Mount Mendel and Mendel Glacier meet the sky in Kings Canyon National Park. Four young airmen died at the glacier in a storm in 1942.
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Questions swirl around '42 crash on Sierra glacier
By Mark Grossi and Cyndee Fontana / The Fresno Bee
09/16/08 22:51:04
Standing on wind-swept ice at 12,500 feet, the mystery of a 1942 military plane crash at Mendel Glacier seems a lot less mysterious.

The glacier -- in a brutal mountain wilderness -- is where four young airmen died. Five years passed before hikers stumbled across the wreckage. More than six decades later, two bodies emerged from the melting glacier, eerily mummified in ice.

Back in 1942, military authorities suggested that the twin-engine AT-7 had flown 200 miles off course during a training mission on the west side of the Sierra Nevada. It vanished in a storm.

Today, based on location of the crash site at Mendel in Kings Canyon National Park, it seems more likely that the plane came from the east on an entirely different course.

In the process, the aviators probably encountered one of the biggest storms of the century.

The flight on Nov. 18, 1942, is just one casualty among many in the Sierra. Hundreds of military and private planes have crashed in the 400-mile-long mountain range, trapped by some of the world's most dangerous winds, sudden storms, no-way-out canyons or their own mistakes.

Like many lost flights, the 1942 crash left more questions than answers.

Were these four airmen really lost? Did the military lose track of them, not realizing they were on a different training flight on the other side of the mountains?

Looking for answers, The Bee hiked last week with Seattle writer Peter Stekel to the glacier as he continued researching a book on the crash. Stekel, who last year found the second ice mummy at Mendel Glacier, said there is more to this story than military accident and search reports show.

During the four-day hike to Mendel, Stekel said letters from the airmen mention destinations east of the Sierra. He said he believes they may have been flying a route that the military did not report.

He also said the pilot, 2nd Lt. William Gamber, probably was an elite aviator-instructor, not just another young flier.

Weather appears to be the biggest factor in the crash. Fresno meteorologist Steve Johnson said the wind in this storm probably peaked at 150 miles per hour, creating an epic blizzard as Gamber's plane approached.

Said Stekel, "Bill Gamber was a good pilot who was caught in a very bad situation."

Salt Lake or Lancaster?

Cadets John Mortenson, Ernest "Glenn" Munn and Leo Mustonen flew with Gamber to work on their navigational skills. The three cadets were together because the military grouped them alphabetically for training.

Just a few days before their final flight, the temperature had been in the 80s, according to meteorologist Johnson. Weather forecasting was still in its infancy, so there was a good chance that no one predicted the immense storm that was forming.

Gamber's flight began at 8:30 a.m. from Mather Air Base near Sacramento. The sketchy military accident report from the 1940s said the AT-7's course would take it over Los Banos and then back to a Northern California destination called Corning in Tehama County.

The military accident report does not explain how the flight became lost and wound up on Mendel Glacier.

But Stekel said there may have been some kind of mix-up in the military accounting of Gamber's flight. Other than the accident and search reports, the military records of the era were destroyed, so the plane's actual course cannot be confirmed.

Stekel said he thinks Gamber flew east out of the Central Valley toward other training destinations on the east side of the Sierra, such as Salt Lake City and Lancaster in the upper Mojave Desert.

The military report said the plane had five hours of fuel -- more than enough for the trip to Corning.

He said it seems unlikely that an experienced pilot flew around the Valley, lost his way so badly and nearly spun a U-turn in the mountains to strike Mount Mendel.

The more logical explanation would be a course through the Owens Valley, to the east, on a direct and tragic path to Mendel.

He said his scenario makes more sense than the military's explanation.

"I think it's a better theory than just saying the pilot and crew were lost," Stekel said.

Gamber had more than 700 hours of flying, and more than 500 hours in the AT-7, according to the military accident report. Experts say those totals are more than adequate to qualify Gamber as a well-trained pilot. Many pilots were sent into World War II with far fewer hours.

Stekel said the better military pilots often were not sent into battle during World War II. Instead, they were kept as instructors. He said Gamber probably was among them.

"Gamber knew where he was on Nov. 18," Stekel said. "He knew what he was doing."

Retired Lt. Col. Donald Satterthwait, 85, a Clovis resident who navigated combat missions in World War II, said he does not believe Gamber's flight could have been off course so far from its Corning destination.

"They had three navigational cadets aboard, and all of them were navigating with their own set of instruments," he said. "I don't think they all would get it wrong.

"Another explanation is that sometimes after missions, pilots would go on joy rides. But I'm not sure this was a joy ride if there was a big storm."

If Gamber were trying to cross the Sierra from east to west, Mammoth Pass would be a logical place, because it is a low spot in the range, experts say. But the storm would be an impenetrable wall at that location, Johnson said.

Gamber would have had to skirt the bad weather. He would have had to turn south toward Bishop.

Storm of the century

Meteorologist Johnson, who manages a Fresno cloud-seeding business called Atmospherics Inc., didn't use the words "perfect storm." But the five-day event in California during mid-November 1942 was pretty close.

The storm combined moisture from subtropical Pacific Ocean typhoons and a frigid weather system from Alaska -- a volatile one-two punch that often sets precipitation records and causes flooding. Such storms usually occur in January.

The day before the AT-7 crashed, the storm dumped 3.5 inches of rain at the south entrance to Yosemite National Park. The next day, the rainfall total at the gate was more than 7 inches, the all-time record for Nov. 18 at that location. It's a record that still stands.

"With that kind of rainfall, you know there were at least 8 feet or more of snowfall up above 10,000 feet," Johnson said.

November records were set all the way to Canada, where Edmonton recorded nearly 16 inches of snow.

During the storm siege from Nov. 14 to Nov. 19, moisture pumped into California from several typhoons, which are known as hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.

It was a record year for typhoons in the subtropics of the Pacific, said Johnson. There were 37 such storms during 1942 -- well beyond the average of 21.

The typhoon moisture was caught in the Earth's jet stream and taken thousands of miles east into California. That moisture and the cold front met with frightening results in the Sierra on Nov. 17 and 18.

The combination created what Johnson called "cyclogenesis" -- the birth of a new storm in the Sierra. It probably spawned much-feared winds, called mountain waves, and sideways mini-tornadoes, called rotors, which appear on the east side of the Sierra.

The extreme turbulence at the 13,000-foot elevation on Nov. 18 would be hard to describe, Johnson said.

The turbulence could easily rip apart a plane flying where the storm was born. The AT-7 was in that vicinity, traveling east to west right into the teeth of wind that might have been blowing 150 miles per hour.

Said Johnson: "They picked the wrong day to cross the Sierra."

Back at Mendel

In September 1947, when the plane's wreckage was first discovered and inspected, recovery crews found both engines buried in the ice. Only the nose section of one engine was visible in the upper third of the glacier.

Conditions at Mendel were considered so dangerous that the ground party spent only three hours at the crash site. There was far more ice on the glacier in the 1940s, making it more slippery than it is today.

Now, both engines sit mostly on top of the ice between rocks. Other parts of the plane have submerged in the glacier, which is shrinking but still estimated at more than 200 feet in depth.

Since 2007, more ice has melted at the glacier after a dry winter. In addition, the glacier's movement has broken one of the engines into two parts, which are about 50 yards from each other.

Last week, in an icy September breeze, Peter Stekel hustled around Mendel Glacier, searching for more clues to the crash in Kings Canyon National Park.

He found what looked like a section of a wing, as well as various other pieces of aluminum scrap. But he did not find the bodies of pilot Gamber or cadet Mortenson, the last two missing airmen.

Stekel said he isn't sure he will ever find their remains.

Later in camp at Darwin Canyon, Stekel said he could imagine the scene on that day when Gamber's plane cleared the spine of the Sierra, perhaps near Lamarck Col at 12,880 feet elevation.

Mount Mendel, which peaks at 13,710 feet, is about a mile west of the crest. In Darwin Canyon -- wedged between the crest and Mendel -- it is clear that Gamber would have had little time to react.

"I think he came right over the crest somewhere along in here, and that big wind hit them head on," he said. "It stalled his plane so he could not climb or maneuver around Mendel. He didn't have a chance."

The reporters can be reached at and or (559) 441-6330.
This is a governor on the engine of the AT-7 aircraft that crashed on Mendel Glacier in 1942.
This is a governor on the engine of the AT-7 aircraft that crashed on Mendel Glacier in 1942.