Beech 18 AT-7 Navigator Copyright Museum of Flight - all rights reserved

January, 2008


a blog by Peter Stekel

FINAL FLIGHT is the story of four aviators lost in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks on November 18, 1942

FINAL FLIGHT, coming from Wilderness Press in 2010

Read more about FINAL FLIGHT here.

January 22, 2008

In September, 1948, Capt. Roy F. Sulzbacher with the 6th Army Memorial Division, in graves registration, stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco, led six "crack mountain troops" [as RW Koch and local newspapers called them] into Darwin Canyon [by way of Florence Lake] to recover the remains of the four aviators discovered the previous summer. Based on the 1947 report and the supposition that the Beech 18 was in one piece, encased in 14 feet of ice, the crew packed in portable pneumatic drills. Here and here are links to modern, gasoline-powered drills that could be similar to the ones they brought up to Mendel Glacier.

Bill Bond, one of the four UC students who discovered the wreck in 1947, was to guide them in. There was no space for him in the Army transport [they flew to Fresno from San Francisco, he recalls] so he had to take the bus. Somehow he got separated from his climbing gear and Capt. Sulzbacher's crew and never met up with them.

The Presidio crew was unsuccessful in their assignment and returned a week later on September 13. I spoke to Capt. Sulzbacher's widow, Julia, today, about her memories of that time. "He came back sunburned and tired and sweaty. I was glad he came home. That's as much as I can tell you. He didn't discuss what he did. He said he went up to find some bodies but he was not able to find anything." At 90 years of age, Julia Sulzbacher is still sharp as a tack ["I can hold my own," she said].

On September 30, Capt. Sulzbacher entered Letterman Hospital. "He was sick that night [September 29] and the next morning, he fell out of bed." The diagnosis was swift: Poliomyelitis, Bulbar Type. Spending a week at high elevation three weeks previous could not have been a good thing for a respiratory-type disease.

Mrs. Sulzbacher went to visit her husband. "He was not rational at the time. He didn't know me. So, I went home and went to bed and the next morning around 7:30 the hospital called me to say he had died. He was my whole world. He was quite a guy. He was a great young man and we were very much in love. We had a couple of kids and then, he was gone. He was gone before I could say goodbye."

She never remarried. "Why would I? I had two babies to think about. I raised them. I never found anybody I could compare him with. Though comparing wasn't fair."

With nothing holding her in San Francisco, she took her children and returned to her family in Rhode Island.

Nearly 60 years after her husband died, she is still deeply in love. I felt overwhelmed by Julia Sulzbacher' story. I told her I would be in San Francisco in late February and would visit her husband. She sounded happy about that.

Mrs. Sulzbacher promised to send me some photographs. She isn't sure if there will be any from her husband's trip to Mendel Glacier but she will send at least a portrait shot of Roy and something of them together. When they arrive, I will post them.

January 12, 2008

Added this page with videos of Darwin Canyon and the Mendel Cirque taken August, 2007.

I had a fascinating conversation this afternoon with Leonard L. Spivey. As a lieutenant with the 381st Bomber Group in the 535th Squadron, Mr. Spivey served as squadron navigator on B-17s in Europe, beginning in 1943. He was friends with another navigator, 2nd Lt. William A Bechter, who was killed in action attacking an airfield at Amiens-Glisy over France on July 14, 1943. Both men received their navigation training at Mather Field. Lt. Bechter kept a journal in which he mentions Lt. Gamber's ship as not returning from a training mission. According to Mr. Spivey, Lt. Bechter also took part in the search for 41-21079.

I asked Mr. Spivey what he thought of my idea that Lt. Gamber could have chosen to fly across the Sierra crest to Bishop because the weather was developing poorly in contrast to the good weather report he had been given that morning. Mr. Spivey said it was not part of navigation training to fly over the Sierra unless they were on a course for Utah. He felt that Lt. Gamber either was lost or blown off course. "They weren't where they were supposed to be. They should have been over the [San Joaquin] Valley. That is what their [i.e. navigation students] usual flight plan was." The usual route was to fly straight down the San Joaquin Valley or around the foothills.

Lt. Gamber's students were pilots on a navigation training exercise so I'm not quite ready to accept that they were lost and hadn't intended on changing their flight plan. But, I can still be convinced! I want to make sure I cover all possibilities of what may have happened before I make a commitment in print for Final Flight. You'll have to read the book for that!

One final comment from Mr. Spivey. "We had a lot of training accidents in World War II. Probably because of the pressure and the rush to train and prepare pilots and aircrews. That was the priority."


January 9, 2008

Taigh Ramey [see December blog entry] got me thinking that Lt. Gamber may not have flown into the Mendel Cirque wall but crashed into it. Running out of fuel at a high altitude would have been the reason.  I contacted Tom Betts,  a retired US Air Force Lt. Colonel who had experience investigating aircraft crashes. Maybe Tom would have some insight.

Checking my photos of the wrecked Beech, Tom told me, "It isnít clear to me that the aircraft impacted above the listed maximum speed of 195 knots," since, "at 195 knots or under, a six to seven thousand pound aircraft can result in a large "G" force on impact." Tom felt that if most of the debris were within a hundred yards of the engines, it would indicate that the aircraft went vertical or near vertical. Unfortunately, there wasnít any way for me to know this since 60+ years in the glacier had done too good a job in spreading everything around.

Tomís hints on how to determine if running out of fuel ["fuel starvation," he called it] could have caused the Beech to fall to earth didnít help either. "The best indication of fuel starvation would be the props. If the props were totally bent back like the dead fronds of a Palm tree - they were turning with the force of the engine." On the other hand, if the props were just bent, but look mangled, "they were only turning with the wind of flight," and the engines were not producing power. I would have loved to found the propellers when Michele and I were up there but - no dice. In fact, it was the total lack of any of the forward pieces of engine that made Taigh Ramey suspect a crash rather than the pilot flying into the cirque.

Tom challenged me to the same questions I had when I first began investigating what went wrong with 41-21079. "Why were they lost when they had a radio compass?" How could they have become lost if they were using their Automatic Direction Finder Navigation Set? Finally, he wanted to know, with a radio installed in the airplane, why didnít anybody hear a Mayday call?

Of course, based on his experience, Tom was better equipped to answer those questions. A radio compass doesnít give you much information on where you are if your navigator hasnít been keeping track of the aircraftís position. Which begs the question, with three navigators - though student pilots on a navigation training exercise - how could they get so far off course?

Having an Automatic Direction Finder Navigation Set wasnít really a big help. An ADF is still being used today [crude device that it is]. Itís a radio receiver that will "point an arrow" at the location of the ADF signal. Perhaps, following the wrong signal got them off-course. Thatís why I wanted to know about NDBs, or Non-Directional Beacons. An NDB was simply an AM radio beacon. Imagine dialing in to your favorite AM radio station. The closer you come to it, the stronger reception is. If they wanted to follow 160 but mistakenly dialed in 120, the plane would have been heading of course - barking up the wrong tree.

As for the radio, Tom pointed out that Lt. Gamber was a new pilot, himself. "New pilots never want to call for help if they think they can get themselves out of trouble without getting found out," he said. Added to that, "Their radios were crude and unreliable compared to today's equipment." They were also restricted to "line of sight" and, therefore exhibited limited range. As Tom said, "If they were flying near or under the peaks, the mountains would have blocked any signal."

There were two other points that Tom raised that probably had a greater impact on what caused the crash, though not helpful in explaining how they got lost. If external factors [e.g. poor weather, mechanical failure] in a crash are not considered, according to what Tom told me, aircraft crashes due to loss of situational awareness [i.e. getting lost over the Sierra] and vertigo, were the leading cause of non-combat aircraft losses during that era. And during our era as well. "I almost crashed a helicopter over the Pacific while doing a ship rescue at night. My helo was fully equipped with top of the line avionics yet the weak link in the system is the pilot, his eyes, and his inner-ear!"

Another major cause of both non-combat and combat crashes in WWII was hypoxia - a short word to mean, "not enough oxygen." Lt. Gamber and crew had supplemental oxygen. Nevertheless, according to Tom Betts, "Hypoxia was quite common in WWII as most combat aircraft were not pressurized," Tom said. This restricts flight to under ten or, sometimes, twelve thousand feet unless supplemental oxygen is used. "If the oxygen is contaminated [common back then] or they run out, flight above 10,000 feet is sure to be fatal."

And this might explain how the Beech became lost. Caught in the clouds, itís natural for a pilot to try climbing out of the muck. Being east coast boys, and not familiar with California weather, Gamber and crew had no idea that they would have to climb 40,000 feet if they expected to reach sunlight. "If the crew, an inexperienced 2nd Lieutenant instructor and three green cadets, became hypoxic, they wouldn't have known it and would have drifted off into a half awake stupor - flying off the planned route and into a rock."

January 7, 2008

The Airmen and the Headhunters by Judith M. Heimann is another book I've read this month. The story involves the survivors of a B-24 bomber shot down, November 16, 1944, over Dutch Borneo. Without the aid of the local people, known as Dayaks, living in the interior, there is no way the crew would have been able to survive. The Dayaks rescued the crew, fed and took care of them, and hid them from Japanese soldiers sent to capture or kill them.

The crewmembers flying on the B-24 were around the same ages as Lt. Gamber and Cadets Mortenson, Munn and Mustonen. It was great to read Judith Heimann's description of how tightly bonded bomber crews were to each other. It was also great to read her description of how difficult a time these men in their early 20s, during the 1940s, had in expressing themselves to each other - particularly during times of stress and danger. Though they had times when they weren't able to get along with each other, any immaturity was eventually washed away by the shared group experience of staying alive in a foreign and, oftentimes, hostile environment.

January 4, 2008

I just finished reading Green Mountains by Bernard O'Reilly. It's his account of rescuing two survivors of a commercial airline crash in the Australian bush.

In February, 1937, Stinson Airliner VH-UHH crashed. It was assumed that the pilot and co-pilot along with five passengers were lost. When a week of aerial and ground searches turned up nothing, it was assumed the Stinson was lost at sea.

Bernard O'Reilly, living with his family on a ranch in the McPherson Range, east of Brisbane, Australia, thought differently. Talking to people who had seen or heard the plane go overhead in his neighborhood, O'Reilly reasoned the aircraft must have gone down in the McPherson Range while on course to its destination in Lismore. Taking out an aerial survey map of the McPhersons, and using an ordinary foot rule and pencil, O'Reilly drew a straight line between the plane's destination in Lismore and where it had last been seen.

With very few provisions, O'Reilly walked off into the tropical rain forest behind his home in search of the Stinson's wreckage with the intent of providing an answer to the riddle of what happened to the airplane. In his account of his two day trek though a trailless and unexplored forest, he admits to not expecting to find survivors. That he did, over a week after the crash, caught the excitement and imagination of the nation.

O'Reilly's account of his search and the rescue of two survivors on the Lamington Plateau in the McPherson Range occupies the first 58 pages of the book. The remainder of the text is a fascinating combination of Australian natural history and personal family history. I highly recommend Green Mountains. All the area, including the O'Reilly home [now a guest lodge] are now located in Lamington National Park.

See here for contemporary photos and here for the official reports covering the crash.


Mendel Glacier, Kings Canyon National Park



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copyright 2010 Peter Stekel, all rights reserved

FINAL FLIGHT, coming from Wilderness Press in 2010