Western Airlines Flight 23
November 13, 1946
By: Don R. Jordan
The DC-3/C-47 type aircraft was one of the most
popular and reliable passenger aircraft of its day. More than
13,000 were built, and hundreds are still flying in several countries
around the world. It is not uncommon to see an old DC-3 sitting
on the back ramp at many smaller airports around the country.
Some are used for skydiving activities or nostalgic tourist flights,
while others sit derelict in the elements awaiting their ultimate fate.
Designed and descended from the DC-1 and DC-2 of the early 1930’s they
were intended for use by the commercial airline business. But,
during World War II the DC-3 received the designation C-47 by the
military, and was used around the world in cargo or troop transports
roles. After the war, hundred of these old war birds were sold to
the airlines for conversion to passenger carrying, revenue generating
airliners. It was a task that suited them well, and once again
made the airline companies profitable. Because so many thousands
of these aircraft were built, and later converted by the airlines, it
is only expected that more than a few would ultimately come to grief
somewhere along their many routes. Many very famous and important
people, including actress Carol Lombard, and singer Ricky Nelson would
parish in DC-3s accidents.
Flight 23 was one such converted military
transport. It now carried the civilian registration number of
NC18645 under its wing and on its tail. It would begin its last
scheduled route trip on November 12, 1946 from the passenger terminal
at Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, with a intended destination of Burbank,
California, USA. It made five regular scheduled stops in Montana
and Idaho, before landing for a layover stop at Salt Lake City, Utah.
In Salt Lake the aircraft and equipment were given a routine inspection
by company mechanics. Only some very minor discrepancies were
noted, so the aircraft was released for further flight. Salt Lake
was also a crew change point on this route. When Flight 23
departed Salt Lake City the flight crew was Captain Gerry Miller and
First Officer Theodore Mathis. Back in the cabin with the sleepy
passengers was stewardess Joan Fauntleroy. On the day of this
accident Captain Miller, age 34, had more than 4,885 hours of flight
time, with over 4,000 hours in DC-3 type aircraft alone.
While at cruise altitude north of Las Vegas,
Nevada Miller called the company control dispatcher in Burbank by
radio to report that the right engine was running a little rough on one
magneto. Following a discussion with dispatcher W. D. Shugg in
Burbank, it was decided to have the station mechanic in Las Vegas
inspect the engine before the flight resumed. Arrival in Las Vegas was
at 12:18 a.m. Once on the ground the mechanics checked the
engine, and then released the aircraft for further flight. The
aircraft was also refueled with 520 gallons of fuel. Departure for
Burbank was at 1:45 in the morning on November 13th.
Due to inclement weather along the remaining route
the following flight plan was issued to Captain Miller:
Instrument Departure from Las Vegas, cruise at 10,000 feet en route to
Newhall, Calif., Standard Instrument Approach on the Los Angeles radio
range station, further clearance expected over Los Angeles.”
At 2:35 in the morning, while the aircraft cruised
between Las Vegas and Newhall, the Burbank dispatcher called Capt.
Miller on the radio to inquire about the performance of the right
engine. Miller reported that the engine performed perfectly at
takeoff and climb power settings, but the left magneto on that engine
was cutting out a little while at cruise settings. It was no
cause for alarm, so the aircraft continued along the route.
Miller was also informed that the Newhall radio range transmitter was
out of service due to modifications being performed.
As the aircraft approached the Palmdale radio range
Air Traffic Control (ATC) issued an amended crossing altitude for
Newhall. Miller requested to remain at 10,000 feet, but due to
conflicting southbound traffic the flight was assigned to cross over
Newhall at 8,000 feet (msl). There are two 8,000-foot high
mountain peaks in that same general area, and the Newhall radio range
was out of service. It was a dangerous situation! With no ground
radio transmitter to establish an accurate crossing, Miller would have
to estimate his time when over the Newhall radio. It was not a
situation any pilot would willingly attempt when flying on instruments
at night in mountainous terrain. Miller wisely rejected the
clearing, but later accepted a 9,000-foot crossing altitude
The new ATC clearance called for Flight 23 to cross
Newhall at 9,000 feet, then turn south and begin a descent so as to
arrive over the Los Angeles radio range, and clear weather, at 4,000
feet. From there he would fly visually on the approach to the
Burbank airport. This instrument procedure had worked thousands
of times for other aircraft performing instrument approaches into the
Los Angeles area airports. But it would fail Captain Miller and
Flight 23 in a most catastrophic way at approximately 3:41 in the
morning on November 13, 1946.
At 3:24 a.m. Miller reported by radio that he was
over the Newhall station at the required 9,000 feet.
Actually this was only an educated guess by Miller. It was based
on his known time over the Palmdale radio, combined with the elapsed
time and heading. This practice of determining position is called
Dead Reckoning. And this time, due to factors he was not aware
of, Miller was dead wrong.
A crosswind of high velocity existed which was
unknown to Miller, and was not shown on any of the weather forecasts
charts. This high velocity crosswind was encountered after
leaving Palmdale, and while on the course for Newhall. This
strong wind had been pushing the aircraft steadily off course to the
north every since it left the Palmdale area. Now, tragically,
instead of being over Newhall as expected, Miller was actually some
twenty-five miles north of the position where he thought he was.
To make matter worse Miller followed his clearance as directed and
turned south. Then he began to descend to his next assigned
altitude of 4,000 feet.
At 3:37 a.m., while descending from 9,000 feet, Miller copied his last
clearance for the visual approach to Burbank. He was to report
over the Los Angeles radio station, and then execute the normal visual
approach to Burbank. He was also to report when leaving 4,000
feet, and to report when he had the Burbank airport in sight.
No doubt the passengers and crew were at that moment
preparing for a normal landing at the Burbank terminal. It had been a
long night, and mostly likely many of the passengers were still fast
asleep in their seats. Up front the crew expected at any moment
to see the soft glow of lights from the many towns and cities in the
Los Angeles basin come into view. But it was not to be.
It is likely, in the pitch dark of the night, that
neither crewmember saw the approaching 6,000-foot high mountain peak
looming just a few miles directly ahead of their descending
aircraft. Impact came at approximate 3:41 a.m. just 100 feet
below the summit near Gorman, California. In an instant all on
board Flight 23 were killed, and the wreckage of NC18645 lay burned and
scattered on the rugged 80-degree granite slope where much of it
remains to this day.
The primary cause of this accident was the high
velocity crosswind encountered after leaving Palmdale. But, had
the Newhall radio range been operational, the pilots could still have
held their course so as to arrive over the Newhall station as
planned. In the coming years a new system for aerial navigation
would be perfected. It was called “VHF Omni-range”(VOR), and
would replace the older N and A Range system in use during the 1930’s,
1940’s, and early 1950’s. The new VOR system was extremely
accurate, and would allow an aircraft to remain within less than
a mile of its intended course or position. Still later GPS
(Satellite Navigation) would be used for aerial navigation, and would
be even more accurate.
But in 1946 those methods were still in the mind of
the science fiction writer. In the coming decades hundred of
pounds of navigational equipment could replaced by a small half pound
receiver that would fit in the palm of your hand. The accuracy
and reliability of such devices was astounding. Until those new methods
of navigation were perfected hundred, if not thousands, of aircraft
accidents would still be attributed to faulty navigation on the part of
the pilot. He would think that he was in one place, when in fact
he was in another!
Contact Don Jordan