Aircraft Wrecks in the Mountains and Deserts of the American West

This Article Appeared in the Orange County Register, July 16, 2005
Link to the Orange County Register


Ranger finds history piece by piece
Plane parts in Aliso park are linked to the pilot, who happens to be in Laguna Beach.


To the untrained eye, they look like they could be pieces of scrap metal, bits from an old junkyard car.

But when park ranger Tom Maloney noticed them sitting atop the charred vegetation at Aliso and Wood Canyon Wilderness Park after a brush fire last month, he knew he had found something unique.

"I said, 'Whoa, that is not a car, that's not a boat. That's aircraft,' " Maloney said.

The way the bolts were screwed into the aluminum was a giveaway. Only aircraft require bolts to be held that tightly.

But where had the parts come from? How old were they? And, perhaps most importantly, what had become of the plane's pilot?

The answers were surprisingly simple to find.

The Pilot

Retired Maj. Ben Williams had faced death many times as a Marine pilot.

There were the two times in Vietnam when his helicopter was shot down. And the 863 separate combat missions he flew. And the dangerous maneuvers he made as an aerial demonstration pilot at air shows.

"I was immortal when I was young," he said. "Today, you couldn't pay me to do what I've done."

Then there was March 15, 1986, when the engine in his OA-4M Skyhawk attack jet died as he was heading to his home base of El Toro after a training mission in Phoenix. Williams and co-pilot Tom Chasfin bailed out just before the plane crashed into a barley field near what is now Cedarbrook and Aliso Viejo Parkway in Aliso Viejo.

Both men walked away from the crash.

"Basically, it's like being born, if you could remember being born," Williams said.

Williams, who was training to become a jet pilot after years of flying helicopters, retired from the Marines in 1988. He worked as a commercial pilot for American Airlines for 13 years, and now runs the Aviation Arts Gallery in Laguna Beach.

The Process

After brush fires, Maloney frequently heads out to the sites to look for treasures among the ashes. He's found bits of local history in his 20 years in the park service, from Indian relics to artifacts from the old Moulton Ranch.

This wasn't the first time Maloney had found airplane parts. In 1998, he found pieces of a World War II aircraft after a brush fire at the Top of the World area of the wilderness park.

He kept them in a box in his office until G. Pat Macha, one of the few aviation archaeologists in the United States, came in looking for information on a plane that crashed in 1944. Maloney showed Macha the aircraft parts he had found. While it wasn't the plane Macha was looking for, Macha identified the parts as pieces of a plane involved in a midair collision in 1946.

Since that discovery, Maloney has accompanied Macha on many wreck-site expeditions. So, when Maloney found the plane pieces in June, he called Macha.

"I was very excited, because I am still trying to put the sites in this area together," said Macha, who lives in Huntington Beach. "It was just very important to be able to come out, meet Tom, look at the parts."

Macha thought the pieces could come from several sources, including a 1945 midair collision. But "the minute I saw those parts, I knew it was late-generation jet," Macha said.

Macha went to his library and researched newspaper clippings and government records, looking for known crashes in the area that matched the approximate age of the plane pieces. It wasn't too long before he figured out the parts were from Ben Williams' OA-4M jet.

The same Ben Williams who runs the gallery in Laguna Beach.

"All of the sudden, it became a very small world," Macha said. Williams was surprised to get the call that Macha had identified pieces of the jet. He thought everything had been swept up, "scrapped in a dump somewhere" with the rest of the plane.

The three men - Maloney, Macha and Williams - met Wednesday at the site where Maloney found the aircraft bits. And as Macha does whenever he finds bits of planes, he gave Williams the pieces of his old OA-4M aircraft.

Williams plans on putting the two pieces up on the wall at his gallery, on either side of an aerial photograph of the plane shortly after it crashed.

"It closes the loop, to have a piece," Williams said. "I'm not even going to clean them up."

For Macha and Maloney, it is another bit of aviation history they worked together to identify.

"The crash information is another historic resource for our local community, and we're trying to preserve and protect it for our future," Maloney said. "There are still some other mysteries out there still to be solved."


Copyright 2005 Orange County Register



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