Flames ravage but also reveal
It was early January. The team charged with stabilizing the scorched, slide-prone mountains above suburban Orange County had hiked for miles up twisting ravines when they spotted odd aluminum globules and jagged hunks of steel rooted in the earth.
A U.S. Forest Service “smoke jumper” -- trained to vault out of airplanes into wildfires -- recognized the tangled debris.
“Looks like an airplane wreck to me,” he said. They pinpointed the coordinates and phoned Forest Service officials. What was this dismembered carcass of an airplane doing in the middle of a forest?
When the Santiago fire roared through the Santa Ana Mountains in October, it scoured vast stretches of land, leaving behind black rock, burnt root and these strange, shiny pieces of metal.
It was a fresh example of the wonders, oddities and sad scraps of history exposed when large swaths of wilderness in the American West are burned clear. Murder victims’ bones, ancient stone villages and rusted jalopies have all been found.
“It’s ground rediscovered,” said Tom Lavignino, a Forest Service spokesman who has seen such finds in several states. “After a major burn, it’s a lot easier to navigate in these remote areas without getting jabbed in the face or the arm by a bush. So you’ll find things. Old cars. Dead people. We’ve found toxic waste too.”
Overwhelmed with post-fire duties, forest staff didn’t immediately respond to the call about the plane wreck. But pilots chattered about the mystery find for weeks, zooming low over the wreckage scattered across the bare hills. Was it a downed firefighting plane? He must’ve hit that ridge. It must’ve been pretty bad. Wonder if they got out alive. Wonder if there are bodies in there. . . .
Word of the wreck spread. Cleveland National Forest trails manager Debra Clarke took notice, and had an idea: Call Pat.
Within sight of the Santa Ana Mountains, G. Pat Macha, a retired high school teacher, was sitting in his Mission Viejo home office researching an obscure plane wreck when the phone rang. Macha, 62, is one of a unique breed. He’s a self-trained aviation archaeologist. Ever since he discovered a downed Air Force transport plane while leading a YMCA hike in the San Bernardino Mountains as a youth, he’s been smitten. For decades, he’s studied plane crash sites from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the depths of the Pacific Ocean.
“It’s a compulsion,” he half-joked in an interview. “There’s something that attracts your attention, and you’re drawn to it. You want to investigate it. You’re touching the past.”
Maps in his garage are studded with hundreds of pins: Here’s where Dean Martin’s son crashed in the San Bernardinos. There’s where Frank Sinatra’s mother went down. Here’s where a plane loaded with $15,000 in cash -- big money in 1956 -- struck the north side of San Gorgonio Pass. The plane was found in 1971, but the cash wasn’t.
He’s also explored dozens of crashes in his own mountainous backyard. By Macha’s count, there are more than 60 sites dating to World War II in a 30-mile-long stretch of the Santa Anas, from east of Disneyland to inland of San Juan Capistrano.
The Santa Anas are not Southern California’s tallest mountains, but they share a name with the devilish winds that lay siege to the region. And for good reason: Their canyons are perfect funnels for breezes blowing off the Great Basin, forcing them through to the Pacific at speeds as high as 140 mph. At other times, their peaks can be wrapped in clouds or fog. For decades, they were also the closest thing to open terrain for military personnel doing practice runs out of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
“People take Old Saddleback for granted,” said Macha, calling the twin peaks of Santiago and Modjeska by their historic name. “They shouldn’t. Santiago is a mile high.”
Now, forest officials were hoping he could solve the mystery of the crash high above his home. They read off the coordinates on the phone. Macha pulled down one of three books he’s written on wrecks, turned a few pages and was pretty sure he had an answer.
Thirty-nine years ago this February, a Lockheed SP2E Neptune that hunted submarines was doing night training to the southeast out of El Toro. It slammed into one bony ridge, then another, then a third, finally exploding into flames and raining metal across a quarter-mile of backcountry.
The Navy hacked a ledge out of the rough mountain, hauled the bodies of seven seamen up over the edge and removed unexploded bombs and larger wreckage. The rest was left just below what is now a popular hiking and mountain-biking trail. The metal fuselage, bits of wing, a million-candle-power searchlight and the bomb bay were swallowed in shrouds of bay laurel, poison oak and sugar bush.
Macha recalled that he had hiked to the site in 1969, shortly after the crash, and he wanted to see it again. The flames had probably revealed far more of the old aircraft. Clarke, the trails manager, said she’d be happy to oblige. They had to wait a month for a passable road.
The forecast called for sunshine. But by the time the pair headed up from the parking lot in the pistachio-green government truck, it was raining hard, just as it was the day the seven seamen roared up the canyon out of El Toro.
The men were not rookies. They were all in their 30s and 40s. But “they were coming out of a Navy squadron in Minnesota, where there are very few mountains,” said Macha, citing his research as Clarke navigated the scarred fire road. “It was nighttime, it was rainy, and oh, boy, visibility was zero-zero. They were on radar out of El Toro, on a routine touch-and-go run. . . . They should have been managed by air controllers who should not have let them get this far.”
If anyone is caretaker of the mountainous graveyard in the Santa Anas, it is Macha. Relatives of downed pilots and crews call or write every few years, struggling to come to terms with their loss. He sends them photos, a piece of metal, even hikes with some to the crash sites.
The son of the doomed El Toro plane’s co-pilot wrote to him in the 1980s. Macha pulled out old photos from his first visit, including one of the only flight manual that survived intact. As it turned out, the man’s father’s name was on the front cover, and Macha sent him a copy.
The forest vehicle zigzagged a sharp hairpin turn.
“We’re just passing the two-mile mark,” he said. “They would have been flying right over where we are now, headed up that canyon to the right. The pilot may have realized he was going to hit that one ridge and tried to draw back. A crewman might have said he saw something, a shadow of a mountain.”
Another mile and a half up gut-churning turns, and the ledge hacked out by the Navy appeared on the right, its edges softened by time.
Almost 39 years to the day from when the Neptune crashed, Macha hopped out, restlessly studying the slopes. It was a brutally cold February morning on this flank of Modjeska Peak. Great curtains of stinging snow and hail blew sideways across a scorched abyss.
“We could traverse that,” he said, spying a spidery line on the mountainside. He pulled out a hiking stick, zipped up his blue parka and headed downward. He picked his way to the closest ridge, where he stooped to pick up a big V-shaped piece of metal with rivets.
“This structure here would be a wing joint,” he said. “It’s really beefy construction, but you can also see the tremendous force of the impact, how that really tore that apart.”
He meandered past jagged rock and charred scrub oak, peering at the melted aluminum globules and triangular steel rooted in the earth.
Macha spied tangles of white tubing: hydraulics used to activate landing gear. He estimated that the plane had roared in blindly at 150 to 200 mph.
Based on the pattern of the wreckage, he pointed out how the left wing had probably broken off, flown several hundred yards and flipped.
He spread his arms wide, mimicking a plane in flight, then gestured toward debris strewed across the ridge.
“This is impact here, where this whole thing just blew apart,” he said.
Macha pointed down the spine of the ridge at a stretch of damp, ashen dirt, once covered with thick chaparral. “The flight crew, their bodies were here in this area.”
Farther down in a draw, tantalizingly close, a heaping trove of metal beckoned. But the slope was slippery, and visibility was decreasing.
The cloud canopy had dropped nearly to where he was standing, immersing the slopes in boiling gray and white.
“Look, you can look right into that cloud!” Macha shouted. “We’re going to zero-zero now almost, just like when they flew up into this canyon. Then add darkness to the mix.
“This is a time stop. You’re going back in time, when time stopped for those men so many years ago.”
Hands shaking from the cold, Macha unzipped his day pack and removed a thin American flag. “I always fly the flag when I’m at a crash site,” he said. “Out of respect.”
The shrieking winds threatened to snatch the flag, but he held it aloft for a minute. He snapped a few photos, then packed up and trudged back.
The forest is closed, and will be for at least two winters to allow it to heal, said Clarke, who was waiting with the heater running full blast. When people do come back, she said, they should leave any scraps they might find right where they are.
Macha agreed. “Car wrecks get cleaned up and forgotten about the next day. These things are here forever. And they should be.”
By April, fluorescent green tendrils unfurled out of the scorched earth high above. Wild cucumber, soap plant and white sage began their inexorable spread. Within five years, this wreck in the forest will be buried again.