This historic story started over 74 years ago on Oct. 20, 1941. That was when a flight of 25 Curtiss Wright P-40 aircraft from the 57th Aero Squadron based at Windsor Locks Army Air Field in Connecticut. The planes were selected to perform a series of hops across the United States to test the capability of our Army Air Force if needed to defend our nation.
Upon arrival at March Air Force Base in Riverside, the aircraft count was only 19. Along the flight route six were grounded with mechanical problems.
On Oct. 24, 1941, the 19 aircraft departed for McLaren Air Field outside Sacramento. This flight was estimated to last two hours and 20 minutes following the San Joaquin Valley to their next fuel stop.
With a malfunction of their primitive instruments, they found themselves off their flight plan and in the center of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. To make matters worse, they flew into a blinding snow storm. Increasing their elevation to 17,000 feet to avoid the storm was a wise decision, but their carburetor deicing device was wired open.
Freezing temperature caused the carburetors to freeze up and the engines quit. This caused the loss of five aircraft and the lives of two pilots.
Lt. John H. Pease was the first to bail out and survived. His “bird” was hidden for 74 years, and then in August of 2016, a lone cross country hiker named Jonathan Beck, hiking along the South Fork of the Kern River, found an aircraft wreckage.
For verification, Beck got the names of Pat Macha (a historian in identifying aircraft crash sites) and me from the internet. He sent us the photos from that site. I reconfirmed those photos with another historian Kent Lentz and we decided it was Pease’s lost P-40 aircraft No. 39-213.
Macha set up a “Remembrance Mission” on Sept. 18 this year in tribute to Pease, who is now 96 years old and living in Colorado. One of the seven members that participated in the ‘verification’ hike was the pilot’s son, John Pease Jr.
Since Clem Bingham, Fred Cochran and I photographed three of those five crash sites, we decided to search that remote area of the Kern River and photograph Pease’s P-40 crash site. On Sept. 28, Clem and I departed for the trailhead at Kennedy Meadows. Fred had previous family commitments and could not attend this adventure. Since the three of us hiked many trails together, Fred will be missed on this hike.
Clem and I departed from the Wildrose Trailhead at Kennedy Meadows. Hiking through this high desert location brings back memories of my early hiking adventures when I lived in Southern California. Sand, rocks, scrub brush and a few ancient cedar and pine trees share the mountainsides.
A large percentage of this aged trail follows through washes carved over time from the winter snow runoff. Sad to see these mountains still have the scars from previous fires, leaving just the charcoal remains of those proud centennials that once graced these mountainsides.
We set up our base camp a short distance from a natural spring still flowing with sweet cool water, even in late September. We departed the following morning to search out the wreck site location.
After hiking almost three miles through forgotten canyons and mountain passes we dropped into a remote valley. In the distance we could see a plateau at 7,500 feet, which is our destination according to our GPS waypoints. Upon arrival once again we are the victims of wrong waypoints.
The distance to the west was almost a half mile off and to the north almost a quarter of a mile. After two hours of searching the general area we located the aircraft site. The sun reflecting off the aluminum revealed its location on a steep mountainside.
Our mental and physical difficulties were all quickly forgotten upon our discovery and we savored the historic moment.
As we climbed the mountainside we encountered smaller aluminum pieces that washed down the hillside over time. Directly above us, lying within the scrub brush, we spotted the mangled remains of the engine.
Scattered in every direction was twisted and compressed aluminum pieces that varied in size. Roughly 50 feet above the engine was the crater where the airplane made contact with the mountain. Inside this 20-foot crater was only one of the three propeller blades still connected to the spinner mechanism.
After 74 years, four of the five aircraft that disappeared on Oct. 24, 1941 have been located and identified. Only one remaining Curtiss Wright P-40 Tomahawk war bird is still hiding somewhere in Kings Canyon National Park. That was Lieutenant Leonard Lyden’s No. 29-394 aircraft.
For those of you who are not familiar with this war bird, it gained fame defending China in 1941 with the “Flying Tigers.” And that same year it defended Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
One more adventure in the planning stages.