UPDATED 7/17/17 This is a story about a trip to the B-17C bomber that crashed in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California in November 1941, a month before the Pearl Harbor attack. It broke up in flight during a severe winter storm as a consequence of engine problems (#3 Engine, nacelle pictured here) which unfortunately was the only power source for the pilots IFR instrumentation. They were on a ferry trip from Reno to Sacramento to have the #3 engine changed. See a brief story on the www.check-six.com website.
After seeing the story of this B-17C wreck site on the Discovery Channel (Broken Wings), I had to go find it. Several weeks of research yielded no clues; thankfully, the record of its exact location had been carefully redacted from view by the USAF, US Forest Service, the USGS and others. An inquiry to the US Forest Service was an indication why: “This is a protected National Historical Site but its location cannot be revealed. It has been vandalized. You can visit it if you can find it – but you are on your own. The area is under surveillance”. We visited the site in May 2005 as the last of the winter snows were receding.
The Broken Wings show on Discovery had one of the surviving crewmen visit the site with a camera crew. He described the incident in detail He said that the order to bail out was given and most of the crew headed for the crew access door which is in the tail area between the right hand gun mount and the horizontal stabilizer. Due to the stresses on the structure from the spin they could not open the jammed door even though they kicked it repeatedly. In the spinning aircraft, centrifugal forces (and time) limited their movement options. As they realized their fate, the entire tail suddenly broke off exposing a large opening for them to exit from. The B-17C’s design weakness in that narrow tail section ultimately saved their lives. The camera man videoed the crew door, still jammed shut – showing the dents from being kicked. That fuselage area was significantly strengthened and enlarged in the later “classic” B-17 design. These facts are part of the reason that this aircraft is of historic significance.
The national insignia paint is still in reasonable shape after all these years. In pre-Pearl Harbor days, the national insignia had a red disc inside the star as seen here. This was quickly changed to the white star inside a blue field with the elimination of the red disc – so as not to confuse anyone with Japan’s red disc roundel. (No, he is not squatting on the aileron; it is mostly gone.)
Unfortunately, this site has been vandalized by some moron(s) who used a power saw to remove several large pieces of the wing structure. The ongoing Federal felony investigation continues and the Forest Service would like some help in identifying the dirtbags..The area is under surveillance. It would be a simple matter to place multiple automatic “game cameras” in this area and the trail head(s) to record any activity. I hope they have. Smile !
In the below photo you can see some of the wing structure. It is in remarkably good condition although 76 years of deep snow accumulations have partially crushed the outboard areas. Riveted areas are intact, actually looking “new”; zinc chromate paint still in good condition. Very interesting to see the construction techniques used in 1941. This particular area is where the #3 engine fuel tank was located – see the two curved support hangers. Strong and light; steel only where it needed to be, aluminum everywhere else. On the right you can see where some structure was cut away with a saw. Why? Someone rebuilding a B-17?
I was able to successfully research some long-lost information and deduce a location to start searching. After some time in the general area I had selected west of Lake Tahoe, Eureka! We found it. Now the picture becomes clearer. This crash resulted from several fundamental design shortcomings in the B-17C including non-redundant instrument power and a weak tail – fuselage assembly among others. As a result of this significant crash, Boeing modified the design to become the famous B-17D and later models that helped win WWII.
This photo shows the #3 engine nacelle (next to the co-pilot) on the right wing. The wing is upside down so you are looking at the oblong opening where the right wheel would have retracted into. This area was apparently crushed by a tree that fell across it sometime in the past 70 years. You can see the rusted steel tubing of the engine mount – the engines and superchargers were removed shortly after the crash. You can also plainly see the rusted steel exhaust pipe that routed high pressure gas back to the supercharger.
Above: The air intake structure for the #3 engine carburetor and supercharger intercooler duct work is in pretty good condition considering the event. Note the connecting plate gussett for the steel main wing spar. Also note the corrugated paneling under the outer skin. Adds a lot of stiffening strength to the wing structure. It converts bending stresses into compression and tension forces.
“It’s easy to build a strong aircraft. It is very difficult to build an aircraft that is strong enough“ Old aviation design adage. Evidence of this truism is seen everywhere in this structure. Maybe you have to be an engineer to appreciate it… Sorry!
The wreckage is in remarkably good condition. The pre-war star insignia is plainly visible on the outboard end of the wing. The wing apparently hit the ground at its root, being held vertically by the trees. Eventually it fell to horizontal, possibly by the AAF crew who arrived to remove the engines.
This is very rough, thick, remote forest. Parachuting into it during a snowstorm must have been quite scary and how the surviving crew members were located and picked up must have been an interesting story in itself. They undoubtedly got hung up in the trees. I also wonder how the AAF got the engines and other key equipment out of here. No roads anywhere near here for a truck to approach. Especially in 1941. I would guess they used horses and some kind of skids to haul the engines out – a long way.
Now I better understand the historical significance of this site and will not reveal its location -please don’t ask. The research necessary to locate it is part of the “journey” and well worth the effort.
Below: Note the Grade 8 head stamps on the multiple bolts and the multiple castle nuts with cotter pins.
The visitors’ graffiti at the crash-site. Pencil apparently persists on aluminum. Dates as early as 1944 and the early 1950’s. We certainly didn’t sign it. Considering how many people have visited the site it is (was) remarkably well preserved – except for the obvious theft/vandalism of recent times.
1st Lt Leo Walker, the pilot, sacrificed his life fighting to control the damaged aircraft after he ordered his crew to bail out, buying them time to do so. As a memorial to him, this aircraft and its place in history should remain peacefully and undisturbed in the wilderness.
If you visit the site, please don’t publish the coordinates.
Personal integrity and respect are dying concepts these days. “It’s all about ME”…….
More to follow, stay tuned. The next operation is to locate the wreckage of a C-45 twin engined aircraft that didn’t quite clear the summit of Mt. Diablo near here. It lay there for many years and was frequently reported by local pilots as a possible new crash site. The Army (or USAF later) apparently decided those reports were getting bothersome. So they hauled up a bunch of dynamite and blew the wreck to little pieces – they are still there. Taking care of business – can you imagine suggesting that solution today??? Bring tick repellent….
We are also planning an expedition to the C-46 Commando that crashed in the mountains west of Lake Tahoe, in the vicinity of Blue Canyon, off Highway 80 in California. We only have a very general location so much research is needed first. California is littered with probably hundreds of crash sites, There are dozens within a 2 hour drive from here.