On September 10, 1962, a U. S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker, en route from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota with 44 passengers and crew, crashes into Mount Kit Carson (5,282 feet), approximately 20 miles northeast of Spokane, while on landing approach to Fairchild Air Force Base. That afternoon, searchers will find the wreckage of the aircraft on the mountainside, scattered in a deep, fog-shrouded, ravine. There are no survivors. It is the worst aviation disaster in the history of Spokane County.
Routine Flight to Fairchild AFB
The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, a military variant of the Boeing 367-80 (called the Dash-80), was the only jet aircraft designed specifically for aerial refueling missions. Introduced in 1956, it replaced the propeller-driven Boeing KC-97 Stratotanker, which was too slow for jet combat aircraft. Several of the versatile KC-135s were modified for special purposes, including Strategic Air Command airborne command posts and reconnaissance, as well as hauling cargo and troops. When configured for passengers, the KC-135 had accommodations for 126 personnel and carried a crew of four consisting of two pilots, one navigator, and one loadmaster.
On Monday morning, September 10, 1962, Air Force KC-135, No. 60-0352, assigned to the 28th Air Refueling Squadron, departed Ellsworth Air Force Base (AFB) near Rapid City, South Dakota, for the two-and-a-half-hour flight to Fairchild AFB, 12 miles west of Spokane. Aboard the aircraft, in addition to the crew, were 38 airmen, one civilian, and a soldier hitching a ride to Fort Wainwright, Alaska. The airmen were B-52 Stratofortress combat crew and maintenance personnel from the Strategic Air Command’s 28th Bomb Wing. They had been temporarily assigned to Fairchild during runway repairs at the South Dakota base.
Preparing to Land
At approximately 11:00 a.m., the KC-135 was flying westbound in the vicinity of Mead, northwest of Spokane, at a reported altitude of 23,000 feet, when the pilot contacted Air Traffic Control at Fairchild AFB for landing instructions. The plane was directed to execute a right-hand turn and descend for landing. This routine approach maneuver takes an the aircraft in a wide circle over Mount Spokane State Park, then on a line between Mount Spokane and Mount Kit Carson and back to Mead at approximately 8,000 feet. Now on final approach for Fairchild AFB, the pilot gradually descends over Spokane, onto the airfield.
At 11:10 a.m. the KC-135 reported to the control tower it was descending through 14,000 feet, and about to enter the landing approach pattern for Fairchild AFB when it suddenly disappeared from the radar screen and broke radio contact. At the time, flying weather in the Spokane area was poor, with a 1,000-foot cloud ceiling, rain, and areas of dense fog, requiring the pilot to fly entirely by instruments (“instrument flight rules” or IFR). The Air Force immediately dispatched rescue helicopters to hunt for the missing plane, but a four-hour search proved fruitless, due to the bad weather and low visibility.
The Search Begins
Meanwhile, Colonel Floyd R. Creasman, Commanding Officer of Fairchild AFB, and Spokane County Sheriff William J. Reilly led a search party of some 300 Air Force rescue personnel, deputy sheriffs and civilian volunteers into Mount Spokane State Park to look for any sign of the missing aircraft.
Shortly after 4:00 p.m., three volunteers from Spokane, Bert Smith, Irving R. Hammon, and his son Wayne Hammon, found the plane on remote Mount Kit Carson (5,282 feet), southwest of Mount Spokane (5,883 feet). As they were driving up a narrow, dirt road that led toward the summit of Mount Kit Carson, the men smelled smoke and stopped in a clearing to investigate. As they climbed down into a steep ravine, the smell of burning gasoline and debris got stronger. Eventually, the men found the crushed remains of the Stratotanker’s cockpit and saw three badly burned bodies on the ground.
The trio drove nine miles to a ranch belonging to Clyde and Barbara Rainwater, telephoned the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department to report the discovery, and then waited there for help. Three Washington State Patrol officers were the first to arrive and Smith led them to the crash site on the northeast side of the mountain. The first Air Force rescue crews arrived at the scene at about 6:00 p.m., and were sent into the ravine to search for survivors. The men used a tow rope to climb up and down the steep, muddy hillside.
Within 15 minutes, a rescuer reported that 19 bodies had been already found and requested body bags be sent down to the crash site. Before darkness set in, searchers had located 31 bodies. The search continued Tuesday morning and by 2:30 p.m., all 44 victims were accounted for. All aboard the plane had perished, burned almost beyond recognition. Then came the grim task of hauling the body bags up the steep, heavily wooded slope to waiting ambulances. Earlier, a makeshift morgue had been set up at the Mount Spokane Ski Lodge, but the Air Force soon moved to the remains to the Fairchild AFB Hospital for identification.
The large KC-135 Stratotanker, traveling at approximately 230 miles-per-hour, plowed a huge swath through the thick forest 250 yards long and 25 yards wide, struck the mountainside, exploded and burned. Trees and branches, broken off by the plane’s forward motion, crisscrossed the wreckage. The only recognizable parts of the aircraft were the dual landing wheels, the cockpit and the tail section. The wings and fuselage had disintegrated into small pieces. Wires, remnants of electronic equipment, personal effects and debris hung in the trees and littered the ground.
On Tuesday, September 11, 15 accident investigators, which included representatives from the Civil Aeronautics Board, the Federal Aviation Administration, and Boeing Aircraft Company, and five-man crash-probe team from Norton AFB, California, began sifting through the smoldering wreckage for clues to the disaster. After the site inspection had been completed, it took Air Force crash crews two days to clean up the area. The wreckage was transported to a hangar at Fairchild AFB where the investigators hoped to explain why the Stratotanker was flying below 5,000 feet as it prepared to enter the final approach for a landing at the airfield.
Although the details were not disclosed, the Air Force concluded the crash was primarily caused by a navigational error, combined with the adverse flying conditions. The pilot, flying an ILS (instrument landing system) approach through the overcast, was completing a right turn to effect alignment with Runway 23 at Fairchild AFB and failed to level off at the proper altitude. The aircraft’s wheels were down and flaps retracted when the pilot unwittingly flew into the northeast side of the hidden mountainside at an elevation of 4,400 feet. Tragically, the plane was only 10 minutes from landing safely at the air base. The accident remains the worst aviation disaster in the history of Spokane County.
- First Lieutenant David E. Alexander, Forest Grove, Oregon
- Staff Sergeant Curtis B. Allred, Spanish Fork, Utah
- Staff Sergeant Wallace E. Asay, Lovell, Wyoming
- Airman First Class Willie L. Avery, Sacramento, California
- Senior Master Sergeant Lee Barney, Vienna, Louisiana
- Captain Reed Bartlett Jr., Steamboat Springs, Colorado
- Airman First Class Rubin Bayton, Brawley, California
- Airman First Class Sammy J. Bretz, Poteau, Oklahoma
- Airman First Class Gerald F. Burke, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
- Captain John J. Critzer, Stuebenville, Ohio
- Airman Second Class David Dolan, Bremerton, Washington
- Technical Sergeant John L. Duncan, South Charleston, West Virginia
- Staff Sergeant Robert K. Evans, Alvin, Texas
- First Lieutenant Dale D. Gray, Keensburg, Colorado
- Airman Third Class Robert G. Ivey, Portland, Oregon
- Captain Frank A. Johnson, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Captain Stephen F. Karlowitch, Nazareth, Pennsylvania
- Captain James F. Kaser, Lafayette, Indiana
- Master Sergeant Gordon F. Krah, Kenosha, Wisconsin
- Staff Sergeant Francis Kuban, Fairfield, Connecticut
- Captain Robert W. Lloyd, Alhambra, California
- Airman First Class Billy G. Lloyd, Walnut Hill, Illinois
- Staff Sergeant Ray A. Martin, Pontiac, Michigan
- Airman Second Class John L. Medland, Waterford, Wisconsin
- Technical Sergeant Donald L. Moon, Coopersville, Michigan
- Airman First Class Lauren M. Morey, Harbor Creek, Pennsylvania
- Airman First Class Ervin Paszek, Grenville, South Dakota
- Captain Richard R. Peckskamp, Fargo, North Dakota
- Airman Third Class Nicholas Posvenchuck, Chicago, Illinois
- Technical Sergeant Kenneth A. Quinn, Manchester, New Hampshire
- Airman First Class Lemwood Raby, Lansing, Michigan
- Airman First Class John R. Rackley, Willard, North Carolina
- Russell William Read, Shelbyville, Indiana, technical representative, AC Spark Plug Division, General Motors Corporation
- Captain Verle H. Rusk, Decatur, Illinois
- Staff Sergeant Leroy F. Seng, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
- Airman Second Class Samuel H. Shields, Elizabethton, Texas
- Airman First Class Douglas E. Sutton, Portland, Oregon
- Airman First Class Roger E. Tatum, Waldo, Arkansas
- Airman Second Class Martin Thrush, Perrington, Michigan
- First Lieutenant Gray E. Tillman, Columbus, Georgia
- Airman First Class Myron T. Umscheid, Emmetsburg, Iowa
- Private First Class Joseph Walker, U.S. Army, Kansas City, Missouri
- Technical Sergeant Leamon D. Wood, Fort Worth, Texas
- Captain Bobby R. Wright, Oxnard, California