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Crash Explorers Pt 20 By Robb Hill

Crash Explorers Pt 20 By Robb Hill


The author standing at the edge of the boulder-strewn debris Held of the American Airlines DC-3 "Flagship" that crashed near the outskirts of Palm Springs, California, on October 23, 1942. It had previously collided with a USAAF model B-34 twin-engined bomber.

 

This months crash involves a mid-air collision between a WWII Lockheed B-34 Army bomber and an American Airlines DC-3 "Flagship," This fatal collision occurred under questionable circumstances which led to court martial proceedings. The incident occurred in October of 1942. The war had been in progress for eleven months and it was not going well for the Allies. America was in the process of gearing up its war production machine and getting the Wheels of industry turning at top rpm. Aircraft produced on the West Coast had to be ferried from that point to the East Coast, then beyond to the war zone, The personnel of the USAAFs Ferry Command were in charge of domestic delivery flights. One of them was 25 year-old, 2nd Lieut. William N. Wilson. He was considered by the Army to be a qualified pilot when he received his commission. He and his co-pilot would be ferrying a Lockheed B-34, twin-engined bomber from the Long Beach plant to the East Coast. They were scheduled to leave the following day. That allowed them an evening of rest and relaxation. Lt. Wilson chose to spend it at a popular Hollywood restaurant and bar. During the course of the evening, he just happened to meet another fellow pilot.

His name was Louis Reppert. He was a young co-pilot for American Airlines who had been with the company for about six months. He and Wilson talked flying for a number of hours. Both were scheduled to fly the next day. Reppert told Wilson that his flight was scheduled for take-off at 4:30 pm. and that their immediate destination was Dallas. He further speculated that their two aircraft might be in the Vicinity of one another somewhere along the Way. Both would take a similar air route. Wilson, although not knowing what his take-off time would be, nodded in agreement. Little did either know that they would meet this following day in a manner that neither would forget for the remainder of their lives. The two then parted, possibly never really believing that they Would see each other again. The following day was October 23, 1942. Lt. Wilson Was scheduled for a morning departure, but when he arrived at Long Beach Airport, he was informed that his aircraft was being Worked on. His flight would be delayed for some hours. Finally, at 3pm., he was informed that it was considered "airworthy" and that he could proceed with take-off. Wilsons acting co-pilot was a non-commissioned officer named Robert Leicht. His rank was that of Staff Sergeant. Both pilots studied the weather charts and were favorable impressed With what they read. Clear and unlimited visibility conditions existed, but there was a slight problem. Ferry Command pilots were ordered to do all of their flying during daylight hours. Night flying was not permitted under normal conditions. What this meant to the two was that they would have to find an airport that was close enough for them land by dark. The only possibility Was Palm Springs. If they waited until the next morning they ran the possibility of encountering heavy fog at Long Beach which might leave them grounded for the day. They quickly made plans to depart.

Their plan was to stay overnight at Palm Springs and continue on to Dallas the following day. Their B-34 bomber was soon airborne and heading toward that destination, the time was approximately 4:30 pm. A few miles away at Burbank Airport, American Airlines flight 28, with veteran Captain Charles F. Pedley at the controls and let Officer Louis Reppert as co-pilot, took off at its scheduled time of 4:30 pm. It, too, would be heading for Palm Springs on its path to Phoenix enroute to Dallas. As Wilsons aircraft approached the Vicinity of March Field, near Riverside, California, he recalled his conversation with his new friend Louis Reppert. Fate had delayed his departure putting it much closer to his friends time of take-off. Would he actually be able to get a glimpse of the shiny new American Airlines Flagship? He began exploring the possibility. Scanning the sky to the north, Wilson spotted a large aircraft in the distance. Could it be his friends? He made the decision to close the gap and find out. His B-34 could fly faster than his friends DC-3 and he closed the distance between them in a short While. Finally, over San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs, he made the final positive identification. Wilson intended to overtake the DC-3 and waggle the Wings of his aircraft as he passed the airliner. Before that could occur, his co-pilot, Sgt. Leicht, noticed a raging forest fire that was beginning to send up a large plume of smoke over Mt. San Gorgonio. Since the sky was clear otherwise, Pilot Wilson pressed on, intent on passing the airliner. As fate would have it, when the two aircraft are nearly adjacent to one another, they encountered the cloud of smoke from the fire. Just as Wilson was about to Waggle the bombers Wings at the airliner on his right, it was suddenly engulfed in a smoke cloud and lost to sight. Although frustrated over not being able to display his recognition manoeuvre to his friend, Wilson realized that he must let down and land at Palm Springs. He began his descent in the cloud and suddenly his aircraft shuddered from a collision with an unknown object. Wilson asked his co-pilot What might have happened? Leicht peered out his Window and saw the American Airlines Flagship without its vertical stabilizer spinning out of control toward earth. It crashed on the east side of Mt. San Gorgonio, very near the outskirts of Palm Springs.

It was apparent that all aboard had perished. Although in shock, there is little that the Army Air Force pilots could do but to inform the tower at Palm Springs of the accident. The two then had to determine whether their own aircraft was safe to fly. One of the propellers was vibrating badly but otherwise the controls appeared intact. The bomber descended toward the airport and landed Without further incident. Upon landing they discovered considerable damage had been inflicted upon their aircraft from the collision. The right Wing oil radiator air intake had been crushed, and the de-icer boot had been cut. The propeller blades of the right engine were bent forward and dinged badly. All of this damage occurred as it was shearing off the DC-3s vertical stabilizer. All told, a dozen people were killed aboard the airliner. They included the pilot, co-pilot, stewardess and nine civilians. Southern California newspaper headlines hawked the aerial tragedy to a concerned public. A coroners jury was convened the following day and Lt. Wilson and Sgt.Leicht were summoned to testify. The jury concluded that the airliner was struck by the Army bomber flown by them and that it caused the accident with resultant fatalities. Riverside County did not, however, press any charges against the two. Instead, they stated that those, if any, would have to come from the Army. The mid-air did, however, stir up quite a controversy which resulted in a three-man Congressional investigation. It got underway on October 30th, at the FAA offices in Los Angeles. By this time, Wilson and Leicht were under the legal custody of the Army. Both testified at the hearing under armed guard, although neither had been formerly charged with any crime. The results from the hearing were inconclusive but the point Was made for more control of congested airspace. U.S. Representative Carl Hinshaw from Pasadena, California, made the follow-ing statement, "It is high time to inaugurate a master plan for use of the various lanes and altitudes by civilian and military aircraft." He further stated, " After this War We Will all be air-minded because thousands of military fliers will return to civilian life. There Will be an awful lot of airplanes in the sky and We must provide for the control of navigable air space, just as We now supervise the use of navigable Waters." No more prescient Words could have been spoken. We are still, some 62 years later, looking for the ultimate solution to that problem.

Twenty days after the close of the hearings, both airmen, While still in custody, were informed of impending court martial proceedings. Surprisingly enough, only 2nd Lt. Wilson would be charged With dereliction of duty resulting in manslaughter. Staff Sgt. Leicht would not be charged but would be called as the prime Witness for the prosecution. The trial was held at Santa Ana Army Air Base and got underway late in November of 1942. The prosecution set about to make a case that "horseplay in the air" Was the cause of the accident. Sgt. Leicht was put in position to substantiate that charge, but both he and Wilson stuck to their previous testimony concerning the accident. The prosecution Went far as to intimate that Wilson delayed his take-off in an attempt to intercept his friends airliner. Accusations flew back and forth during the trial which Went before its military jury 1 November 25th. If convicted, Wilson faced long years in prison and a dishonorable discharge. Finally, late in the day, the board emerged from the jury room and announced that they had come to a verdict They stated that they found the defendant "Not Guilty." A relieved Lt. Wilson Was hurriedly returned to his flying duties and was never involved with the slightest infraction of flight rules throughout the duration of the War. Whether his actions were "aerial horseplay gone bad" Would at length be forgotten. More importantly, there was a War to be Won and qualified pilots were then in short supply. Today little remains of the crash that took 12 lives during the first year of WWII, A few scant pieces of the airliner remain in the shadows of the huge bowl deb-strewn eastern face of Mt. San Gorgonio. The aircraft impacted the ground in a tight-spin attitude and the wreckage was contained in a relatively small area If it had fallen to Earth a few hundred yards further east it would have demolished some Palm Springs homes. Somewhat ironically, today few of the residents that live in proximity are aware of the tragedy that occurred there so long ago.

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