Sunday, September 09, 2012

Take a Hike: Airplane Monument Trail

The Airplane Monument Trail in Cuyamaca has far-reaching views from its Japacha Ridge vantage point, as well as a memorial that marks “the site of one of the most sought after crash sites in U.S. military history,” wrote Alexander D. Bevil in the Journal of San Diego History.

After climbing uphill nearly 800 feet, the trail reaches the monument: A bronze plaque at the base of a battered, stone-mounted Liberty V-12 engine reads “In memory of Col. F.C. Marshall and 1st Lt. C.L. Webber who fell at this spot Dec. 7, 1922.”

The two military officers had left North Island in a twin-seat Army DeHaviland DH4B model biplane early that morning, Webber, 26, sat at the rear-seat controls with Marshall, 55, the forward-seat passenger on a fact-finding inspection tour of cavalry posts throughout the Southwest. Marshall was a decorated World War I veteran and Webber was an expert pilot in what were still the early days of aviation.

Their crash would also become associated with several notable people who went on to play major roles in U.S. military aviation history, Bevil said.

During a two-week period in July-August 1922, Webber and his co-pilot, 1st Lt. Virgil Hines, logged almost 4,000 miles in a DH4B exploring and mapping potential air routes.

“Arguably, the most historic use of DH4Bs occurred on June 26, 1923, when North Island Army pilots Virgil Hine and Frank W. Seifert made the first successful aerial refueling from their plane to that of fellow pilots’ Lieutenants Lowell H. Smith and John Paul Richter beneath them.”

Within just two months, Hine, Seifert, Smith and Richter were all establishing new world flight records for distance, speed, and duration, including flying some 1,250 miles over San Diego for 37 hours and 15 minutes, using in-flight refuelings.

All of these pilots had tried to help locate the crash site of Webber and Marshall when the two failed to reach their destination on that Dec. 7.

“By Dec. 17, the search for Webber and Marshall had evolved into the largest combined air and ground search in U.S. military history during peacetime,” wrote Bevil.

But it wasn’t until May 4, 1923, that the wreckage and the pilots’ remains were discovered by local rancher George W. McCain when he was riding on horseback along Japacha Ridge.

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