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

July, 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.

July 18
I've shifted away from writing Chapter 9 about the importance of wilderness and how wilderness affected the how and why and timing of the Beech 18's discovery. "Why not start at the beginning?" said a little voice in my head. That's why I've been working on Chapter 1 this week. It's called Mystery of the Ice Man and it allows me to lay out the basics of the story as it was first known and reported back in October 2005 when the body of Leo Mustonen was found in Mendel Glacier.

Whenever I think about Final Flight I always get back to what could have happened to cause the crash. A basic question has always been, How did an experienced pilot with three [albeit student] navigators get so lost?

In a letter to his mother back in Ohio a month before the crash, Glenn Munn writes about how well his navigator training is progressing. He admits that it isn't easy but he also says he is one of the top students and that he consistently gets high marks. I think, for that reason, that students or no students, Lt. Gamber might not have been so terribly lost. I'm not saying they meant to be where they ended up [that would be suicidal!] but I am developing the feeling that they had a good idea of where they were.

Knowing their predicament, they would not have been happy.

I've been re-reading the transcription I made from an interview I conducted with author and flyer, William Langewiesche on May 24, 2007. I asked him about would there have been panic in the cockpit of the Beech. "Weíre not talking about a scenario of panic. If theyíre that far off course, that out to lunch, it means they were deep in the weather for a long time. You canít sustain panic for very long. So, they must have been just wandering around. I mean, you could say, innocently."

What could make them get lost? "Itís totally unaccountable by the wind. Wind could not do that to you. Not in a Beech 18. No wind out there is going to be doing that to them, pushing them that far. Except for a navigation error of the steering kind - pointing that thing in the wrong direction, clearly. They werenít drifting."

"I would assume that the mood in the cockpit would be one of varying degrees of anxiety. Not panic. If they were flying, clearly, sustained in the clouds, they were in control, right? It would have... I believe, aroused varying levels of consternation; especially the people in the back." He said it would be hard to know what the pilot was thinking, "But itís very possible that he would have been completely unaware."

The important thing to remember is that Lt. Gamber was only experienced as an VFR [Visual Flight Rules] pilot because he had zero hours of IFR [Instrument Flight Rules] training. It's inconceivable for me to think Gamber would have been flying around for many hours in the clouds when he lacked the training. It seems to me that if he saw bad weather or clouds moving in that he would turn around and go home.

Langewiesche spoke about that too. "You can see the weather coming at you up ahead. It never takes you by surprise. The weather doesnít come up fast around here, people say. You know what is happening. You see it. And if the weather is getting worse and worse, maybe clouds are blowing in, maybe you see some rain falling in the hills. Or the clouds are lowering and youíre descending with it."

Then again it's always possible to get in trouble because being in trouble is not an obvious threshold. "Flight is a forward progression. More than a car. You canít stop. You canít pull off to the side. You have to keep going. In some direction. It takes enormous and surprising mental energy - and I know this for, as a fact - to make the decision, especially for beginners, to deviate or turn around. And thatís how people get in trouble. They allow themselves, through basic inertia, or the mental momentum of flight... they allow themselves to be flown by the airplane, rather than them flying the airplane into trouble. Itís narrower and narrower and narrower and suddenly: theyíre in trouble."

And once a pilot is in trouble, "It either takes the form of hitting the ground - flying into a mountain, or something - or, in this case, itís getting buried in clouds."

So, I'm beginning to think they weren't lost - they knew where they were - somewhere over the Sierra Nevada. Otherwise, there would have been no reason to be as high as they were - bad weather would have driven them  lower in altitude and not higher. But they didn't know how to get home because they had crossed that threshold of trouble.

July 11

"Facts may not turn out to be what they seem. Even the most persuasive case may fall apart when a few more facts are known."

Karl Sabbath in A Rum Affair

I spoke with Mark Grossi, from the Fresno Bee, this morning. He and a photographer are planning a trip into Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks for an extended article Mark is writing about plane crashes in the Sierra. It looks like we'll be able to meet each other in Darwin Canyon in September to discuss Final Flight.

Mark is one of the first people who wrote factually and accurately about the October, 2005, discovery and identification of Leo Mustonen.

This morning Mark and I discussed whether it is possible to find any more members of the crew. At one time I thought it was pretty amazing to find Cadet Mustonen and even more amazing Glenn Munn was found - and only about 100' apart! I still think this but I am starting to believe in the possibility of finding evidence of the rest of the crew.

When I first began this project in 2005 I was convinced that Leo Mustonen was found because he had to be in the back of the airplane when it crashed. After finding Glenn Munn, I reasoned the same way. I assumed Lt. Gamber and Cadet Mortenson were in the cockpit and were mangled in the wreck. Why else would Mortenson's name badge be found, not attached to his body, lying on the ice when Bond, Hodges and West came upon the crash site in 1947?

A couple of crash investigators have disabused me of those assumptions. Basically, when an airplane, traveling a high speed, collides with the earth, the aircraft and everything else becomes like the bellows of an accordion. Stuff gets thrown all over the place. On the other hand, if the airplane skitters across the ground it breaks up into many pieces - which are scattered all over the place.

Bill Bond told me he remembered the wreckage being like an accordion and I believe him. But, after reviewing the photographs Roy Sulzbacher took in 1948, I feel there is a chance to find more wreckage and, maybe - just maybe - more of the crew. When I return to the glacier this year, and based upon Capt. Sulzbacher's photos, I will know exactly where to look.

We'll have to wait and see whether Karl Sabbath's observation holds for me and my research on the glacier this fall. I'm sure it will hold true in many other of my endeavors with this book!

BTW - I'm also beginning to feel that Lt. Gamber was not lost. I'll let you wonder about this for a while.

July 7
I have completed the prologue for Final Flight - four paragraphs. You can read it HERE [pdf] or HERE [html]. I am currently working on Chapter 9 - The Wilderness.
July 2
THIS 4:49 WMV May 16 broadcast about Glenn Munn, Blond Bomber Comes Home, comes from WBNS 10TV in Columbus, OH and was provided to me by Angela An, News Anchor and Reporter for the station. It features interviews with two of Glenn's sisters, Jeanne Pyle and Sarah Zeyer, as well as with me along with several photos I took of the glacier in August, 2007. See the same thing, below, on YouTube

July 1
The current edition of the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks summer guide contains a short front page article by me on the topic of wilderness and how it relates to the Ice Man mystery. See a pdf version of the article HERE. There is also an oblique aerial view of Mendel Glacier, Darwin Glacier and Darwin Canyon displayed in the article.

Mendel Glacier, Kings Canyon National Park



December November October September August July June May April March February January


December November October September August July June May April March February January    


December November October September

copyright 2010 Peter Stekel, all rights reserved

FINAL FLIGHT, coming from Wilderness Press in 2010



Final Flight, Mendel, Mendel Glacier, Sierra Nevada, Peter Stekel, Leo Mustonen, Ernest Munn, William Gamber, John Mortenson, Kings Canyon National Park, Beech 18, AT-7, plane crash, mummy, JPAC, Wilderness Press, finalflightthebook, blog, 41-21070, airplane, lenticular cloud, hypoxia, navigation, wilderness