70 Years After Plane Crash, Pilot Finds Wreckage In San Diego Mountains
Seventy years ago, on March 3, 1946, an American Airlines plane crashed into the mountains just east of San Diego, killing all 27 on board. At the time, it was the deadliest airplane disaster in history. After rescue crews left the scene, nobody could find the site again for decades.
Poway resident David Lane made it his mission to find the wreck. He spent eight months searching.
“For me it’s not finding the actual aircraft," Lane said. “It’s the sleuthing, the detective work. That’s what’s fun."
Lane is a retired pilot who's intrigued by what causes airplanes to plummet. These days he spends much of his time hiking San Diego County’s mountains, looking for lost plane crash sites. When he can figure out what fatal error caused a past crash, Lane said it helps educate pilots on how to avoid those problems in the future.
“I was on that hillside looking out toward El Centro, and I just thought, 'How could this happen?' The plane crashed less than 200 feet above the ground, and they’re saying turbulence isn’t a factor? Down drafts weren’t a factor? I’m eight miles from the center of the airway. Me, being a pilot’s advocate, I’m just trying to answer some questions I have,” Lane said.
In the 1940s, the airline industry looked a lot different than it does today. American Airlines' 22-passenger DC-3, the "Flagship Baltimore,” was one of the biggest commercial airplanes out there. Its navigational instruments were also top of the line — but Lane thinks the radio compass was malfunctioning that day. The pilots were trying to manually stay on course.
“Problem is, the forecasted winds were much stronger than they thought, and so they were slowly drifting off the airway,” Lane said.
The plane was blown eight miles off course, and 1940s navigational instruments couldn’t read terrain elevation. This made suddenly rising peaks in the Laguna Mountains almost unavoidable obstacles.
The Flagship Baltimore crashed into a 5,800-foot peak that local residents of the Manzanita Indian Reservation called "Thing Mountain.” All 27 on board were killed: 24 passengers (two were infants on laps) and three crew. Twelve of them were WWII veterans, some returning home. One young mother was bringing her 2-month-old son to a Naval Air Base in Hawaii to meet his father for the the first time.
“I just can’t imagine what he went through when he heard the news” that he had lost his wife and child, Lane said.
The bodies and largest parts of the aircraft were removed. But “Thing Mountain” wasn't on any maps. For decades, nobody could find the crash site again.
Local wreck finders had no luck locating it using Google Earth and other topographical measurement tools. So last year, Lane decided to chase a rumor he’d heard of airplane parts at the end of a desert motorcycle trail. He followed the trail, then hiked for days up into the mountains above it.
“It was difficult to find the site because it was in a very compact area. It was on a very rugged hillside. The newspaper had conflicting information about the location, which is what threw everybody off.”
On Aug. 14, 2015, Lane solved the puzzle. He found a brush-covered area scattered with aluminum fragments.
“I was in denial that was it, because it just didn’t match the description,” Lane said. “But when I looked down and under a bush and picked up something that was silver-coated, and it said American Airlines Pepper — it was a pepper shaker — I thought, 'Oh, my gosh.'”
Lane took pictures of the site to post online.
Fellow wreck finder Pat Macha has started a website detailing recently found crash sites. The goal, Lane said, is that family members of crash victims will stumble upon the website and reach out to Macha and his crew. They offer to take family members to the previously-lost crash sites, to find closure. Macha calls it Project Remembrance. They’ve taken family members to 14 sites so far.
“The main impetus for the whole thing is to bring closure for other families who might want to know more about what happened to Uncle Charlie, for instance,” Lane said.
While he waits in hopes of a Flagship Baltimore family member coming forward, Lane said he misses the thrill of his first big find.
“Believe it or not, there’s almost a feeling of disappointment because this story had played out for me for eight months,” Lane said. “When I left, I had mixed feelings. I wished the journey would continue, but it didn’t, and for me, it was the end of the story. But it could go on from there.”
On Saturday, Lane plans to fly a friend’s plane along Flagship Baltimore’s flight path. He hopes to find more clues about the crash that could bring peace to family members of the victims.