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Photo by Keith MayAt the Top of the World, you can sit on a bench and watch the Pacific Ocean roll toward Laguna Beach. Or you can turn around and look into the deep, hazy crevasses that form Aliso Canyon. Then you can stand up, walk not quite 50 paces off the main paved trail, and peer down into a crater produced when a World War II fighter plane slammed into the ridge.
The crash itself is a mystery; when it happened and why—even the identity of the pilot and his fate—are unknown. What is known is that sometime 50 or so years ago, a Corsair fighter departing from the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station hit the Top of the World ridge with such force that the plane was destroyed. All that's left today are scattered shards of aluminum and steel and the hole—a 10-foot-wide, five-foot-deep crater dug into the earth by the plane's enormous, 2,000-horsepower engine.
Gary Patric Macha, a 56-year-old Huntington Beach resident, Hawthorne High School teacher and professional wreck finder, hopes to solve the mystery. On the first sunny weekend of March, after weeks of rain have coaxed bright green grass from the normally bare dirt of the crash site, he and his wife, Mary Jane, are working to discover some small clue as to what happened.
"This is a classic site," says Macha as he sets out his survey gear near the hole—his metal detector; geologist's hammer; gardening shovel; and some small, colored, Home Depot flags for marking hot spots. "But there's no story yet. Maybe if I can find one of the plane's data plates, we can find out what exactly we're dealing with."
Numerous data plates—small metal tags engraved with the plane's make, model and serial number—are mounted on the fuselage and tail of every aircraft. They are like industrial fingerprints. Finding just one of the plates would tell Macha much about the plane that crashed here. But this is what Macha calls a microsite: less than 2 percent of the plane still remains. He figures the Marines hauled most of the wreckage back to El Toro not long after the crash. That makes finding a data plate unlikely.
"During the Second World War, planes were literally falling out of the sky every day," Macha had said earlier at his home office. "During the war, more pilots died training in the United States than in combat overseas."
Records from that era are incomplete —there was a war on, after all—but military-service historians say it's likely Macha is correct.
"I wouldn't say it's much of a stretch," says Mark Evans, a curator at the U.S. Naval Aviation Historical Office in Washington, D.C. "The losses in the U.S. were considerable. The haste was incredible. You're talking about tens of thousands of guys flying who'd never even seen the inside of an aircraft before."
"The military was using people who were overwhelmed or just not trained," Macha says in his relaxed baritone. "The accident rate was still high into the 1950s. So many planes were lost doing textbook things you just shouldn't be doing: flying up canyons or in bad weather."
Macha has been at this for 40 years, and he recently compiled his methodical accounting of hundreds of crashes into a book, 1997's Aircraft Wrecks: In the Mountains and Deserts of California 1909-1996. The earliest entry lists a sightseeing balloon that crashed near Pasadena in 1909; the last is the crash of an experimental, home-built aircraft that went down in a San Diego mountain range in late 1996, killing both men onboard.
The book gives some insight into Macha's motivation for searching out crash sites. "Airplane wrecks that remain for years undisturbed provide us with a sobering opportunity to consider the power of nature and the mistaken judgments of man," he writes.
"Mistaken judgments." These innocuous-sounding words often lead to violent and fatal events. Macha has seen the results. "Ninety-nine percent of what I see is due to pilot error," he says.
His wife often sees that with him. His 33-year-old son and 32-year-old daughter—and their respective children —sometimes come along, too. Visiting the sites of fallen aircraft has become a kind of Macha family hobby.
Macha isn't an outraged man, thrusting burnt debris in front of officials as he denounces government arrogance; when he speaks before aviation buffs, he delivers his crash stories quietly. The hundreds of sites he picks through are lessons for the future, he says. Find enough sites, tell enough stories, teach enough lessons, he says, and perhaps pilots will stop doing the stupid things that get them killed.
His home office contains a lifetime of such stories. Aircraft photos and artwork adorn the walls, and dozens of thick blue binders filled with photos, slides and wreckage bits—including numerous data plates—from hundreds of California sites line one wall. In one corner stands an arrester hook taken from a wrecked World War II Navy dive-bomber.
He says his unusual hobby started in 1963 while he was working as a hike master at Mount San Gorgonio in eastern San Bernardino County. One day, tired of leading Boy Scouts down the same trail each visit, Macha blazed a new one—straight into the carcass of a C-47 that had crashed 11 years earlier.