The Wreckage and the history behind the idea of the Memorial
Near the summit of Mt. Charleston, Nevada lies the debris of a mysterious plane crash, which, for years, has been a favorite landmark of those hiking the trail to the peak. I grew up in Las Vegas and remember, as a Boy Scout, seeing the wreckage and talking to my friends about it as we summited. Our Troop made several hikes to the top of Mt. Charleston, and each time, I wondered about the details of the wreckage. I hadn’t climbed Charleston in years, but in 1998, I decided to make the hike again. I wasn’t able to get anyone to join me in the hike, but I felt compelled to make the trip, even if it meant going alone. I took the south loop to the summit and when I came upon the site of the crash I noticed how much of the debris had been taken away over the years. I knew that eventually, all evidence of the wreck would be backpacked away as souvenirs. I sat there for a long time, looking at the remains of the crash. I could see a propeller twisted from the impact of the collision. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of reverence as I imagined who might have lost their lives there. I wondered where they were going, how their families took the news, and what led them to get on the plane the day that it crashed. From the wreckage, I could see the top of the ridge; thirty to fifty feet of elevation would have been enough to save their lives.
As I came down from the mountain I decided to find out more about the crash and do what I could to preserve the site. I felt like something should be done. I don’t know why I felt so strongly about it. At the time, I didn’t even know where to start looking to find out about the crash, but I felt that something, perhaps a plaque of some sort, should be created in memory of those who had died there, whoever they were. Having been a Boy Scout leader for over10 years, I decided to enlist the help of my boys to accomplish the task. Over the next few months, I asked people in town what they knew about the wreck. It soon became clear that little was known, if anything.
Finally, in November of 1999, I came across a hiking friend who told me he had a book about the history of Mt. Charleston written by Richard Taylor, a long time resident of Las Vegas. In his book, Taylor gives a brief history of the crash, including the date it occurred – November 17, 1955. There was also a reference to an article in the front page of the Las Vegas Review Journal dated November 18, 1955. (If you would like a copy of this book click on Richard Taylor’s HISTORY OF MT. CHARLESTON at the bottom of this page.) This was the first piece of information I could work with. I sent Jared Dye, one of my Explorer Scouts, to the UNLV library to copy the article.
Written by reporter Dennis Schieck, the article said the plane involved was a C-54, the equivalent to a DC-4. On November 18th, the day after the crash, he flew over the crash site and described what he saw.
“I flew over the scene of the crash with George Crockett of Alamo Airways, this morning, and it appears there is little chance that any of the occupants of the plane could have survived.
The crash occurred near the 11,500 foot level of the Charleston peak and it appears that the pilot of the craft “just missed” as he sought to circle the precipitous mountain en route to Indian Springs, believed his ultimate destination.
From the air, it appeared that the fuselage from the wings back is intact and there is a slight possibility that some passengers may have survived, although there was absolutely no sign of life anywhere around the plane. The rudder section of the ship is burned away but the skeleton of the tail assembly is still there. The wings of the plane are completely burned away and the forward portion of the fuselage appears to have been crushed. Crockett and I figure that the pilot either ploughed into the side of the mountain or slapped in, thus crushing the front end… A door on the fuselage of the plane was swinging in the high wind, which was blowing across the peak from the west and blowing snow over the plane.
A complete veil of secrecy was clamped on information on the ground. Reporters who went to the Charleston area last night and this morning were not allowed anywhere except on private property and no one would answer any questions.”
Schiek’s article states that the C-54 had taken off from Burbank, California. Fourteen people were on the plane when it crashed. The Air Force closed the road into Kyle Canyon and told the media the plane was headed for Indian Springs, a small town 30 miles north of Las Vegas. The control tower at Indian Springs, however, told Schieck that the C-54 was not expected to land there, which led Schieck to speculate that its actual destination was the Nevada Proving Ground known as Area 51. However, one thing was clear from the article: at the time of the crash, the government wasn’t in the mood to answer any questions.
Knowing the plane originated at Burbank led me to believe that Skunkworks may have had something to do with the flight. Skunkworks is a division of Lockheed Corporation and has been responsible for developing such planes as the U-2 and the
SR-71. It was a lead that turned out to be very valuable.
In late August 2000, I called Lockheed Martin in Palmdale, California. I was transferred to the Public Relations department and given the name of Gary Grigg as my contact. In our first conversation, I was a little apprehensive, but soon found myself telling him everything I knew about the crash on Mt. Charleston. At first, he chuckled. I wondered what the heck I was doing, talking on the phone to a stranger about a crazy scheme to memorialize complete strangers who died four years before I was even born, but it was too late. If my Explorer Scouts and I were going to put a plaque at the crash site, we would need the names of the people who died there, and by now I was sure that Lockheed could give me those names. However foolish I felt, I knew I had to keep talking.
The more I told Gary, the more interested he became. He told me that for many years, he had been intrigued by the history of the U-2. He knew that Lockheed was working on the U-2 spy plane at Groom Lake, Nevada in 1955. He promised that our Scout Troop could depend on Lockheed’s support if the Mt. Charleston crash was related to Lockheed’s role in U-2 development.
Several days later, Gary called to confirm that the crashed C-54 departed from Lockheed Air Terminal and that the passengers, some of them Lockheed employees, were involved in the U-2 project. Apparently, there were people still working for Lockheed Martin who remembered the crash. Since Lockheed involvement in the U-2 program was contracted by the CIA, Gary suggested I try to find out more information from the Agency.
Contacting the CIA for information about the crash seemed destined to be a dead end. First, I was told to log onto their web site to find out more information about the U-2, since many documents regarding U-2 had been de-classified in 1998 and loaded on the web. I find it fascinating that after 40 years of secrecy, I happened to begin the work of preserving the crash site in the very year that the CIA de-classified the U-2 project.
I checked the web site and found “The CIA and the U-2 Program, 1954-1974?, written by Gregory W. Peddle and Donald E. Welzenbach of the History Staff Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 1998. The document states:
As deliveries of U-2 airframes to the testing site increased, a major logistic problem arose as to how to transfer Lockheed employees from Burbank to (blacked out) without arousing a great deal of curiosity…Therefore, a regularly scheduled Military Air Transport Service (MATS) flight using USAF C-54 aircraft began on October 1955…Less than seven weeks after it started, a MATS aircraft bound for (blacked out) crashed on 17 November, killing all 14 persons aboard the plane, including the Project Security Officer, CIA’s (blacked out) four of his staff, and personnel from Lockeed and Hycon. (Hycon is the company that built the camera that gave the U-2 its ability to photograph from above sixty thousand feet. Since the accident, Hycon has merged with Boeing.) This crash represented the greatest single loss of life in the entire U-2 program.
I contacted the CIA again and was referred to the National Archives. In response to my persistent begging, the Archives referred me to another records repository where they believed the accident report would have been stored. I called the number of that repository and was put in contact with a man named Archie. I told Archie I was looking for a plane that went down on November 17, 1955 while en route to Groom Lake (Area 51). He snickered and asked me why I was bothering about the plane crash, since he was sure I wasn’t going to find any aliens. After I explained my purpose, DiFonti became very interested and set to work locating the accident report.
On October 27, 2000, I received a letter from the Department of the Air Force, letting me know they had found the official accident report and would send me a copy of the microfilm. I was very excited. Not only would I receive the names of every person on the C-54, but I would also know the circumstances behind the ill-fated flight.
About this time, Austin Hales, one of my Explorer Scouts, told his grandfather about the idea of a plaque to honor the victims of the crash on Charleston. Austin’s grandfather, State Senator Raymond Rawson, is a renowned forensic scientist specializing in identification through dental records. He had been curious about the C-54 for many years and even knew some of the volunteers who worked to recover the bodies of the victims. Recognizing the significance of the crash, Senator Rawson became determined to write a bill to Congress proposing to create a national monument. The Scouts and I were pleased at the thought that our simple plaque could possibly become a national monument.
Soon the plans for the dedication of the memorial became more elaborate. Even the 9th Reconnaissance Wing from Beale Air Force Base, the California base responsible for current U-2 operations, has agreed to provide U-2 fly over, pending Pentagon approval.
On November 3, 2000, I received the official accident report, which had recently been declassified. The report contained:
· the names and personal information of the 14 men who died
· several narrative descriptions of the events leading up to the accident
· weather reports of the area surrounding Mt. Charleston dated November 17, 1955
· standard operation procedure (SOP) for the military air transport service (MATS) flights in and out of Groom Lake
· autopsies of the victims
· flight plans
· pictures of the crash site
· illustration of the crash site
· investigative interviews.
There is one person missing on the list of persons killed that was excepted to be aboard the C-54. On the flight manifest, listed as a civilian passenger, was the name Bob Murphy, a Lockheed employee working on the U-2. Based on the manifest, Lockheed sent representatives to his home on the evening of November 17,1955, to inform his next of kin that he had been killed. Murphy himself answered the door. Needless to say, the men at his door were surprised to see him alive. That morning, he had slept in and missed the flight. In 34 years of Lockheed employment, he only missed 3 days of work. November 17 just happened to be one of those days. When Murphy tells the story, it’s as if the crash were yesterday. Forty-five years later, he is still puzzled as to why he was not on the plane when it went down.