The briefing included information on the route, the expected weather and engine operating instructions to maintain three and a half to four hours of flight. The last leg of the flight would cross over the coast range of mountains at approximately 22:30 that night.
After departure there was no further radio contact with any of the aircraft, except when they returned to the Salinas Airfield. On approach to the field, they would call the Control Tower and requested landing instructions. The weather at Salinas at the time of the accident was clear, with visibility of five to six miles. The weather in the valley east of the Gabilan Mountain range was overcast, which meant that the last leg of the flight from Bakersfield to Salinas was above the overcast until it crossed the mountains.
Weather in the area of the crash site was reported by other pilots on the mission as clear with visibility of five to 6 miles and with clouds to the north and west. The only radio report heard from the crew of #682 in the Salinas area was heard by a Lt. Hahn, pilot of another TP-70 on the same mission. Lt. Hahn landed at Salinas at 22:30 and said that he heard #682 calling the Salinas tower at a time later estimated to be about 22:15. At the time, Hahn was over San Ardo, California, which is about 60 miles south of Salinas. Salinas tower did not hear the call from #682, and therefore did not answer it. Hahn stated that Lt. Fletcher was calling the tower for landing instructions and that his voice did not seem excited. That would seem to indicate that Fletcher was not in any trouble when the call was made. Lt. Hahn tried to establish contact with Fletcher, but received no reply.
At the end of the mission Lt. Fletcher in #682 was the only aircraft that failed to return to base. The next day his aircraft was found to have crashed and burned on a mountainside at about the 2000 foot elevation. The crash site is located about 30 miles from Salinas on a heading of 086 degrees. A resident in the small town of Hollister heard and reported the crash to authorities there. The information was then relayed from Hollister to the Control Tower at Salinas.
That location is in the valley east of Salinas with mountains of from 3,000 to 3,500 feet high between it and the Salinas air base. It is possible that the reason Salinas tower did not hear the radio call from #682, is that the airplane was so low that the High Frequency (H. F.) transmissions were blocked by the mountains. The valley in which the plane crashed leads toward a landing field near Hollister, and it is possible that Lt. Fletcher was confused as to his location. He may have seen the lights of Hollister, thought it was Salinas, and was attempting to let down prior to landing.
The wreckage was found with the right engine's propeller feathered. A check was made in the propeller dome which determined that the propeller had been feathered before the crash, so single engine operation was in use at the time. The position of the wreckage was such as to indicate that the plane hit the ground in a flat spin. The post-crash fire was so intense that it made the cause of the engine failure impossible to determine.
It was also noted that the right engine mixture control was frozen in the idle cut-off position, and the right throttle frozen in the closed position. The left propeller control was found to be in the full low pitch position and the left throttle was found to be just past the open position.
From the above indications there is evidence that the left engine was not under normal power when the crash occurred. The position of the aircraft indicated that there was no forward motion when it made contact with the ground because the parts of the aircraft were not dispersed over a wide area. It was also noted that the tail section was broken away from the fuselage section, but remained with the balance of the wreckage. Due to the location and position of the aircraft wreckage there is evidence that the aircraft did not crash into the mountain while in normal flight.
From the position of the wreckage, the investigation board was of the opinion that the plane hit the ground in a flat spin. The pieces of wreckage were closely grouped and in relative positions to their normal position on the aircraft.
The surrounding terrain showed no evidence of having been contacted by the plane prior to impact. The wreckage was surrounded by higher terrain then where it was found. From all visible indications the aircraft was completely out of control and traveling straight down before it hit the ground.
The most likely cause of this accident was that the young and inexperienced crew had misjudged their position and aircraft systems, which caused fuel starvation in one engine as the pilot was approaching to land at what he thought was Salinas Airfield. After shutting down the right engine and feathering the propeller, the pilot apparently lost control of the aircraft which resulted in the crash.