Local Aircraft Crashes – 1931 Mail Plane Crash in the Verdugos
Shipwrecks are fascinating for historians (and curious people in general) because they are a frozen-in-time moment of a great tragedy. There is something elemental about them that tug at our hearts and imaginations. Who doesn’t feel stirred by the recent explorations of the Titanic? While shipwreck archeology is well known, aircraft wreck archeology is not. Yet it is just as exciting and emotionally evocative. In the next few weeks I’ll examine a few of our local crash sites.
Southern California is not the birthplace of aviation but it is most certainly the nursery, the elementary school and the high school of aviation. And because of our proximity to the mountains that created a barrier for these early aircraft, we have the lion’s share of wreck sites very close to us.
Pat Macha is the undisputed king of aircraft archeology in Southern California (http://www.aircraftwrecks.com) and has written many fascinating books on the subject. Macha has located hundreds of lost crash sites and to his credit often uses his knowledge to memorialize crash victims and bring closure for family members of the deceased aviators. But local boy Matt Maxon has also done his share of aircraft archeology. Matt is a legend among hiking enthusiasts for his intimate knowledge of our mountains. I’ve had some recent conversations with him about local wreck sites. Matt sent me the newspaper clippings from a dramatic crash in the Verdugos above La Tuna Canyon.
The most dangerous profession of the ’20s and ’30s was that of airmail pilot, self-named the “Suicide Club.” These pilots flew open cockpit planes, often at night in any kind of weather, with no navigational aids.
In May 1931, a mail plane took off from San Diego at 10:15 p.m. for the night run to Burbank Airport. It was a Boeing Model 40C, a big open-cockpit biplane that the pilots had named “Diablo” with room in the fuselage for six passengers. The conditions were foggy so passengers were not allowed on this flight, just a pilot, co-pilot and six sacks of mail.
They encountered heavy fog as they flew over Los Angeles. At 11:25 p.m. they radioed that they thought they were just southeast of Glendale but, as they approached Burbank, they were unable to find the airport. They passed near it and the roar of the big Pratt & Whitney radial engine could be heard at the airport. Apparently they swung wide over La Tuna Canyon to approach the airport and try to find a hole in the fog. They never arrived.
In the morning at first light, a search plane took off from Burbank and within 10 minutes had spotted the wreckage on the north-facing slopes of the Verdugos above La Tuna Canyon. Rescuers converged on the scene. The remains of the plane rested nose-down on an extremely steep cliff face. The plane’s undercarriage had ripped off and rolled down the canyon. Fire crews from Burbank cut a trail up to the wreckage. The crushed body of the co-pilot was found about 100 feet below the wreckage and the pilot was found in the cockpit, his hand still on the stick in a death grip. Both men had obviously died instantly. The cockpit clock had stopped at 11:29 p.m. Their bodies had to be lowered by rope then loaded onto mules for the trip down the hill. The mailbags were retrieved unharmed and were delivered.
Both men had wives and kids, and both had distinguished careers in aviation. Both had enlisted in the fledgling Army Air Corps in WWI, and had flown all over the world since then. The co-pilot was buried at Forest Lawn Glendale and the ashes of the pilot were scattered over Medford Oregon per his wishes.
Today the crash site is what is known as a “micro-site.” Just a few small parts, rivets and fittings, remain; the rest of the wreckage has been salvaged. Matt Maxon, who sent me the info, has searched for the crash site but has not yet found it among the heavy sagebrush. Just like shipwrecks, Mother Nature quickly consumes the remnants of man’s tragic folly.