This month is a look at some of the airplane accidents and crashes in Socorro County over the years.
"Secret" Plane Crash At Socorro
Perhaps the most remembered airplane crash was a large aircraft that ran off the end of the Socorro runway on Aug. 8, 1985. The aircraft, dangling on the edge of a 20-foot deep arroyo, was a spectacle for Socorroans for many months.
The plane, owned by the Department of Energy and operated by EG&G, landed at the Socorro airport and simply ran out of runway. Norton Euart, assistant airport manager, watched as the plane run out of pavement at the north end of the runway. The turbine-powered Convair crashed through a fence, stopped when its nose hit the dirt, collapsed the forward landing gear and tore off both propellers.
The aircraft came to rest with its tail high in the air and its nose pointing into the arroyo, which was easily seen from Socorro. Fortunately, none of the crew was injured, in spite of one of the propellers having cut deep into the plane.
The plane was filled with "very sensitive equipment," for which EG&G declined to state its purpose. The DOE paid for off-duty policemen to guard the "secret plane," as it was locally dubbed, until the millions of dollars of classified equipment were removed. The guards also chased away hundreds of Socorroans who arrived to do a little investigating on their own. (The author was one).
After the equipment was removed, fuel tanks drained and the plane stabilized, several "professionals" were contacted to move the plane. Most refused when they saw the broken plane for fear of causing more extensive damage. Baca's Wrecker Service offered to pull the aircraft out of the arroyo, and they were finally hired to do.
Sonny and Avelino Baca went to work shoring up the fuselage with metal beams, railroad ties and steel cables. Once in place, the plane was pulled back onto the runway and towed to a staging area where repairs would be made.
The damaged plane was at the Socorro airport under repair for almost a year before it was again airworthy. Then one day, the secret plane was gone, flown to Tucson for final repairs.
Airborne Horror Above Socorro
On Nov. 3, 1973, National Airlines Flight 27 departed Houston, Texas, with 116 passengers and 12 crewmembers. Their flight would take them over Carlsbad, Socorro and the Plains of San Agustin enroute to Las Vegas, Nev., a three-hour flight. Flight 27 leveled off at 39,000 feet with an airspeed of 300 mph.
According to the pilot, they were over Socorro about 4:40 p.m. A few minutes later, he engaged the automatic throttle control to slow his airspeed a bit. A few seconds later, the crew heard and felt an explosion, the plane began to severely vibrate and they lost electrical power in the cockpit.
Capt. William Broocke and flight engineer Golden Hanks immediately initiated a procedural emergency descent and headed for Albuquerque. The sudden drop in altitude triggered the onboard transponder to send a warning message, which was received in Albuquerque, that an emergency situation west of Socorro was in progress.
As the pilot struggled to control the plane, flight engineer Hanks noticed oil pressure, temperature and fire alarms originating from engine No. 3. He activated the fuel shut off valves and discharged two fire extinguisher bottles into the No. 3 engine. Then, everyone's ears began popping — a sign the aircraft was depressurizing.
While this was going on, first officer Eddie Saunders tried to restore power to the cockpit when temperature and oil pressures in engine No. 1 began to deteriorate as well. At 4:45 p.m., with the radio restored with emergency battery power, Capt. Broocke was finally able to report the nature of the inflight disaster and receive emergency landing instructions for Albuquerque.
Things were even worse in the passenger compartment. Shortly after the initial explosion, the cabin began to fill with a gray-blue smoke. Then, fragments of the disintegrating jet engine punctured the fuselage, which caused rapid depressurization. Passengers gasped for air and coughed from the smoke before the emergency oxygen masks fell from the ceiling. The flight attendants courageously ensured everyone was in their seats, seat belts on and properly using their emergency oxygen masks.
Suddenly, a piece of the engine fan assembly broke loose, tore into the plane and blew out one of the plane's windows. The passenger sitting in seat 17H was sucked out of the plane through the missing window for and fell more than 25,000 feet to a certain, grueling death on the Plains of San Agustin.
The NTSB (National Traffic Safety Board) accident report describes the loss of the passenger as follows: "The missing passenger was forced through the window near seat 17H. According to a witness (a nearby passenger), the occupant of the seat was partially forced through the window opening and was temporarily retained in this position by his seat belt. Efforts to pull the passenger back into the airplane were unsuccessful, and the occupant of seat 17H was subsequently forced entirely through the cabin window and ejected from the plane."
Capt. Broocke and crew managed to maneuver the heavily damaged DC-10 to Albuquerque, and dropped from 39,000 feet to 8,000 feet in less than 10 minutes. Lowering the landing gears by hand, they landed safely on Runway 26 at 4:59 p.m., just 19 minutes after engine No. 3 failed. The flight attendants immediately inflated the emergency evacuation slides for the passengers and crew to escape the smoke-filled plane.
Twenty-four passengers were treated by awaiting medical personnel from Kirtland Air Force Base for smoke inhalation, ear problems and abrasions. The flight crew and attendants were commended for safely landing the plane, their actions during the emergency and saving the lives of 127 people. It was while on the runway that Capt. Broocke learned of the fatality of passenger 17H.
Upon landing, the severity of the damaged plane was realized. Much of engine No. 3 was missing. Airplane parts lost in flight, such as the nose cowl and inlet duct, engine containment ring and the first stage fan blades, were later located and recovered in the desert between Socorro and west of Magdalena. The fuselage was scarred with numerous holes and gouges — and one missing window.
The NTSB determined the accident was caused by the automatic throttle control causing an unexpected acceleration of engine No. 3 to an abnormally high speed. The jet engine fan blades made contact with the engine housing, which caused the disintegration of the engine.
The report concluded, "The precise reason or reasons for the acceleration and the onset of the destructive vibration could not be determined conclusively."
What about the poor missing passenger from seat 17H? The 1975 report summarized: "The New Mexico State Police and local organizations searched extensively for the missing passenger. A computer analysis was made of the possible falling trajectories, which narrowed the search pattern. However, the search effort was unsuccessful and the body of the passenger was not recovered."
Local rancher Buddy Major remembers a ranch hand on the Field Ranch, near Alamo, finding sunglasses and a smoking pipe, later identified by the family as belonging to the missing passenger. But, no body was found.
This inflight disaster, which nearly claimed the lives of 128 people, occurred between Socorro and the Plains of San Agustin.
Two years after the incident, construction began on the Very Large Array radio telescope. While building the tracks north of U.S. 60, the VLA track crew made a gruesome discovery by uncovering human remains. The Office of Medical Investigator was contacted and removed the remains to Albuquerque for identification and cause of death. After nearly a year, it was determined the skeletal remains found on the VLA north arm was that of passenger 17H of Flight 27. The cause of death was fairly obvious. The remains were returned to the family in Texas.
The single in-flight fatality is indeed a bizarre chapter in Socorro's history.
North Baldy B-17 Crash
The most well-known plane crash in Socorro County is that of a B-17 that crashed near Magdalena on Oct. 15, 1942. A detailed history of this plane accident, "The Last Flight of B-17 No. 9161," appeared in the Jan. 6, 2007, issue of the Chieftain by this author.
The B-17 training mission was to simulate bombing targets at Carrizozo, Vaughn, Albuquerque and, finally, the airfield at Magdalena. Most everyone in Magdalena that evening remembers the B-17. The ear-splitting roar of the four enormous nine-cylinder engines, flying over the village at only 700 feet, would have been hard to miss.
After "bombing" Magdalena, the pilot pushed his throttles forward for maximum power, knowing he had only a few miles to climb more than 3,000 feet to clear the 9,500 summit of North Baldy for his Alamogordo return. Magdalenans listened to the engines as they strained on the climb — and then, the engines went silent. The B-17 struck North Baldy Peak about 30 feet from the summit, and killed all nine airmen onboard. The summit of North Baldy is 9,852 feet, about 200 feet higher than the training maps showed at the time, which was one of the presumed causes of the unfortunate accident.
The Army recovered the bodies and all valuable components from the crash site, such as the engines, cockpit instruments and the highly classified Norden bombsight. The fuselage, wings and the tail section remained on the mountain, in pieces, for years. Eventually, they were hauled away for the salvage value. Today, only small pieces of the crash remain near the summit of North Baldy.
However, this was not the only B-17 to crash in Socorro County.
Another B-17 Down
On July 12, 1972, a forest fire began on the east slopes of the Magdalena Mountains. The fire was located in rugged terrain a few miles west of Torreon Springs on the Pound Ranch. It wasn't a particularly large fire. A ground crew comprised of 16 forest service workers and local men were sent to fight the blaze.
However, the Forest Service became concerned the fire might spread overnight to a region of tall pines not far away. Hoping to control the fire with only one flight, they called in a B-17 air tanker stationed at Silver City.
The B-17 arrived at the fire about 6:15 p.m. Local rancher Tom Olney was one of the men on the fire line and witnessed the slurry run. At 6:20 p.m., the plane dropped a load of slurry over the fire when the left wing tip struck a tree and forced the right wing high into the air. The pilot appeared to regain control of the plane when he noticed another ridge in front of him. To avoid colliding with the mountain, the pilot turned sharp to the left, which caused the B-17 to "flip over."
The B-17 air tanker crashed into the mountainside nose first and upside down. Killed instantly in the crash was pilot Robby Hillida, of Alamogordo, and copilot Mark Sloan Jr., of Las Cruces.
Sheriff Tom Zimmerman, State Police Sgt. Don Novak and Dr. Signey Auerbach were flown to the scene by a State Police helicopter. Arriving about 7:45 p.m., they began their investigation. Dr. Auerback pronounced both crewmen dead at the scene. Returning the following morning, they continued their investigation. A Defensor-Chieftain reporter was brought along to take photographs of the wreckage, several of which appeared in the July 20 issue of the paper.
Both Hollida and Sloan were experienced pilots and learned to fly at a young age, and both were full-fledged commercial pilots.
This B-17 was built by Douglas Aircraft in 1944, did not see any war service, and transferred to the U.S. Navy as a PB-1W airborne radar plane in 1946. In 1958, it was sold to Cia Mexicano Aero Foto in Mexico. After a couple of other brief owners, it was sold to Black Hills Aviation in Alamogordo, where it was converted to an air tanker for use by the Forest Service, stationed at Silver City, during the fire season.
Three Killed in Socorro
On Dec. 8, 1977, a resident on Evergreen Drive in Socorro saw a very low-flying aircraft north of his home about 9:40 p.m. The witness stated the plane made a turn as if returning to the airport then suddenly dived at a sharp angle towards the ground.
The eyewitness told the Chieftain, "... it was dark and the aircraft disappeared from view but then (I) heard a thud, which made me sure that it had crashed." He immediately contacted the city police.
Others along Evergreen Drive also heard the plane's low altitude and believed it crashed near the mountain.
City Police Officers Larry Gacanich and Bill Hinz were the first to arrive, driving around the area looking for an "aircraft down." Socorro Search and Rescue was called, which consisted of local New Mexico Tech students and amateur radio operators, who immediately mobilized a full-blown search. The plane's emergency beacon was activated upon impact. However, they could not get an accurate fix due to the beep signal bouncing off nearby "M" Mountain.
By midnight, the plane was being searched for by police officers Johnny Trujillo, Joel Lirot, Sgt. Alfred Jojola, Police Chief Jim Naranjo, State Police Officers Bob Taylor and Sgt. Don Novak, and Sheriff Ramon "Sonny" Baca and Deputies Charles Abalos and Ray Spurgin. This was an extensive ground search operation to find the plane and any survivors. Unlike most plane crashes, there was no explosion, fire or smoke to follow.
In the wee hours of the morning, another direction finder from the Albuquerque SAR to better pinpoint the emergency signals was requested. The Albuquerque team arrived about 5 a.m., and the plane was located at 5:40 a.m., just as the sun was coming up.
The white and orange Cessna 182 was found near the base of "M" Mountain. There were no survivors among the pilot and two passengers onboard. Officer Gacanich described the crash scene to the Chieftain: "... debris from the wreckage was strewn over a 525 feet by 250 feet area. The engine was found 156 feet north of the main wreckage."
Gacanich estimated that the plane had flown under the high voltage lines, in the dark, as an aerial stunt when the left wing tip contacted the ground and tore off the wing. The rest of the plane plowed into the base of the mountain about 120 mph.
The NTSB investigation concurred. The report cited: "The causes of the accident was due to an improperly licensed pilot who misjudged altitude and clearance, failure to avoid aeronautical obstructions, and lack of judgment due to alcohol impairment." The pilot's blood alcohol level was measured at .21, according to the NTSB.
Crash at Magdalena Fairgrounds
The Jan. 31, 1980, Chieftain reports: "A two-engine plane crash in Magdalena yesterday (Jan. 30) claimed the life of (a Socorro pilot and injured two others). The crash occurred in the rodeo arena of the Magdalena Fairgrounds. Witnesses claimed they saw men fleeing from the scene to the north."
The plane crash in Magdalena was a well-witnessed event, including by two busloads of workers from the VLA returning to Socorro. The fairgrounds arena, the burning debris and the thick smoke was easily seen from U.S. 60 entering Magdalena.
The emergency beacon on the plane was activated, which quickly brought State Police and the Socorro SAR to the scene. However, when they arrived, they found the plane abandoned except for the body of the pilot. Two of the passengers were later found and taken to Socorro General Hospital with lacerations, contusions and burns. They never revealed much about the nature of the crash or the identity of the fourth passenger.
This "aircraft down" seemed cloaked with mystery, and remains so today.
A week later, the Chieftain reported, "Police are still searching for a fourth person said to have been aboard the twin-engine plane that crashed in Magdalena. Sheriff Sonny Baca said the man fled on foot in a northeasterly direction following the crash. Baca said no one knows the man's identity or his whereabouts. The unknown survivor allegedly chartered the flight."
To this day, the identity of the "fourth man," or the purpose of chartering the plane, remains unknown.
According to the NTSB investigation, the two-engine Aero Commander 560 landed near the fairgrounds, not on the nearby available runway, for unknown reasons. Upon takeoff, the plane struck a pole and "somersaulted" into the fairgrounds arena, where the plane broke up and caught fire. The plane was totally destroyed.
Plane Crash on Mount Withington
Two years after the Magdalena fairgrounds crash, the area claimed another plane — in fact, two. The first one crashed near Mount Withington on Friday afternoon, March 26, 1982 — an overcast and drizzly day. At 4:11 p.m., the pilot reported light icing on the wings and requested a change in altitude, which was granted. That was the last transmission from the plane.
The NTSB theorized that icing on the wings caused the pilot to drop in altitude, aggravated by the plane being 400 pounds overweight. Due to the overcast skies and degrading weather conditions, the pilot did not see Mount Withington and collided with the mountain. Killed in the crash were the pilot and his wife, along with four friends. All were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, returning to Salt Lake City from missionary service in Mexico.
The emergency locator beacon activated and alerted the Socorro SAR that a plane was down. The inclement weather prevented air support, which left finding the missing plane up to ground crews. Nearly 40 SAR personnel from Socorro and Albuquerque scoured the mountain throughout the night.
Saturday morning, with clearing skies, a helicopter from Kirtland AFB joined the search and located the plane in rugged terrain on Mount Withington, about noon, and notified ground crews of the position.
In the meantime, the helicopter pilot decided to land to conserve fuel should they be needed to rescue survivors. While setting down in a clearing, the rescue helicopter crashed for unspecified reasons and was a totally destroyed. Fortunately, the crew of five only received minor injuries and were themselves rescued some time later.
Due to the loss of the helicopter, it took ground crews many hours to reach the crash site and discover there were no survivors. Evacuation of the bodies began Sunday morning after Assistant Medical Investigator Gary Jaramillo and officials from OMI arrived at the scene.
The Chieftain reported: "It took monumental effort on the part of ground crew teams to recover the bodies of six victims whose twin engine Beechcraft Baron aircraft crashed last Friday."
It was a grueling task bringing the six bodies down the steep mountain to the nearest Forest Service road.
Mount Withington claimed two planes and six lives that day. The wreckage of both planes were removed, leaving little at the sites today.
A Close Call
In April 1983, a man and wife were on a cross country flight for a vacation. On April 18, they approached the Socorro airport from the north for gas before completing the last leg of their flight to Las Cruces. The pilot was making his final approach when the plane's engine suddenly sputtered and stopped. The plane literally "fell out of the sky" and made a crash landing near the Socorro High School.
The pilot and his wife were treated for their injuries and released from Socorro General Hospital later that day. The Federal Aviation Administration investigated the crash and called the damage to the plane "extensive." They also determined there was not a drop of fuel in the wing tanks.
In short, the single-engine Piper Commanche simply ran out of gas less than a mile from the pumps at the Socorro airfield. Running out of gas in an airplane is not a good thing.
HC-130 Crashes Near Magdalena
The largest loss of life from an air accident in Socorro County occurred on April 3, 1986.
An Air Force HC-130, carrying 11 crew members, crashed in a ball of flames in a desolate area north of Magdalena, killing all onboard.
The HC-130 is a version of the C-130 cargo plane, modified for use by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard for search-and-rescue operations.
About 11:20 a.m., Joe Sanchez, manager of the LaJencia Ranch, told the Chieftain, "We saw a big ball of smoke, then another one, then a big ball of fire. It was a big old explosion."
Sanchez reported the crash to the Magdalena Fire Department, which responded with a fire truck and rescue vehicle.
"Once on the scene, the total destruction and burning pieces of the plane was evident," the Chieftain reported. "They made no effort to extinguish the fire and preserve the crash for investigators, searching for survivors instead."
Lt. Marcia Anderson, public affairs officer at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, stated, "... the plane was on a low-level navigation training flight when it crashed in the broken terrain. A burned swatch, still lined with scattered chunks of metal, runs up the side of a canyon for about a mile. The plane was traveling northeasterly when it crashed north of Magdalena. The Forest Service was notified when the fire began to spread to the nearby brush."
Typical of most military crashes, the cause of the accident was not reported. The Air Force spent weeks removing the debris from the scene, located within the Cibola National Forest in the Bear Mountains.
Like most airplane crashes, it was an unfortunate loss of life.
Magdalena Claims Another One
An experienced pilot departed Panama City, Fla., on July 19, 1995, on a personal flight in his Piper PA-32R turbo Saratoga plane for Las Vegas, Nev.
Observing building thunderstorms west of the Rio Grande, the pilot requested a change in altitude from 14,500 feet to 18,000 feet, which was approved by Albuquerque air traffic control.
At 2:02 p.m., the pilot requested to turn to the south for weather avoidance. Albuquerque, noticing his trek toward South Baldy Peak, asked the pilot how much farther south he planned to deviate. The pilot responded he was turning to the northwest. This would place his position near Magdalena. This was the pilot's last transmission. At 2:18 p.m., air traffic controllers logged the plane at 17,800 feet; 48 seconds later, he was at 15,000 feet, which indicated an extreme descent. At 2:33 p.m., an employee at the fire lookout tower on Mount Withington reported seeing smoke on the north end of the San Mateo Mountains.
Forest Service personnel from Magdalena responded to the burning hillside of mostly scrub cedar. There, they also found a burning fuselage and right wing of a Piper airplane. The left wing and cockpit were found nearly a mile away, a clear sign the aircraft broke up in flight.
The NTSB stated that at the time of the crash, thunderstorm cells had grown with tops at 35,000 feet to more than 46,000 feet in less than 10 minutes. The National Weather Service issued an alert for two thunderstorms in the region that were "very strong and developing rapidly" with extreme turbulence. The NTSB cited the cause of the accident was due to the plane getting caught in the extreme convective buildup of the storm, which literally broke the plane apart while in flight.
What About Ladron Peak?
A Piper Tri-pacer airplane with a pilot and two passengers departed Albuquerque on Jan. 24, 1965, for Cliff. It never arrived. In spite of numerous air searches by the Civil Air Patrol, the New Mexico Air National Guard and a pilot who was a brother of one of the missing, the plane was never found. The search was concentrated over the Black Range and the Gila, where the plane was believed to have gone down.
In early April, the FAA reviewed the case and suggested a search of several key areas, including the largely ignored area around Ladrone Peak. On Thursday, April 15, three months after the plane was reported missing, an FAA search plane spotted a burned area on the north side of Ladron peak.
Members of the Civil Air Patrol, led by State Policeman Sam Chavez of Socorro, drove as close as they could by automobile then began the climb up the mountain. Upon reaching the wreckage on Friday morning, they found the bodies of the three men in the twisted and burned wreckage from three months before. It had crashed on the north ridge of the peak, which has an elevation of 9,214 feet, and slid down a steep slope to where it was found. No cause for the accident was given.
Ladron Peak is not the only crash that has eluded searchers for months.
Missing Plane Near Pie Town
On April 26, 1998, a Cessna T310R departed Carson City, Nev., for Las Cruces. Only the pilot, a former Marine helicopter pilot, was aboard. He was tracked by Los Angeles Center into eastern Arizona, where he was transferred to Albuquerque Center. At 4:09 p.m., the twin-engine Cessna disappeared from Albuquerque's radar near Springerville, Ariz.
It was assumed that he made an unscheduled landing stop. However, at 6:05 p.m., the pilot's wife reported him overdue and the FAA issued an alert notice for a missing plane.
According to the Albuquerque radar, the plane was flying at 13,500 feet at 185 knots (about 200 mph). At 4:10 p.m., the plane suddenly dropped below 10,000 feet and vanished from radar.
An extensive aerial and ground search was conducted between Springerville and Pie Town. The search was called off after several weeks when nothing was found. At this point, the FAA hoped the plane would eventually be found by a rancher or hunter, as is often the case.
Then, on Sept. 19, the Chieftain announced: "Two hunters in the Sawtooth Mountains northeast of Pie Town helped further the five-month investigation into the April disappearance of a Cessna airplane.
"The hunters found the wreckage of the plane Sunday morning. The body of the pilot was also located within the
wreckage. The plane left Carson City on April 26, and disappeared a short time later."
The NTSB accident report stated the plane struck a rock face on the Sawtooth Mountains at the 8,700-foot level about 2 miles east of Pie Town. The impact site was about 50 miles north of the direct route to Las Cruces, and 75 miles east of where it disappeared from radar, which suggested the pilot might have been avoiding building thunderstorms along the direct path. Impact marks on the rocks indicated he was in a level, normal flight when he collided with the mountain — suggesting, perhaps, he did not see the mountain — possibly due to low-level clouds.
The pilot was a successful businessman in Mesquite, and left behind a family. The former Marine was buried with honors at Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso, Texas.
Fire on the Double H Ranch
It was a pleasant day on the Plains of San Agustin on Nov. 8, 2005, when Bill Ferranti, ranch foreman on the Double H Ranch between the VLA and Datil, noticed smoke coming from the nearby Gallinas Mountains. He figured it was an unattended campfire that got out of control and called the Forest Service about 1:30 p.m. A Forest Service firefighting crew and the State Police arrived about 2:30 p.m. Ferranti escorted them to the site of the fire.
As the firefighters began extinguishing the fire, they found two airplane wings and a propeller. The fuselage, containing the body of the pilot, was found about 150 feet away. The plane was later identified by investigators as a Beechcraft Bonanza A36 single-engine airplane — although no plane had yet been reported missing.
Four days later, when the Chieftain went to press, the identity of the pilot was still unknown. Then, State Police Capt. Jesus Orozco received a call from a Phoenix-area airport that they were looking for a plane that had not yet arrived.
This allowed some pieces of the puzzle to come together to identify the pilot as 77-year old "Hap" Canning, a well-known rancher from Capitan. He had departed for Phoenix, Ariz., on Nov. 8, without filing a flight plan. Canning had also once owned and opereated the Adobe Ranch in Socorro County and was well known by area ranchers.
The NTSB confirmed that Canning was an experienced pilot in good standing with more than 11,000 hours of flight time. The autopsy suggested he might have suffered a heart attack, although the actual cause of the crash, and the loss of a well-liked rancher, was "inconclusive."
The Crash of TWA Flight 260
This crash did not occur in Socorro County, but has a strong Socorro connection. Many Socorroans know of this crash. It is the plane wreckage one can see from the Sandia Tramway in Albuquerque.
On just about every trip up the tram to the summit, passengers will spot the wreckage and ask, "What's the story behind that crashed plane?"
Here is the story, derived from the NTSB accident report and a very detailed account in 1955 Socorro Chieftains.
Early Saturday morning, Feb. 19, 1955, Dr. Robert Balk departed his Socorro home to catch a 7 a.m. flight out of Albuquerque. Dr. Balk was a well-known economic geologist on the staff of the Bureau of Mines. He was enroute to a conference in Washington, D.C., to attend a meeting of the National Research Council, for which he was an adviser.
Dr. Balk boarded the 7 a.m. flight. The Martin 4-0-4 took off from the Albuquerque airport for Santa Fe, an intermediate stop.
Immediately after takeoff, air traffic controllers radioed the pilot, "ATC clears TWA 260 for approach at the Santa Fe Airport via Victor 19, climb northbound on the back course of the ILS localizer."
This instructed the flight to use "instrument landing" (ILS) due to the overcast and stormy conditions in the area. The pilot acknowledged their clearance to proceed to Santa Fe. This was the last that was heard from the TWA flight. A few hours later, Mrs. Balk received a phone call from TWA informing her that her husband's plane had been reported missing.
The Socorro Chieftain tells the rest of the story the best: "Under the direction of
Stephen Reynolds, Lamar Kempton and Francis Bushman, cars, equipment and manpower were mobilized at NMIMT. By 3:00 a.m. Sunday morning over 30 Socorro men were on their way to Albuquerque to join the search. The men from Socorro joined the search teams that fanned out from Albuquerque from Gallup and from north to Santa Fe to the Rio Puerco south of Belen (in search of the plane).
"About 10 a.m. Sunday it was reported that a cargo plane returning to Los Alamos from Albuquerque had spotted new wreckage just south of the KOB TV tower on Sandia Crest and was circling the area until Army planes could reach the scene. A helicopter soon was able to get close enough to make positive identification of the plane.
"Ground parties sprang immediately into action. Among the first to reach the wreckage area was Dr. Clay Smith, professor of geology at NMIMT. Search efforts were hampered by the difficult terrain and a light snow cover on the ground. Soon, the sun set and temperatures quickly dropped.
"A news correspondent in Albuquerque commented most favorably on the NMIMT search personnel, reporting the Socorro contingent was the first to arrive on the scene and reported that not one survived the accident.
"At the time of his death, Balk was engaged in a number of important projects. He was regarded as an outstanding authority of Precambrian formations. He is survived by his widow, Dr. Christina Balk with a distinguished professional career in her own right."
The NTSB accident report states that the flight turned northward, toward Santa Fe, as directed. Their track would have taken them about 10 miles west of the Sandia Mountains, almost totally obscured by clouds at the time of the flight. At 7:12 a.m., the plane's terrain-warning alarm sounded. Looking out the window, both pilots must have gasped when they saw the vertical cliffs of the Sandias a few hundred yards from their right wing tip. The pilot put the plane into a heavy left turn, not realizing he was in a canyon. At 7:13 a.m., the plane struck a vertical cliff of Domingo Baca Canyon (now referred to as "TWA Canyon"). Killed in the crash were three crew members and the 13 passengers onboard — including Socorro's Dr. Balk.
Originally, the cause of the crash was blamed on "pilot error." However, based on the fact they were so quickly 10 miles off course, it was suspected the plane's compass may have malfunctioned and the cause was changed to "deviation from course for reasons unknown."
It is the policy of the FAA and the NTSB to remove all wreckage from a crashed airplane to reduce the environmental impact and hazards to the area (like to snooping humans), and also so a crash site won't be reported in later years and trigger a false search-and-rescue operation to a forgotten downed airplane.
However, in the case of TWA flight 260, it was decided to leave the wreckage in place. The terrain was deemed too difficult and inaccessible to remove the debris. The majority of the TWA aircraft, broken into many pieces, remains undisturbed in Domingo Baca Canyon in the Sandia Mountains.
According to the Sandia Peak Tram website, the tramway was built in 1966 — 11 years after the TWA crash. About a third of the wreckage is seen from the tramway; the rest of the wreckage lies just to the north behind the rock outcroppings.
Next month, for the July 4th weekend, the history of the "M" on the mountain by Robert Eveleth, since the landmark approaches being 100 years old.
Some of the references used in this article: Numerous issues of El Defensor Chieftain newspaper; Aviation-Safety.net (Flight Safety Foundation); NTSB Fatal Aircraft Accident Reports; the B-17 Registry; Scott Thompson, Aero Vintage Books; and interviews with Buddy Major, Jerry Hoogerwerf, Billy Jack Pound and Sonny Baca; and field work by the author.
Contact Paul Harden