Aircraft Wrecks in the Mountains and Deserts of the American West

This Article Appeared in the Glendale News Press, March 20, 2007
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Historian makes airplane wrecks his business

Man has made a study of the many crashes in the state's mountains and desert regions.

By Ryan Vaillancourt

LA CRESCENTA More than 80 eager history enthusiasts assembled at the monthly meeting of the Crescenta Valley Historical Society on Tuesday to hear from a rare breed of historians: an aviation archaeologist.

Using old newspaper clips and archived Army and Navy records, G. Pat Macha researches aircraft wrecks in remote areas mostly mountains and deserts and tries to piece together the back story of each crash.

"As long as people have been flying, there have been mishaps," Macha said.

Long before he became a high school history and geography teacher in Hawthorne, Calif., Macha got his start in aviation archaeology by chance.

In the summer of 1962, when he was in high school, Macha landed a summer job as a camp counselor at YMCA Camp Conrad in San Bernardino County. As the designated hike master, he led day trips up
Mt. Gorgonio, or Old Gray Back.

"After a while, I got sick and tired of going the same old way," Macha said.

To break up the monotony, Macha took a new route down the mountain one day and came across a piece of wreckage that changed his life.

Gleaming in the sun was the battered metal of an Air Force C-47 transport aircraft a stark reminder of a little-known tragedy.

"When we came up on the crash, everyone was silent," Macha said. "I didn't know what had happened, when it happened or why it happened, but you bet I wanted to find out."

It wasn't long before he found an old newspaper clipping that told the story the young Air Force pilot was flying in a blinding snowstorm and likely crashed into Old Gray Back just after he saw it, Macha said.

Since that fateful summer day on Old Gray Back, Macha has visited "hundreds and hundreds" of wrecks in the mountains and deserts of California, he said.

His book, "Aircraft Wrecks in the Mountains and Deserts of California: 1909-2002," co-authored by Don Jordan, details 1,600 wreck sites, he said.

Macha has built such a reputation for prowess in the subject that military officials doing their own research turn to him. But in addition to learning how to find and document the crashes, he has also developed a captivating public-speaking persona, many in Tuesday's audience said.

"He makes history come alive," said Danette Erickson, treasurer of the Historical Society of La Crescenta. "Boy wouldn't you love to have been in his class?"

Before the packed crowd at the La Crescenta Church of Religious Science, Macha zipped through slides depicting fallen planes, some at the hands of inclement weather, others due to inexperience of pilots.

"A lot of people don't realize that during World War II, more than 35,000 air men and women lost their lives in routine training in and around the continental
United States," Macha said. "In those days, they were training so many pilots and there was a high accident rate."

Macha said his work has a dual role. Primarily, he hopes his research and presentations will help current pilots avoid the bad judgment that led to many of the wrecks he has visited. Secondarily, his work is about preservation, he said.

"There's a lot of history in our hills, mountains and valleys and we want to preserve as much of it as we can," Macha said.


Copyright 2007 Glendale News Press


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