1st Lt. Leo Walker was the pilot-in-command on this Boeing B-17C, when it fell apart over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, on November 2, 1941. The flight departed Salt Lake City, Utah on October 31, 1941, and was enroute to Sacramento, California. There they were going have an engine changed, and have other necessary maintenance completed on their early model, "Small Tailed" B-17C. Onboard with him were four other crew members, and four passengers.
The four passengers were just going along to help with the engine change. The number 3 engine had accumulated approximately 422 hours, and it was time to be replaced. Total time on the other three was less than 136 hours, with the number one engine having the lowest time, at 4:00 hours total time. The total time since new on the airframe was only 461 hours.
Other work to be complete at the Sacramento Maintenance Depot, was the completion of a few Tech Orders, and installation of a new Command-Type radio set. For unexplained reasons, the set had been removed from this aircraft before the flight.
After departing Salt Lake City, the flight arrived in the vicinity of Reno, Nevada, but the weather over the Sierra Nevada mountains, between Reno and Sacramento, was much worse than expected. So Lt. Walker decided to land at Reno and wait for conditions to improve.
After two days of waiting for better weather, the men were getting quite anxious to be on their way. Lt. Walker was still not pleased with what he saw to the west when he looked out the weather office window. He held an instrument rating, but didn't have much experience in the clouds. If it wasn't necessary, he preferred not to go!
However, while he waited for improved conditions, a United Airline flight from San Francisco arrived, and the pilot strolled into the weather office. Lt. Walker took the opportunity to inquire about the weather conditions over the mountains. The airline pilot reported that the weather was approximately 1,800 overcast, with five miles visibility in the Sacramento area, and completely clear to the south as far as Fresno. He also said that he was on top of the overcast at 11,000 feet near Donner Summit.
With that information, Lt. Walker made the decision to takeoff. His plan was to climb for altitude east of Lake Tahoe and then start over the mountains following the Sacramento Radio beam. Once he was sure they were over Sacramento, he would let down, or divert to his alternate at Fresno.
It was a perfectly sound plan! The airline pilot reported 1,800 overcast at Sacramento, and the field elevation at Sacramento was only 24 feet above sea level. Once over the Sacramento Valley, or the San Joaquin Valley to the south, the terrain averaged less than 300 feet M.S.L. Both valleys were about 50 miles wide and two hundred miles long, so there was plenty of room and visibility to maneuver and make the approach.
After departing Reno at 11:15 in the morning, Lt. Walker flew up and down the Reno Valley as planned, while climbing for altitude. At approximately 9,000 feet, the copilot, 2nd Lt. John R. Mode was able to pick up the Sacramento beam on the Compass set radio. With that, Lt. Walker turned west and started along the airway which would lead them over the mountains to Sacramento.
After passing the north end of Lake Tahoe, they suddenly entered the overcast. The young pilot concentrated on his flight instruments and Lt. Mode monitored the navigation radio. Everything seemed to be going as planned, so they continued climbing along the airway. The plan was to break out of the clouds at 11,000 feet, and cruise at 12,000 feet.
It didn't take long before their plan started to unravel. About twenty minutes out of Reno, their communications radio started going out. And to make matters worse, the navigational radio was picking up a lot of static, which made it difficult to hear the signal that told them when they were on the beam.
Since Lt. Walker did not survive the flight, and was in fact a hero for staying at the controls for as long as he did, no one wanted to place the blame for this accident on him. But from the statements of the survivors, it was obvious that Lt. Walker was having a great deal of difficulty holding the B-17 in level flight. In fact, some of the men, including Private Alden H. Stookey started to get air sick from the turbulence.
Somewhere over the mountains, the compass radio went out completely, and they still had not been able to get above the overcast. As they approached 18,000 feet, they were still in solid clouds. At that point, they considered aborting the flight and returning to Reno. But since the airline pilot reported good conditions over Sacramento, they decided to continue on by Dead Reckoning navigation. Surely they would break out of the clouds very soon! But Lt. Walker's ability to control the B-17 was being taxed to the limit, and he knew it.
About thirty minutes into the flight, and while still climbing for altitude, the #1 supercharger began to fail. Lt. Mode was also handling the engine controls, so Lt. Walker could concentrate on flying the airplane. Now that the supercharger was out, the number one engine was not able to develop the same power as the other three engines. Even with the supercharger control full on, they could not get more than 25 inches of manifold pressure on that engine.
More power was needed to complete the climb and get out of the clouds. Inside the storm they were being bounced around like a cork on a stormy sea. Each time Lt. Mode tried to get more power on the good engines, the differential power would make it impossible for Lt. Walker to maintain a straight course. To compensate, all four engines were pulled back to 2,200 R.P.M.
After about an hour of fighting the airplane and the weather, they figured they must be over the Sacramento Valley. But with the navigational radio not working, they couldn't be sure. At that point they were still in the overcast, and Lt. Walker was fighting the airplane more and more with each passing minute. The decision was made to return to Reno, and wait for better weather. Why they didn't head south to their alternate field in Fresno, is unknown.
At some point, Walker realized that the outcome of this flight was in doubt. He must have known that he could lose control at any moment. So, as a precaution, he ordered everyone to get their parachutes on and be ready for whatever happens. There was no command set in the airplane, so after he told the men in the nose section, he instructed them to go to the rear and let the others know of his decision. He then ordered them to stay in the rear, which would make it easier for them to escape, should the need arise. Lt. Mode would stay up front on the flight deck to help handle the airplane.
They didn't now it at the time, but Lt. Walker's order to get their parachutes on was paramount in saving their lives. Especially in light of what happened in the next few minutes.
The remainder of this story, and the most amazing photos ever taken of a crash site, is featured in the new book by G. Pat Macha and Don Jordan. The photos taken at this little known crash site will take your breath away. The B-17C is an extremely rare war bird. It is best known as the "Small Tailed B-17.
In the new book "Aircraft Wrecks in The Mountains
and Deserts of California" (3rd edition), you'll read what happened in
the sky over the Sierra Nevada Mountains on that stormy November
And, you'll read the personal stories of the crew members who survived
after their ship fell apart at 18,000 feet. This new book is now
available. Contact Don
Jordan for details.
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