The Prescott Daily Courier | Prescott, Arizona October 08, 2011

2/6/2011 9:56:00 PM
Plane crash in Prescott a half-century ago still a mystery
A Military Air Transport Service C-121G, similar to the craft shown above crashed just off Highway 89, some 5 1/2 miles north of Prescott. Metal fragments from the plane remain at the site more than five decades later.
A Military Air Transport Service C-121G, similar to the craft shown above crashed just off Highway 89, some 5 1/2 miles north of Prescott. Metal fragments from the plane remain at the site more than five decades later.

Cindy Barks
The Daily Courier

PRESCOTT - Even by Prescott's high standards, it was an unusually fine winter afternoon - temperatures in the 60s, clear skies, and virtually no wind.

The perfect conditions only heighten the mystery: Why did an airplane carrying five U.S. servicemen plummet, nose-first, into Prescott's Granite Dells on a Saturday in February 1959?

The crash, which killed all five U.S. Navy airmen on board, made news all over the state and even around the country.

It was the lead story in The Arizona Republic's Sunday edition the next day, as well as in the Yuma Daily Sun. The Prescott Evening Courier continued front-page coverage on the following Monday.

Occurring as it did, just miles from Prescott's city center and on a state highway, the crash was undoubtedly the talk of the town for weeks, and residents reportedly flocked to the site. At one point afterward, the Navy put out a call to local residents asking for the return of "souvenirs" that may have been collected from the crash scene.

Still, the community appears to have received few answers about what went wrong with the training mission that originated at the Litchfield Naval Air Facility near Phoenix and was heading toward the Prescott Airport.

Decades later - in 1996 - a retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Air Force to find out more about what occurred in the Feb. 28, 1959, crash. But even the results of that request appear inconclusive, with significant segments "redacted" or blacked out of the report.

Now, more than a half-century later, it is unusual to find anyone in the community who has even heard of the crash.

That is changing, however, as the City of Prescott's Parks and Recreation Department works on a network of new recreational trails among the granite outcroppings that line Highway 89, just across the road from the Phippen Museum.

The land where the crash occurred is the same property that the city acquired in 2008 in an 80-acre open-space purchase from the Harold James Family Trust.

Even all these years later, small fragments of twisted metal remain in the dirt just off the highway - a reminder to the city employees and trail volunteers that the spot carries a somber history.

And that has some local officials pushing for a public memorial at the crash site.

As city Trails Specialist Chris Hosking worked alongside volunteers recently to build the new trails, he suggested that veterans' groups or other organizations might work on a memorial "as a way of honoring the five guys who died here."

What went wrong?

A number of factors make evaluation of the crash difficult. For one thing, it happened 52 years ago - at a time before airplanes carried the recording technology that is common today, said Robert Fiegl, department chair of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

"They didn't have flight recorders back then," Fiegl said, noting that the final conversations among the crewmembers were lost. In addition, Fiegl added," There wouldn't have been a control tower (at the Prescott Airport)."

Another major factor in the investigation: The crash involved a military aircraft. Fiegl, who retired from the Navy several years ago after 38 years, said the military's involvement put the crash investigation under strict confidentiality rules. That is apparent in the Freedom of Information Act response letter that Carlsbad, Calif., resident Merritt Chafey received in 1996 from the Headquarters Air Force Safety Agency concerning the 1959 crash.

The letter, which is on file at Prescott's Sharlot Hall Museum, stated: "The statements of witnesses giving unsworn testimony before the safety investigating board ... are exempt from disclosure under the United States Code."

The letter added that witnesses were given a "promise of confidentially" in order to encourage them to be completely truthful. Even decades later, the Air Force must adhere to that promise, the letter said, because doing otherwise "would jeopardize a significant government interest by inhibiting its ability to conduct future safety investigations of Air Force aircraft mishaps."

That resulted in major portions of the witnesses' accounts being blacked out of the report that Chafey received.

Even though Fiegl pointed out that the investigation report had been "sanitized," he was able to make a number of observations from the available information.

For instance, he noted that while the airplane - a Military Air Transport Service C-121G - was registered to the U.S. Air Force, the entire crew was made up of Navy airmen. "That doesn't happen now," Fiegl said. "It is very structured, with an eye toward safety."

The C-121G, developed from the Lockheed Constellation, was a large four-engine airplane, Fiegl said, which was used extensively by the airlines and the military.

While the investigation report concludes that "all instruments and electrical components recovered were in operating condition at the time of impact," it gives no possible reasons for the crash.

Even so, Fiegl said an experienced pilot could speculate about what might have occurred.

"Anybody who's flown airplanes professionally or in the military knows how many things can go wrong - those one-in-a-million or one-in-10-million things," he said.

What is apparent to Fiegl from the report is that the large airplane was flying low over the Dells, perhaps preparing to land at the Prescott Airport to the north. For some reason, the plane stalled and lost the "lift" required to sustain the flight.

"They may have been the victims of just getting too slow," Fiegl said.

That could have happened for any number of reasons, he said - a large bird flying into the windshield, for instance, or another plane appearing in the flight pattern.

"Witnesses heard a roar of power," Fiegl said, inferring from that that the crew "realized they were getting in trouble," and tried to make a correction. But, he said, "You're not coming out - not with that little altitude to the ground."

At that point, the plane rolled sharply to the right, began spinning, and careened into a "near-vertical, straight-down dive," Fiegl said.

'Like an atom bomb'

Newspaper accounts from the time note that a number of passers-by witnessed the plane crash, and even came close to becoming victims of it.

William Watson, a 44-year-old California man and his 14-year-old nephew Robert Schilling were driving on Highway 89 at the time, and saw the plane nose-dive directly in front of them on the highway.

Watson reports that his windshield suddenly "seemed to fill up with the airplane," which was "heading almost straight down."

Local rancher Sam Steiger, who would later serve as a U.S. Congressman and Prescott Mayor, reported standing in a field across from the crash and seeing the plane "coming down in a vertical dive."

Others described the explosion that occurred when the plane hit the ground as "like an atom bomb," with the fuel on board catching fire immediately.

The flaming wreckage reportedly was spread over a half-mile area, setting fire to the trees and underbrush in the Granite Dells.

According to the account in The Arizona Republic - on file at the Arizona History and Archives Division of the Arizona State Library - "Persons miles away from the crash scene said they saw a huge flame billow into the sky and heard a tremendous explosion. Others were attracted to the scene by huge clouds of black smoke."

Long-time resident and local historian Elisabeth Ruffner, 91, was among those who felt the impact. "I was standing in my kitchen, and I heard the crash," she said recently, explaining that she and her family then lived near the Antelope Hills Golf Course, not far from the Highway 89 crash site.

With World War II "still very much a presence in our lives" at the time, Ruffner said the crash of a military plane was major news in the community.

The impact from the plane gouged out a portion of the asphalt on Highway 89, and long-time residents remember that a patch remained in place on the road for years afterward.

Blending history, recreation

Soon after the city bought the 80 acres of open space about three years ago, talk began circulating about constructing a memorial to the crash's five victims.

Along with Hosking, a number of others have been involved, including then-Historic Preservation Specialist Nancy Burgess, parks and recreation employee Jim Boyd, and City Councilwomen Lora Lopas and Tammy Linn.

Boyd envisions a memorial consisting of a bench and a wall, listing the names of the victims: Lt. Theodore Rivenburg, Commander Lukas Dachs, Lt. Edward Francis Souza, Engineer James Miller, and Flight Engineer Calvin Coons, all from California.

Boyd said he earlier talked with veterans and Boy Scouts who might be interested in taking on such a project.

Meanwhile, Hosking and the Over the Hill Gang - a group of mostly retired volunteers dedicated to constructing trails in the area - are working to build a network of about 3 miles of trails that would traverse the shelf of granite that fronts the highway. Eventually, the new trails could connect with a similar system near Willow Lake, although Hosking said he is still working on right-of-way for that.

Linn, who volunteers with the Over the Hill Gang to build the trails, noted that fragments of the plane crash are visible throughout the area. "The fragments are so small and so spread out," she said recently as she another other volunteers worked on the trails.

Linn foresees the trails and a future memorial blending together for a unique hiking experience. "Not only is it beautiful, but there aren't many trails honoring history like this," she said.

A memorial at the site is also something that Fiegl, as a retired Navy Captain, would like to see. He noted that such a project would bring attention to a crash that most local residents appear to know little about.

Hosking said he plans to name the new system the "Constellation Trail," after the name of the downed aircraft.