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The Crash of 1943

Column by Hal Walter

Local history – May 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

If you ever hike up the North Taylor drainage in the Sangre de Cristo Range, you may find, hidden among the talus and buckbrush on the eastern flank of Rito Alto Peak, the remains of an airplane that collided with Earth back when my grandparents were buying equipment to fight World War II. The date was July 28, 1943.

Note that my use of the word “collided” is correct here — the Earth is a rather large free-moving object that through the workings of fate moved in the way of the plane. The official U.S. Army report, however, uses the word incorrectly when describing the nature of the accident. “Collision with mountain while in full flight.” That is unless the investigating officer meant that the mountain, too, was flying. Either way, I’m sure the grammatical implications never occurred to the three second lieutenants when they realized the headwall’s summit was out of reach, even with the North American B-25D Mitchell’s powerful twin engines.

The trio had taken off from a practice field near La Junta with the stated mission of “local instrument practice,” but apparently found another mission more entertaining. Under “Description of Accident,” three visible lines say: “Pilot was buzzing various objects in the valley near the scene of the accident prior thereto, and immediately before the accident flew into the canyon, and in an attempt to pull out, hit the side of the mountain.”

The other six or so lines are blotted out, so that people like me can’t tell you the full story of what these guys were doing with my grandpa and grandma’s bomber.

Still, even today, the only “various objects” in the Wet Mountain Valley are ranch houses and the Westcliffe/Silver Cliff Clusterplex itself. One can only guess that the airmen were testing their flying skills at the expense of local cattle flesh. I’m surprised this incident doesn’t come up more, given all the current concern about MOA flyovers.

“List of Damaged Parts: Complete Destruction.”

If you hike up there you can still find some of these parts scattered on the hillside among the boulders. Although it doesn’t show on some maps, and goes unnamed on some others, fish-forsaken Megan Lake laps at the scree just below the wreckage. Etched in the metal — in the manner that some people carve their names in aspen trees — are the names of people I do not know, as well as some I do know. Marmots and pica still make their homes in the rocks, oblivious to the wreckage. A local packer was hired to handle the salvage, some of which is reportedly on display at the Silver Cliff museum, where on cool days you might find the curator sitting in a car in the parking lot because it is too cold inside.

The pilot’s 312.5 hours of flying time never prepared him for the last few seconds at the base of Rito Alto. Birds such as ravens and Clark’s nutcrackers are the only true masters of winged flight in these drafty, tight, and thin-aired places.

Outfitter Gary Ziegler, who has been guiding in these mountains for more than two decades and has a Ph.D. in archæology and anthropology, has made an informal study of the crash site, taking a bird’s-eye view of the basin from the summits of both Rito Alto and Spread Eagle peaks.

Ziegler says he actually stumbled upon the wreckage about 20 years ago. He had heard nothing about the crash, but the challenge of deciphering the story based on the debris piqued his interest.

A former U.S. Army captain who knows firsthand what it’s like to crash in a plane — he walked out of a crash in Vietnam — Ziegler correctly identified the aircraft as a 1940s-vintage Army Air Corps bomber, based on its olive-drab paint job, armor plating, large twin engines, and twin stablizer tail.

Years later, Ziegler guided Colorado Springs airplane-crash historian Len Wallis to the site. Wallis supplied Ziegler with the official Army paperwork concerning the crash. The report confirmed many of Ziegler’s theories.

After countless trips to the scene, Ziegler pieced together an archæologist’s perspective on what may have happened. He says the fliers probably headed up the North Taylor valley hugging closer to the south, or lefthand, ridge before realizing their predicament. Since the crash site is at about 11,600 feet, Ziegler figures they were cruising low, and when they saw the 13,793-foot peak rising up before them, they panicked.

“My thought of what happened is they went to full power — put the throttles to the stops — and tried to bank out of there, but in their panic they turned too sharply,” Ziegler says. “They pulled the nose up and bled off air speed.”

Ziegler says this likely caused the bomber to stall. The right wing hit first. He believes the fuselage exploded but the impact tore off the left wing and engine and the entire tail section. “Pieces of it went tumbling down the valley without being involved in the fire.”

He speculates there was little left of the crew’s bodies after the explosion.

Ziegler also believes that it didn’t have to end that way. He thinks it is possible that if the pilots had stayed calm, and noticed the higher valley to the right, that perhaps they could have turned into it with enough room to make a 180° turn and fly back out of North Taylor. “They got to the end, or close to it, and had quite a few seconds to contemplate their actions. It’s just possible they could have pulled out of there but they did the wrong thing. They could have made a sharp turn…and pulled out of there with enough room for a 180° turn to swing right and back out.

Unfortunately the fliers had precious little time to weigh all the options. “You can imagine they had five or ten, maybe even fifteen or twenty, seconds of thinking `Oh, shit…'” Ziegler says.

Hal Walter lives near the thriving Custer County Clusterplex, and prefers the burro to the airplane as a way to reach high altitudes. He is not scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the next convention of the Colorado Association of Rural Real-Estate Developers.