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Schroder
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PostSun Feb 07, 2021 11:58 am 
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The weather was absolutely miserable. I had just gotten back home the night before after being driven off a summit attempt of Rainier in a blizzard and my pack was still in the car. The phone rang early in the morning (Friday) – it was phone-tree caller from Everett Mountain Rescue that told me that a military plane had disappeared in the Olympics and we were to organize a team. I spent the next couple of hours on the phone with people who were able to respond and we waited for further instructions from the State Department of Emergency Management. The weather was preventing any flights so in the afternoon we were told to drive over and meet with other Units at the Coast Guard Station at Ediz Hook, Port Angeles. We assembled at our truck in Everett and headed for the Edmonds Ferry.  Reaching Port Angeles after dark, the teams from Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympic Mountain Rescue Units gathered in a large briefing room and we were given the details of the situation, as explained in this HistoryLink entry:

Quote:
On Thursday, March 20, 1975, U. S. Air Force C-141A, No. 64-0641, under the command of First Lieutenant Earl R. Evans, 62nd Airlift Wing, was returning to McChord Air Force Base (AFB) from Clark AFB, Philippines, with en route stops at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, and Yokota Air Base, Japan. The plane was due to arrive at McChord at 11:15 p.m. Flown by the Air Force Military Airlift Command (MAC), Starlifters normally carried a six-man crew consisting of two pilots, two flight engineers, one navigator, and one loadmaster. But on March 20, because of a grueling, 20-hour flight from the Philippine Islands, the C-141A was carrying four extra relief crew members. In addition, the plane was transporting six U.S. Navy sailors as passengers, heading to new ship assignments.

At 10:45 p.m., while over the Olympic Peninsula, approximately 90 miles from McChord AFB, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Seattle Air Traffic Control (ATC) Center gave the pilot clearance to descend from Flight Level 370 to 15,000 feet. Several minutes later, approach control at Seattle Center cleared the plane to descend to 10,000 feet.

The last radio message was received at approximately 11:00 p.m. when the pilot acknowledged authorization from approach control to descend to 5,000 feet. Five minutes later, the C-141A disappeared from the radar screen.

C141 Starlifter
C141 Starlifter

It had been raining with heavy winds all day on our drive over and snowing heavily in the mountains so an aerial search that day was difficult. They had determined the crash site was on the west side of Mt. Constance and an Army helicopter was able to get a visual siting late Friday afternoon on the North Side of Inner Constance.

approximate location of wreckage
approximate location of wreckage

In the briefing we were told by the military that initially only three to four people from each unit would be flown in, keeping personnel at a minimum until an evaluation of safety at the scene could be made. Snow fall had been heavy the previous few days and avalanche danger was high. We designated two teams of eight and then tried to get some sleep on the floor of one of the buildings.

On Saturday morning just before daybreak our teams boarded two CH-47 Chinook helicopters and started flying up the Dungeness River through heavy broken clouds. The lead helicopter was led into an adjacent valley by barriers of cloud, where they dropped off their team and headed back to Port Angeles. Our helo managed to make it to a point where we could see wreckage out the windows. We went into a hover and I was nearest the tail ramp looking out in a white cloud of snow churned up by rotor wash, and I waited for the landing. The next instant, the crew chief grabbed me by the collar and seat of the pants and threw me out the back, about five feet to the snow. I then had to dodge the packs and the rest of the team that started flying out the back.

We had three assignments: establish a landing zone by packing down the snow in a large level area with our snowshoes; look for and mark any human remains; and search for the flight recorder.

There was a lot of fresh snow and we were sinking a foot even with our snowshoes on. With them off, we plunged almost to our waists. There was only our small team of eight at the scene and we heard by radio that the other team was dropped off over two miles away so it would be quite a while before they could help us out. We set to work on a landing zone right where we were dropped off, outlining the area with wands and shoveling off high spots and then tamping it down. Once that was finished we started up the Home Creek drainage to the wreckage.

dumpoff site
dumpoff site
stamping down an LZ
stamping down an LZ
LZ
LZ
finishing LZ
finishing LZ
LZ
LZ
Paul Williams, SMR
Paul Williams, SMR
heading to tail
heading to tail

The tail of the plane, with the distinctive US flag, was the first piece we reached. It came to rest upside-down and appeared to be just ripped from the rest of the plane. A short time later an army Huey appeared and avoided the landing zone we had established, preferring to land where we were at the wreckage. A couple of people got out, one with a Geiger counter. I later learned there were a dozen nuclear devices on the plane as its only cargo.

Me at the tail
Me at the tail
tail
tail
Warrior Peak
Warrior Peak
Warrior Pek
Warrior Pek
General coming in
General coming in
Warrior Peak
Warrior Peak
first military arrival
first military arrival

Most of the team stayed near the tail to tamp down a new landing zone and dig around it that wreckage.  A couple of us started up the hill to try to find the cockpit and flight recorder.
The climb was difficult, hazardous, and slow. It had snowed several inches since the crash 34 hours earlier and the powder covered a layer of ice that was saturated with fuel and covered with small, sharp chards of metal from the plane. It got worse the farther we ascended.

We passed by large pieces of the fuselage and a few hundred feet above the tail we came to a fairly level area where the massive landing gear stood. Above that point, avalanches from the cliffs above had buried any trace of the rest of the plane. We called it in and we were ordered to descend.

slope of wreckage
slope of wreckage
tail section area
tail section area
fuselage
fuselage
landing gear
landing gear
landing gear
landing gear
down the wreckage
down the wreckage

As we reached the new landing zone the other team that had been dropped off a couple of miles away was just arriving, carrying up the gear we had left at the lower landing zone. After an informal debriefing, a Chinook arrived to carry us back to Port Angeles. My Unit headed home that evening.

waiting for airlift
waiting for airlift
debrief
debrief
waiting for airlift
waiting for airlift

Throughout the Spring and Summer Olympic Mountain Rescue continued the recovery effort with the military and the National Park Service to remove the remains and the wreckage from the site.

cockpit location
cockpit location

Much of the HistoryLink article is in error on the description of events that first day and I can only assume that it was the recollection of subsequent days. It goes on to describe the analysis of the crash:

Quote:
Bad Luck, Fatigue, and Inexperience

Although it was clear that the Starlifter’s collision with Mount Constance was the direct result of an incorrect order from the FAA air traffic controller, critics believed other factors could have contributed to the tragedy, including bad luck. Had the aircraft been on a slightly different course or 500 feet higher, it would have missed Mount Constance, the third highest peak in the Olympic Mountain Range. Air Force C-141As were equipped with radar altimeters that should alert the crew when the aircraft falls below a “minimum descent altitude.” However, bad weather, particularly snow, could have rendered the equipment useless.

Crew fatigue was also believed to be a factor contributing to the accident. Although augmented with an extra pilot and navigator, the crew was at the end of a grueling 20-hour day and became complacent, choosing not to challenge the air traffic controller’s direction to descend to 5,000 feet while flying over a range of mountains. En route Low-Altitude Flight Charts, which the pilot uses while flying IFR (instrument flight rules) don’t show terrain heights, but the navigator has access to Tactical Pilotage Charts that do. The pilot should have followed MAC procedures and checked the terrain before accepting the instruction.

The Starlifter’s flight crew, although qualified, was supposedly inexperienced, having fewer than the 1,500 hours of flight time the Air Force considered to be a desirable minimum. As part of Defense Department budget cuts, the Air Force Military Airlift Command had furloughed 25 percent of its most experienced C-141 pilots since January 1975. Forty-four experienced C-141 pilots (18 per cent), assigned to McChord’s 62nd Airlift Wing, had been removed from flight status. As a result, the younger and less-experienced pilots and crew were overworked and under-trained.

In terms of loss of life, the crash of the Air Force C-141A Starlifter remains the biggest tragedy ever to occur in the Olympic Mountains.

A footnote on the aircraft from “C141Heaven.info”:

Quote:
While 66-0177 gets most of the glory (because it was the first C-141 into Hanoi), 64-0641, along with numerous others, participated in the return of American POWS from Hanoi. It made its trip to Hanoi on February 18th, 1973, bringing 20 POW's back to Clark. On February 23rd, 1973, it flew one POW from CLARK to the US. On March 14th, it flew another 40 POWS from Hanoi to Clark and on the 17th if flew 20 POWS from Clark back to the US.

Photos of the wreckage at Ediz Hook from Les Crosby, stationed at McChord during the cleanup

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img002
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img001
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img008
img007
img007
img005
img005
img004
img004
img003
img003
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Malachai Constant
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PostSun Feb 07, 2021 1:07 pm 
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I remember that crash well. I had just returned to the US to go to law school which was just off the MaCord runway. Several of the students were former military pilots since The war had just ended. That resulted in a glut of applicants to airlines. They knew some of the crew. It was amazing that the wreckage was removed so fast.

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Pyrites
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PostSun Feb 07, 2021 6:43 pm 
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Is my vague memory that among the distractions affecting controllers was a on-going skyjacking wrong?

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IanB
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PostSun Feb 07, 2021 8:53 pm 
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Thanks Schroder, for a detailed contribution to the Olympic Mountain historical record.   up.gif

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Jaberwock
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PostSun Feb 07, 2021 9:21 pm 
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Appreciated being able to read this, thank you.
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zimmertr
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PostMon Feb 08, 2021 8:57 am 
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That must have been an incredible experience.
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Anne Elk
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PostMon Feb 08, 2021 10:25 pm 
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Thanks for sharing your photo archive and recollections, Schroder.  I'd read about this crash some years ago; stumbled on the story because of my interest in the Constance area.  It's amazing to see photos of the recovery attempt. Didn't know about the nuclear devices, though.

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Ravenridge22
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PostTue Feb 09, 2021 5:32 am 
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Wonderful post, thank you!
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Schroder
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PostTue Feb 09, 2021 5:26 pm 
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Pyrites wrote:
Is my vague memory that among the distractions affecting controllers was a on-going skyjacking wrong?

Not that I remember
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puzzlr
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PostTue Feb 09, 2021 11:41 pm 
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An excellent write-up of something I didn't know about. I wish you could append this to the HistoryLink site -- that's a great resource, but you add a lot.

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williswall
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PostSat Feb 27, 2021 5:18 pm 
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Schroder wrote:
cockpit location
cockpit location

I started flyimg C41s out of the same squadron in 1983. I know people who were in the squadron when this crash occurred. This photo is chilling for any pilot, especially 141 pilots. Excellent write up, much appreciated.

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