It was a dark and stormy night in 1943 when a B-24 bomber slammed into the mountains above Trinidad.
The impact sheared a swath of forest 150 feet wide and 345 feet long on the steep hillside. Explosions set surrounding trees on fire. The crew died on impact.
Nearly 65 years later, Len Wallace pushed through thick stands of pine on a steep slope to find his way to the site.
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“We just go right up this hill,” said Wallace, 71, while trying to catch his breath.
He scrambled over a creek, through some scratchy brush, and up to a rock outcrop. He looked around. Then looked around again. Then swore under his breath and said, “I don’t know where the hell we are.”
Wallace is a wreck chaser, one of a small band of fanatics who mine government documents and yellowing newspaper clippings for clues to forgotten plane-crash sites, then hunt them down in the hills. These self-taught “aviation archaeologists” document the sites, record the exact locations and, in some cases, contact survivors.
In Colorado, where topography and weather tend to change abruptly, chasers have plenty to keep them busy. The state has almost 700 documented military crashes and uncounted civilian wrecks. The vast majority of the military planes, such as the B-24 near Trinidad, went down on training flights during World War II.
Between 1942 and 1945, the United States was forced to grow from a nation of farmers and factory workers into the largest air force in the world. The transformation came at a steep price. An estimated 15,000 servicemen died in 22,000 training flights before ever seeing battle. In Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, where, Wallace said, most of the training took place, crash numbers were especially high.
“These were young kids flying these planes,” Wallace said as he jostled through the bushes to search another hillside. “Training was short. You had new pilots. New aircraft. You had problems.”
Colorado had training airfields in Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo. In two years, about 300 bombers, fighters and training planes crashed along the Front Range. The Colorado Springs area is home to more than any other. The city is ringed by wreck sites: a B-24 Liberator on Cheyenne Mountain, another above the Flying W Ranch, a trio of B-29 Superfortresses — the model that dropped the atomic bomb — on the plains east of town.
“At the crashes out on the plains, there usually isn’t much to see,” said Wallace.The twisted metal was carted away for scrap.
But mountain wrecks are protected by steep, isolated terrain, so they often go unvisited. Some have changed little in decades. Not many of them are recognizable as planes.
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Before the days of radar and computer navigation, crews had to find their way through clouds by dead reckoning. If calculations were slightly wrong, or a wind blew them off course, they could (and often did) slam into the mountains.
“There’s an old saying among pilots,” said Duke Sumonia, a fellow wreck chaser. “The clouds have rocks in them.”
What remains after a pilot finds those rocks is little more than mattress-size shreds of aluminum and engine parts strewn over a hillside. That’s what Wallace was looking for above Trinidad: a glint of metal in the woods.
A 55,000-pound bomber shouldn’t be hard to find. But time had hidden much. Wreck chasing first caught Wallace’s eye in 1990 when he was hiking above the Flying W Ranch west of Colorado Springs. He had never been a pilot, or particularly interested in planes, but then he spotted a hunk of engine.
“I thought to myself, ‘How did a car get way up here?’” he said. Then he found more pieces, even fake training bombs. It seemed to be a plane. At the library, he discovered it was, in fact, a massive, four-engine B-24 bomber that hit the hill in a snowstorm in 1944.
“After that I was hooked,” he said.
Seeking answers to mysteries
He began tracking down sites through government archives and reels of microfilm newspapers. He got so good at aviation history that he was hired to work at the museum at Peterson Air Force Base. Eventually, he hooked up with a handful of guys who called themselves wreck chasers. They hunted for crash sites all over Colorado, Wyoming and the Southwest. These days the chasers go by a slightly more respectable, and longer, name: the Aviation Archaeology wing of the Colorado Aviation Historical Society.
“It suggests that we’re more about documenting and less about just collecting cool artifacts,” said Wallace.
Collecting robs later chasers of the fun of discovery. It’s sometimes a crime, since any wreckage older than 50 years is protected on public land by the Antiquities Act. So chasers, for the most part, just investigate. Think of it as CSI: World War II. They start with official crash records, then see whether they jibe with eyewitness accounts and crash debris.
“Often they don’t. It’s always a mystery,” said Wallace.
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Wrecks chalked up to pilot error or navigation error sometimes turn out to be mechanical. To close the case, some chasers get in touch with survivors. For the dedication of a plaque at a downed B-17 Flying Fortress near Estes Park, the chasers tracked down survivors and convinced one to return, 55 years later, for the ceremony.
“At one crash, there were no survivors,” said Sumonia, “but we invited the widow of the navigator and the brothers and sisters to come see it. For 50 years they had felt this guilt because they thought it was the navigator’s fault that all the men died. We were able to tell them it wasn’t. The crash happened at night in a snowstorm; there was nothing a guy could have done.”
Any wreck chaser who has spent time in the field can appreciate the challenges of navigation. Wallace visited the mountains above Trinidad three times before he found the B-24 bomber. He had been back twice since then, and now, he was having trouble finding it.
“I don’t know if it’s up there or over there,” he said, gazing into the featureless forest. He led on, stepping over an alarmingly fresh and large pile of bear scat, and scrambling up a hill. He usually carries a GPS receiver, but he’d forgotten it.
“Wait, what’s that?” he yelled to a group spread out in the trees. “I see metal ahead.”
To the untrained eye there was nothing, but then, a few steps on, there it was: torn aluminum skin from the flank of the plane. Then a few steps farther: a huge Boeing engine with its bent propeller still attached. Beyond it, more pieces glinted in the woods. Time and growing trees had tried to hide them, but the wreck chasers had made careful notes, so that even after the last witnesses have died, the history will live on.
The chasers are working on a national database for all crashes. The work is far from done. In Colorado, dozens of undocumented sites wait on forbidding mountain slopes. Beyond the United States, in jungle-covered World War II hot spots such as New Guinea, wrecks number in the hundreds. Expedition groups continue to search for what may be the most famous wreck of all, Amelia Earhart’s lost resting place.
Most wreck chasers love the thrill of tracking a decades-old mystery and the peace of tramping around in the wild. But the big draw, many say, is connecting the living to past loved ones.
“It’s the people. It really is,” said Wallace. “The great satisfaction is working with families. We’ve given them answers, sent dog tags back home. That means a lot.”
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AIRCRAFT WRECKAGE IN THE PIKES PEAK REGION
1. C-49j military cargo plane
Where: Blodgett Peak When: Crashed in a cloud bank Feb. 23, 1943, en route from Pueblo to Denver Casualties: Two To get there: Climb Blodgett Peak, then descend 800 feet down the northwest ridge. 6 miles round trip on rough trail, 3,000 feet elevation gain. Directions: Take the Woodmen Road exit west from Interstate 25 to a light where Woodmen and Rockrimmon roads meet; keep right. Drive five miles as the road winds toward the foothills and turn right into the clearly marked Blodgett Peak Open Space parking lot. The hike: From Blodgett Peak Open Space parking lot, follow the wide, roadlike trail that winds toward the peak. From the trail, hikers can look up and see their route climb through oaks on the southeastern flank, then enter a steep drainage on the south face before gaining a saddle just west of the summit. Take the road into the hills for just over a mile until it ends in a group of firs. Keep left at 0.8 mile at a junction with a road that goes to a nearby water tank. When the road ends a few steps later follow a clear trail less than a mile north, passing a spur to a neighborhood on the right, and arriving at a T intersection with another trail. Go left. The junction is unmarked, so note it for the way down. The trail climbs in a transect across the southwest flank of the peak. When the trail reaches the wooded southern drainage, it switches back east, climbs a bit, then switches back west and squeezes through a slot between two huge granite boulders. From here the trail gets nasty, shooting up the hill for 500 feet. The trail slacks off as it nears a ridge. At a saddle, follow the trail right a few hundred yards to Blodgett’s rocky cap. From the top, follow a trailless ridge down to the north/northwest. The wreck is .5 miles and 800 feet down on the east side of the ridge. A good map is critical to find it. The coordinates are 38 degrees 57 minutes 48.63 seconds north latitude and 104 degrees 54 minutes 35.53 seconds west longitude.
2. B-24 Liberator long-range bomber
Where: Lone Pine Mountain When: Crashed into mountainside at night April 26, 1944 Casualties: Seven To get there: Drive a 4×4 road to Ormes Peak in the Rampart Range, then descend a gentle, trail-less ridge 3 miles, dropping 800 feet. Return the way you came. Directions: From Colorado Springs, take U.S. 24 to Woodland Park. Turn right at the McDonald’s (Baldwin Street), which becomes Rampart Range Road. At a fork, veer right on Loy Creek Road. When the pavement ends, turn right onto Rampart Range Road. Drive just over 5.5 miles. Turn left on Forest Road 303 (watch for Northfield Reservoir sign). On 303, stay right, taking Forest Road 302. After 1.5 miles on 302, watch for right-hand turnout with gentle saddle. Park here. A faint trail runs east from the road. Wander east, staying as high as possible, for about 0.75 mile. Then turn south on a faint trail along the ridge for 1.5 miles. The coordinates of the wreck are 104 degrees 54 minutes 28.99 seconds north latitude and 38 degrees 55 minutes 45.94 seconds west longitude.
3. T-33 training plane
Where: Cheyenne Mountain When: Crashed at night Oct. 12, 1954 Casualties: Two To get there: This plane is in Cheyenne Mountain State Park.
4. UH-1 Huey helicopter
Where: Almagre Mountain When: No record of the crash To get there: Get to the top of Almagre Mountain. Drive 13 miles up Old Stage Road and Gold Camp Road to the former Rosemont town site. In a two-wheel-drive car, park at the junction with Forest Road 379. Four-wheel-drive vehicles can continue on the road 5 miles to a rock slide. Then walk 2 miles, through a gate, to the north hump of Almagre. The wreck is over the north side in a boulder field.