1938 Lockheed Electra Crash in Mint Canyon


CHARRED AIRLINER FOUND IN MINT CANYON - NINE KILLED

ACTON - 5/19/38 - Thirty-eight hours of frenzied search for a lost plane in the Sierra Pellona Mountains southwest of Palmdale were ended at 5:30 Wednesday morning when the wreckage of the ship was found by a Mint Canyon rancher, Walter Peterson, on the side of a mountain-top just a mile and a half north of the Mint Canyon Highway about the White Heather Station. The ship was a new Lockheed bi-motored, eight-ton, transport being taken from Burbank to St. Paul, Minnesota, where it was to be used in commercial transport flying by Northwest Airlines.

There were nine persons aboard, including the pilot and co-pilot, one other man, four women and two children, and all met instant death as the ship catapulted into the mountain less than 100 feet from the crest of the hill, and bounced across two more ridges to fall in a crumbled heap 200 yards away from the original point of impact, leaving behind it a trail of burned grass and debris of bits of engine, splinters of plane parts, and luggage and possessions of the passengers.

Pilot Sidney Wiley, 36, test pilot for Lockheed, was at the controls when the ship left Burbank at 1:40 PM Monday afternoon to guide the ship to Las Vegas, where Pilot Frederick Whittlemore, 42 vice-president of Northwest Airlines, was to have received official delivery of the ship and pilot it the rest of the way back to St. Paul. When their bodies were found, both men were still strapped to their seats in the cockpit, it is reported.

Others killed were: Mr. and Mrs. Henry Salisbury, 29 and 25 years of age, and their two children, Richard 3 years old, and baby Judith 2-1/2 months, of St., Paul. Mr. Salisbury was engineer for Northwest Airlines.

Mrs. Carl Squire, the wife of Lockheed's vice-president of Toluca Estates, North Hollywood, who was flying to Chicago to join her husband.

Miss Lola Totty, 26, a secretary at Lockheed, bound for a vacation trip in the East. Miss Evelyn Dingle, 22, Northwest Airline secretary, of St. Paul, returning home from a vacation visit with an uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. J.C. Dingle at Hermosa Beach.

The ship crashed at 2:07 PM Monday, according to the clock found among the wreckage, so its flight from Burbank to Saugus and up Mint Canyon was made in exactly twenty-seven minutes. No trace of the ship could be found from the time it was last known to be in Mint Canyon through contact with a Western Air Express pilot flying far above had with it a few minutes before the crash, until the grim wreckage was found Wednesday morning.

Hundreds of searchers flocked to the Mint canyon area last Monday night, and worked intensively all day Tuesday and that night, until all the reports of the ship's discovery was spread. Searching parties included officers from Lancaster and Newhall Sheriff's substations working in twelve-hour shifts, members of the Sheriff's Aero Squadron, flyers from Burbank field, Lockheed men, State Highway Patrolmen, CCC boys, and many other volunteers. The Antelope Valley Harmony Horsemen were called for service to comb the mountains on horseback.

It was not known at first just where the ship might have crashed and the search covered an extended area on all sides of Acton, as well as farther south in the mountains. Palmdale, Vincent and Lancaster were made headquarters for the searching parties and Tuesday night all hotel accommodations in Palmdale and Lancaster were taxed beyond ordinary capacity, as searchers slept for a few hours waiting for daylight. Including ships piloted by the Sheriff's Squadron and one piloted by Paul Mantz, former technical adviser for Amelia Earhart, spent the night at the Palmdale port waiting for day-break take-off to continue the search.

SIDELIGHTS OF MONDAY'S FATAL AIR CRASH

A baby's toy--two pieces of crayola--thrown out on a mountain top. Mute evidence of two little children happily playing before death became playmate.

Twenty quail eggs in a tiny nest beneath a mountain-top bush, unharmed, within a few feet of the first point of impact of the big Northwest Airlines plane where parts of the machine fell scattered about.

A man's tie hanging upon a bush. A dress draped over another, pages from magazines scattered about with edges charred, sheets of stationery of Northwest Airlines of St. Paul advertising folders. Part of a women's silk stocking wrapped around a wheel a block from the wreckage.

The engine log and a large portfolio found intact.

Three stretchers loaded with luggage and personal effects followed the victims down the mountainside.

Lockheed workmen flocking to aid in the search found shelter during the dark hours of Tuesday night in Lancaster jail--grimly joking about their "incarceration."

Rings, watches, wallets, tie pins--the only means of identification of bodies.

Included in the baggage of one of the lady passengers were new license plates and certificate for a new car which she planned to drive back from the factory in the East.

Wednesday, descriptions of the wreckage were being sent over radio by Los Angeles stations. Wednesday afternoon between 4:00 and 4:20, a broadcast from KHJ was sent from the scene of the wreckage by short wave into Palmdale telephone office, and from there over the wires to Los Angeles to the re-broadcast.

The bodies of the victims were carried down the steep mountainside, strapped to stretchers, carried by CCC boys. All bodies with the exception of that of one of the bodies were found within or near the wreckage of the ship. The baby body was found 100 feet away from the wreckage, when the barking of a dog attracted officers to her resting place. The bodies were cut and burned, with clothing partially burned off; and for some, identification was possible only through rings, watches or wallets which they had worn or carried. The bodies were taken to Nobles Mortuary in San Fernando, and there an inquest is to be conducted by Coroner Nance at 9:30 AM tomorrow.

Bureau of Air Commerce Inspectors are investigating the tragedy, asking why Pilot Wiley flew so low up Mint canyon when fog banks hung within 3000 feet of the ground (the crash was at an altitude of 3300 feet); why the ship left Burbank within four minutes of the regularly scheduled Western Air Express which might have necessarily been low flying to avoid collision; and why the ship was not being operated on the Saugus radio range on its trip up Mint Canyon.

Investigation of the scene of the wreckage indicated that the plane first struck on the point of a ridge on the left of its course, half a mile or so from the actual wreckage, throwing out gasoline which ignited and charred the ground, and scraping underbrush to form a patch 40 feet across. The propeller was torn and plunged down the hillside. One of the three blades stabbing into the soft ground like a dagger up to its hub.

Hurling on a few hundred feet, the plane struck a second shoulder of the hills, and began to break apart, throwing fragments of wreckage, bags, etc., over the hillside. Here the plane bust into flames. The shattered wreck plunged on carried by momentum, until it struck Stroh Peak, about 3300 feet high, and farther northeast. The plane lodged about 100 feet below the summit. Motors were torn loose one found in a ravine. The wreckage is clearly visible from Mint Canyon Highway, when the mountain tops are not enshrouded with clouds, and thousands of cars and persons have visited the scene since Wednesday.


WRECK FOUND THROUGH HUNCH

Rancher Tells How He Discovered Ship in Lonely Mint Canyon

Walter Petersen, Saugus rancher and beekeeper, who found the Lockheed airliner which carried nine persons to death when it crashed in flames in a Mint canyon mountainside Monday, has a method of finding lost airplanes.

It is the same method, he said, used by the person who would seek the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Just Start Looking

"You just start looking," the rancher said. "You look on this mountain, in that canyon and over the next hill. Sooner or later you will find the lost plane -- if you are lucky."

Explaining how he located the passenger plane, Petersen said he "Just started looking and kept on looking."

"Finally I found it," he said.

Petersen disclosed that there was more than just luck in his being the man to find the lost plane when hundreds of other men were searching for it.

Analyzes Reports

The rancher had talked to neighbors and friends. Many of them had heard airplanes hum across their property Monday. Just a few had heard the roar of engines overhead at a time that would indicate that the passing plane had been the missing liner. These few lived in a district of Mint Canyon served by the White Heather service station -- twenty miles from Saugus.

Petersen analyzed official reports. They coincided with the opinion of those few friends and neighbors who lived near the conjunction of Soledad and Mint Canyons.

Hunch Proves True

Petersen followed up on his hunch and while combing the hillside north of White Heather Station he finally located the wreckage plane. Petersen raced down the hillside and notified authorities of his grim discovery.


WRECK SITE VISITED

I began researching this accident in the summer of 1996 and I made my first trip to the Sierra Pellona mountains in search of the Lockheed Electra a short time later. I believed that the secret to finding the wrecked plane, if it still was there, was locating Stroh Peak. I obtained some old maps at a library and talked to local residents, but no one ever heard of Stroh Peak, much less knew where it was, and the maps weren't of much value either. I had other clues to pursue. Old newspaper articles stated that the wreck site was near Mint Canyon Highway, north of the Agua Dulce School house and north of White Heather Station. I purchased an old 1930's era Auto Club map at an antique store. With the aid of the map I drove to Mint Canyon (present day Sierra Highway) and I located the spot where the White Heather Station (possibility an old automobile service station) used to be. Next, with the aid of a topographical map I had obtained earlier, I focused on an unnamed 3300-foot mountain peak north of Sierra Highway as a possible crash site.

Between 1996 and 1997, I made several trips up into the Sierra Pellona Mountains searching for the lost Electra, all of which were fruitless. I combed the mountainside; I climbed up one side and down the other, crisscrossed each end, and on one occasion I even flew a helicopter over the entire mountain range, all to no avail. I interviewed several residents in the area; old timers who might know something, a surveyor and a local historian. One person told me they recalled hearing something about an old airplane crash up in the mountains but didn't remember any of the details, much less it's whereabouts. On another trip I located the old Petersen Ranch that was mentioned in the newspaper articles. I contacted the present day owner and was told the Petersen family had long since moved from the area and that Mr. Petersen, the person whom first discovered the wreck, had passed away a long time ago. My hopes of finding the plane were fading fast. I had a strong feeling that pieces of the plane were still out there, somewhere, but for the time being I had to give up the search. I had simply run out of leads.

In 1998 a series of truly unbelievable events happened that gave me the break I needed to solve this mystery. While attending a Model "A" Ford swapmeet I spotted what appeared to be an old children's scrapbook. I was curious to see what was inside, so I opened it and started perusing the pages. What I found inside was incredible! The scrapbook belonged to a young boy who was interested in aviation. The book was filled with old airplane photos and aviation memorabilia from the 1930's, but more important to me, were numerous original newspaper articles depicting airplane crashes that occurred in the LA area between 1936 and 1938. As I thumbed through the articles I came across one that described the 1938 Electra crash in Mint Canyon. The newspaper article contained original crash photos and other detailed information that rekindled my interest in continuing the search.

A few days later I embarked on another trip to the Sierra Pellona's in hopes of finding remnants of the plane. Still, even with the newly obtained photos, I was unable to find the illusive Electra. I did, however, locate an old white wooden marker post that later would prove to be an important clue. The post was on top of a peak, high up in the Sierra Pellona's. I felt certain that I was very near the crash site, perhaps this post was a marker pointing to the wreck, but I still couldn't find it. I searched all around the marker, around the mountain-top and down the hillside, but still there was nothing to be found, nothing at all.

I had almost given up finding the Electra when, about a month or so later, I got the break I so desperately needed. A gentleman by the name of Howard Werner read a story about my search for the Electra that I had posted on the Internet. He contacted me and told me that he had been to the crash site in 1938 and could show me where it was! Needless to say I was a little skeptical, after all the accident occurred over 60 years ago! I agreed to meet Mr. Werner at his residence in Burbank and then planned to drive with him to Agua Dulce to look for the plane. While driving to Agua Dulce, Howard told me about his illustrious career in early California aviation.

In 1929, Howard, then 17, worked at the Grand Central Airport in Glendale washing and refueling airplanes. In exchange for his services he was given free flying lessons. One day a Kinner "Airster" airplane taxied in from the runway and a woman yelled over to Howard to refuel the plane. Howard dutifully complied. He obtained a ladder, placed the ladder on the plane's cowling and refueled the plane. Howard noticed that the cowling was covered with souvenir decals from many cities around the US. What he didn't realize is that while he was leaning over the cowling his belt buckle had scratched many of the stickers. After Howard finished refueling the plane the pilot returned. Noticing the damage to the decals she proceed to bawl out Howard the likes of which he said he has never be subjected to since. The female pilot was none other than Amelia Earhart!

Later, in 1933, Howard went to work for Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank. While at Lockheed Howard performed many tasks, one of which was assembling Lockheed Vega's and later Lockheed Electra airplanes. One of the planes that Werner helped build was Amelia Earhart's renowned Electra model 10E.

In May of 1938, Werner, along with several other Lockheed employees, was summoned by Lockheed to "volunteer" to search for an Electra plane that crashed in Mint Canyon. The plane had departed Burbank Airport (then called Union Airport) on its maiden voyage for delivery to Northwest Airlines in Las Vegas. Werner and the other Lockheed employees raced to the area where the Electra was last seen. They joined hundreds of other searchers; members of the Sheriff's Department, flyers from Burbank, and government officials, all of whom were combing the countryside hoping to find the missing plane.

The weather that day was terrible, a low fog enshrouded the mountains and the hillsides were wet with rain. Howard and his party searched as far away as Wrightwood, but no trace of the Electra was found. Because no other accommodations were available, Howard and his fellow Lockheed employees spent the night in the Lancaster jail, courtesy of the Sheriff's Department. The next morning word came that a local rancher, Petersen, had spotted the wreckage on a mountain-top above Mint Canyon. Everyone raced to the scene. Howard told me that he met a rancher, possibly Petersen, at a bend in the road on Mint Canyon highway just a few miles west of Red Rover Mine Road. The fog had lifted and from that spot on the road the wreckage was clearly visible.

Howard told me that the Electra had come to rest on a level spot about 75-feet below the top of the Sierra Pellona Mountains. There were no roads leading to the crash site, so Werner and the others ran across the valley towards the mountain and the distant wreckage. They climbed the steep mountainside and, although they were out of breath and exhausted, they inched their way up the mountain and finally made it to the crash site.

The crash scene was a macabre sight, one that Werner said is hard to forget. One of Lockheed's objectives was to determine what had caused the accident. Considering eyewitness accounts and the crash scene evidence, it was apparent that the accident was caused by pilot error. The weather conditions that fateful morning were dreadful. According to Werner, Lockheed had assigned one of their test pilot's to fly the plane to Las Vegas but he refused because of the weather conditions. Northwest Airline had a sent one of their pilot's to accompany the flight and when the Lockheed pilot refused to fly, he boldly asserted that he would fly the plane regardless of the weather conditions. As so it was, the large transport departed Union Airport (now Hollywood Burbank) on her maiden flight headed for delivery to Northwest Airlines' representatives in Las Vegas.

The first 24 minutes of the flight were without incident. The plane flew in a northerly direction towards Saugus, made a turn over the Honby beacon (it's still there to this day on the mountainside above Sierra Highway and Soledad Canyon Road) and continued eastward following Mint Canyon toward the Antelope Valley. Within minutes after turning up Mint Canyon the plane became engulfed in fog. The pilot circled several times over Mint Canyon, near the intersection of Agua Dulce Canyon road, and then he made the fateful decision to forge on ahead through the fog. Within seconds after turning to the northeast the plane hit the hogback ridge near the top of the Sierra Pellona mountain range and crashed in a huge fireball that sent metal and pieces of the plane tumbling in all directions.

The plane was flying at speeds upwards of 200 MPH when it first struck Stroh Peak. The collision ripped a hole in the belly of the plane and sent parts of it plunging into the canyon below. As the flight continued, baggage and fuel spilled out on the mountainside. Within moments the plane impacted a bench in the side of the mountain 75-feet below and about 1500-feet east of the first impact point. Then the plane, heavily laden with fuel, exploded and burst into flames. After the fire subsided all that was left of the massive Electra was part of a wing and the tail section of the plane, the entire center section was completely destroyed. The engines, torn off on impact, plummeted down the mountainside and came to rest deep in a canyon below the crash site. The propellers were cast off the engines upon impact and pierced the soil like a knife thrown in the ground. All of the passengers and crew were killed instantly. The victim's bodies were subsequently removed and the plane, what was left of it, was left behind.

As we sat in my car, some sixty years later, looking at the mountainside I could visualize the events that led up to the disaster. From the newspaper accounts and Werner's eyewitness observations, I had a good idea where the plane came to rest. Howard pointed at the hillside at a spot where he thought the plane might be hidden and offered some more clues. He said that someone had dug a hole on the mountain and dragged the remnants of the plane into it. The pieces were doused with gasoline and set on fire to reduce the size of the remaining aluminum parts and that was the end of it. Howard and I left Mint Canyon and journeyed home, but now more than ever I was determined to find that Electra.

Within a few days I returned to the area where Howard and I had visited. I scanned the mountains with binoculars in search of any signs of the old Electra, but nothing stood out. My two sons joined me on this trip, along with one of their friends, and we all were eager to find the old plane. We drove to the base of the mountains and started hiking up the hill. The mountain is very steep and rugged, the lower portion is covered with thick chaparral and there are numerous rock outcroppings that we had to traverse. After a short walk we made our way to the base of the hill, and then the hike got tougher. We climbed over and through thick chaparral and after a moderate incline, finally we broke out onto a grass covered slope. We continued up the hill towards the area that Werner had pointed out to me a few days earlier. The newspaper photos from 1938 showed the plane resting on a flat area with a gradual slope behind it. As we hiked up the hill I scanned the surrounding area searching for terrain features that matched the early photographs. After spending a couple of hours hiking around the mountainside, I finally spotted a bench on the hillside that looked like it matched the early photographs. I sent my boys ahead to search that area while I looked in a canyon about 500 feet away. Within minutes my son Michael exclaimed, "I found it!" I raced up the mountain and low and behold the Electra that had eluded me for several years was finally in sight!

We found a few pieces of metal lying on top of the ground; a piece of engine cowling, and a few feet away, several coiled spring seat cushions and a metal seat frame. There were small fragments of aluminum and glass scattered all over the ground, and there were numerous 2-gallon sized gasoline containers scattered about. A short distance away was a large diameter depression in the soil. It appeared that something was buried there. My sons started digging and within foot or so uncovered some wires, aluminum pieces and other parts. We found it!

Looking back across the hillside I could see the peak where the plane had initially crashed. It was the same peak where a year earlier I found a faded white wooden stake that had fallen over a long time ago. The stake was severely weathered, perhaps it was an investigative marker, or maybe part of a memorial left there sometime in 1938, I'll probably never know for sure. As I sat on the hillside I pondered what I had learned. Like Petersen before me I found the wreck by following up on a hunch. Sadly, tragically, seven adults and two small children lost their lives here. Perhaps this tragedy could have been avoided...if only the plane was just a mere 75-feet higher or the pilot wasn't so impatient to get to his destination!

In the sixty years since the accident occurred place names have changed and what happened here has long since been forgotten; Stoh Peak is just another unnamed mountain, White Heather is now a ranch-style housing development, Mint Canyon became known as Sierra Highway, and the Lockheed Electra that was buried, out of sight and out of mind, probably intended to be forgotten forever, will be forever remembered by me.