The Wreckfinder

No plane crash is too small or too old for Gary Patric Macha

"The plane was mostly intact," he says. "We found parachutes and uniforms. It astonished me. I wanted to know what happened, why it had crashed. I did some research and found out that 13 men had died but only 12 bodies were ever found."

The missing body gave rise to ghost stories that are still told at the local Boy Scout camp, but it also spurred Macha to ask about other crash sites. He didn't have to travel far. In recent years, Mount San Gorgonio has acquired a reputation as a sort of Rat Pack trap. In addition to the wrecked C-47, the mountain is also the site of the plane crash that killed Frank Sinatra's mother in 1977 and the Phantom jet crash that killed Dean Martin's son a decade later.

Since then, there have been countless family vacations-qua-weekends spent tracking down aerial accident scenes, working on the aforementioned book, attending speaking engagements, and consulting for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on crash-site locations. He's in charge of the search for Lieutenant Gertrude Tompkins Silver, the only Women's Air Force Service Pilot still listed as missing from World War II. (Macha believes the brand-new P-51 fighter she was flying out of Mines Field in LA is sitting at the bottom of Santa Monica Bay.) And he's on the advisory team looking for the most famous crash site of all time: the wreck of Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra that vanished during her 1937 around-the-world flight.

Photo by Keith May

Back in Laguna, Macha takes a moment to look out over vast Aliso Canyon. "Two dive-bombers midaired out there," he says. "They're still missing."

The search for those wrecks—probably buried beneath chaparral—first brought Macha to the Top of the World a few months ago. He asked an Aliso & Woods park ranger about the bombers; the ranger shrugged and directed Macha to this site. An initial survey turned up bits of metal stamped "VS": Vought-Sikorsky, the company that made Navy and Marine Corsair fighters during the war, but not dive-bombers.

But those bombers—which Macha has already identified—will have to wait until he's finished reassembling the Corsair crash.

Macha's routine is simple. First, he passes the metal detector over the ground until it chirps. Then he feels the area with his gloved hand to see if the metal is on the surface. If not, he picks at the dirt with his geology hammer until he pulls out whatever shard or bit lies beneath it. Then he replaces the dirt, gets back on his feet and starts again. As he does so, it's easy to start looking at the ground yourself, hoping to spot some stray glint of metal that might finally solve the mystery.

Macha's previous inspections of this site have already yielded a number of clues. Judging by the fact that he found debris on both sides of the ridge—inland and oceanside—Macha concluded the Corsair was traveling pretty fast when it hit. The depth of the impact crater told him the crash was most likely fatal. Macha also found propeller bits farther down the canyon side of the ridge. "That means he shed pieces of the propeller as he was climbing," he says.

The debris has also told him a good deal about the plane. The large chunk of rusted armor plate and broken machine-gun belt feed confirmed it was a warplane. He has found an inspection stamp that identifies the plane as one of the 12,571 Corsair fighters built during and after the war. Mary Jane then discovers an aluminum fitting—an inch on each side, with three holes and one still-mounted rivet painted light blue, indicating that this plane was produced during the war; most of the other parts they recover are painted midnight blue—used only on Navy and Marine Corps aircraft from 1945 to 1955.

Mary Jane's find is particularly interesting to Macha. The holes are distorted and the fitting is bent, suggesting the shattering violence of the crash. Clearly, the impact bent, twisted and pulled every part of the plane. It's natural to look at this broken piece of metal and wonder: What did the crash do to the flesh, muscle and bones of the pilot?

What's strange is that nothing among the discoveries bears any evidence of a fire or explosion; it's strange because if Macha is right—if this plane crashed shortly after takeoff—the Corsair would have gone down with two wings full of aviation gasoline.

From Macha's findings so far, it's possible to construct a crash scenario: it's near the end of World War II or within a decade of war's end. A young Marine pilot wearing the old leather flying helmet and goggles of the era, the roar of the Pratt & Whitney engine in his ears, is flying through hazy, mist-covered hills on his way from El Toro to the coast. "He comes out of El Toro fast," Macha says of the Corsair's doomed pilot. "Possibly, he doesn't know the area." Maybe there's a storm. Maybe he's bored or tired or isn't paying attention to his altitude indicator. Suddenly, the haze/mist/clouds part like a curtain to reveal one of the highest ridges in the San Joaquin Foothills—perhaps there's a flash of green-brown sage and blond earth. The pilot pulls back violently on the stick and feels the plane shudder as the propeller tips chop into the soil. In another instant, nothing.

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