Early Sunday morning, June 11, 1944, Stanley L. Stroud opened the door to the cockpit of his P-39Q fighter trainer for the last time. Stroud lifted off from Moses Lake Army Air Force Base and headed towards the Lower Crab Creek country to practice strafing or firing his cannon. Maybe both. Maybe he was one of the “flyboys” my dad accused of shooting at livestock grazing along the creek.
Stroud probably drained his ammo cans before pulling up out of the valley, headed east. He may even have jettisoned the empty shells, although that practice was frowned upon. We used to collect .50 caliber shells, some of them still live, and other ammunition from time to time as we wandered across the vacant lands along the creek. With his ammo used up, Stroud gunned the engine and pulled back on the stick to sweep upwards out of the Crab Creek Valley. It would have been a thrill of sheer power, with a roaring 12 cylinder engine just behind his seat, one of the most muscular machines in the world. At the time, nobody knew why it happened, but pilots had for years reported that the P-39 would sometimes spin out of control. As Stroud gained altitude and shot eastwards along the northern flank of Saddle Mountain it happened to him. Stroud may have been knocked unconscious by inertia forcing the blood out of his brain. We can only hope that was the case. His plane plummeted in a tight spiral known as a Stall/Spin, exploding against the face of Saddle Mountain in a huge fireball. A seared patch of hillside, roughly the shape of Alaska, was branded into the sagebrush for at least the next forty years. Today you’d have to know where to look.
When I first heard his story in grade school, the pilot had no name and the story was told as if such an accident were unusual. It was one of the legacy tales that made my hometown seem special. But when I began to research that incident for this article I discovered something astounding. Stroud’s death was only one of 123 accidents involving P-39s from two Army Air Force Base Units located in Moses Lake and Ephrata that were training fighter pilots that summer 1944. All of these incidents occurred in only about five months, from late April to late August, 1944 (except one, which took place the following January).
The two air fields served as home base for other units as well, including those that trained heavy bombers, likeB-17s. Those other units also had their mishaps. Ten Ephrata-based B-17s were wrecked in accidents at the field or in crashes around the area. But with reports of around 100 accidents for all types of aircraft flying out of Ephrata, the 71 accidents involving P-39s amount to nearly three quarters of the base total. Of these, the P-39Q contributed 44 accidents. Moses Lake, which reported only around 75 accidents for all types of plane, gave the P-39Q half of them (37). There were 53 incidents involving all types of P-39 there.
Long and short of it is, that summer of 1944 the sky was falling all over Eastern Washington. Fliers died by the score in training accidents as replacement pilots were rushed through their initial flight training so they could be sent off to war.
I happened across much of this information at a website called Aviation Archaeology for which I’ve provided a link in my History Links. Originally, I meant to search for data on crashes just around the Lower Columbia Basin, which is the focus of this blog, but it quickly became clear how many accidents centered on those two training fields at Moses Lake and Ephrata.
I remember as a boy being told that the crash on Saddle Mountain had been that of a P-38, the glamorous twin-boomed Lockheed fighter-bomber. That would have been plausible. P-38s were common above Crab Creek that same summer. They flew out of Moses Lake, Ephrata and Ellensburg. And some crashed. One went down at Whiskey Creek west of the Columbia that November, and another crashed after a mid-air collision over Beverly in December. But Stroud flew a P-39Q, the last production model of a unique, if troubled, aircraft.
There were a number of innovations designed into the P-39. It had tricycle landing gear and an all-metal fuselage. It was shaped rather like the British Spitfire or the tip of the .50 caliber bullets it fired. It looked fast. But the greatest innovation was the placement of the liquid-cooled V-12 engine in the center of the fuselage directly behind the pilot. A ten-foot shaft led to the prop, which had a separate cooling system for its independent gear box.
Originally the armaments were all located in the fuselage in front of the pilot, a T-9 cannon fired through shaft of the propeller spinner and two .50 caliber machine guns (later supplemented by a pair of .30 caliber guns) were mounted on the nose. In later designs the guns were shifted around to various other locations, including the wings, but the count remained pretty much the same. All these weapons needed ammo storage, which was designed into the nose of the plane.
The P-39 developed a reputation for tumbling early on, which is not a good thing for an aircraft to do. Seeking to isolate the problem, Bell test pilots ran 86 trials on the aircraft without being able to duplicate the spin. It was the Russians who pointed out the reason for the problem. After Pearl Harbor, the plane was shared with both the British and the Russians. In Russia pilots reported that the spinning took place under strong power when the ammo was used up and the nose was pointed upwards. When American engineers tested for those variables they replicated the spin. Without the ammo, the center of gravity for the plane shifted backwards, making the front end unstable.
The plane also had an electrical problem that led to a runaway propeller. Inexperienced pilots often didn’t know what to do about this, but more experienced pilots knew that when that happened, your only option was to bail out immediately. In Eastern Washington a large number of the crashes were engine failures leading to crashes or forced landings.
Although the P-39 exceeded its design requirement of climbing to 20,000 feet in six minutes (it only took five), the ceiling for effective use of this plane remained around 12,000 feet, and less if you were in tropical heat. Designers failed to provide enough room for a turbocharger to improve engine performance at greater heights. The plane just couldn’t match up to most of the European fighters, but the Russians nonetheless developed tactics that made effective use of the P-39.
When my classmates and I studied that smear on the face of Saddle Mountain from the playground behind Lutacaga Elementary School, we thought we were seeing something that made Othello unique. We were wrong. Twelve of the P-39Q accidents listed on the Aviation Archaeology database were reported as Stall/Spins. The one other Stall/Spin involved a P-39N from Ephrata. In only two of these incidents did the pilot successfully bail out.
For the pilots, the worst part about the design of the P-39 must have been the way you got in and out. The cockpit had a solid metal roof. On each side of the plane were doors, just like you’d find in cars of the day. You could even roll down the windows! Unfortunately, an emergency escape against the inertia of a tight spin on this plane required jettisoning a side door, overcoming the forces that kept you pinned into the seat, and rolling through the tiny opening in a bulky flight suit with a parachute strapped on your back. Hopefully none of your straps or parachute bags would snag on the stick, the door handle or the window lever. Then you had to hope you wouldn’t get struck by a wing or the tail when you jumped. The feat was hardly possible in the few seconds before impact. Survival rates for bailing out of any aircraft were only twenty-five to fifty percent.
In some cases the emotional toll on other fliers may have led to other types of accidents. On the 18th of July, 1944, Leonard E. Parsons took off from Ephrata AAB. He probably spent his ammunition at the gunnery range located on the plateau north of Badger Mountain. Five miles north of Quincy his wing mates watched him die in a Stall/Spin accident. Harvey J. Christensen crashed his P-39Q as he landed at Ephrata. If you read between the lines, it looks like he was so upset over Parsons’ death that he lost control of his plane.
Quincy, Othello, Wilson Creek, Moses Lake, and Ephrata all witnessed deaths by Stall/Spin, some of them several times. Two Moses Lake fliers died in identical Stall/Spins only six days apart at the exact same spot about a mile south of Highway 26 near Road 1.8-SW, on August 11 and August 17, 1944. At the time there was no road in the area. The lack of landmarks meant that the army had to use latitude and longitude to record the places. The location of these Stall/Spin events at the perimeter of strafing or bombing ranges indicates that the center of gravity issue was surely the cause.
Another flier also died in a spot so remote the report could only describe it by its coordinates. That one fell to earth a few yards south of Highway 26 between the Crab Creek crossing and Corfu, next to the present Road B SE. His name was Robert M. Pickerall, and he died on July 31, 1944. Three days later yet another pilot brought his P-39Q down less than 2,000 feet to the east on a reasonably level rocky patch just south of Highway 26. His engine had failed. My family never mentioned these two crashes, though our ranch was only three miles to the east. We ran cattle in the vicinity, but the Danielsons may not even have known about the crashes on their range. The Army was notoriously tight-lipped about training disasters.
From the Aviation Archaeology data I plotted crash sites in their approximate locations on the following Google map. Pickerall’s crash was located in the half circle field. When you open the map, zoom out to see the pattern of wreckage that spread over Eastern Washington in the four months during the summer of 1944. Bear in mind that each of the airfields also had multiple crashes: 25 at Moses Lake AAB, and 34 at Ephrata AAF. These are only incidents involving P-39s, of varying degrees of seriousness from the trivial to the fatal. I have not included wrecks of other aircraft.
Indeed, as the Aviation Archaeology database shows, accidents were happening all over the area that summer of 1944, from engine or structural failures to fuel emergencies or mid-air collisions. Most of the accidents took place on or near base, and it was particularly dangerous in a zone of a few miles around the fields. But other crashes occurred elsewhere, as engine failures and collisions could happen wherever the planes flew. Warren E. Danielson, no relation to my family, parachuted to safety after his mid-air collision with James A. Crunk, 23 miles northwest of Ephrata. Crunk perished. Both planes plunged to the earth below. Nobody and nothing was safe from sudden destruction in the entire region; the skies were dangerous that summer, but so was the earth below it.
Outside the Othello City Hall there is a jet airplane mounted on a pedestal, commemorating the relationship the little community had with the Air Force. It’s not a P-39, but the first jet trainer the Air Force used, a T-33A. I didn’t find any records of this aircraft crashing in the area, although a few other jets have fallen around Othello. Considering the metal rain of P-39s that summer of 1944, giving the residents a close up and safe view of one of these planes may have been a more appropriate gift. At least it would have memorialized Stanley L. Stroud, Robert M. Pickerall and the all other pilot trainees who died in P-39s in the summer of 1944.