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Crash Explorers Pt 22 By Robb Hill

Crash Explorers Pt 22 By Robb Hill


This venerable cargo aircraft was manufactured by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation and became famous for flying the treacherous "Hump" over the Himalayan mountains from India to supply our bases in China. It also served during the Korean War and clandestinely for the C.I.A. in Vietnam prior to and during the Vietnam war.


This months mishap contains an element of mystery as to its cause. One moment C-46A, serial number 42-107399, was cruising over the Sierras returning to its base at Reno and the next it was a molten, plummeting mass of aircraft destined to fall into the remote depths of the American River Gorge. The date was June 22, 1945. The flights original destination was Long Beach Army Airfield. It was to be a high altitude, IFR , (instrument flight rules) training mission for two student pilots, supervised by an Instructor pilot. The instructor pilot was let Lieutenant James B. Solomon, a Veteran with over 1,200 flight hours experience. His two student pilots were flight officers, Robert Brown and Hubert Anderson. Both were advanced students gaining experience in the cargo-type aircraft they would hopefully be flying during WWII. It Would be the final flight for all three With little explanation for the cause of the event that led to their demise. C-46A, number 42-107399, took off from Reno Air Base at 2147 hours, or 9:47 pm., on the 22nd of June, 1945. One hour and fifty minutes later the smashed aircraft containing the lifeless bodies of three airmen would lie on a bash and tree covered slope at the bottom of the American River Gorge. What could have gone so seriously wrong for this to happen? The answer will never be definitively known, but from the facts that were uncovered a plausible scenario can be drawn. Due to the possibility of inclement Weather over the Sierras on that evening, the C-46A was recalled to Reno after a radio check-in when it was over the city of Sacramento. The recall order was acknowledged and the ship began its return flight to base. Its pilot, Flight Instructor Solomon, reported the aircrafts altitude at 18,000 feet and his estimated ETA to Reno to be one hour and thirty-two minutes. Everything seemed to be in order and no further radio contact was heard from the aircraft as it made its way back toward Reno.

Although it was nearly midnight on June 22, 1945, the tragedy that befell the C-46A was observed by a number of citizens. One, in fact, first reported the accident. Her name was Mrs. Edith Abbott, a Southern Pacific Railroad telegrapher working at the Gold Run, California office located about 2 miles northwest of the crash site. She related what she had observed and the actions taken by her to the U.S.A.A.F. Accident Investigation Officer, Captain George H. Hall. They Went as follows: "Mrs, Abbott stated that at about 2335, she heard a plane which from the sound, seemed very high up and going east. A few seconds after she first heard this normal sound of a planes engines, she stated that she heard a noise like the plane was in a nose-dive. The motors seemed to Wind up, rnaking a loud roar. A few seconds thereafter, the motors quieted down, and she heard a noise which sounded to her like a large hollow ball rolling. This was only momentary and, in a few seconds, she heard another roar. This in turn died down to the sarge noise which sounded to her like a big ball rolling. This sequence occurred once more, making three times in all. Mrs. Abbott did not see the plane at any time, however at 2337 (she is definitely sure of the exact time) she saw a big round ball of fire in the sky above the trees across the railroad tracks. Mrs. Abbott pointed to the spot Where she saw the fire or explosion in the sky, and a bearing was taken with a pocket compass. This spot was 105 degrees north from the position Where she was standing, and proved to be almost over the scene of the crash. She saw no fire on the ground, nor did she hear any noise other than the sound of the motors and the hollow sound like a ball rolling. Mrs. Abbott did not see any flaming parts falling from the sky, nor any other falling parts. She said that she Was positive the plane had exploded in the air. Mrs. Abbott was so positive of the aircraft accident that she called her chief dispatcher, Mr. Mc Rae at Sacramento, to report it. Mr. McRae relayed the report to McClellan AFB." A second account of the crash was supplied by a Placer County Deputy Sheriff named Al Bishop. His wife and he were driving home from a friends house on the fateful evening of the crash from a location about 4 miles northeast of the crash site. Mrs. Bishop remarked to her husband that she thought a plane was in trouble when she heard its motors roar.

Mr. Bishop picked up the sound as Well and concluded that it was from an aircraft diving at eXcel~ dive speed. Bishop then stopped his car and got out just in time to see the flash from a massive explosion in the sky. He stated that he heard a "poot` sound shortly after observing it. He further mentioned hearing only one explosion. He observed it beneath the clouds but still high in the air. Another account was supplied by a sheepherder, Jean Borderre. He stated that he was sleeping in his camp atop the canyon approximately two miles from the crash site when he was awakened by a loud explosion. He then heard a sound similar to the crackling of a fire or something rolling down through the trees. He further mentioned that after the first explosion he heard six smaller ones. He thought that all of the explosions occurred after the aircraft hit the ground. Three other reports from civilians who either saw or heard the mid-air explosion generally corroborated the above accounts of what transpired near midnight on the 22nd of June in 1945. The Flight Safety Officer for the region, Captain George H. Hall, drew the following conclusions in his report to the Commanding Officer of Reno Army Air Base. They were as follows: "The aircraft fell into a deep canyon, the slope of which at the point of impact was approximately 45 degrees. As evidenced by portions of #7399 which were undamaged, the aircraft was on its back at the time of contact With the ground. It is also believed that 7399 may have been in an inverted spin at the time of impact, as the foliage on the side of the canyon shows the aircraft was descending in a perpendicular attitude. Examination of the wreckage showed that there was little fire after impact. However, the left nacelle, landing gear and tire were badly burned, although immediate surrounding parts of the wreckage on the ground showed little or no evidence of fire. This suggests fairly conclusively that there was a fire in the left nacelle prior to the accident. It cannot be definitively stated that this fire occurred before the explosion, however, evidence which has been brought to light in similar accidents involving explosion in flight shows that fire has preceded the explosion, so it may be reasonably assumed that such was the case in this accident. The cause of the fire has not been determined, although it seems reasonable to assume that the resulting explosion was caused by the fire from the left nacelle. The right nacelle, tire, landing gear and all accessories were found intact and showed no signs of fire. All three heaters were found intact and showed no signs of fire or explosion.

No part of the Wings outboard from approximately the center of the tanks was found at the wreckage. The right wing and gas tanks were found approximately one mile south of the wreckage. The ends were blown from the tanks, as if an explosion had occurred at some time or another within the tanks. The sld. and leading edge from the right wing were bowed out, further indicating that an explosion had occurred within the right wing. The gas tanks from the left Wing were found at the scene of the cash. However, the left Wing section outboard from the tanks and both wing tips were not located. An aileron control pulley belonging to one of the Wings was found at the top of the canyon. This part was srnudged, indicating an explosion in the wing. It seems probable that explosions occurred in both Wings. It is difficult to say which explosion occurred first, it may be that disintegration of the both wings was practically simultaneous and was most likely caused by a single explosion which traveled from one wing through the center section to the other." Captain Halls conclusions of what happened after the mid-air explosion took place were sound and based on evidence discovered at the crash site. Mention was made that none of the crew apparently made any attempt to parachute from their stricken aircraft. No completely satisfactory explanation of why they didst was unearthed but a plausible answer could be concluded from the following scenario: With the failure of both engines due to the fuel explosion the transport would quickly stall and spin. When that spin became an invened flat-spin the chances of anyone being able to move against the centrifugal forces exerted on them was remote. The restricted containment of the debris field indicated that the aircraft collided with the Earth in a flat spin condition, and the smashed underside wreckage of the aircraft indicated that it was inverted upon impact. A veteran pilot and two young pilot trainees had forfeited their lives on a routine training mission.

Was the mid-air explosion due to faulty maintenance or just the result of an onboard fire whose origin Was unknown? Those were the mysterious questions that could not be answered by trained investigators nearly 60 years ago and remain a mystery to this day. In an attempt to prevent any such future tragic occurrences the Accident Investigation Board recommended that all pilots, instructors, engineers, and crew chiefs concerned with the operation of the C-46 pay particular attention to the fuel lines, and fuel selector Valves and pumps of such aircraft for possible leaks. It is doubtful if a recommendation of that general a nature would have much effect upon the future air safety of the C-46, but the board needed to come up with something. The remoteness of this crash site and the sizeable remains of the C-46 that exist there to this day have to be looked upon as a stark memorial to the men who died there and to all others who lost their lives in training to fight for our nations freedom during WWII.



Pictured are the remains of one of the C-46s giant propellers. It is evident from the relatively intact condition of the blades, particularly at the tips, that the engines were not operating at the moment of impact.

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