Q. Regarding the 1957 plane crash in our woods, what exactly brought the C-47D plane down?
A. This is a frequent question that has been asked over the years. It is human nature after all to look at a tragedy and not only contemplate the human toll, but to wonder “why?” To this end, many have speculated. Some have opinions with little factual data besides a hunch. Some offer absolutes that stretch the boundaries of the information that we have. We will let the facts that we do know tell the story…and in the end perhaps each reader will be in a position to at least make a very good guess.
It was the holiday season 55 years ago and the plane was loaded with wrapped Christmas presents purchased in Long Beach, California to take home to Anchorage wives and kids. So, our story starts here with high spirits and a group of men heading home to Alaska with wonderful surprises in store. That they would not have willingly taken chances goes without saying. Captain Kadafer was known as a very thorough professional and a caring family man. None could have guessed that indeed they would never make it to their final destination. Their families, far from receiving the gifts and festivities their men had planned, would instead receive the very worst of news. Regardless of the technical facts, we should never forget the human side of the equation.
The aircraft departed McCord Air Force Base Nov. 23 with 8 hours fuel and an IFR clearance to Annette Island. There they planned to refuel and continue on to Anchorage. The aircraft returned to McCord to fix a radio problem. How much fuel was consumed in this return and 2nd takeoff? This may not have been a critical question at the time as they planned to refuel in Annette. However, they were unable to land at Annette due to very strong winds. The Captain decided to climb back to altitude and proceed to Gustavus. How much unplanned fuel burn would this new scenario of another climb out have added?. According to the flight engineer’s calculations, with the estimate of 3 hours fuel remaining, and a 1 hour 55 minute flight, there should still be 1 hour of fuel left upon arrival at Gustavus. With no alternative landing site, the plane was committed, but the weather was deteriorating.
Six hours and 16 minutes after leaving McCord for the second time, Anchorage control cleared the C-47D for an instrument approach into Gustavus. This approach would have required the pilot to fly over the airport and continue northwest and not turn final until out over Glacier Bay. Instead, the pilot attempted a much shorter, visual circling approach. Unfortunately, the pilot lost visual contact and missed the approach. The plane was seen on a southeast heading, parallel and east of the long runway at about 800 feet. The crew requested a 2nd clearance for an instrument approach and added “am running low on fuel”. Was the first shorter visual approach attempted because of concern they could not make the long IFR approach out over the water? Regardless, now having lost visiblity they had no choice but to request a 2nd IFR clearance approach.
A new weather update indicated ceilings now at 900 feet with 1 mile visiblity. To this the pilot remarked “the ceiling out here is 700 or 800 feet”. This remark came 6 minutes after receiving the second clearance for an IFR approach and indicated the aircraft was much lower and again not climbing out over Glacier Bay as would have been expected. Was the crew now so sufficiently concerned about the fuel levels that they were still trying to obtain a visual route to the runway because they suspected the length of the ILS approach was not possible? With snow coming down heavier now, Gustavus advised the pilot that the landing lights would be turned to highest intensity. This was acknowledged—the last communication received. At 7:44 PST several locals and the Gustavus Radio Control Station reported hearing the C-47D to the northwest—several miles out and heading towards the airport. Then a loud surge was heard as though the pilot had applied full throttle or as often heard in fuel starvation. Then complete silence.
Five hours later the wreckage was located. Four crew dead, 7 surviving passengers. There was no fire, no smell of fuel, damage to the props was consistent with what would be expected if the engines had already quit prior to impact.
Why did the plane crash? Fuel starvation seems the most likely explanation. The truth in absolutes? We will never know for sure.
For the complete 1957 Plane Crash Story, click here.