Reconstructing the site
Reconstructing the Accident
What actually happened to the C-54 aircraft on November 17, 1955? Thanks to the declassification of CIA documents, questions that have plagued the families of the victims for more than four decades can now be answered. The official accident report is very thorough in its examination of the contributing factors of the accident, even suggesting that the secretive nature of the project might have contributed to the accident itself.
The report outlines standard operation procedures (SOP) used for MATS flights between Burbank, California and Watertown (Groom Lake), also known as Area 51. As outlined in SOP, once over Good Springs, NV, a small town on the California-Nevada border, the route turns towards Groom Lake and from here, the pilot would fly by his own sight and instruments. No contact was to be maintained by VHF radio until landing. This would prevent tracking as they flew into the ultra secret air base.
The route flown on November 17th, as filed in the flight plan, was new, chosen because it would cut ten minutes off the total flight time and avoid air traffic over Vegas’ Nellis Air Force Base. November 17th would have only been the 18th mission in which this route was used.
The pilot, George Manual Pappas Jr., and the co-pilot Paul Eugene Winham were chosen for the Groom Lake mission because of their high marks at flight school and their considerable experience: George Pappas Jr. had logged 3162 hours of which 1383 hours were in C-54 type aircraft, Paul Winham had logged in 682 hours before the accident.
As required by the (SOP), they would have received a weather report before departure. Most likely, the weather report Pappas received was for Las Vegas, not Mt. Charleston. The accident report officially recognizes that the Vegas weather report would have been insufficient, since weather patterns around the Charleston mountain range would be significantly different. The importance of the right weather information along with wind speed and direction would have been crucial to determining the degree of the turn at Goodsprings, NV.
The C-54 departed Lockheed Air Terminal in Burbank, CA at 6:58 am Pacific Standard Time. At Goodsprings, Lt. Pappas made the left-hand turn, which initiated a new heading. According to the flight plan, this heading would take the aircraft to the west (left) of Mt. Charleston and into Area 51. Based on the weather report, the flight crew would have expected a tail wind of 35 knots; what they encountered was a tail wind of 50 to 60 knots. The result of not compensating for the actual wind speed and direction when initiating the turn at Goodsprings was that they were blown off course and the mountain range that should have been to their right was actually to their left. Pappas must have assumed it was on his right and that he was still on course.
Buffeted by high winds and snow flurry, Pappas must have realized he was in trouble because he broke SOP and radioed Watertown. Later investigation concluded that radio transmission was poor. Pappas’ transmission was heard at the Nellis AFB radio tower, but no transmission was reported received at Watertown. Nellis tower did not reply since they did not want to interfere with his transmission to Watertown. As a result, no one responded to the call for help.
Forensic evidence from autopsies found in the report confirms 1st Lt. George Manual Pappas, Junior was in control of the C-54 at the moment of impact. It appears that Pappas was attempting to gain elevation in order to compensate for downdrafts. The accident report speculates that, “the 60 knot velocity of the computed wind on the forty or more degree mountainous slopes could cause downdrafts that would exceed the climb capabilities of C-54 aircraft.” In other words, the wind blowing over the mountain would have caused downdrafts too powerful for the C-54 to maintain altitude.
At the same time, he thought to avoid the higher terrain by turning left. Had he still been on course, this would have been the correct direction.
The accident report includes the following narration:
“Lt. Pappas started climbing to gain altitude to clear the surrounding terrain. The strong cross winds, which was reported in the vicinity of Spring Mountains (Mt. Charleston), 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. From the position of the wreckage on the crest of the ridge to Charleston Peak, it is indicated that Lt. Pappas emerged from IFR conditions and saw the ridge only momentarily before crashing and attempted a maximum pull-up, which resulted in stalling the aircraft into the side of the mountain. The stall attitude of the airplane is substantiated by the fact that the aircraft slid only approximately 50 feet from point of impact and burst open on the ridge. The direction of the aircraft upon contact with the mountain was 240 degrees magnetic. This indicated that he was probably in a spiral climb to the left, which would have been the normal procedure used to get on top of clouds with the minimum possibility of striking any terrain, which he thought was to his right (east).”
Lt. Col. George Pittman examined many personal effects, including watches, and noted that a watch with shattered crystal had stopped at 8:19 a.m. The autopsies confirm that all fourteen died instantly and did not suffer. As they would have had to wait three days for the first rescue party to arrive, perhaps this is a blessing.