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The Accident

On Nov. 15, 1955, an Air Force plane carrying engineers, aircraft designers, CIA agents and newspaper, a C-54 clipped a ridge 50 feet below the crest of Mt. Charleston near Las Vegas, Nevada, skipped about 60 feet, and slid another 20 feet before it came to rest and partially burned. This wasn’t just any transport; it was headed to Groom Lake (or Watertown Strip as it was also known in those days). And the personnel aboard weren’t just random military personnel. They were a mixture of military staffers and civilian subcontractors, engineers and technicians, en-route from Burbank (location of Lockheed’s Skunkworks), to work on the secret U-2 program at Groom Lake where the first U-2 test flight had taken place three months earlier.

When a special SA 16 couldn’t drop paratroop rescuers because of strong wind atop the craggy summit, a rescue team from the 42nd Air and Rescue Sqdn at Crashed C-54 on Mt. Charleston, NV CIA Project Aquatone March Field inched its way up the rugged slope of Mt. Charleston seeking survivors among the 14 persons aboard the C-54 from Norton Air Force Base.
None but military personnel were allowed to pass a roadblock set up adjacent to Charleston Lodge. Two airmen from Nellis Air Force Base stood guard on the Kyle Canyon Road stopping newsmen and cameramen from continuing to the crash site. The official word for the public was this was a business flight to the Atomic Energy Commission’s Nevada Test Site. Now that the accident has been declassified, the 14 dead have been identified as U-2 designers and an Air Force flight crew enroute from Burbank, California to the “Watertown” airstrip along the Nevada dry Groom Lake.C-54 Mt Charleston
According to investigators, the pilot, 1st Lt. George M. Pappas, became disoriented because of the secret nature of the flight to reach Groom Lake — flying in radio silence, under visual flight rules, on a new route to shave 10 minutes off the trip — combined with snow flurries in the Spring Mountains and misinformation about wind speeds.

Pappas, who had logged 1,383 hours flying C-54s, and co-pilot Paul Winham with 682 hours, thought they were on the west side of the Spring Mountains. Instead, a 60-knot crosswind, twice as much as expected, pushed them into a canyon heading toward Charleston Peak.

Lt. Pappas started climbing to gain altitude to clear the surrounding terrain. The strong cross winds … drifted him to an area east of where he thought himself to be. Wreckage of the aircraft indicates that he was using rated military engine power and ten to fifteen degrees of flaps, in an effort to get on top of the clouds as quickly as possible,” according to the declassified report.

The plane hit the mountain at 8:19 a.m., based on a watch with a shattered crystal that was recovered from the site. Three days after the crash, a team of some 20 men on horseback — most of them members of the Clark County Mounted Posse — along with two Air Force officers reached the site to recover the bodies and top-secret paperwork about the U-2 project.

In reconstructing the accident, Air Force officials said Pappas must have realized he was in trouble “because he broke SOP (standard operating procedure) and radioed Watertown. Later investigation concluded that radio transmission was poor. Pappas’ transmission was heard at the Nellis Air Force Base radio tower, but no transmission was reported received at Watertown. Nellis tower did not reply, as they did not want to interfere with his transmission to Watertown.”

© 2011 Silent Heroes of the Cold War National Monument
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