Saturday, December 24, 2016

Aircraft wreckage reveals a tragic tale

SAN SIMON — It is a tale of two tragedies about four men who lost their lives in incidents separate yet related, some 65 years ago.

Last month, a hunter reported to the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office finding debris that appeared to be old aircraft wreckage north of San Simon, said CCSO spokeswoman Carol Capas.

The Sheriff’s Office turned the call over to its Search and Rescue personnel, including Jim Fusco, of Willcox. They located the wreckage Nov. 22.

“The hunter took us to it,” Fusco said, adding that the wreckage looked to have been there at least 50 years.

It was the perfect assignment for Fusco, an aviation archaeologist who has been written about in Smithsonian magazine for his ability to find World War II-era plane wreckages deep in mountain wildernesses.

“The mystery is that no one knew anything about it — not even the local ranchers,” Fusco said. “Usually, crash sites are picked over and scrapped out.”

Fusco contacted friend and fellow aviation archaeologist Craig Fuller, of Phoenix, who went to work researching the crash. 

According to articles Fuller found in the July 16, 1951, edition of the Arizona Daily Star, pilot Dale Sexton and Carl Sexton had set out on a private plane flight from Tucson to Kansas before crashing about 15 miles northeast of San Simon in the Peloncillo Mountains.

In its July 20, 1951, edition, the Range News gives a more specific location for the crash, describing it as “at the 5,000-foot altitude near the McPeeters' uninhabited ranch home.”

Both men were killed instantly.

The Range News account said the men who recovered the bodies “were guided to the place in a canyon below Hat Peak by Jesse Williams, who until recently was owner of the range in that area.”

Of the Sexton brothers, Fusco said “they were probably Tucson businessmen. They were 32 and 25 years of age, both married with young children that they left behind. Given their ages, they might have fought in World War II.”

“They don’t know exactly what caused the crash,” he said.

According to the Daily Star, while the crash occurred on June 30, 1951, the site was not found until July 15 after a five-day search that spanned a four-state area.

Sexton had taken off without filing a flight plan, which might have given searchers his probable route and fuel stop plan.

Civil Air Patrol pilot Bill Boyd, of Tucson, along with his observer, George Hover, spotted the downed plane.

Boyd called Capt. Harold Frazer, of March Field, Calif., the air rescue officer directing the search from Tucson, who dispatched an Air Force “flying boat” to San Simon.

The CAP’s BT-13 Army Trainer “took off shortly after the flying boat from San Simon on the return flight from Tucson,” the Daily Star said at the time.

“It, too, crashed, killing everyone on board,” Fusco said.

Fuller told Fusco that the trainer crashed in Bowie only a couple of hours after the wreckage of the Sexton brothers’ plane was found.

Both Roscoe E. Wilson, of Phoenix, and Ernest W. Schmidt, of Glendale, believed to be the pilot, lost their lives in the crash about one-half mile east of Bowie.

According to the Daily Star, Bowie residents heard both ships en route to Tucson pass over them about 20 minutes after takeoff at San Simon.

“An hour later, the trainer was again heard circling the city,” the article said. “Witnesses said the ship, apparently off-course because of threatening weather, went into a steep bank, stalled and spun into the ground.”

Both Roscoe and Schmidt, who had helped remove the bodies of the Sexton brothers, were killed instantly.

In his Nov. 22 e-mail, Fusco extended “a big thank you” to Fuller on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office for his work.

“Your information confirms that the plane crash site that we looked at today is the one in the articles,” he said. “I doubt that we could have figured this one out without you.”


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