March 20, 2016

1959: Constellation Airplane Crash Still a Mystery

Memorial plaque at the Constellation Trailhead honors the victims.

February 28th, 1959 was another "darned nice day" weather-wise in Prescott. William Watson who was visiting family in the area was driving north on State Route 89 with his nephew Robert Schilling. As they rounded a curve in the vicinity of the Phippen Art Museum, "the windshield filled with airplane." (*1)

Plunging into the shoulder of the road before them was an Air Force Lockheed C-121G "Super Constellation" transport plane. It exploded on impact sending flames several hundred feet into the air. (*2)

William and Robert rushed out of their car to see if they could help. But the heat of the flames combined with now exploding small ammunition drove them back.

Sam Steiger, who would later serve as a U.S. Congressman and Prescott Mayor, and who owned a ranch across the way, "saw the ship at about 300 feet" coming down in a "vertical dive with one propeller feathered." (*1)

"(Other) eyewitnesses said the plane winged over and plowed nose first into the ground." (*1)

"Persons miles away from the crash scene said they saw a huge flame billow into the sky and heard a tremendous explosion. Others were attracted to the scene by huge clouds of black smoke." (*2)

A mere seven minutes before the crash, the plane radioed in to report a small forest fire south of Prescott. There was no mention of any problems with the plane at that time. (*1)

The lack of a distress call, along with the perfect weather, all added to a mystery that remains to this day.

In those days of the cold-war, the tremendous explosion was described as being like an "atom bomb". Debris scattered over a half-mile area. "Long-time resident and local historian Elisabeth Ruffner was among those who felt the impact. "I was standing in my kitchen, and I heard the crash," she said...explaining that she and her family then lived near the Antelope Hills Golf Course, not far from the Highway 89 crash site." (*3)

Debris from the crash at the trailhead.
"Even all these years later, small fragments of twisted metal remain in the dirt just off the highway - a reminder to the city employees and trail volunteers that the spot carries a somber history." (*3)

Many of these found pieces have been laid to rest at a funereal spot at the Constellation trailhead.

Solving the mystery of why the plane crashed is complicated by several factors. In that day, there were no "black boxes" or recorders. Furthermore, whenever a plane crash happened, it was common for people to steal away evidence debris as souvenirs.

Indeed, the Navy formally requested everyone who took souvenirs from the crash site to please return them for the investigation. (*1)

Additionally, there was no tower at the Prescott airport back then and, in a now forsaken practice, it was Navy men flying an Air Force plane.

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to solving this mystery is the Navy itself. A 1996 Freedom of Information Act request procured a heavily redacted report. (*3) It is difficult to imagine any true national security reason that would prohibit full disclosure of the crash of a 4-propeller transport plane, but the Navy cited other reasons.

The story of what was at the time the worst train wreck in the history of the Peavine Railroad.

The response to the FOIA request, "which is on file at Prescott's Sharlot Hall Museum, stated: 'The statements of witnesses giving unsworn testimony before the safety investigating board ... are exempt from disclosure under the United States Code.'

"The letter added that witnesses were given a 'promise of confidentially' in order to encourage them to be completely truthful. Even decades later, the Air Force must adhere to that promise, the letter said, because doing otherwise 'would jeopardize a significant government interest by inhibiting its ability to conduct future safety investigations of Air Force aircraft mishaps.'" (*3)

Robert Fiegl, department chair of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, who studied all that is publicly available about the crash once offered his best guess:

"What is apparent ... from the report is that the large airplane was flying low over the Dells, perhaps preparing to land at the Prescott Airport to the north. For some reason, the plane stalled and lost the "lift" required to sustain the flight. 
"'They may have been the victims of just getting too slow,' (he) said. 
"'Witnesses heard a roar of power,' Fiegl said, inferring from that that the crew 'realized they were getting in trouble, and tried to make a correction. But, he said, 'You're not coming out - not with that little altitude to the ground.'" (*3)
The City of Prescott obtained the land around the crash site in 2008 and Boy Scout  Cody Williams laid out recreational hiking trails for his Eagle Scout project.

On October 8th, 2011, an official memorial service was held to help bring closure and remember the lost. (*4)

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Tourist Tips:

The Constellation Trails offer beautiful views of the Granite Dells and is perfect for beginners and youngsters.

BE SURE TO BRING PLENTY OF WATER! The low humidity of the desert combined with the mile-high elevation will quickly dehydrate without much evidence of perspiration. If your family is getting cranky, it's the first sign of dehydration.

One can park at the Phippen Museum and walk under SR 89 to the trailhead.

CLICK HERE for info about The Constellation Trails

Here's a video showing a go-cam bike ride on the Constellation trails:

The Phippen Museum offers "Art and Heritage of the American West."

CLICK HERE for info on the Phippen Museum

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(*1) Prescott Evening Courier. March 2, 1959 Headline & pg 2. (For some reason, this issue did not make the Google archive, but is available on microfilm at the Sharlot Hall Museum.
(*2) Arizona Republic. March 1, 1959 Headline story.
(*3) (Prescott) Daily Courier, 2/6/2011


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