Aircraft Wrecks in the
Mountains and Deserts of the American West
This Article Appeared in the Los
Angeles Times, September 23, 2007
the Los Angeles Times
Wreck finders help repair memories
Project Remembrance researches air crash sites in California and marks many
of the locations, bringing a sense of closure to families.
By Cecilia Rasmussen, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
It was 3 o'clock on a June morning in 1964, when 8-year-old Jeff Corder awoke in
his family's Covina home to the sobs of his mother and grandmother.
"They were sitting at our dining room table, listening to the radio," Corder
said. "I remember standing there frozen, hearing the radio announcer saying, 'It
is now confirmed that the pilot was indeed Rex C. Corder.' "
"It was like a dagger in my heart," said Corder, now 52 and living in Las Vegas.
The day before that fateful radio report -- June 7, 1964 -- his father and two
friends had died when his father's Beechcraft plane, en route from Reno to La
Verne, crashed in the San Bernardino Mountains.
Searchers recovered the bodies of Rex Corder, 39, and his two passengers, but
the shattered plane remained in San Bernardino National Forest.
That wasn't enough for Jeff Corder.
"I needed closure," he said.
Last month, more than four decades after the crash, he got what he needed: He
and his grandson, Chris, hiked to the crash site.
They were led there by a group of wreck finders, headed by G. Pat Macha, 61, a
Mission Viejo resident and retired history and geography teacher at Hawthorne
High School. A few years ago, his team started Project Remembrance, helping
family members place memorials at crash sites. The project is part of a larger
plan to put stone markers at places where military men and women lost their
lives in noncombat missions. The project is sponsored in part by the Western
Museum of Flight in Hawthorne.
"We search crash sites for the same reason people search for shipwrecks," Macha
said. "They are historical sites that need protection. I ask people not to
remove anything when they visit crash sites, but when it's family, they're
In 1965, the year after Rex Corder's plane crashed, Macha was 19 and working at
a YMCA camp at Barton Flats in the San Bernardino Mountains when he stumbled
across the crashed plane. He took photographs and marked down the longitude and
"I remember thinking just a little higher, or just a little farther west, and he
would have made it. . . . But it wasn't until I met Jeff and saw his dad's
picture [that I] realized how devastating this was for Jeff and his family." The
official report attributed the crash to controller error.
Thereafter, on his weekends and vacations, Macha began to look through
government reports and newspaper clippings to find accounts of plane crashes,
military and civilian, in California. In time, his sleuthing hobby became a
guidebook, "Aircraft Wrecks in the Mountains and Desert of California
One of the earliest California crashes, in March 1909, was that of a hot-air
balloon in the San Gabriel Mountains. The sightseeing balloon carrying five
passengers drifted from Pasadena into the mountains and crashed on snow-covered
The pilot and his passengers hiked to a nearby ranch for help. The gondola was
visible on the mountainside for decades, but fires and the ravages of time
eventually erased the last trace.
Macha, whose detective work of pinpointing a crash site is partly an obsession
and partly about doing a good deed for bereaved families, has visited more than
400 of the 1,200 sites in his book.
"Unlike a car crash, where the wreck is removed and forgotten, many plane wrecks
are still there," Macha said.
Several relatives of the crash victims, including Jeff Corder's family, have
installed personal memorial plaques at the sites. Macha started his memorial
mission by burying metal canisters at the sites of nearly a dozen crashes. Each
canister holds lists of crew members' names and ages, photos and copies of
newspaper clippings and military reports that Macha and his team of volunteers
have had laminated to preserve them.
He placed the first canister in 1970. Macha was inspired to bury his first
"memorial statement" -- a handwritten note in a Tupperware container -- at the
spot where, in 1969, a Navy SP-2E Neptune plane crashed in the Santa Ana
Mountains in Orange County, killing all seven men onboard.
The Tupperware was happenstance. "That's all I had," Macha said. He found live
bombs, which he informed the military about, and some of the crew's personal
belongings, including uniform pieces, a flight manual signed by the pilot,
shaving kit items and uniform insignia, all left behind for the military to pick
The crew had come from the Midwest to train, and a combination of weather and
inexperience flying around mountains doomed the flight.
"It just got me. . . . I had to say something, leave something," Macha said.
The first Project Remembrance stone marker will go up next year, commemorating
84 people who died in another Orange County military crash, the county's worst
In June 1965, a C-135 transport, the military version of a Boeing 707, was bound
for Vietnam, carrying 72 Marines and a 12-man Air Force crew, when it slammed
into Loma Ridge near Irvine Lake after taking off from El Toro Marine Corps Air
Station. Official reports blamed the accident on weather, darkness and pilot
Macha and his crew of volunteers, while investigating that Orange County crash
site a few weeks ago, found two dog tags attached to a short chain and engraved:
"H. D. Hall Jr. USMC, Presbyterian."
The tags had lain untouched for decades, overlooked by the Marines who had
retrieved the bodies and hauled away the wreckage.
"We're hoping the survivors of the victim will come forward to claim these
items," Macha said. According to Times files, his name was Lance Cpl. Howard D.
Hall, son of Mrs. Hazel Grant of Winfield, Kan.
Visiting a crash site often is painful for the victims' relatives.
That's how it was for Corder, a photographer and artist who owns his own
flooring and carpet company, like his father before him. Like his father, he
also is a pilot.
"My mother quickly remarried, and it wasn't good for me. . . . My father had
nurtured me in that plane, and I never got over his death," Corder said.
Just last month, more than 43 years after the crash that killed his father,
Corder had a dream.
"It was so vivid. My father and I were getting ready to take off from Bracket
Field in La Verne, where he kept his plane and taught me how to fly. It was a
glinting moment, so profound with this bright orange sunset."
He woke up, shaken, Corder said, and immediately began to "Google the crash."
Corder found Macha's book and aircraftwrecks.com website. He contacted
"It was like God was directing me," Corder said. Within days, Macha led Corder
to the site.
Sometimes crash sites have been scrubbed clean by the elements or picked over by
scavengers. But the San Bernardino Mountain site was untouched.
Macha and his crew found scattered among the rocks the wings and tail of the
plane and coins minted years before. Corder attached a tiny brass plaque to part
of the wreck in memory of his father.
The son said that sitting alone at the site brought him peace: "I can't explain
it. . . . All of a sudden, this peacefulness came over me, and I bawled like a
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times