The pilots onboard Eagle Airfreight 722, on March 8, 1948, made just one mistake on an otherwise perfect cross-country flight from Seattle, Washington, to San Francisco, California. They turned the wrong way when they left the holding pattern and began their approach to the San Francisco airport. Instead of turning northwest to a heading of 290 degrees, they turned southeast to a heading of 110 degrees. It was the exact opposite direction, and took them away from the airport. At other airports this mistake is not necessarily fatal, but in this case a heading of 110 degrees took the DC-3 toward the mountain range southeast of San Jose, California. More specifically, it flew into the small basin known as San Felipe Valley.
Near the end of the flight, the pilots must have realized their error, and turned to the proper heading for San Francisco. Unfortunately they were too low to clear the rim of the valley. And while flying on an approximate heading of 271 degrees, the aircraft flew into a small ravine at the north end of the valley from which there was no escape. The outcome was a fiery crash that proved fatal for the two-man crew and total destruction for the DC-3.
Today, decades after the crash that killed pilot George S. Griebel, age 34, and his copilot William F. Grund, age 28, much of the wreckage from this ill-fated flight is still lying long forgotten on the dry grassy hillside at the edge of a fifty foot deep brush-lined gully in San Felipe Valley. The site is rarely visited because the property is privately owned, and "No trespassing" signs are affixed to every locked gates and barbed wire fence.
In September of 2002 I was granted permission to take a team of aviation wreck enthusiasts to document this crash site for history. With me were fellow team members Jim Rowan, and Rick Baldridge. We arranged to meet along the road leading into San Felipe Valley at about 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. From there we traveled to the home of the property caretaker who lived not far from the crash site. The Caretaker then led us up a dusty mountain road, through several locked gates, and to the top of a ridge about three miles from his home. The trip required a four-wheel drive vehicle because of the steep terrain and loose rock on the roadway.
It only took about fifteen minutes to reach the head of the ravine where the DC-3 was laying. Then a short hike down into the ravine, and back up the other side was all that was necessary to reach the spot where the wreckage came to rest and burned. The fiercely burning fire was first observed shortly after the accident by local rancher Henry Coe, who heard what he thought was thunder in the canyon and went to investigate.
We had no difficulty locating the point of impact, and once onsite, there was no question that an airplane accident had occurred there. Aircraft aluminum was scattered over an area of about a hundred square feet. The largest piece on the rim of the ravine was the wing section. This piece measured approximately fifteen feet long and twelve feet wide. The outer wing section had been torn away, and the wing root, just inside of the engine nacelle, had been badly distorted and burned by the fire. Evidence of the fire was everywhere. Puddles of once molten aluminum were scattered about the entire site, and other pieces that were not completely melted, were badly distorted from the intense gasoline fed fire.
It was easy to locate the cockpit section from the debris left
behind. Cockpit paraphernalia such as instruments, toggle
control cables, radio parts, windshield wiper blades and even
personal effects from the crew lay in a tangled mass. The debris
looked more like the discarded refuge from a well-used incinerator than
the remnants of an airplane.
At the moment of impact the two engines and tail section, forward of the cargo door, broke away and came to rest at the bottom of the gully. One very badly damaged engine is still buried in the gully. It is sticking out of the soil and foliage that has nearly covered it over the decades. We were not able to locate the second engine.
Also at the bottom of the gully and directly below the main wreckage was the tail section. At one time this section was fully intact and more or less undamaged. But sometime in the distant past someone, most likely salvagers, have attempted to dismantle and remove it. The entire horizontal stabilizer had been meticulously unbolted from the tail cone and was found laying on end not far away. Both left and right elevators were missing, as well as the rudder and vertical stabilizer assembly.
The tail cone just forward of the horizontal stabilizer had been hacked off with an axe, or some other sharp tool, to separate it from the aft fuselage. The remaining section of fuselage, which included the cargo door opening, was lying on its side thirty feet from the bottom of the gully . Young trees, that were not there at the time of this accident, are now growing up around the tail section and preventing it from rolling down to the seasonal stream below. In time, one small tree in particular, will slowly split the upended horizontal stabilizer in two. Another will impale the aft fuselage through the cargo door opening.
Because of its location, this site is destined to remain
for many years to come. But if you are fortunate enough to visit
this site, please remember the two men who died there. Their
will forever be on the approach to the San Francisco International