Friday, September 14, 2012

SAN BERNARDINO: Plane crash sites sprinkled through county

G. Pat Macha was just 16 when the plane wreck bug crawled under his skin. 

It happened when he was working at Camp Conrad, a YMCA camp in Barton Flats. On a long hike, he stumbled upon the remains of an Air Force C-47D that had crashed into the snowy south slope of San Gorgonio Peak in 1952.

“At the time I went there, there was no trail,” Macha recalls.

That was nearly 50 years ago.

These days, the Sky High Trail, which curls around the south face of the mountain on its way to the summit, cuts right through the middle of the wreckage. Twisted and ragged sheets of corrugated metal are all that remain of the fuselage that splintered across the mountainside.

Macha, 66, of Mission Viejo, said when he first saw the crash site, there were still pieces of uniforms, boots and seats from the plane among the debris. Scavengers picked those remnants clean over the years.

The experience fostered an enduring passion in Macha for finding crash sites. In 1991, he published “Plane Wrecks in the Mountains and Deserts of California.” He’s currently working on a fourth edition. The third edition is no longer in print, but copies are available through

The mountains and deserts of San Bernardino County are littered with airplane crash sites, he said. The attraction in seeking them out is a combination of the human stories and the thrill of discovery when he locates the remains of a plane that has been missing for years. He’ll speak about those experiences at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Brackett Field in Pomona.

There is nothing quite like it, he said, “when you’re in a remote location and you come across something that’s man made, where time stopped so long ago.”

On numerous occasions he has helped family members reach these isolated spots. One such site was the 1964 crash of a private plane on San Bernardino Peak.

“The family of the pilot contacted me several years ago,” Macha said. He led the pilot’s son up the mountain, “and he placed a memorial up at the crash site. It meant the world to him to get to that site.”

Often families find a certain peace.

“There’s usually quite a few tears that get shed in the process,” he said, “but it brings closure. I’ve had people say, ‘Now I can sleep at night.’”

With major flight corridors through the Cajon and San Gorgonio passes, and a long history of experimental planes taking off out of nearby Edwards Air Force Base, San Bernardino County has had its share of aviation tragedies.

“Many of them have heart-rending stories,” Macha said.

The San Gorgonio crash was no exception. Thirteen men were onboard the cargo plane that had taken off from Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha before making stops in New Mexico and Arizona on the way to Norton Air Force Base. Some of the men probably had hopped aboard to make it home for a holiday visit. Raymond Ward, 37, the first man identified from the wreck, was from Riverside.

The plane went down Dec. 1. Weather kept rescue crews away. Medics from Norton reached the site Dec. 21, but 12 feet of snow kept them from finding any bodies. The crew wasn’t recovered until the following May.

Macha says those rescuers discovered some of the men had survived the crash. Two were found curled together, as if for warmth, inside the remains of the fuselage.

“There was a Marine down below the crash who had no injuries at all,” he said.

That man’s body was found stretched out in the snow, face up, his arm raised above his head, as if signaling to a search plane that never saw him.

Read more: