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Firm Hopes to Salvage Wrecks of Warplanes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Along the mountain peaks of Los Padres National Forest in northern Ventura County, airplane wreckage remains pounded into the earth. The rugged terrain contains the remains of 60 known wrecks, including bits and pieces of two dozen World War II planes that crashed more than 40 years ago.

Until recently, no one has sought to remove these eerie reminders of journeys that ended fatally against a mountainside.

But a Hawaiian company that calls itself Wreckfinders believes there is money to be made from salvaging the old wrecks. It has asked the U.S. Forest Service for permission to remove all the wrecks in the Ventura County section of the forest, especially the warplanes.

Company officials say that they plan to sell the old parts to preservationists who need them to repair the few World War II planes still flying.

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Forest Service officials, who are preparing an environmental impact report on Wreckfinders’ offer, support the idea. Some people believe that the wrecks should be left alone.

“They’re monuments to someone’s bad luck or poor judgment,” said search and rescue pilot Chris Spangenberg, who can point out dozens of downed planes on a tattered map of the forest. “Some of the really old wrecks that have been in the forest so long are like landmarks.”

There’s a legend surrounding one of the planes, Spangenberg said. The stories surround a 1940s-era DC-3 downed on White Mountain that is said to have carried diamonds. Some people believe the gems are still on the mountain, and one Los Angeles man continues to search for the riches.

Spangenberg of Camarillo described several old wrecks in the mountains, including the tail section of a BT-13, a World War II plane used in training exercises, and a P-51 Mustang, once used in missions over Europe. The BT-13 is along the west fork of Sespe Creek and the Mustang is on Nordhoff Peak near Ojai.

Modern planes, such as Cessnas, are literally scattered all through the mountains, said Spangenberg, who has made it his hobby to keep track of the wrecks and takes weekend hikes to get a closer look.

“As a pilot, I’m curious,” Spangenberg said. “It’s amazing to see just how destructive some of these impacts are. You wonder who these people were, what their lives were like and how they came to such an end.”

Terence Geary, West Coast coordinator for Wreckfinders, said the company first plans to target the forest area from Lake Piru to Ojai. The area includes the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and the Sespe Wilderness.

Al Hess, lands officer for the Ojai Ranger District, said he thinks the wrecks should be removed. “There’s a benefit to cleaning up the forest,” he said. “We try to remove the newer ones. It’s just harder to get to the older ones. They range anywhere from planes that are intact to those that are spread all over the place.”

The wrecks, most of which have been around for years, are a problem for authorities because they are often reported as recent crashes, said Dan Shea, a pilot for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff’s deputies are required to respond to all reported wrecks, he said.

“There’s a Cessna . . . up on the ridge near Fillmore that we get called out on at least twice a year,” Shea said.

Wreckfinders’ Geary said his company has recovered pieces of dozens of warplanes in Hawaii’s mountains.

“We don’t fix anything up,” he said. “We just sell the parts. We’re talking about big bucks.”

Geary said the tail section of a DC-3 could sell for as much as $20,000. A small pin from the wing of a vintage military plane could sell for $8,000.

“We need the wrecks to keep the war birds running,” Geary said. “They just don’t make parts like that anymore.”

Geary said the company hopes to begin removing the airplanes in the fall, after the Forest Service completes its environmental impact report. He said a team of about six people will lift the wreckage out of the forest by helicopter and place it on trucks.

The vintage plane parts will be cleaned and sold at auction, he said.

Eventually, the company hopes to remove pieces of 280 planes remaining in Los Padres National Forest, which stretches from the Los Angeles County line to Carmel.

Richard Royce, a member of the Southern California Wing of the Confederate Air Force--a national organization dedicated to preserving warplanes of the 1939-1945 era--said he knows firsthand how difficult it is to find vintage plane parts.

The Southern California Wing has been forced to go to South America to purchase parts to repair its C-46, a World War II version of the C-130 transport plane.

Royce said his group once spent $1,500 for a tire. He said Wing members dread the day they have to replace an engine, which would cost at least $30,000.


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