Story and photos by Kevin S. Abel
The ghosts of two airplanes crashes 30 years apart haunt the same desolate stretch of southern Oregon’s desert.
But from tragedy comes responsibility to honor the memory of the pilots who made their final descent.
Burma Rim in southern Oregon is a veritable air crash museum.
Spanning nearly 30 years, this site has witnessed two major military airplane accidents. The first, a World War II airplane, dropped out of the sky to rapidly descend two miles before hitting the ground. And then in 1973, a Vietnam-era aircraft augured in, leaving a debris field spread over three-quarters of a mile in its wake.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
As visitors approach these two crash sites, distorted metal debris strewn in all directions announce the catastrophic events. Eerily, the two are located within one mile of each other in an Oregon desert location managed by the BLM’s Lakeview District.
The first debris field contains the remnants of Lieutenant Clark’s Lockheed P-38 Lightning that went down during a gunnery training flight. His witness, First Lieutenant Schelter, stated in the official report that he had told Clark to bail out and saw the plane’s canopy eject but did not see the pilot escape. Second Lieutenant Max J. Clark, age 25, 432nd Fighter Squadron, U.S. Army Air Corps, was killed upon impact.
“I just completed my first pass at the target when I saw Lieutenant Clark start his pass; he started with a vertical bank at approximately 10,000 feet. The airplane rolled over to the right and went down…”
1st Lt., Army Air Corps
February 9, 1945
War Department Report of Major Accident
The second downed plane is a Navy Grumman A-6 Intruder Bomber from the Naval Air Station at Whidbey Island, Washington. This aircraft hurtled to the ground in 1973 during a low-level night training mission. The only known observer to this crash was the pilot of a U.S. Air Force B-52 who reported seeing a flash of light and a fireball followed by an explosion.
The Lake County Sheriff reached the Bomber’s wreckage at about the same time as a search-and-rescue helicopter from the Naval Air Station. But both crew members, pilot Lieutenant Alan Koehler, age 27, and navigator Lieutenant Commander Philip Duhamel, age 33, had perished.
THE RIGHT STUFF
To honor these veterans, the BLM officially declared the two aircraft crash scenes historic Federal sites at a Flag Day ceremony on June 14, 2007.
At the official ceremony, representatives unveiled interpretive plaques which pay tribute to the military and provide context for the historic significance of each location. The signs also help tell the story behind each accident while respectfully promoting preservation of the downed remains.
Over the years, many visitors have honored the crash sites with flags and mementos as part of their trip to witness the large portions of aircraft that remain very much intact. However, some have scavenged parts and pieces while others have scratched their names and dates into the faded paint of the fallen cyclopean colonnades.
“BLM public lands are special places. In this case, the BLM observes a high level of responsibility to care for the historic memory of our military veterans and safeguard the crash site on behalf of the families and future generations,“ said E. Lynn Burkett, the BLM’s Lakeview District Manager.
WINGS OF GOLD
The BLM asks that the public help preserve this history and honor these veterans who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their nation and their families.
If you visit this site, the BLM recommends using a four-wheel-drive vehicle because the route to the crash sites includes unpaved roads and rough terrain. And while visitors may observe all-terrain vehicle tracks in and around the memorial sites, no vehicle traffic is allowed. A three-quarter mile walk over uneven rock is necessary to reach the memorials.
Once reaching the site to honor our fallen heroes, photographs and video are very much allowed and encouraged. But all visitors are asked to not alter or remove any of the wreckage as this is a protected memorial site on public lands for all to visit.
To plan a trip to this site, please email or call the BLM’s Lakeview District. Contact info at http://ondoi.gov/ZnGtll