B17F Crash on Wild Horse Flat
By Steve T. Trigg; details mostly from the Army Air Force Accident Report and a few other sources
On January 13, 1943, a B17 exploded mid-air above the northern part of present day Trigg Ranch while enroute from Pyote, Texas to Casper, Wyoming and crashed in our Wild Horse Flat pasture killing all seven crewmembers. The previous day the plane had delivered a crew to ferry a B17 back to their home base at Casper. Spending the night in Pyote the crew left at 9:30 in the morning of the thirteenth for their return flight to Casper. They checked in with the CAA Radio Station at Tucumcari at 11:05am and reported they were 20 miles northwest at 9,000 feet. A few minutes later at 11:35, the plane exploded. The weather was CAVU or in aviation parlance of the time, clear air and visibility unlimited with a temperature of 48.
Both bases were newly formed B17 training bases having only been established since the previous September. Initially they were OTUs, Operational Training Units, and quickly became RTUs, Replacement Training Units. When new units were formed, the personnel to man them were trained in Operational Training Units and as the unit became assigned in the field, they became Replacement Training Units. All the crewmen were equally new, the captain having received his pilot rating the previous September, barely four months.
Pyote Army Airfield fondly called “Rattlesnake Bomber Base” was established in September of 1942, transitioning to B29 training in the summer of 1944. Casper Army Air Base was also built in the fall of 1942 to train B17 crews and later B24 crews. One hundred forty Casper aviators perished in 90 plane crashes between September 1942 and March 1945, one of the crashes was this New Mexico crash.
Many people saw and heard the explosion as the plane fell in pieces and a parachute drifting down slowly. Most saw a plane flying low over the area about an hour later. Today there would only be a few witnesses if any. Dad, Charlie McNeil, and O.B. Cockerell. working on the north end of the ranch, heard and saw it and were the first to drive to the scene. They found five dead scattered around the wreckage and were able to put out a grass fire. R.E. Trujillo and his cook, Noberto Leyba, saw black smoke from his sheep camp and were second on the scene. R.E. was running sheep on Wild Horse Flat, country owned by Nestor Baca. While building a fence on his ranch in Mosquero Canyon, Eufracio Baca with his hired hand, Roman Parrea, heard the explosion, saw the rising plume of black smoke and watched the parachute land. They saddled horses, met up with and led a contingent from the Highway Department who retrieved the parachute and then rode on to the crash site. The Mosquero merchant, J.K. Schollenberger, drove the fifteen miles from town to the wreckage as soon as he heard about it. News spread rapidly. Dad never mentioned to me that he had been at the crash scene. I learned this from the accident report.
R.E. Trujillo drove back to Mosquero and phoned to notify officers at Kirtland Field, Albuquerque who connected him with Colonel Barry, Commander of Camp Luna in Las Vegas, and Colonel Hunter, Commander of Casper. Various others from the bridge and railroad crew notified army officials at the Tucumcari Glider field and Southern Pacific Dispatch.
A team led by Captain Daniels from Camp Luna in Las Vegas arrived that afternoon to secure the area and defuse the IFF detonator which was still intact. An IFF detonator is a switch box that starts a detonation sequence to destroy IFF equipment (Identification Friend or Foe) to keep secret equipment out of enemy hands. Camp Luna lead the ground recovery and investigation. The next morning Kirtland Army Airfield sent two officers, Captain Lee Chenoweth and First Lieutenant Frank C. Thomas, as advisers. They arrived at 11:00am in a C-72, the military version of a Waco, landing in the pasture a quarter mile east of the wreckage. Camp Luna personnel removed the bodies the morning following the crash and the wreckage was taken to 91st Sub-Depot in Roswell for close inspection.
There were 23 eyewitness accounts recorded by the investigation. R.E. Trujillo, his camp cook Norberto Leyba and three of his herders; Ambrosio Pacheco, Jose Archuleta, and Gregorio Montoya gave their accounts. In his interview, when a plane flew low over him an hour after the crash, Ambrosio said, “I ran for a big tree and got under it.” The schoolhouse at CA was in its last years of operation and Daniel Laumbach the teacher and Mrs. Joe Garcia whose family owned the homestead on which the schoolhouse is located gave testimony. A railroad work crew led by the section foreman, A.R. Finton, from the Cabeza Section of the Dawson railroad was working close to Medio saw it, called their Southern Pacific dispatch to report the crash and gave their testimony. Workers with the Highway Department who were building the bridge across Mosquero Creek on Highway 39 between Logan and Mosquero heard the explosion and saw black smoke from the grass fire and watched the parachute drifting and land, gave their accounts. They sent several men to retrieve the parachute and reported the accident.
All accounts were essentially the same; reporting the plane trailing black smoke followed shortly by an explosion with a lot of debris and a second louder explosion as the main wreckage hit the ground, with a subsequent grass fire. The final report concluded it unlikely the plane had been trailing smoke as there was no residual evidence of smoke or fire in flight. Most reported seeing a parachute high above drifting down slowly, some thought they saw a man in it and a couple from the road crew were certain they saw tracks from the chute leading back up and over the Mesa. This was also discounted by investigators.
There were seven crewmen killed. A B17 combat crew has 10 crewmen. The bombardier and four gunners were not on board. All the flights in training bases had instructors but, on this flight, the instructor pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Theodore L. Hinman had traded for the flight with the regularly assigned instructor so that he could fly low over his wife back on the farm south of Clovis, which she reported to Casper the following day. Clovis is on the route back from Pyote. All the crewmen were young averaging 25 with the oldest being 30. The crewmen were: Captain 2nd Lieutenant Robert J. George; Co-pilot 2nd Lieutenant Robert B. Goodman; navigator 2nd Lieutenant Miller G. Ashcraft; flight engineer Technical Sergeant Maynard J. Marple; radioman Technical Sergeant Charles F. Zinn; and gunner Staff Sergeant Thomas L. Hamilton.
The subject plane was a B17-F, #42-25103 based in Casper with the 331st Bomb Group of the 463rd Bomb Squadron and assigned to the 15th Wing of the Second Air Force and had 987 total hours. It left Pyote with 2100 gallons of fuel, 375 of that in an auxiliary fuel tank in the bomb bay. This tank is temporary to extend range and is mounted on the bomb racks and vented by a flexible line routed through a hole in the bomb bay door. There were three mechanical write ups; heater inoperative, the number three cylinder head temperature gauge inoperative and the number four engine using 20 gallons of oil every 6.5 hours.
The accident scene consisted of a debris field one and a half miles long and a quarter mile wide, oriented along a 310 degree course which was the plane’s flight direction. The main fuselage forward of the radio compartment hit the ground from a vertical fall with no forward motion and came to rest inverted, bursting into flames on impact, which started a grass fire. Fifteen feet of the right wing tip separated in the air and three of the engines and nacelles were thrown clear on impact. The tail section beginning at the radio compartment, separated in flight and was found 500 feet SE of the main wreckage. The radio compartment is located slightly aft of the main wing spars and behind the bomb bay. Rivets in this area, holding the skin to the formers, were blown outward. The top hatch of the radio compartment, radio compartment doors, a pair of winter flying pants belonging to the gunner was badly seared as though by flash flame, a GI woolen scarf also with flash burns and a parachute bag with miscellaneous clothing were found a short distance southeast of the tail section. Singed and flash burned sound proofing from the radio compartment littered the ground to the northeast, in the direction of the wind at the time.
The center section completely burned after impact, mostly melted aluminum, much of it unidentifiable. The cockpit area and upper turret were intact. A depression slightly ahead of the main wreckage was attributed to the auxiliary fuel tank being thrown clear at the initial explosion and exploding on impact.
A parachute, showing signs of flash burn, was blown free and opened, drifting four miles northeastward for ten minutes, landing on a lower bench near the bottom of Mosquero Canyon. It was located by Eufracio Baca and returned to the investigating team by Charles Hill from the Highway Department road crew. An hour and a half after the crash, a plane flew low circling in the area. It was flown by a civilian instructor from the Civilian Contract Glider School in Tucumcari, Mr. Peters, who departed in an LC-3 at 12:25 to locate the wreckage, returning at 1400. Peters was unable to find the wreckage. The final report notes this was not an authorized flight.
The pilots were found strapped into their seats. The other five crewmen were thrown clear of the plane as it fell and were scattered around the main wreckage, all but one clear of the grass fire. The radioman showed evidence of singing from a flash fire. The gunner had third degree burns attributed to the grass fire and all the other bodies showed no signs of fire or singeing.
It is standard practice to transfer auxiliary fuel to the main tanks once there is room, which happens around two hours, right about the time the plane was over Wild Horse Flat. In his interview, the bombardier assigned to the crew but not on board, Lieutenant E. B. Brewer, reported that all the crew except the captain smoked. Often crews would open the bomb bay doors to smoke.
The report concludes; The Probable Cause was the explosion of fuel fumes in the radio compartment caused by a crewman lighting a cigarette and Recommended a better auxiliary fuel tank venting system (which was corrected in the G model) and a meter to detect fuel fumes. No mention of maybe not smoking was made!?
First flight July 28, 1935
3,405 B17Fs were built
Span 103 feet 9 inches
Length 74 feet 9 inches
Gross weight 65,000 pounds
Top speed 287 mph
Cruising speed 150 mph
Range (max.) 3,750 miles
Ceiling 35,600 feet
Power Four turbo-supercharged 9-cylinder, radial, air-cooled 1200-horsepower Wright Cyclone Model R-1820-97 engines
Accommodation 2 pilots, bombardier, navigator, radio-operator, 5 gunners
Armament 11 to 13 machine guns, 9,600-pound bomb load
Gen. Carl Spaatz, the American air commander in Europe, said, “Without the B-17 we may have lost the war.”
To tour a B17 with Jay Leno, click here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjRQXjcY6u0