NC 64722 was a Douglas DC-3 operated by Eagle Air Freight of Burbank, California. The pilot was George S. Griebel, age 34, and the copilot was William F. Grund, age 28 of North Hollywood, California. Both men were well qualified in the DC-3 type aircraft, and should have had no trouble completing this flight. Greibel had more than 5,500 total flying hours, of which 3,926 of those hours were in this very type of aircraft. Grund had more than 3,500 total flying hours, with approximately 1,630 hours in the DC-3 type aircraft. Both men were instrument rated.
The aircraft had departed from Seattle, Washington at 1:00 p.m. on a routine flight to San Francisco, California. There it was to pick up a load of freight and deliver it to Dallas, Texas the next day. At departure from Seattle, the aircraft carried 800 gallons of fuel, but no passengers or freight. The initial cruising altitude was 12,000 feet. The planned route was to follow the establish Civilian Airways through Washington, Oregon and California until it arrived in the vicinity of San Francisco. Then, because of the expected poor weather, the flight would execute an Instrument Approach into San Francisco Municipal Airport.
As the flight approached the Red Bluff radio beacon in northern California, it made a position report to the Airways Facility. At 4:15 p.m.. the pilots made radio contact with the Oakland Air Traffic Control Center (ATC) and requested permission to descend down to 10,000 feet for the remainder of the flight. Oakland granted the request and then cleared the flight all the way to the Moffett radio range station which was located 25 miles southeast of the San Francisco. Airport.
Due to the heavy volume of air traffic that night Eagle Air 722 was placed in a holding pattern when it arrived over the Moffett radio beacon at 5:15 p.m. At that time 722 reported to the San Francisco Approach Control that is was holding northwest from the range station at 10,000 feet.
An Airways Holding Pattern is an imaginary course shaped like a giant race track in the sky. In general, a Holding Pattern has one leg anchored on the radio beacon. An aircraft will pass over the beacon on an assigned course, and then continue on past the station for two minutes. At the end of the two minutes, the pilots will start a standard rate turn, generally to the right. He will then roll out of the turn when his course is the exact opposite of the outbound heading. Depending on the wind and the aircraft's speed, this would put him approximately one to 2 miles to the right of the outbound track and on a parallel course.
The pilot will hold that heading for another two minutes before beginning a right turn back to the station. Under ideal conditions the aircraft will arrive back over the radio beacon in six minutes. It will then continue to fly the same race track course until cleared by ATC to begin an approach, or continue along the Airway. A "Holding Clearance" is generally assigned to an aircraft to provide for spacing between aircraft who are ahead and have not yet completed their approach.
At 5:17 p.m., while flying the holding pattern, Eagle Air 722 received a Step-down clearance to six thousand feet. This meant that the aircraft could descend to six thousand feet, but had to remain in holding for a few more minutes.
At 5:41 p.m. 722 was finally cleared to enter the overcast on a "Straight in" approach to San Francisco Municipal Airport. The clearance required a descent to 4,000 feet, and a requirement to report in when over the Moffett radio beacon inbound to the airport. After passing over the Moffett radio beacon, 722, could start the gradual glide below 4,000 feet. The crew was also asked to report when they were below the overcast.
A minute later, at 5:42, Eagle Air 722 reported leaving Moffett Radio inbound at 4,000 feet. Despite repeated attempts, this was the last contact with Eagle Air 722.
Tragically, for unknown reasons, Eagle Air 722 was not heading directly for the airport as planned, but instead it was heading in the exact opposite direction. Perhaps the pilots became disoriented after flying in the oval shaped holding pattern for thirty minutes. That would have been approximately five laps around the track while flying on instruments.
For whatever reason, 722 was now heading southeast and away from the airport on a magnetic heading of 110 degrees. It was descending through an overcast and most likely never saw the approaching mountain range lying directly ahead.
The crew had fully expected to break out of the clouds and find the San Francisco runway directly in front of them. They had or were in the process of completing their pretending check list. The landing gear (wheels) were in the down position, and the carburetor heat was in the on position for both engines. That meant that the pilots had pulled the power back from a cruise setting in preparation for landing.
Over San Jose, California at 5:55 P.m., a private pilot in a small airplane observed a lone DC-3 flying just under the overcast and heading in a southerly direction towards the mountains where Eagle Air 722 crashed. It is likely that this private pilot was witnessing the last few moments of life for the two crew members onboard the DC-3.
At approximately 6:00 P.m., just as the sun was setting behind the coast range of mountains, Henry Coe, a prominent rancher in the San Felipe Canyon heard a loud roaring noise. He dismissed the noise as either being thunder or blasting in the area.
In the control tower at the San Francisco airport, controllers were still trying to locate Eagle Air 722. They could not allow any other aircraft to begin their approach to the airport until they knew for sure where the DC-3 was. There was the possibility that 722 had had radio, or electrical failure and had missed the approach. It could have been out there flying blind and trying to locate the runway at San Francisco. To allow other airplanes to begin their approach would mean a possible mid-air collision over San Francisco Bay. However, after 30 minutes and still no contact with Eagle Air 722, the controllers began to fear that the flight may have crashed. After alerting the proper authorities, they resumed normal airport operations.
In San Felipe Canyon, Henry Coe was still curious about the loud noise he heard earlier. So he decided to drive around and have a look. It had been raining that afternoon, so Coe used his ranch jeep to negotiate the muddy roads leading to the more remote section of his ranch. He wanted to explore an area to the north where the night sky seemed to be somewhat brighter.
At 7:45 P.m., after one hour and forty-five minutes of searching in the night, Coe observed a large fire burning on the hill side not far away. Nobody would be burning brush this time of night, he thought. And besides, the brush was too wet to burn on its own, unless it was fueled by . . .
Coe suddenly realized that it wasn't brush burning, nor was it thunder he heard earlier that evening. To his horror he realized that the noise he heard was that of an airplane crashing, and that the fire marked the point of impact. He wasn't sure of what to do now. He could see, even from this distance, that the fire was large and out of control. There wasn't any fire fighting, or First Aid equipment in his jeep. There was nothing he could do.
So after standing there for a few minutes gazing in disbelief, Coe decided not to attempt to reach the crash site. It would be better, he thought, to get to a telephone and alert the proper authorities. Coe, now with a sense of urgency, began the arduous trip back. It would take him over thirty minutes to reach the house and alert the Santa Clara County Sheriff's office. And it would be mid-night before rescuers finally reached the scene of the accident.
Eagle Air 722 had flown into the canyon while descending on instruments from 4,000 feet. It was in a landing configuration with an airspeed of approximately 130 M.P.H. Because the accident was fatal to both crew members, we will never know what was going on in the cockpit that night.
But a fair assumption would be that Griebel and Grund were staring intently out into the gray mist expecting any moment to see the lights of the approaching runway at San Francisco Airport. You can only imagine their utter shock and disbelief when they began to hear and feel the crashing of tree tops against the underside of their plane. But before they had time to react, the right wing tip struck the side of a small hill and sheared off.
Impact was sudden and violent. First the right wheel, engine and propeller gouged a deep thirty foot long trench in the muddy soil. Then the left wheel, engine and propeller struck the ground and dug in. Twenty feet beyond these gouge marks, the tail assembly broke off and spun around ninety degrees to the right. Both propellers separated from the respective engines, and both engines were wrenched from their mounts. The engines came to rest twenty feet farther up the small hill.
The left wing, broken in two places, folded into the side of the fuselage. The right landing gear, which was down at the time of impact, was sheared off, but the left wheel remained attached to its mounting. The damage to both propellers indicated that enough power was being supplied to both engines to sustain level flight. Neither propeller was feathered.
An intense fire immediately erupted in the main wing center section. It would completely consume the center section as well and the cockpit section before being extinguished. It is likely that both crew members were already dead from impact forces before the fire reached the cockpit
In the remains of the badly charred cockpit, investigators found that the altimeter reading was 1,500 feet. The partially melted dial on the radio range receiver was set to 225 kilocycles which was the appropriate frequency of the San Francisco radio range. All other cockpit instruments and controls were far too melted or burned to give any indication of the readings or settings.
The accident site is low on the western slopes of Mt. Hamilton, and in the San Felipe Canyon. Witnesses at the Lick Observatory, high atop Mt. Hamilton, could look down on the site after the weather cleared.
According to other witnesses, at the time of the accident, the weather conditions consisted of low clouds which obscured the mountain tops above 1,500 feet. Although it had rained earlier in the day, it was not raining at the time of the crash.
Perhaps it was fatigue on the crews part that caused this accident. Both Griebel and Grund had flown more than eighty hours apiece in the thirty days prior to the accident. The day before this accident, both men had flown eight hours and ten minutes on the flight up to Seattle. But both men had approximately twelve hours of rest before climbing aboard the aircraft on March 8th.
It is not possible to know exactly what happen that night. There were some hard questions that needed to be answered. For instance, why had Capt. Greibel deviated from the IFR clearance issued to him. He had made this same approach to San Francisco six times in the past. He knew the procedure, and was quite aware of the mountainous region to the southeast of Moffett.
And most curious of all, why did it take eighteen minutes to fly from the Moffett radio beacon, to the point of impact. The estimated speed of the DC-3 was 130 mph, and the distance covered was only twenty miles. Even at a conservative 120 mph, it should have taken no more than ten minutes to cover that distance. Where was the DC-3 for the other ten minutes? These question will never be answered!
Today, most of the wreckage from this tragic accident is still lying on private land in San Felipe Canyon where it came to rest on the night of March 8, 1948. A massive amount of melted aluminum indicates the exact spot where rancher Henry Coe witnessed the wing center section and cockpit burning so fiercely an hour and forty-five minutes after he heard "thunder" in the canyon. Small shards of aluminum and wreckage is widely scattered around the area.
The largest piece of wreckage still recognizable as being from an airplane, is the tail section. A man can walk inside this relatively intact piece of aviation history. Over the years the two horizontal stabilizers have been removed by persons unknown. But the vertical stabilizer is still attached and in place. This large piece, measuring approximately thirty feet long, is lying at the bottom of a small ravine only forty odd feet from the point of impact.
Not far from the tail section, and in the same ravine, is an almost complete radial engine lying half buried in the loose soil. An empty rusted propeller shaft points skyward. This engine last roared to life at the Seattle airport at 1 o'clock in the afternoon on a cold March day in 1948. It safely brought this DC-3 over three states, only to be violently torn from its mounts and stopped by the misjudgement of its pilot. Never to run again, it will almost certainly lay there undisturbed for decades to come.
And what of Henry W. Coe? The ranch where Henry and his
family lived at the time of this accident, was later donated to the
of California, and is now part of an 81,000 acre state park. You
can visit the web site for this beautiful state park, and read all
Henry and the Coe family history at: http://www.coepark.parks.ca.gov/coefamily.html
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