The Sierra is a graveyard for aviators who misjudged its dangers — or simply ran out of luck. The Bee and fresnobee.com is exploring the stories and mysteries of lost flights over California's signature mountain range. Follow the series here, and send questions to reporters Mark Grossi and Cyndee Fontana on the Lost Flights blog.
The AT-7 military trainer that slammed into Mendel Glacier in November 1942 is just one mysterious casualty among many in the Sierra. Were the four airmen aboard really lost? Did the military lose track of them? The Bee, along with writer Peter Stekel, hiked to the glacier to look for answers. Read story
The Cessna crashed almost upside down. Over the next 15 days, Gene Ebell and Robert Starr survived an incredible ordeal. And those close to them demonstrated the power of friends, family and faith. Read story
AUDIO: Military historian Anthony J. Mireles talks about crashes in the Sierra: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4AUDIO: Forensic anthropologist Paul Emanovsky talks about the remains found from the 1942 Mendel Glacier crash: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5AUDIO: William Ogle talks about his father, Charles, who vanished in a plane over the Sierra in 1964: Part 1 |
Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6AUDIO:Barbara Adams shares a childhood memory of her cousin, William GamberAUDIO:Pilot Larry Jobe on flying a United DC-8 that hit a "mountain wave" updraft over the SierraAUDIO:Pilot Larry Jobe on how
winds flow over Sierra like currents of waterAUDIO:Author Peter Stekel on
searching for plane wreckage and lost airmenDOCUMENT:Military report on Dec. 6, 1943 crash of B24 into Huntington LakeDOCUMENT:Military report on Dec. 5, 1943 crash of B24 into Hester LakeDOCUMENT:Military report on
Nov. 18, 1942 crash of AT-7 on Mendel Glacier
On Nov. 18, 1942, a twin-engine AT-7 Beechcraft carrying four airmen vanished over the Sierra while on a navigation training flight. Military officials searched for a month before abandoning any hope of finding 2nd Lt. William Gamber and cadets John Mortenson, Leo Mustonen and Ernest "Glenn" Munn.
In 1947, two mountaineers spotted wreckage on Mendel Glacier in Kings Canyon National Park. No bodies were recovered. In 2005, ice climbers found mummified remains later identified as Mustonen by military forensic anthropologists. The body of Munn was discovered in 2007.
Here are stories from The Bee's coverage as the crash recovery unfolded (original publication date noted).
Oct. 20, 2005: Remains from WWII crash in Sierra recovered Nov. 13, 2005: Mystery on Mount Mendel Feb. 5, 2006: Frozen WWII airman identified, kin say Aug. 21, 2007: WWII aviator found frozen on Sierra mountain Aug. 22, 2007: Discovery of airman's body stirs hope, tragic memories Aug. 26, 2007: Writer recounts discovery of WWII aviator in Sierra Feb. 13,
2008 Airman from WWII glacier crash identified Every so often, the water in Huntington Lake drops low enough to reveal a legend.Resting in the deep is a World War II bomber -- at least what's left of it.On Dec. 6, 1943, the B-24 Liberator and its crew of eight left Hammer Field in Fresno to search for another missing bomber. Less than 40 minutes into flight, it crashed -- sinking into Huntington Lake.Six men died that day. Two parachuted to safety.For nearly 65 years, people have been fascinated by the facts as much as the legend. Was the pilot trying to land on a frozen lake? Why did only two of eight men bail out? How much of the bomber remains in the lake?Some questions can't be fully answered -- such as why six men rode the plane into an icy grave. But mystery may explain its enduring appeal.Over the years, many have tried to learn more. A fourth-grade class delved into the accident as a research project. Salvage crews have brought up engines and other pieces. An aviation buff hoping to launch an air museum sent in divers as recently as this past weekend.Some, however, say the B-24 rests just where it should. That's an opinion shared by George Barulic, the last living survivor of the crash. "I think it should be left alone," he said.The flightOn Dec. 5, 1943, a B-24 flying out of Hammer Field vanished on a training flight somewhere in the Sierra. Officials mounted a search-and-rescue effort the next day, sending out close to a dozen planes just after 9 a.m.The B-24 piloted by Capt. William Darden was next-to-last in formation, according to a military accident report. He began to run into mechanical trouble as the plane peeled away from the group.The bomber began losing altitude near Huntington Lake, which sits at 7,000 feet about 65 miles northeast of Fresno.Darden ordered his men to bail out. But only Barulic and the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Marion C. Settle, were able to scramble out the open bomb bay doors."When I jumped out, I hit the back underneath the plane," said Barulic, 86, now retired in Florida. "I pulled the rip cord, and I couldn't have been more than a few hundred feet from the ground."Barulic landed at the edge of the lake and soon spotted Settle. Both were uninjured. But the plane was gone."I looked out, and I could see an oxygen tank floating" on the lake, Barulic said.Legend has it that Darden tried to land on an ice-covered Huntington Lake, mistaking it for a snowy meadow.That is disputed by the accident report and Barulic, who said in a recent interview: "It was not frozen over at all."Military officials searched the lake for weeks, finding oxygen cylinders, an engineer's jacket and other debris. Broken in three big pieces, the plane had sunk to depths of 120 to 150 feet.Crews returned in May 1944 to drag the bottom of the lake. But they encountered an unusual obstacle -- trees.The nearly 90,000 acre-foot lake was formed in 1913 by construction of three dams. But workers didn't clear all the topped trees from the reservoir before it was filled."The plane is in a pincushion," said Fred Ilchert, who belongs to a Huntington Lake historical group.In 1955, Southern California Edison dropped the lake level for dam maintenance -- revealing pieces of the old bomber embedded on tree trunks. An Army team was dispatched to recover the bodies of the six crew members, well-preserved in the icy water.Raising the bomberIn 1980, Fresno promoter Gene Forte sparked renewed interest in the old bomber with a well-publicized salvage attempt.Forte told reporters then that he hoped to recoup a $100,000 investment by setting up a "Liberator Historical Faire" in Prather and charging $1.50 admission.But the enterprise collapsed in a contract dispute between Forte and the salvage crew. Still, some pieces of the bomber -- such as engines and a wing -- made it to shore.One small piece is part of a restored B-24 at the Castle Air Museum in Atwater.Today, Forte lives in Los Banos. He was among the more than 100 candidates for California governor in the 2003 recall election -- finishing toward the bottom. He wasn't the only one who tried to raise the bomber. Nine years later, a Navy dive salvage unit inspected the wreckage to determine whether anything could be raised.Another private salvage attempt followed in the early 1990s but was abandoned after a few days.This past weekend, Matt Finnegan continued his quest to raise the bomber. He and a volunteer crew of divers went down to find and film the old wreck in the lake surrounded by pine forests and granite peaks. Sunday, Finnegan said they were unable to locate any pieces of the wreck. He plans to try again. Finnegan, 38, has a longtime interest in the B-24 that began when he was a student at Sierra High School in Tollhouse in the late 1980s. Finnegan, who has served in the Army and National Guard, set up a nonprofit organization to launch the Fresno Air Museum. He believes that Fresno needs its own place to preserve and relate its military history.For now, he tells people that the museum exists "wherever I'm standing," but is working to lock down up to 5 acres for a site.He wants to restore the B-24 and create a memorial to the 461st Bomber Group that was stationed at Hammer Field during World War II. With so few B-24s remaining, Finnegan said the old bomber shouldn't be left to rot away.Not everyone agrees. Some Huntington Lake residents say the bomber is covered by a new law that protects sunken military vessels and aircraft.Ilchert, a board member for the Huntington Lake Big Creek Historical Conservancy, is among those who prefer that the bomber remain undisturbed. "We have tried to see that everything stays there," he said. Ilchert and other locals consider the plane a military burial spot.Don Jordan, co-author of "Aircraft Wrecks in the Mountains and Deserts of California," questions any salvage attempt. He said the tail section, cockpit, gun turrets and engines have already been pulled out."There is some of it down there and I've heard people talk about raising it," Jordan said. "But there isn't enough to be raised."A class legacyIn 1989, a fourth-grade class at Big Creek Elementary School took on the B-24's story as a research project. Students wrote letters seeking information about survivors and the crash.Two years later, the class displayed its research and helped unveil a memorial plaque at the Eastwood Center near the lake. Barulic, the last survivor, praised the students' work and said the memorial might not exist without their dedication.He has been to the lake several times to pray, remember his fallen crew members and drop blessed religious medals into the water.Today, the story of the 1943 crash is part of the Billy Creek Museum at Huntington Lake. Ilchert said the "bomber room" also includes donated artifacts from the B-24, photos and a painting of the plane.The display is one of the most popular in the museum. The old bomber, Ilchert said, "is one of the mysteries of Huntington Lake." Mendel Glacier is a dirty little chunk of melting ice in an alpine wilderness, yet it became a media star three years ago when a long-dead human body surfaced.The body belonged to one of four U.S. airmen who died on Mendel in a 1942 plane crash. A second body was found on the glacier in 2007.In news accounts of the startling discoveries, people around the world may have learned something they did not know about sunny California -- it has glaciers.Mendel is one among hundreds of small glaciers strewn along the Sierra Nevada crest from Yosemite National Park to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. They form the southernmost group of glaciers in the United States.A frigid, alpine wilderness may seem like a freak of nature only 70 miles east of Fresno, where summer temperatures commonly hit triple digits. But Mendel and other glaciers exist because the Sierra soars more than 2 1/2 miles above sea level.When Pacific storms drop a gentle rain on Fresno, there's often a blizzard at Mendel, with 75 mph winds.Winter seems forever at 13,000 feet in the Sierra. It is not unusual for nighttime temperatures in May to dip into the teens. In June, snowstorms batter the high Sierra.Summer season lasts six to eight weeks, and snow on northeast-facing peaks can remain for centuries. Glaciers are an accumulation of such unmelted snowfall, which slowly compresses into ice and begins to move slowly downhill.The glaciers in the Sierra are tiny and unimpressive compared with glaciers in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and even Northern California.The ice in Antarctica, Greenland, Canada and Alaska is downright imposing.If Greenland's ice melted, the world's oceans would rise 20 feet. Antarctica's ice is more than two miles thick in places. Mendel Glacier is maybe 250 feet thick.At the same time, there is evidence that the Sierra had its share of big glaciers in the past. In the last 30,000 years, scientists say, there was a 60-mile-long glacier that filled the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne in Yosemite National Park. Tons of moving ice sculpted breathtaking granite landscapes such as Hetch Hetchy Valley.Glaciers are slow-motion rivers of ice, battering and crushing whatever is in front of them. Over thousands of years, V-shaped river valleys become U-shaped, with dramatic waterfalls flowing from the vertical walls left behind.Crevasses, or big trenches, open up as the glacier pulls apart in places. And, as they move, glaciers push up big piles of rock and earth out front and to the sides. They are called moraines.Mendel is a rock glacier, meaning granite has fallen onto the ice and become part of the flow. The granite gives Mendel advantages that so-called clean glaciers do not have."The rock helps to insulate the ice from melting," said glacial geologist Douglas H. Clark of Western Washington University.Mendel's core of ice could be up to 2,000 years old, he said. Meanwhile, next-door neighbor Mount Darwin has a clean glacier. Clark, who has hiked Mendel and Darwin, said Darwin's ice probably is no more than a few centuries old because it is not as well protected.Even with its protection, small glaciers like Mendel will disappear in the next several decades because of climate warming, most experts say.Melting is occurring on top of the glacier, so it grows more shallow each year -- which is perhaps one reason the bodies of the 1942 airmen are emerging from the ice. But even as it melts, Mendel Glacier continues to inch forward.No one knows how far Mendel Glacier is moving down the mountainside each year, Clark said, but a similar rock glacier nearby is moving about 3 feet annually.Larger glaciers in places such as Alaska are remnants of the Ice Age that ended 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. That's not true in the Sierra.Scientists believe Sierra glaciers melted after the last Ice Age and formed again during cooler times. The Sierra's ice returned about 3,200 years ago, said Clark and fellow glacial geologist Niki Bowerman.They examined sediment cores taken from lake bottoms where glaciers have drained for thousands of years.