The Summer it Rained Airplanes

Two mechanics crank the handle of a USAAF Bell P-39Q-1-BE Airacobra, at Hamilton Army Airfield, California, in July, 1943. Saga Boy II was flown by Lt.Col. Edward S. Chickering, commander of the 357th Fighter Group. USAAF photograph as published in Wikipedia Commons.

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.

Army Air Force photograph of the remains of Pickerall's P-39Q. Wahatis Peak and the Smyrna Bench on Saddle Mountain in the distance.

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.

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34 responses to “The Summer it Rained Airplanes

  1. Clint’s comment helps explain why I was told the crash on Saddle Mountain was a P-38. It was a different crash! My research for this article only looked at P-39s, and I was trying to figure out whose plane caused that huge scar on the mountain.

    “I got this one from Craig’s database- P-38L BU#44-23914 ground collision on 9/30/44 with the loss of the pilot’s life (Gene L. Dyer). There are some general area coordinates, I checked these and it should put the crash in or very close to WB-10 Wasteway Wildlife Refuge located in southeastern washington not real far from my home. I called the refuge management office but they had not heard of any crash sites in the refuge. I have not ordered a crash report for this one yet, and I still have not bought any of the excellent reference books. I was going to poke around up there next weekend and wanted to check with y’all to see if anyone had anymore info on this one.”

    ” Hello there.

    Was cruising the web and spotted your comment about P-38L #44-23914.

    Did you ever go visit it?

    Clint Bridges
    Moses Lake”

    Approximate Google Earth location:

    -119.2817291623726
    46.7819762713588

  2. Clint provides a link to the comment stream about the P-38 crash he referred to above. I see that my dad told him about the day the wreck occurred. Guess I missed that story, eh? Thanks for your contributions, Clint!

    http://pacaeropress.websitetoolbox.com/post/P38-4423914-2610769

  3. I am currently writing a book on aircraft wrecks in this region. Have you visited any crash sites between the Saddle Mountains and Ephrata? I heard there was a P-39 crash site on the Saddle Mountains but thought Stanley Stroud’s site was ten miles east of Othello on flat ground? I have known of Gene Dyer’s accident for a while, but that one was seven miles southwest of Othello.

    Thanks,

    Dave

    • Many of these sites I wasn’t even aware of before I found the information at Aviation Archaeology. That’s where all of my siting information comes from. I’ve driven past the two crash sites where Pickerall died countless times. I haven’t visited the Royal Slope crash sites, but I’ll drive by there next time I get to the basin. As for Stroud’s crash site, Aviation Archaeology provides only “10 mi WSW of Othello,” which would place it right on the northern slope of Saddle Mountain, where the lasting firebrand used to show. James Spearman piloted a P-39Q that began coming apart, crashing 14 miles southeast of Moses Lake (presumably the air base) in July. It’s posted on my map. That area is generally flat or rolling hills. Spearman bailed out and probably survived his crash. Dyer’s crash site appears to be directly across a canal from Kuhn Road, but I haven’t visited the location. Clint Bridges and Jim Huffman have both been there.

  4. My Grandpa is Edmon C Tucker. He crashed a P-39Q on 8/5/1944 near Ephrata with serial number 42-20933. It says he was in squadron 430 BU. I am trying to research his Air Force career. This is the earliest solid evidence I have of him. I know he ended up as a Major and last flew with the 71st SOS in Vietnam. Any help would be appreciated.

    • Mark Danielson

      Nick, so far nobody has responded to your query. I hope you’re finding more about him in other sources.

  5. Phillip f chuey

    I was at Moses Lake in 1944 flying war-weary P-39’s and it was he tick. we soon learned to respect the airplane.

    • Mark Danielson

      I would love to hear some stories about your time there. From the data, it looks like guys were constantly crashing. You never knew if you’d return from the next sortie. And nobody was shooting at you!

  6. Phillip f chuey

    I was at Moses lake during 1944.it was unbelievable the way our p-39 would fly,even in normal flight. In returning from a training-flight when I peeled-up to land, I glanced at the planes’s instrument panel. They were all in the red,then my flying comrade told me I was trailing black smoke. Since I was too low to jump, I cut the planes power and made a dead-stick landing. The black smoke was now pouring in the cockpit but I was able to land, slowed to a stop along the landing-strip and exited in a hurry. The next day engineers from bell-labs interviewed me.they agreed, our p-39’s should be retired.

    • Mark Danielson

      Thanks so much for sharing your story. As I write these articles I hope people like you will contribute to them for everybody’s benefit.

  7. Phillip f chuey

    A lot of crashes were pilot error. For instance I flew with another pilot sitting in the back seat of a trainer as an observer. As we were gathering speed for a take-off, I unconsciously glanced down to the fuel-selector and, believe-it-or not, it was on the off position. So, I simply turned it to the on-position and, without any interruption we took-off.

  8. Phillip f chuey

    Target-shooting contributed to several plane crashes. We would practice with live ammunition shooting at a ground target. For instance, I was concentrating on a ground target, and became mesmerized. After pulling up I came within a whisker of crashing, missed the ground by inches, not knowing a plane will not turn-on-a-dime. The next time I focused on the target I pulled-up at 400 ft. As you.can see, I remembered this experience after 70 years.

    • My dad used to complain that some of the family’s cattle ended up as ground targets. He said that when they went to the air base to complain about pilots strafing the herd he was told that nothing could be done unless he could provide the tail number of the airplane that shot at the cattle. Of course that was impossible, since the plane was long gone.

  9. Phillip f chuey

    Mark, I personally did not ever buzz nearby cattle. It just did not seem right. Phillip chuey

    • I would guess that only a few of the pilots felt good about doing something like that. They were young and spirited men, weren’t they. Phillip, were the pilots aware of how many crashes were taking place? To read the records it is really bewildering. What effect did that have on the men’s morale?

    • I have listings of at least one-hundred twenty-five minor to major accidents in this area during this period of time.

  10. Mark, looking back to those days, it really was a crazy culture. For instance, a truck load of new pilots were taken to the runway to view the landings of several p-38’s. I was one of the observing pilots when one of p-38, flown by lt.livingston , was uncontroably caught in the slip-stream of a prior plane. His path was directly in line toward our truck. We all really ran for our lives. His plane actually crashed , in pan-cake style,. The only casualty, from approximately 40 pilots, was our truck driver. He was asleep and never knew what hit him.

  11. One afternoon about 40 pilots were attending an “aircraft identification class” when a soldier came hurriedly in and wanted to know where he could locate a telephone . We asked him why,he replied the nearby ammunition dump is on fire. Just then we heard explosions. Well, bedlam took over. It was every man for himsel. Some literally jumped out the windows, others crawled under their desks. We found ourselves stepping on comrades who elected to hit the floor. Finally all of us scrambled to a nearby ditch. A smirking Sargent notified us the exploding shells were not lethal and at our distance, we were safe. A typical day at Moses-lake during the summer of 1944.

    • I so much appreciate hearing from you again. Your stories are exactly what I hoped to find when I wrote about this. Thank you, Phillip!

  12. As we continued our flying in p-39’s I encouraged my flying friend to apply for a 5 day leave, as we were allowed before going over seas. When we returned, sure enough the group had disbanded and most of the pilots were gone. There must have been a party to end all parties as our barracks were mostly totaled. For instance, there was evidence showing the boys ran right through the thinly constructed walls.the destruction was truly awesome to view.

    • I love your stories! I love that you toss them out here and there, and that they’re all captivating in one way or another. Thanks so much for putting some meat on the bones of my brother’s blog entry.
      Joyce

  13. Phillip f chuey

    Another incident at Moses lake occurred in 1944 when the wife of a pilot in our group was able to visit at our field and asked her husband why the American flag was always at half mask. He told her it was stuck at that position.

  14. Phillip f chuey

    One of my memorable experience at Moses lake was a. Night cross-country flight to Spokane and return. The flight truly gave me sensation of being fortunate to be a citizen of our country attempting to fulfill the responsibility of protecting it.

  15. Phillip f chuey

    As we realized the p-39’s flying vagaries our subsequent flights concentrated on just flying conservatively, no streaming dives or tight turns. We would take off and cruise easily along until we fulfilled our prescribed time.

  16. Phillip f chuey

    One of our many stressful cultural problems while flying our unpredictable p-39 airplane was the heavy consumption of alcohol. Our Brooning,Nebraska airport had us sign an affidavit stating we consumed no alcohol 24 hours before our current flight.

  17. I was flying one of the P39Qs shown in your map of accidents. Fortunately I was able to parachute safely. Appreciate the effort you have made to identify all of these crash sites. After leaving Ephrata I transitioned to P-38s and served in the Pacific Theater during the last year or so of the war. And am fortunate, health wise, to be still flying airplanes.

    Walter Barbo

  18. Walter, I flew P-47’s in Hawaii during 1945 as we continued training and waiting to be transferred to units in combat; but the War thankfully ended.

  19. Walt, I distinctly remember “soloing”.” it was truly traumatic to be in charge of a plane, to do what you wanted to do, no restrictions. unfortunately I flew in our landing pattern, grateful to land safely.

    • It was a little different with flights in most fighter aircraft. Since there was only one seat, you were always solo. And you typically left the pattern, climbed to altitude, learned the flight characteristics of the aircraft, and then returned for landing.

  20. Walt, as you are still flying, I am interested in what type?

  21. I have a Cessna T210 based at KFTG near Denver, CO. I understand that I am the only one from my old flying group that is still flying.

  22. Walt, you are flying a very appropriate plane. keep it up, as you are truly the only one of our generation still flying.

  23. Our group of pilots had a common job; flying the P.39 safely. We soon realized the precarious situation. This instilled the bonding culture which helped us while flying our questionable plane.

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