Klamath Falls airport had an unusual, lethal run of bad luck
In the past 75 years, there have been only four lethal commercial-airliner crashes. By an odd statistical fluke, two of those happened to planes flying out of the airport in Klamath Falls.
By Finn J.D. John — December 10, 2017
The Crater Lake-Klamath Regional Airport in Klamath Falls has a lot going for it. As Kingsley Air National Guard Base, it’s the home of the Oregon Air National Guard’s 173rd Fighter Wing, flying F-15s. It’s categorized as a primary commercial service airport, with a comfortable, modern terminal for passengers to wait in for their flights.
And, by one of those odd statistical coincidences common with small datasets, it’s the plane-crash capital of the state of Oregon.
This, of course, doesn’t mean any passenger has a higher risk of crashing flying out of Klamath Falls. But, of the four major commercial air crashes that have happened on Oregon soil since 1945, two of them happened there: one in 1967, and another in 1979.
West Coast Airlines Flight 720:
The morning of March 10, 1967, started very early for the flight crew of West Coast Airlines Flight 720, one of the Fairchild F-27 turboprop planes still commonly used by small regional carriers. Actually, it had already started when the plane first touched down in Klamath Falls at 12:35 a.m. for the start of its scheduled flight — to Seattle via Medford, North Bend, and Portland.
The airplane was pushed into a hangar for its weekly maintenance check. Meanwhile, pilot Dale Anderson, copilot Doyle Zieders, and stewardess Connie Berryman drove to Klamath Falls to check into a hotel and get some rest. Flight 720 was scheduled to take off less than four hours later.
At 3:50 a.m., the hotel front desk rang their rooms for a wake-up call, and the bleary-eyed flight crew was back at the airport half an hour later. The weather, which had been miserable enough when they flew in, had taken a turn for the worse. Snow was falling, mixed with rain. When they arrived at the terminal, they found just one passenger waiting for them there: Klamath Falls resident Paul Phelps.
The crew drove out to the hangar where the airplane stood, and the pilot performed all his usual pre-flight checks. Everything seemed to be in good order. Phelps climbed aboard, and the tractor backed in and started to tow the big turboprop to the taxiway.
But by now there were several inches of snow on the ground, and the tractor, when it got to the door of the hangar, just started spinning its wheels. Ground crew members got snow shovels and cleared a path for it; but it took another 11 minutes to get the plane into position. All this time snow and ice were building up on the plane.
Finally, about 10 minutes late, the plane was ready for takeoff, and Anderson opened the throttles.
Anderson clearly knew he had a problem on his hands the minute the plane left the runway. It was pulling heavily to the left the whole time. The tire tracks it left in the snow going down the runway formed a great elongated “J,” with the left track stretching 45 feet beyond the spot where the right wheel left the tarmac.
As the plane climbed higher into the snowy night sky, it was clear that the pilot was having increasing difficulty controlling it. The overarching theme of the evening was “turn left.” The plane would drift left, then the pilot would try to correct it with sharp turns to the right; but always the aircraft would go back to drifting left, as if there were a great magnet embedded in the side of Stukel Mountain drawing them in.
About two minutes into the flight, Anderson seems to have realized he had no idea what his ground position was. After all the swerving back and forth, fighting the plane’s increasing mania for left turns, he no longer had a sense for where the plane was. And the view out the windshield was just a blur of flying snow.
“I don’t know where [expletive deleted] the hills are,” he said to Zeiders. Then he got on the radio to the tower. “Get us on radar, real quick,” he said.
The traffic controller in the tower advised him to call in on a different frequency; the radar set was next door in the Air National Guard base.
There was no reply. Three seconds earlier, the airplane had slammed into the side of Stukel Mountain.
There were, of course, no survivors, so the contents of the cockpit voice recorder and data recorder were the closest to an eyewitness account that could be expected. But the plane had just had a maintenance service, literally minutes before it left the ground; clearly mechanical issues could be ruled out.
The conclusion the investigators came to was ice. The aircraft, while it was being towed into position so that the engines could be started, had accumulated a buildup of snow and slush; the worsening weather had dropped the temperature down low enough that that mixture froze in place. Then, as the plane flew on into the storm, more and more of the now-freezing rain splattered onto the wing surfaces, making the airplane harder and harder to control until at last it just slammed into the mountain.
Butler Aircraft Tanker No. 69:
The other flight out of Klamath Falls that ended in disaster was, in fact, the second-worst commercial plane crash in Oregon history. It was a Butler Aircraft DC-7 aerial-firefighting tanker, which at around 8:50 p.m. on Sept. 14, 1979, clipped the top of Surveyor Mountain while flying a group of employees to a company barbecue in Medford.
Butler Aircraft is an air-services company in Redmond that specializes in airborne fire suppression, with a fleet of retired passenger airliners fitted with dump tanks. When you see a photo, during fire season, of a big four-engine airplane belching out crimson billows of fire-suppression fluid over the top of an active forest fire, it’s often a Butler Aircraft plane.
And Butler Aircraft Tanker No. 69 was typical of the type. It was a Douglas DC-7, the last piston-engined airliner Douglas built and one of the biggest. No. 69 was built in 1954, and flew for several different airlines before Butler Aircraft bought it in 1973 and replaced most of its passenger and cargo space with a dump tank.
On the afternoon of Sept. 14, 1979, Tanker 69 was in Redmond on standby. Although there were still a few active wildfires being worked on, the fire season had slowed down, the end was in sight, and the company was holding a big barbecue party in Medford that night to celebrate.
Tanker 69 had been called up that afternoon to dump fire retardant on a fire, so it was late getting out of Redmond. By the time it landed at Klamath Falls, the barbecue in Medford, 75 miles away, had already started. Hastily they loaded two additional Butler Aircraft employees aboard, bringing the total to 10 employee-passengers plus the pilot and copilot. Then they took off and headed for Medford and the party.
There are high mountains between Klamath Falls and Medford. The usual routine for a flight between the towns is to climb to 10,000 feet or so before making the journey. That is not what the crew of Tanker 69 chose to do. Why, we can only speculate; but they were already late for the party, so chances are they wanted to save flight time.
Whatever the reason, the big airliner set about flying to Medford not too far above treetop level. One witness remembers seeing the big bird roaring overhead at roughly 750 feet above the ground.
And then, as they reached the crest of Surveyor Mountain some 25 miles into their flight, their luck ran out — and in one giant fireball, Butler Aircraft’s employee roster was reduced from 18 to 6.
In a final note of irony, the crash that killed these 12 wildland firefighters ignited a small forest fire. This, fortunately, burned itself out after consuming just five acres.
(Sources: National Transportation Safety Board reports AAR68-AD and AAR80-09; Portland Morning Oregonian back issues, March 1967 and September 1979)
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