Aviation Day looks back at 1940s crashes

Karen DeRoss
These pieces believed to be the control column, left, and the tail wheel pivot, right, from a single-seat fighter plane, a Grumman F6F Hellcat, that crashed west of Castle Crags near Boulder Peak in 1945, will be displayed at Aviation Day in Montague this Saturday, along with many other artifacts. “It’s just not right to have stuff in the garage or closet,” said Bruce Batchelder, a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association Siskiyou County chapter who is helping to organize the event. “This stuff needs to be on display, that’s the whole point.”

This Saturday at the Montague-Yreka airport (Rhorer Field), amidst other artifacts, displays and demonstrations, people directly connected with Siskiyou County’s aviation history will be a featured highlight during this year’s Aviation Day.

The celebration is scheduled for 8 a.m. to noon. A pancake breakfast will be served from 8 to 11 a.m.

The Siskiyou chapter (6544) of the Experimental Aircraft Association organizes Aviation Day. Several years ago, members of the EAA aided in the efforts to identify and confirm the crash of a B-24E, tail number 42-7199, on June 11, 1943. It went down a little east of Linnville Road and the railroad tracks, west of Black Butte. They were also able to assist in identifying the entire crew of 10 men. Six men died in the crash but four parachuted to safety.

Verne Kendall of Yreka remembers hearing a knock on the door of his family home on Summit Drive near Black Butte in the wee hours of Friday morning, June 11, 1943, when he was eight years old. A survivor from the B-24 crash was asking for a ride into a town because he sprained his ankle in the jump.

George Linnville of Mount Shasta also was awakened by the sound of the aircraft flying low and looked up to see the plane, running lights on and engines failing, heading north toward Weed. Suddenly the lights went off as the plane turned sharply to the South. Linnville immediately went to the firehouse to get help.

A report prepared for Aviation Day states, “The plane’s fuel tanks ruptured and exploded on impact, this caused the 50 caliber ammunition from her ten defensive machine guns to explode. This being war time, the B-24, while on a training mission, was still heavily armed.

Luckily for local residents, however, the aircraft was not carrying her normal load of 8,000 pounds of high explosive bombs.”

Two men traveling toward Portland on Highway 99 saw the plane go down and stopped at the Pilgrim’s Rest Inn in Weed to report it. Louis Sbarbaro of Weed was there and left to investigate the crash site with three friends in order to offer what help they could.

In 2009 Doyle Yondell of Mount Shasta found bullet casings near the crash site off I-5 and showed the EAA the location. Remains of this crash recovered by the EAA chapter 654 were put into the Sisson Museum.

Stacy Churchwell, the brother of the B-24 co-pilot, George Churchwell Jr., is traveling from Merritt Island, Fla., to attend Aviation Day with his wife and other family members.

Also traveling a long distance to attend Aviation Day is Nancy Ballard Hopen, the niece of Navy Lt. (jg) RA Hopen who was killed when his single-seat fighter plane, a Grumman F6F Hellcat, crashed west of Castle Crags near Boulder Peak in 1945. She is making the trip to see her uncle honored at Aviation Day from Cherokee Village, Ark.

The Arcata Coast Guard search unit and the 4th Air Force in Medford made efforts to locate the wreck in 1946, but the remains of the plane were not found. Later that year, George Costa of Dunsmuir found the wreck and reported it to the Forest Service.

The Navy came and took away the human remains, transporting them to Arlington National Cemetery. The Navy also blew up the large pieces of wreckage at the crash site, leaving only small scrap remains.

In June of 1946, the father of Lt. (jg) RA Hopen, Jens Hopen, left his home in New Jersey and headed to Weed to search for the remains of his son’s plane with $900 – his life savings. He set up camp near Eddy Creek at the base of Mount Eddy and hired guides to assist him in searching the area on horseback. After 32 days, the search turned up nothing and Hopens left the area, having no money to continue. “His search just didn’t go far enough south,” said EAA member Bruce Batchelder. “He went home broken hearted.”

In 1954, Jim Nile of Mount Shasta, working as a timber cruiser for Southern Pacific Land Co., spotted some blue metal slightly off his cruise line. He thought it was aircraft aluminum.

Jim Gubetta  of Weed remembers seeing pieces of blue aluminum in an open pit just down the slope from where Nile spotted the remains three years later, in 1957. Gubetta offered to help the EAA chapter 654 with this Hellcat recovery that took place in June of this year.

On June 27 the remains were found again, more than 50 years later. “Without the incredible memories of these two men, our war bird recovery group would have spent years searching for the wreckage, but they led us right to it,” said Batchelder in a report describing the Hellcat crash and how its remains were found.

Although the crash site of the Hellcat aircraft has been found, the plane parts recovered and Lt. Hopens’ remains honored in the National Cemetery, Batchelder said the EAA chapter 654 is still trying to gather information regarding Jens Hopens’ visit to Weed. “Our hope is to find out who those guides were, anything, any footprint... We want to know who here remembers him,” he said. Their goal is to fill in the story of a dad spending his life savings to find out the details of his son’s death. “We want to memorialize it.”

Aviation Day will bring history to life this year with displays of scraps from the B-24 and Hellcat aircrafts. Batchelder said it will be “very special” to have family of the those involved in these crashes as the honored guests at Aviation Day this year.

Other highlights of Aviation Day are a flyby of F-15 fighters from Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, scheduled for 10 a.m., demonstrations and static displays from the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire and California Highway Patrol.

For further information about the event, contact:

• David Weld, Shasta Valley Aviation, at 459-3456 or flyshastavalley@snowcrest.net.

• Bruce Batchelder, Jefferson Aviation Archaeology, at 938-0385 or    realestatelakeshastina.com

• Terry Weathers, aviation history display, 530-468-2234 or tmw@sisqtel.net