The Crash and Salvage Operation of an Piasecki H21 US Army Helicopter in the Cascade Mountains of Washington in June 1960.
This was written in May 2009; 49 years after the event. I was 16 years old. I am now 66. Many of the memories are vivid today, but time plays tricks on one, so the reader must understand this is a narrative of events that may contain errors, but the general theme of the article is true.
On Monday, January 12th 1959, a U.S. Army L20 Beaver (32806) flying from Ellensburg, AAF, Washington to McChord, AFB, near Tacoma, went missing. The aircraft was piloted by Capt. Wade L. Shankle Jr. and had one passenger, Pvt. John A. Ardussi.
The Ellensburg Daily Record reported the missing plane and the following air search, which found nothing.
§ Jan 13, 59 – Air search seeks lost plane, crew
§ Jan 14, 59 - Ellensburg pilots join search
§ Jan 15, 59 - Search moves back to Stehekin
§ Jan 20, 59 - Search moves to Mazama area
That summer two hunters noticed sunlight reflecting off something on a nearby mountain and investigated. They found the L20 Beaver, which was mostly buried under snow. It was located about 14 miles north of Stehekin, Washington and approximately 95 miles North of Ellensburg at the head Lake Chelan; almost 90° off course.
The US Army sent in a recovery team on an H21 (7935C) from Ft. Lewis, WA, but during the recovery the H21 crashed in a draw when it was caught in a down draft as it attempted to take off from a meadow about 250 feet below the Beaver’s location.
They flew in another H21 to repair the downed H21. It also crashed, but was repaired and flown out. The Army decided to send in a pack train of mules to complete the recovery project. They first H21 was abandoned. It had a large yellow, X on it, which, perhaps, is the international symbol for an abandoned aircraft.
Later that same summer an apple picker, who had previously worked on aircraft salvage operations, heard about the crash while working in Wenatchee. He travelled to Stehekin and walked to the crash site. He collected some parts off both aircraft, which he had hoped to sell, but as he headed back to Stehekin, he was caught in a snowstorm and was forced discarded the heavier parts, which were later recovered in June 1960.
The fellow contacted his old bosses who were based out of Los Angeles and told them of the two abandoned US Army aircraft. They flew to Stehekin and made their way to the crash sites, where they determined the H21 was salvageable.
The Salvage Operation
The head of the salvage operations was a huge man whose nickname was "Swede". He had worked on previous salvage operations with a man named Mac who owned a small aircraft repair company, Airepair, in Stockton, CA. He contacted Mac at Airepair and a deal was done on the recovery of the H21.
My Father, Maurice Eugene Whitmer, worked for Airepair as a sheet metal mechanic. He was selected by Mac to head up the team, which consisted of three mechanics (Rich Walters, Clay and Jolly), a cook (my Mother, Nelma Ballard Whitmer) and a roustabout (me, Gene Whitmer). My Father had insisted to Mac that my Mom and I go as well.
The team met up in Chelan, Washington the first of June. My Father was flown to Stehekin and on to the crash site while the remainder of the team took the ferry. We were all flown to the camp site in a Bell helicopter owned by A.K. Platt of Chelan I was the last in. I think I arrived at the camp site on 6 June. I remember seeing a Winter Wonderland as we circled the camp site and landed. The snow was close to six feet deep.
When the H21 crashed, it landed on its right side. The team got it upright, built large, wooden sleds, which were placed under each wheel. The H21 was then winched down the mountain draw, tail first, to a flat area snow covered meadow.
At the far end of the flat area was a small grove of fur trees on what appeared to be a small knoll. It was decided to shove out the snow and bring the H21 into the tree grove using the trees for the base of the wench. There was guess worked involved as they could not determine the terrain under the snow. As it turned out the two rear wheels rested on the ground and they cobbled up a tree stumps to support the nose wheel.
Repairing the H21.
Although confidant that the H21 could be overhauled and flown out, there was no guarantee. There was the problem of obtaining parts such as the rotor blades. There was much involved with the salvage job that was beyond my understanding, but I know it was complicated and risky – airframe, transmission, drive train and engine – all had to be checked and overhauled.
At the end of six weeks, the first test of the engine was conducted by Jolly, the engine mechanic. We all gather around the H21 early in the morning while Jolly sat in the cockpit and prepared for the big moment. He held down on the starter button, the rotors began to turn, the engine made several loud bangs, smoke shot out of the exhausts and then it caught. Jolly only let the engine run a short bit and then he shut it down. The fuel had been flown in and it couldn’t be wasted. Also, Jolly had to do another engine check to see if the running of the engine had sprung links or caused any damage. The drive train and transmission also had to be double checked.
A.K. Platt flew in every couple of days bringing in food, supplies and parts. About three weeks into the operation we got a call on the radio that A.K. had crashed while fighting a forest fire. It took about five days to find a replacement. I don’t recall his name, but he was a young guy and when he flew in the first time he did several sweeps to get the lay of the land while someone on the team kept pointing to the landing spot. We all rushed the chopper when he landed. I am afraid we scared him a bit. He was exArmy from Alabama, chewed tobacco.
Once the green light was given, the test pilot was flown in. His name was Kruger. He did test flights on repaired aircraft for Airepair and other aviation companies. As I recall, he and the Swede came in later that day. A photographer also came into to record the event. (never saw the film). The photographer had been on the Ploeste Oil Field Raid in WWII. I remember these guys sitting around in the tent telling war stories. Remember, each flight in could only bring one passenger.
The next morning, my Mom was flown out first, then me followed by my Dad. On my flight out, as we neared Stehekin, the Alabama pilot told me to hang on. He cut the engine at about 2,000 feet. We dropped like a rock. He engaged it again and we did a fast fly-by of the beach for the benefit of all the girls. He got a big kick out of that. I sure he wouldn’t have done it with anyone else, but with me being a young kid…what the hell. When I got out of the chopper, the big LA boss was there. Pulled out a roll of $100 bills and gave me 4. Big money for a 16 year kid for six weeks work back in June 1960. I do not know how much my Father made or my Mother. But despite some conflicts among the team, it was something my folks always talked about a pride. Gets back the The Greatest Generation thing.
I think Jolly and the other two mechanics stayed to see the lift off and solved any last minute problems. We took the Lake Chelan ferry from Stehekin to Chelan. We stayed at a motel where Swedes’ wife was. We visited A.K.’s home, which overlooked the beautiful lake.
We then drove back to Manteca, California. I never got to see the H21 fly. We heard later that Kruger was to fly the H21 to a spot near Stehekin and from there it would be taken by a barge to Chelan for shipment by rail to Los Angeles. Swede had to fly out with Kruger (requirement of the insurance company) and instead of stopping in Stehekin, Kruger fly straight to Chelan. He said the H21 could have flown to Los Angeles.
The salvage company rented out the H21 to the film studies (Kruger evidently appeared in some movies.) and for any other type of work or project that required a large helicopter. I doubt that there were many around at the time.
Thanks to the Internet the story can be told. It is a hell of a story.
Random Facts, Thoughts and Questions:
o Found Capt. Shankle’s watch in the cockpit of the wrecked L20. No band, just the watch and it was corroded, but the inscription on the back was still readable. I don’t recall what that was if in fact there was anything, but it did note his rank and name.
o While doing this article, I discovered that Captain Shankle’s family lived in Springfield, CA; about 60 miles from Manteca. His wife’s name was Priscilla. He had five children. The children are probably alive today.
o Capt Shankle is buried at Arlington Cemetery. Links has more personal info - http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=Shankle&GSst=48&GRid=8880165&
o Capt Shankle’s Father was career military.
o It is a mystery why the L20 was so far off course. The Ellensburg Daily Newspaper mentions that a distress call was received in Stehekin. It is not know if it was from the L20.
o While I waited to fly to the crash site, I hung out at the local café. All the talk was about the salvage operation. The locals assumed something happened to Capt Shankle and that Ardussi was flying the plane until it crashed.
o My Father told me that it appeared the L20 crashed with its engine off. It is assumed they ran out of fuel.
o The L20 itself did not appear that seriously damaged. The impact of the snow going into the cockpit probably killed Shankle and Ardussi.
o No additional information on Ardussi. It is assumed he was from the Seattle/Tacoma area.
o Hiking groups now go into the area. Internet sites with photos of these hikers. No mention of a down L20. Where is it?
o Internet search only finds the Ellensburg Daily Record newspaper having articles about the missing L20.