Did pitch-black skies, on the night of a new moon, lead to one of the most notorious aviation disasters in history?
Here are the facts; you be the judge:
At 7:20 p.m. on January 16, 1942, Transcontinental & Western Airlines Flight #3 flew straight into the face of Mount Potosi near Las Vegas at a speed of about 200 m.p.h. The plane, a twin-engine, propeller driven Douglas DC-3, disintegrated on impact, killing all 22 people onboard, including actress Carole Lombard, the wife of film star Clark Gable.
The accident seemed mysterious and prompted an intense investigation into every possible explanation for it. One factor ruled out was the “entirely satisfactory” weather conditions that night. But that conclusion is wrong, I believe, as was the decision to blame the pilot, Capt. Wayne C. Williams.
Let’s look at what happened:
The New York to Los Angeles flight was many hours late, after making unscheduled stops to take on cargo and on troops in transit to the west coast. It made a refueling stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, three hours behind schedule. The plane should have been able to fly nonstop to Los Angeles (Burbank airport, actually) from that point, but headwinds were vicious – so strong, in fact, additional stops had to be scheduled in Winslow, Arizona, and Las Vegas to take on enough fuel to make it. So the struggling flight was falling even further behind.
The flight plan called for landing at an airstrip near Boulder City, Nevada. But the plane arrived in Las Vegas well after sunset (which had been at 4:52 p.m. that night). The Boulder City field had no landing lights, so the plane was rerouted, 18 miles further on, to the lighted strip at McCarran Field.
When the flight resumed at 7:07 p.m., the original flight plan and compass headings were retained, as though the plane was still being routed from Boulder City. A cruising altitude of about 7,500 feet above sea level, leaving the Vegas area from that airport, would have been fine for a 218-degree heading to Burbank. But the plane took off 18 miles farther west, and that was enough of a difference to route the plane directly on a deadly collision course with the summit of 8,500-foot Mount Potosi.
So, why couldn’t the pilot, an experienced flyer, see a massive 8,500-foot mountain, directly in front of him? After all the night was clear and cold, investigators noted, with “ceiling and visibility unlimited”!
The answer is visibility was not “unlimited”. The pilot, in fact, could not see a thing. It was the night of the new moon.
Often, in January, the heights of Mount Potosi would stand out with brilliant bright new. But not that night in January of 1942; Mount Potosi’s summit had received far less than its customary blanket of snow.
Las Vegas was just a tiny desert watering hole back then, with a population of less than 8,500 (compared to 2 million in the valley today); so there were no bright lights to cast a glow that night.
The pilot should have been able to utilize navigation beacons in the area to help him make out silhouettes of terrain at night. But, that night, all but one of the five navigation beacons around the Las Vegas area had been turned off. Why? Because of (unfounded) fears of a Japanese attack on the west coast (the Pearl Harbor attack had been only five weeks earlier).
So the pilot, after climbing from the airport runway’s elevation of 1,900 feet to slightly above his prescribed cruising altitude of 7,500 feet (actually he got to about 7,700 feet), leveled off. He thought he was in the clear.
He almost was.
In fact he was just 80 feet short of clearing a low section of ridge, directly in front of him. If he had been able to see it, he might have been able to pull up just enough in time. Instead, he unwittingly flew straight into an unseen vertical rock cliff.
Miss Lombard shouldn’t even have been on that plane; she had been scheduled to take the train home from Indiana after a charitable tour raising money for war bonds. But she hopped on the flight instead, in hopes of getting back to her husband sooner.
The official crash report , which brushed off any atmospheric factors, blamed pilot error. But the co-pilot had been the one who filled out the faulty flight plan, and forgot to fix it. Silly bureaucrats shouldn’t have turned off the navigation beacons in a location hundreds of miles beyond the range of any Japanese military aircraft. And, in any event, that flight shouldn’t have been operating at night – especially flying blind on the night of the new moon.
(Editor’s Note: A plaque marks the spot of the plane’s impact nowadays; but the area is so rugged and generally inaccessible many parts of the wreckage, including landing gear and an engine, have never been recovered.)
January 16, 2017