The Wreckfinder

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."

Photo by Keith May

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."

Some of the wrecks are more substantial,
like this one found in Southern California

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.

"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.

"Maybe he was trying to make that notch in the ridge," says Macha. "He almost made it."

In mid-February, Macha spoke at the Sea Country Community Center in Laguna Niguel before a crowd of 30 who braved a steady rainstorm. He sold autographed copies of his book and displayed bits of aircraft he'd pulled from sites. He showed crash slides and told crash stories for nearly an hour. One of the slides shows Macha standing near wreckage on which someone, probably one of the victims' relatives, had spray-painted "I love you DAD."

Macha's book says there are more than 1,400 such crash sites in the state. More than 70 of those are in Orange County, and most of those are obscured under the thick chaparral of the Santa Ana Mountains.

The book itself is a surprisingly compelling read considering it's nothing more than a long list of laconic statements about each crash site:

9/17/62. Ercoupe N93758 crashed on Trabuco Mesa, killing both persons onboard. Though unmarked, this wreck is still visible today.

2/11/69. Lockheed SP-2E No. 131487 of the U.S. Navy Reserve crashed while doing touch-and-gos at USMC Air Station El Toro. Heavy clouds obscured the Santa Ana Mountains at the time of the accident. All seven crewmen were killed on impact at the 2,800-foot level of Santiago Canyon. Most of this wreck has been removed, but large amounts of unmarked debris remain.

Sometimes, one entry will bleed into the next:

3/31/67. Cessna 172 N7172T crashed in bad weather at the 4,200-foot level of east Santiago Peak, killing two persons onboard. Wreckage is marked and visible.

4/16/67. Navion F N91734 crashed and burned at the 4,500-foot level of Santiago Peak, killing all four men onboard. This was a Civil Air Patrol search aircraft engaged in overflying the recently discovered Cessna 172 that crashed on 3/31/67. Wreckage located on east slope of Santa Ana Mountains just NW of the C-172.

"I'm sorry to say that my book—even though I didn't provide directions —has helped speed the removal of some wrecks," Macha says. "There was a very old version of the B-17 bomber at Idyllwild that has been completely raked clean."

Macha and his wife have been inspecting the Corsair site for nearly two hours now. In that time, not one of the many passing hikers and mountain bikers has come over to ask what this guy with the metal detector and archaeology flags is doing just off the main trail. Macha's not surprised. In his previous four trips up here, he says, a passerby approached him just once.

But now he has found something—a three-inch-long piece of twisted strapping covered in midnight-blue paint. Rubbing away the dirt reveals an inspection stamp. A closer look reveals an M, then the number 72 and the number 32.

"Let's hang on to this guy for kicks," says Macha, but it's clear the piece tells him nothing new. Just about every one of the thousands of pieces that makes up a plane carries an inspection stamp. The identity of the plane itself remains unknown.

Macha didn't find the Corsair data plate, but he plans to head back to the site soon. He has asked the Laguna Beach Historical Society whether anyone recalls the time a Marine Corps Corsair crashed into the Top of the World, but so far, he hasn't heard anything.

For now, the story of the Corsair and the identity of its pilot will remain unknown. Macha intends to start all over again in Aliso Canyon, looking for the dive-bombers that brought him to Laguna in the first place.


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