The plane crash at the top of the mountain

The plane crash at the top of the mountain

50 years ago, a small plane was lost within sight of the Cranbrook airport. What went wrong?

At 8:20 in morning of September 22, 1970, a Cessna 337 Skymaster aircraft flying in from Hillsboro, Oregon, near Portland, made contact with the Cranbrook airport, reporting that it was at 11,000 feet and about to begin its approach. But then, something went terribly wrong.

The plane, with four men from the Portland area on board, had left Hillsboro at 6 a.m., and had flown up to Canada into a cold, foggy morning. Approaching Cranbrook from the west at about 180 miles an hour, the pilot, co-pilot and two passengers suddenly saw trees looming out of the fog in front of them.

The pilot pulled back hard and boosted power to bring the plane up and over the trees, but it was a fraction of a second too late. The tail of the plane clipped the largest tree in its way — a larch — cartwheeled through the smaller trees around it, and crashed on the downward slope of a mountainside above Perry Creek, within sight of the airport.

The men on board were killed instantly —pilot Jack Jensen, co-pilot Michael Sergeant, and Clifford Myers, who was flying into Cranbrook on a business trip, accompanied by Donald Books.

A massive air search got underway immediately, facilitated by the fact that there was already a search in progress for another missing plane, another Cessna reported lost in the region 18 days earlier, with two men from Halifax on board.

Over the next few days, the search area grew to encompass almost the entire Kootenay region, from Castlegar to the U.S. border to Canal Flats.

But it wasn’t until Saturday, September 26, that the plane and the people on board were found. Two hunters from Kimberley, Walt Gelling and Claude Bell, came across the crash site in the middle of the afternoon. It was found in the alpine forest on a mountain above Perry Creek, what’s known as VOR Ridge. The top of the mountain a short distance away had been levelled for placement of the Vertical Omnidirectional Range tower that aircraft used to home in on the Cranbrook airport.

The search for the other airplane, that had disappeared on Sept. 4, 1970, had by this time been discontinued.

The bodies of the Portland victims were flown to Cranbrook by Search and Rescue crews. A coroner’s inquest into the deaths was launched, to be eventually held in January, 1971. The removal of the wreckage of the Cessna 337 was begun, although pieces of the plane could be found up there for years afterwards.

The pilot had reported his altitude at 11,000 feet — the plane was actually at 7,600 feet. What had gone wrong?

Above: Mike Guido locates the crash site — completely changed in 50 years, but the biggest tree on the mountain is still there. (Barry Coulter photo)

* * *

The Cessna 337 was owned by Eagle Airways of Hillsboro. But prior to its flight up to British Columbia, the Robertson Aircraft Company out of Seattle had made some modifications to the plane, installing its patented “high-lift” system — an STOL kit (Short Landing Take-Off). The modifications meant that the leading edge of the wing was extended, and the pitot tube — which is used to determine altitude and airspeed — was extended from about four inches to eight inches. However, the heating element for the four inch tube was placed at the front of the extended tube, which made the exit hole at the rear of the tube susceptible to icing at high altitudes. This would have made the airspeed and altitude readings inaccurate.

According to Chris Myers, the son of passenger Clifford Myers, the static port on the fuselage that sent a signal to operate the altimeter also iced over, because a factory update had not been performed.

“Since the aircraft was flying IFR due to inclement weather it was determined that the craft, unbeknownst to the pilot, lost airspeed and altitude and crashed into the mountain side,” Chris Myers wrote in an email shared with the Townsman.

Clifford Myers was 35 years old at the time of his death. According to Chris, he had chartered the Cessna Skymaster to fly from Hillsboro to Cranbrook to meet with a representative from a Japanese company in regards to the sale of a product he had invented known as the “Eyeball” limit switch for use in the lumber processing industry.

A limit switch is operated by the motion of a machine part or presence of an object. The eyeball limit switch “used solid state electronics, which were a fairly new thing in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Chris wrote.

“The ‘Eyeball’ limit switch was developed by my father while he was employed by the Welsh Panel Corporation. He had a R&D position in the company which was called the ‘Myers Division.’

“I recall helping assemble many of the ‘Eyeballs’ as a nine-year old, to help increase production of the fledgling development,” Chris wrote.

The Eyeball limit switches can still be found now and then on Ebay.

Cliff Myers had hired another engineer, Don Books, to accompany him on that trip up to Cranbrook.

Mary Myers — Clifford’s wife and Chris’s mother — later filed a wrongful death suit against Cessna and the Robertson Aircraft Company. In 1976 the suit was decided in the Myers’ favour, following a jury trial.

Above: The crash site today: The aircraft hit the trees in the middle distance and crashed in the foreground. No sign of the aircraft remains there today. (Barry Coulter photo)

* * *

The crash was devastating for the families.

“September is always a sad month for me, as the plane crashed on September 22, the day before my 11th birthday,” Chris Myers wrote. “We had no news of his death for three days as it took that long for the wreckage to be located.”

Chris added that the successful suit against Cessna and the Robertson Airplane Company benefited his family enough that Mary Myers could remain at home to raise Chris and his younger brother.

“I remember my sophomore year in high school having to be in court every day for at least two weeks with my mother and younger brother, and at one point having to take the stand to relate to the jury the things my father and I used to do together prior to his loss, a truly gut-wrenching time in my life.

“Clifford Myers was a brilliant man, a great father and husband. My mother, still living, never remarried as she says no one could ever measure up to him.”

Chris Myers went to the same school as Donald Books’ children, Earl, Jennifer and Andrea, but they were younger than him.

In the subsequent years, there has not been much contact between the children of the four men who died together 50 years ago.

“I’ve often felt bad that my father’s decision to have their father accompany him resulted in their father’s death,” Chris Myers wrote. “I didn’t then or since have any communication with Earl, Jennifer [or Andrea]. It seemed awkward back then and it wasn’t something I wanted to revisit.”

Earl Books, son of Donald, clearly remembers September 22, 1970.

“A man came to the house and spoke with my mother, letting us know my father’s plane was missing. I remember being unconcerned at the time, this was Dad; Superman to his eight-year-old son.

“During the next few days we received daily updates of the search and eventually the news of the accident and the death of my father. In the following months and years we learned of the plane modifications, frozen pitot tubes and instruments, but none of that mattered to me.”

Earl’s mother chose not to participate in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Mary Myers. “In retrospect I think it would have been too difficult for her, “ Earl said.

“It was during this time that the families drifted apart. My mother remarried and we moved to another town. I saw Chris a couple more times over the years, but life happens, and people move on to other things.

“My dad was simply a great guy. He was a father/superman to me and my sisters, a good husband to my mom and adored by my grandparents. His death was a huge loss to the family.”

The family of Michael Sergeant, the co-pilot, was living on Guam, where his father Harold taught at the University of Guam and his mother Arleen worked as a public health nurse. Michael’s brother Bradley and sister Brenda were in high school.

“When the crash happened we heard about it fairly soon,” Bradley wrote. “We didn’t know what had happened, the plane had disappeared in bad weather and a search was underway.

“At that time phone calls from Guam were very expensive, but we had a neighbour who was ham radio operator. He would patch us through to phone calls via ham radio to the mainland. My parents immediately flew back to Oregon while the search was on.

“I remember the moment when my sister and I on Guam were talking on the ham radio to my parents in Oregon and heard that the plane had been found and all had died.

“It was devastating for my whole family. My mother especially never recovered from the shock and the grief. My sister and I flew back to Oregon for the funeral. We returned to Guam after the funeral, but when the school year ended we all moved back to Oregon. We had planned to stay longer on Guam for my father’s job, but the trauma of losing Michael was too much for the family and my mother especially needed to be home.

“My brother loved to fly. He had worked for years to earn money for flying lessons and finally earned his commercial license. He was co-pilot on this flight so he could get experience and hours logged for this type of airplane. His dream was to be a commercial pilot. Michael had also been an airman in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

“For years afterwards I had dreams of going flying with my brother in Cessna aircrafts. Just the two of us sharing the adventure of flying. Eventually, I also earned my private pilot’s license. It was a personal connection with my brother that I was never able to share except in my dreams.”

Florence Graham, daughter of the pilot of that fated aircraft, spoke of her father.

“Jack Jensen, my dad, was a man of adventure, lived life without fear. With only a sixth grade level of education, he demonstrated that he could learn any skills that he deemed important for him to use. He desired that his children reach their full potential, also.”

* * *

Twenty-five kilometres above Perry Creek, along a series of forest service and logging roads, is the Vertical Omnidirectional Range navigation tower, a flying saucer-shaped structure that served as a homing beacon for aircraft approaching the Cranbrook airport. Although modern aircraft navigation equipment relies less on VOR towers, the one above Cranbrook is still operational. It sits on a flat circular plate, created when the top of the mountain was blasted away to create a place for the tower.

One way to get up here is with the Kootenay Rockies ATV group, a club who explore the usually inaccessible mountains and backcountry of the region, and who have offered this service to to take the children of those who were in that plane from Hillsboro in September, 1970, up to the top together to visit the crash site. Arrangements for this visit are still being worked out, as the visitors are all American and the border is still closed because of the pandemic. But in the meantime, the KRATV club have headed up the mountain, on an exploratory mission. With them is Mike Guido, who operated and serviced the VOR tower for many years.

In September, 1970, Guido was up at the tower one hour after the plane was reported missing, and later at the crash site when it was discovered days later. In 1996, he returned, bringing Don Books’ son Earl and Don’s sister Patty. Pieces of the plane were still to be found then.

A short ATV ride down the ridge, and on the eastern slope you find yourself in a rich alpine forest, bucolic in the September sun, which is fierce at 7,600 feet. Mike Guido finds the original spot. The larch that the plane hit is still there, still the largest tree around. The trees around it have grown up, along with new ones, and although a couple bear signs that they may have been hit by a plane 50 years ago, you can’t tell that this was the exact spot of an horrific crash. All traces of the plane are gone, except for a pile of fiberglass fuselage pieces — the skin of the plane — that were buried nearby, as if they’d been piled up for removal but forgotten.

The place is strikingly peaceful and beautiful, heavily treed, with animal trails crossing through, and with breathtaking views of the Rockies in the distance and the valley below. You can also see the Cranbrook airport, to which the plane from Hillsboro would have made if had been even a couple of feet higher.

With files from David Humphrey

Above: Mike Guido (left) and Doug Williamson of the Kootenay Rockies ATV club examine pieces of the Cessna 337 that crashed in 1970. The debris — some pieces of the fibreglass fuselage and some carpeting — had been collected for removal, then seemingly forgotten. (Barry Coulter photo)