Tony Krizan

Hiking into history

Hikers Fred Cochran and Clem Bingham holding two remaining props that were separated from the propeller hub, and found about 30 yards from the crash crater.
Hikers Fred Cochran and Clem Bingham holding two remaining props that were separated from the propeller hub, and found about 30 yards from the crash crater. Special to Sierra Star

Last year on Sept. 29, Clem Bingham and I set out on an adventure to relocate a military mystery. From previous research, this lone aircraft was assumed to have been removed from this site back in 1941. As the story reads: On Oct. 24, 1941, 19 P-40 aircraft were on a training mission over California. Lieutenant John H. Pease was the first of five to develop engine problems and forced to bail out. He survived and his bird was forgotten, lost to the importance of WWII.

During June of 2016 a lone hiker, Jonathan Beck, accidentally stumbled upon a crash site on a cross-country hike. Not knowing what he found, he searched the internet and contacted a few WW II aircraft historians. After I received this information Clem and I decided to relocate and photograph this previously lost Curtiss Wright P-40 war bird.

In September of 2016 we set out on thisadventure without our third hiking buddy Fred Cochran. Fred had a previous engagement and sad to say he missed this hike. We made a promise to Fred that if we relocated the site, we would schedule another trek in 2017. This story is the fulfillment of our promise to Fred.

We set June 20, 2017 to start our adventure, right in the middle of a heat wave. After six hours driving south on Highway 99 in 100-plus degree heat and a road detour on Highway 178 because of a fire at the west end of Lake Isabella, we chose an alternate route - Highway 155 over Walker Pass before finally arriving at Kennedy Meadows.

It was around 2 p.m. when we strapped on our hiking gear and started our 900-foot assent to our first campsite. Hopefully, that same spring at that location will be flowing again this year. This landscaping is high desert starting at 6,200 feet with lots of rocks and dry washes to follow.

Hiking temperature was hovering in the middle 90s during the afternoon. Soon we arrived at the first spring identified by a large Jeffery Pine towering over 120 feet with a 22-foot girth. Big disappointment when this spring was sealed by a fence to prevent access to its nectar.

We carried extra water just in case we had a water problem. Finally we arrived at the first saddle identified by a wilderness sign - Sequoia National Forest, Southern Sierra Wilderness at 7,400 feet. Hiking down to our campsite, luck was with us, the natural spring was still flowing. Nothing tastes better than sweet cool water on a hot afternoon.

This extreme heat forced us to change plans. Instead of packing our gear over another 7,500-foot pass, and by the dryness of this area those springs located on the map may be dry like last year. Our decision was to make this area our base camp and our packs much lighter by only carrying water and food to the wreck site.

At daybreak the following morning, we started our assent to the first of two separate climbs. Years ago a major fire swept through this area and all that remains today is prairie grass. The once green landscaping of brushy ground cover and towering pine and cedar trees are gone. Today they are just charred and blackened snags from the past.

This forgotten trail drops down through another series of washes. To our surprise, these major washes still had a small amount of water flowing. After checking our map, we decided to eliminate following the wash and changed directions, climbing without trails to the upper plateau.

This change should save us over an hour of hiking time in this hot sun. The direction change worked and we skirted across the plateau and followed our GPS to the crash site.

The area looked the same as last year, parts scattered over the mountain side. Between the three of us, we should be able to identify and photograph a few of these mangled parts.

After Lt. John H. Pease bailed out, the last image he recalled of his aircraft was it disappearing into the storm clouds. I sent a disc with the photos from last year to his home in Colorado Springs. After 75 years he can now see the remains of his bird. Lt. John H. Pease is 96 years young.

The point of impact was over 10 feet in diameter with the spinner and one prop blade within. Scattered around the site was twisted aluminum almost impossible to identify.

The serial numbers on a few of the parts left no doubt in my mind that this was a Curtiss Wright P-40 fighter aircraft. The impact was very violent with over three quarters of fuel on board, parts were scattered over 40 yards in diameter. After three hours, we had enough photos to show the world that this 75 year-old mystery was solved in June of 2016 by hiker Beck.

To my surprise while following a game trail, I was surrounded by scatter or obsidian chips. After further investigation, this area is centrally located between a major pass leading to the east (Owens Valley) and another pass to the west (leading to Kennedy Meadows). Centuries ago there must have been a green belt in this area to support a large camp on this plateau.

Maybe I’m just lucky, but after 30-plus years of hiking our California mountains, I’ve acquired a sixth sense for locating major American Indian campsites. On our return, we skirted along this mile ridgeline before dropping 600 feet to the main washes.

Our Sierra Nevada Mountains contain many secrets and if we are fortunate, maybe one of us will unlock another California Mountain Secret on one of our outings.