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Albatross Plane Crash Site

 
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SteveH
Death Valley Resident


Joined: 23 Jun 2006
Posts: 1540
Location: Sonoma, CA

PostPosted: Fri Oct 10, 2008 7:49 pm 
Post subject: Albatross Plane Crash Site


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My original Albatross Plane Crash Site Trip Report--

http://www.panamintcity.com/cottonwood/albatross.html


Last edited by SteveH on Sat Mar 21, 2009 8:58 am; edited 1 time in total
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SteveH
Death Valley Resident


Joined: 23 Jun 2006
Posts: 1540
Location: Sonoma, CA

PostPosted: Fri Oct 10, 2008 7:50 pm 
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Above Trip Report has been updated.

Last edited by SteveH on Sat Mar 21, 2009 8:58 am; edited 1 time in total
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SteveH
Death Valley Resident


Joined: 23 Jun 2006
Posts: 1540
Location: Sonoma, CA

PostPosted: Fri Oct 10, 2008 7:50 pm 
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And here is a little more reading about the history of the Albatross and this flight. This was written by R. W. Koch (581st ARSq). It's a long and detailed account, but very interesting.

http://www.arcassn.org/albatross.htm

THE CIA's DEATH VALLEY ALBATROSS

"The aircraft sitting motionless on the concrete ramp were casting long shadows in the late afternoon sunlight. The date was 24 Jan 52. The location was Mountain Home AFB, 40 miles southeast of Boise, Idaho. The six man crew walked slowly towards SA-16 s/n 51-001 as the crew chief started the auxiliary power unit inside the aircraft. The 16-ton Albatross, its official Air Force nickname, was ready for another flight with the crew of the 580th Air Resupply Squadron. While the pilot checked the "Dash One" flight forms, the copilot, now accompanied by the crew chief, walked around the large amphibian pulling the lock pins from the landing gear joints and checking on the general outward appearance of the aircraft. After the usual short consultation with the crew chief, the pilot along with the other five crew members climbed up the narrow boarding ladder protruding from the left rear door of the SA-16.

A chill winter wind was blowing as the boarding ladder was pulled into the aircraft and the door closed. The auxiliary power unit seemed to protest the added load on it as the pilot energized the starter on number one engine to clear the oil from the lower cylinders; a standard procedure before starting the radial engines. The auxiliary power unit protested again, but this time the engine came to life with a roar and clouds of white oil smoke erupting from the short stacks. The crew chief walked around to number two engine and held his thumb up in the air. The number two engine slowly turned over to clear the oil from the lower cylinders and then just as quickly as number one engine, gave a loud roar as the ignition and fuel were turned on. The pilot throttled both engines back to idle and gave the "pull chocks" signal to the crew chief. The heavy wooden chocks were pulled away from in front of the wheels, and with a sudden burst of power from the Curtis-Wright engines, the Albatross began to roll out of its parking spot on the long ramp.

The brakes squealed as the SA-16 turned onto the taxiway towards the end of the 10,000 foot runway. The navigator spread his charts out on the cramped navigation table and traced a line, previously drawn on the chart at the pre-flight briefing, which extended from Mountain Home to San Diego, California. The chart notation indicated that this was to be a long range navigation flight, most of it to be flown at night due to the short winter days. The distance one way was about 750 miles and at an average cruse speed of 150 knots San Diego was only about 5 hours away. Once over San Diego, the SA-16 would turn around and fly back to Mountain Home and arrive several hours before breakfast.

The outside air temperature was near zero when the Albatross reached the end of Runway 30. The SA-16 squealed to a halt as the pilot applied and set the brakes prior to the full power engine check. The co-pilot went through the "before takeoff check list" while the crew members in the rear of the aircraft double checked the doors for security and then climbed into their seats and tightened their safety belts. The SA-16 shuttered as the engines were one at a time run up to full power then brought back to idle. The auxiliary power unit continued to maintain its noisy whine as the pilot nodded to the co-pilot to call the tower for takeoff clearance.

"Mountain Home Tower, this is Zero-Zero-One ready for takeoff."

"Roger Zero-Zero-One, you are cleared for immediate takeoff on Runway 30," responded the tower.

Wing flaps were lowered to 15 degrees as the SA-16 swung onto the active runway. "OK crew, said the pilot over the intercom. "We're ready to go." The Albatross hesitated for a brief moment then lurched forward as the pilot pushed the throttles full forward on the quadrant. With the props set at full pitch the ear-shattering roar of the Curtis-Wright engines penetrated the interior of the aircraft. The vibration inside the aircraft caused the navigator's pencil to dance across the plotting table. The crew was straining against their seats due to the rapid acceleration during the takeoff roll. At an airspeed of 80 knots the pilot hauled back gently on the controls and the Albatross, though ungainly in appearance, lifted smoothly from the runway. "Gear up!" called the pilot. The co-pilot casually lifted the landing gear lever to the "up" position and the SA-16 yawed as the still rotating wheels of the main gear thumped against the side of the fuselage. "Gear up," reported the co-pilot. "Flaps up!" said the pilot. "Flaps coming up," called the co-pilot as he lifted the wing flap lever. There was a slight sinking motion felt by the crew as the flaps were retracted. Shortly the SA-16 would reach its assigned flight altitude of 11,000 ft. at which time it would level off and head south on its ten-hour mission.

The three cough members in the rear of the aircraft were looking out of the windows at the snow covered ground far below. Twenty minutes after takeoff the SA-16 leveled off at its assigned altitude and the power on the engines was reduced while high pitch was set on the propellers for maximum flight endurance. outside, the free air temperature was down to below 20 below zero. The weak winter sun was now touching the horizon, casting pink and orange rays through the aircraft's windows. "How about a heading, navigator?" asked the pilot. With his Weems plotter the navigator drew several lines on his chart, adjusting his E6B computer and over the intercom, gave the pilot a heading of 190 magnetic. "Roger, one niner zero," responded the pilot. The right wing of the SA-16 dipped and then leveled, bringing the Albatross on its heading to San Diego.

This long range navigation flight would, in several hours bring the SA-16 over California's Death Valley and parts of the Mohave Desert. The amphibian droned on towards its first check point 70 miles east of Winnemucca, Nevada. By now the sun was below the horizon and darkness was closing in around the aircraft. The co-pilot switched on the wing and tail navigation lights and turned up the red instrument panel lights. Through the windows on the right side of the aircraft the lights of Winnemucca could be faintly seen in the distance. Above the aircraft the stars were growing brighter in the night sky. The navigator was busy consulting his and auxiliary flight instruments. Several minutes before, someone had turned off the noisy power unit in the rear of the aircraft. "Our next check point is Tonopah, Nevada," reported the navigator on the intercom. "Roger, we'll look for it," replied the pilot.

In the dark, frigid winter sky the Albatross continued southward at 11,000 ft. A short time later the dim lights of Tonopah came into view then slowly passed under the nose of the aircraft. Minutes turned into hours as the SA-16, making a comfortable 150 knots, flew on towards the turn-around point of San Diego. Navigation flights were boring enough but at night the minutes seemed to drag on endlessly. Even the navigator appeared somewhat bored. The engine noise and vibration combined with the cool temperature within the aircraft kept the rear crew members from falling asleep.

Up front the pilot was making a routine scan of the various flight instruments when he noticed the number one engine tachometer needle starting to fluctuate, then stabilize. "Did you see that?" asked the pilot. "See what?" queried the co-pilot. "Watch number one engine tach," said the pilot in what seemed like a concerned tone. The co-pilot's eyes were quick to zero in on the instrument that housed the number one tachometer needle. There did appear to be a small erratic movement of the needle but a fast cross check of the other instruments gave no indication of mechanical problems.

"Navigator!" called the pilot, "What's our next check point and ETA?" A few seconds passed, then the navigator's voice came over the intercom. "Next check point is Barstow, California, and ETA is five-niner minutes." "Roger," said the pilot. Just then number one tach needle began to jump back and forth with erratic twitches. The movement was seen by both the pilot and co-pilot. Leaning forward, the co-pilot tapped the instrument face with his index finger but the erratic needle movement continued. The pilot now moved the number one engine mixture control to auto-rich position hoping that the richer fuel mixture might break up any lead fouling on the spark plugs. If they were causing this needle movement the additional fuel might remedy the problem. But no such luck. The tach needle only vibrated more wildly but now each time the needle indicated a decrease in engine rpm, the SA-16 would veer towards the left.

Having noticed the unusual flight movements the crew members in the rear of the Albatross were wide awake. Then, without warning, the number one engine gave out a violent blast that not only shook the SA-16 but propelled thousands of glowing red-hot carbon particles from the short stacks. Then another loud blast from number one engine followed by numerous popping sounds. Number one engine tach needle was now dropping off the scale while the altitude and air speed instruments were showing a gradual loss of altitude and velocity.

With lightning speed the pilot pulled back the number one engine throttle and mixture control and advanced number two engine to compensate for the power loss. Number one was feathered and the Albatross, now wallowing around the night sky like a sick bird, was trimmed with the control tabs. Full power was applied to number two engine but the aircraft wouldn't hold the assigned 11,000 ft. altitude. In fact it was losing altitude at the rate of 500 ft. per minute. The co-pilot switched the radio to the "guard/transmit" position of 243mhz, the emergency radio call frequency monitored by all aircraft and flight service stations. "Pilot to crew!" barked the pilot, "We just shut down number one engine and can't hold our assigned altitude. If you hear the bail-out bell, don't wait for me, just get out!"

Perhaps if it had been daylight the Albatross could have been trimmed up for an emergency landing on a dry lake bed somewhere in the desert below but ahead in the darkness lay several high desert mountain peaks and all this time the SA-16 was still losing altitude. The clock on the instrument panel indicated 6:30 p.m. The navigator, along with the other three crew members were opening the rear door of the Albatross in preparation for the possible bail-out. As the freezing winter wind whipped in through the open door the crew tightened their parachute straps and zipped up their flight jackets. The SA-16 was still losing altitude at a gradual rate.

The pilot told the co-pilot to put out a call on guard channel that they were abandoning the SA-16. Immediately he put the microphone to his lips. "May Day! May Day! May Day! This is Air Force zero-zero-one bailing out north of Barstow, California! May Day! May Day! May Day! Zero-zero-one bailing out north of Barstow, California!"

Even before the co-pilot had finished his emergency call the pilot had pushed the bailout bell switch and the loud, harsh ringing of the bell filled the aircraft. One of the crew-members looked forward, waved his hand and jumped into the inky blackness of the cold January night. He was followed closely by two more crew-members and then the navigator. The bell continued to ring as the co-pilot and the pilot made their way to the open door of the Alba-tross. The co-pilot put his hand on the "D" ring and jumped into the black void. Several seconds later he was followed by the pilot, who activated his parachute as soon as he was out of the aircraft. The parachute snapped open. He could see the red, white and green navigation lights of the SA-16 as it disappeared in the wintery night sky. Then all was quiet with the exception of the wind whistling through the parachute suspension lines. The unmistakable smell of sagebrush was in the air.

Suddenly, without any warning, the teeth-jarring crunch of a night parachute landing. The crew of zero-zero-one, due to a rapid bailout, had not scattered themselves too far apart on the cold desert floor and after the usual shouts and yells, managed to regroup. The entire crew was vert fortunate because there was not one single injury among them. Their position, unknown to them at the time of bailout, was somewhere between the California-Nevada border and Furnace Creek, California. The stars in the remote region were extremely bright, and to some degree offered enough illumination to the crew to keep them from walking into rocks and cactus. They noticed the faint glow of lights in the distance and after some discussion, decided to walk in that direction. Anything was better than standing around in the biting cold of a January night.

Daylight broke slowly over the chilled desert expanse of Death Valley on the Morning of 25 Jan 52 and in the distance six very tired and weary SA-16 crew-members could be seen making their way across the dry washes and powdery sand dunes. As they were to learn later, they had landed about 14 miles north of the Death Valley community of Furnace Creek which had long been a well known tourist attraction in this wild desert region. After what seemed like many hours of walking, the crew of zero-zero-one finally arrived at Furnace Creek where they reported their mishap to the local authorities. However, they gave out no details of their mission or squadron because of their connection with an ARC Wing. Word was passed that the SA-16 crew was alive and safe at Furnace Creek. The 42nd Air Rescue Squadron at March AFB was directed to send a rescue aircraft to Furnace Creek to pick up the stranded ARC crew. The expression on the faces of the Albatross crew at Furnace Creek can only be imagined as they saw a slow flying Air Rescue SA-16 turn on final for an approach and landing at the sandy airstrip. The crew of zero-zero-one scrambled on board. Shortly thereafter, the rescue SA-16 departed Furnace Creek in a cloud of dust. The ARC crew was eventually returned to their base and the incident faded into history.

But there is more to the story. You are probably wondering what happened to SA-16 zero-zero-one after the crew left her on that cold January night, high over Death Valley. Did she eventually spiral into the desert and crash? On the contrary, zero-zero-one continued on course in a gradual descent and at a point approximately 20 miles from where the crew bailed out, skimmed across the top of a mountain ridge near Towne Summit located west of the desert community of Stovepipe Wells. After contacting the first ridge, the SA-16 encountered another lower ridge and at this point threw off one of its wing tip floats. Flying at over 100 knots, zero-zero-one tilted to the left, skidded down a 45-degree mountain slope and finally came to rest intact. Yes! intact! To have a 16-ton amphibian land by itself, at night, on one engine, intact, in the mountains is almost beyond belief. But that is the way it actually happened. The odds against such a landing are incalculable.

Today, zero-zero-one remains not far from where she came down on that January evening in 1952. Though she is now not in the best of condition due to the yearly desert cloud bursts and rock slides in that area, the SA-16 is still pretty much intact which gives some indication of just how rugged an Albatross can be.

Should you ever find yourself in Death Valley while on vacation and have the urge to view this stalwart SA-16 at her final resting place we will offer the following directions. First obtain any good road map that shows the northern area of Death Valley to include the small communities of Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells. Highway 190 passes through both communities. If you are traveling east on 190 you will reach a wide spot in the road 8.2 miles from Panamint Springs. This area is marked with a sign which reads, "Scenic Point." If you are traveling west on Highway 190 you will come upon this "Scenic Point" approximately 16.4 miles from Stovepipe Wells. Here is where you get out of your car and with a good 10 X 50 power binocular look north approximately 323 degrees magnetic. Not too far below the mountain ridge line you will see the SA-16 resting on a steep rocky slope. Once you view this "unofficial clandestine monument" you will quickly understand why no attempt has been made to remove it. If your viewing binoculars are powerful enough you will see the still open rear door, just like the crew left it in 1952. Through the SA-16 is only about two and one half miles from the highway it is not recommended that one should try to hike to it because of the extremely rugged terrain.

We can only wonder how many motorists have driven by zero-zero-one over the years and not even realized that she was up there? And of those who viewed her, how many actually knew she was part of the Central Intelligence Agency's top secret air armada of the 1950s? Probably nowhere else in California is there a more unique "monument" that the "Death Valley Albatross.""
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MojaveGeek
Death Valley Resident


Joined: 09 Feb 2008
Posts: 1354
Location: Boston

PostPosted: Sat Oct 11, 2008 5:31 pm 
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Great report!! I get to read more reports from you and you haven't even left yet! Much fun!
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shane
Jayhawker


Joined: 29 Jan 2008
Posts: 30
Location: fairfield, ca

PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2008 10:23 am 
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timely report, i'm planning a hike there for my spring trip. looks like an awesome hike.
thanks for the info Steve!
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ETAV8R
Breyfogler


Joined: 07 Nov 2010
Posts: 108

PostPosted: Mon Nov 07, 2011 7:53 pm 
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What a great write up about this incident. I was told it was a CIA training flight with water landings in San Diego and then a return to their base in Nevada. Whatever the truth may be there are facts which stand out and either way it is a good story. The end could have been far worse. I wonder what happened to the crewmembers later in life.
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