At 5:20 p.m. on Oct. 2, 1941, Lt. Arnold King lifted his B-18A off the runway at McClellan Field in Sacramento. This medium bomber, a workhorse of the U.S. Army Air Corps, was ferrying material back to its home base in Albuquerque and carrying six men -- four crew and two passengers.
As King was flying through the Flagstaff area, he encountered turbulent and stormy conditions, with rain and snow leading to poor visibility. Lt. King decided to turn and fly around the storm.
Unable to see anything, King flew into Mount Agassiz, killing all aboard -- himself, Lt. Conaway, Lt. Grim, Lt. Boyd, Corp. Gillem and Pfc. Morfeld. Such was the finding of the Army's official inquiry.
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Bill Ferris asked me if I wanted to join with a few others interested in finding and hiking to this old crash site.
I quickly agreed, even though I hadn't heard of it before. But one of the group members had found copies of the accident report and Bill found rather complete documentation of this crash in NAU's Cline Library. Bill was also able to identify the likely site on a Google Earth image.
The easiest way to get there would be to hike from the top of the Skyride at Snowbowl. The Coconino National Forest website states that, "[h]iking up the mountain from the Sky Ride is prohibited to avoid damaging the Peaks' fragile alpine tundra and the endangered plants that live there." So, maybe hiking down would be OK.
Or, maybe not. Once at the top of the Skyride there were plenty of signs warning that hiking out of that area was prohibited. We told the ranger-interpreter what we intended to do and he confirmed that we couldn't hike away from there, and that we'd have to hike up from below. After conferring with one another we decided to ride the lift back down and then hike out along the Kachina trail until we reached the place we felt was right for hiking uphill.
Because of our late start, by the time we reached the proper slope to climb away from the trail, Bill and I were the only ones left of the group. Initially, the hiking is steep and the going is slow, with fallen trees to get over, rocky outcrops to climb up and occasionally thick brush to wade through.
After an hour, we had climbed high enough so that we could follow directly up the bed of a grassy ravine.
At one point, we sat down to check our Google Earth image and found that we were less than 50 yards from the crash site.
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The plane had hit in a group of trees, flanked above and below by grassy slopes. Much of the wreckage was removed with the initial recovery efforts.
But there still remains a section of the fuselage, a battery, one of the landing gear forks, and numerous small items. Some pieces are unscathed, while others are melted together, indicating that a serious fire engulfed the plane.
We stayed at the site for about an hour, looking over the debris, reconstructing how the accident occurred, and reflecting on the untimely loss of these six men and its effect on their families and friends. One was Pfc. Lawrence Morfeld of Springerville, whose sister, Marie, would later marry Joe Rolle, renowned athlete and later dean and administrator at NAU. Joe passed away in 2011, and Marie has moved away after living more than 50 years in the shadow of the mountain on which her brother was killed.
We retraced our route back down the side of the mountain, arriving back on the Kachina Trail at about 6 p.m. and reaching the parking lot near Snowbowl at 7:15 p.m. with the sun setting on the mountain and on our trip into the past.
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The flight was expected to arrive in Albuquerque by midnight on Oct. 2. On the third, a notice went out alerting to the fact that the plane had not arrived. At 10:40 a.m. on Oct. 6, the accident site was spotted by one of the search planes.
News of this crash received extensive front page coverage in the Coconino Sun, Flagstaff's weekly newspaper at the time. The article noted that some 26 men from the Army Air Corps had already arrived to conduct an investigation and salvage operation.
The story was picked up by newspapers across the country, including two articles that ran in the New York Times. A statement of findings was issued on Oct. 29, 1941, placing the bulk of the blame on poor and incomplete weather forecasting done in Sacramento at the time of take-off.
Dennis Foster has lived in Flagstaff since 1990 and when it's too hot to hike in the Grand Canyon, he likes to hike on the San Francisco Peaks.
For more information:
-- Chris McDoniel maintains a web site that contains information about this and other WWII crash sites around Arizona: www.p-38.com
-- There is some information on this and other area crash sites in John Westerlund's book, "Arizona's War Town: Flagstaff, Navajo Ordnance Depot, and World War II."
-- Of the five B-18s still in existence and on display, two are B-18As -- one in Denver (Lowry Air Force Base) and one in Dayton, Ohio (Wright-Patterson Air Force Base). The Pima Air & Space Museum, in Tucson, has a B-18B on display. This version was modified from the B-18A to hunt for submarines. www.pimaair.org
-- The Special Collections Archive of NAU's Cline Library holds the Charles Hoffman Collection, including material on this and other plane crashes in the Flagstaff area. This collection can be accessed and searched online at http://www.azarchivesonline.org.