Friday, January 27, 2017

Ghosts in the Guads

     There’s plenty of history to be found in the Guadalupe Mountains, from ancient coral reefs to the Butterfield Stage Trail and Native American heritage.  This Texas/New Mexico mountain chain is also a memorial to many aviators, military and civilian, who lost their lives in these rugged heights.  The altitude, location, and weather of these mountains have snagged many an airplane from the sky.  There are over a dozen known crash sites within the Guadalupe Mountains National Park and more in the surrounding mountains.  Because most of these accidents were the result of aircraft striking the ground at cruising speeds in low visibility, very few of these tragedies left survivors.

     Even though the incidents were investigated by civilian or military authorities, the exact location of the crash isn’t always well documented.  The Air Force and other entities maintained maps and databases of crash sites, but much the information has become inaccurate over time.  It’s led to confusion during wildfires and rescue missions because the aluminum remains of an aircraft can look like a fresh crash for decades.  A few people set out to locate these sites and match them to published data.  We’re sometimes called “wreck chasers” or “aviation archaeologists.”

     A couple of friends I met in the Civil Air Patrol in the 1980’s led me into the wormhole of wreck chasing.  As a search and rescue ground team, we sometimes trained in the Guadalupes and visited old crash sites.  We collected stories of lost aircraft and matched sites to the reports.  Around 2010, I found a curious entry in an Air Force database.  Along with a set of errant coordiantes, it said, “Navy TV-2, acft in gully.”  Records were tough to come by for the era of the TV-2, mostly because of Cold War secrecy, and I could find no records of a lost TV-2 in the Guads.

      In 2016, led me to the report of a Navy TV-1 that crashed near Salt Flat, Texas on February 25, 1954.  The TV-1 is the Navy version of the P-80 Shooting Star and is similar to the TV-2.  The report, complete with photos, detailed the most unique aircraft incident of the area.

     According to the report, Navy pilot LT Henry J. Zieba took off from California that day on a mission to ferry a TV-1 to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi.  After refueling in El Paso, he climbed to an altitude of 18000 feet near Salt Flat Airfield.  For an unknown reason, the starboard tip tank detached from the aircraft.  The pilot explained the sudden problem:

“I found myself in a most uncomfortable position:  On my back and in a tight but flat spin to  the left.”

     The extreme forces of the spin killed the engine and prevented him from reaching the controls to eject, but these same forces also caused the opposite tank to detach.  This restored balance to the aircraft and allowed him to recover from the spin.  Once he righted the aircraft, he found himself at 800 feet above the ground with a great deal of speed.  He attempted an “air start” of the jet engine without success, and was forced to land.  Fortunately for LT Zieba, he wasn’t in the teeth of the mountains, but over the relatively flat surrounding plains.  After running through his ditching checklist, he made a rough landing that covered about 900 feet of ground.  

1954 Navy Report Photo
     He was injured from being slammed around the cockpit during the rough gear-up landing.  He described having pain in his back that was later found to be a severe spine injury.  Despite this, he gathered his gear and walked to a nearby windmill.  He built a signal fire and climbed the windmill to sight the beacon of Salt Flat Airfield at dusk.  He managed to hike 13 miles to the airfield in the dark and was taken to an El Paso hospital.  Henry J. Zieba retired from the Navy in 1969 as Lieutenant Commander, having served in WWII, Korean and Vietnam wars.  He passed away at age 83 in 2006.

LT Henry J. Zieba, courtesy
of Susan Blanchard and Justin Zieba
     The fun part of wreck chasing is hiking, but the real work is in reading reports, gathering data, and spending hours searching aerial photos and satellite images.  Working with permission from park authorities, we made a few hikes to narrow down the search area, but the break came from Dr. Mike Medrano, the Chief of Resource Management for Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  He located a USGS aerial photograph that he suspected was taken in search of the aircraft just three days after the crash.  USGS had photographed the area a few months before the crash, but it's likely a mission was re-tasked to locate it.  Reviewing the photo, I found a scrape on the ground that matched the orientation, dimensions, and location of the crash.  It even looked like an airplane was perched on it.

     We set out to the spot on January 14, 2017 and found what remained of LT Zieba's aircraft.  The bulk of the ship had been removed by a Navy salvage crew. The largest piece was an armor plate that sits forward of the pilot.  Bits of aluminum and steel were scattered about, and much of it was melted.  Although there was no fire when the aircraft landed, it did appear that the wreckage had been piled up and burned.  We found bottle glass and similar material that was foreign to the crash, so it may have become a trash pile when the area was a cattle ranch.  Locals told us that the area was a target range during WWII, so aircraft junk wasn’t anything special in the area at the time.  We took GPS fixes and snapped photos before we sat down to lunch at the site and toasted our success.

Armor Plate
Aircraft Skin
     All of our information was bundled up and sent to the park service to document the site as a historical resource.  The NPS wasn't aware of the crash since it occurred long before the area became a national park.  I made contact with the pilot’s family and sent them the info, and they graciously supplied me with the above photo.  This certainly won’t be our last chase, but I don’t believe we’ll ever experience another one like it.  It was an honor to walk in LCDR Zieba’s steps and bring this story to light.  For all the death faced by fliers in these mountains, a happy ending is always welcome.

PLEASE NOTE:  Aircraft crashes are historical sites.  Not only are many of them honored like a grave site, sites in national parks are federally protected.  It is illegal to remove any artifact from a park.  Should you visit a crash site,  please do so with dignity and respect.