FAIRFIELD — Solano County has had its share of military aircraft crashes. Here are three of the most notable – including the death of the namesake of Travis Air Force Base, two crashes in a month in the Cordelia Hills and a B-18 bomber that crashed into Twin Sisters.
The B-29 was carrying not only Brig. Gen. Robert F. Travis late on Aug. 5, 1950. It also had the high-explosive portion of a nuclear bomb for the eastern Pacific in case the just-started Korean War got any worse.
Capt. Eugene Steffes, the pilot, was taking off from the runway when one of the engine propellers malfunctioned and the landing gear failed to retract. Steffes decided to make a 180-degree turn back to base, but crash-landed near the base’s Main Gate, according to the Air Force’s Accident Report Summary.
Sgt. R.H. Lewis, who lived at a nearby trailer camp, had just come home with his wife and saw the aircraft hit the ground.
“It sort of glided onto the ground rather than crashed,” Lewis said in a United Press news report. “I was about 100 feet away. It knocked me down. When I came to, it was all over the place.”
The crash killed 12 of the aircrew and passengers, including Travis, while eight others escaped with only minor injuries.
About 20 minutes after the crash, the bomb casing’s explosives ignited, shattering the nearby trailer park, killing another seven people and seriously injuring 49 people. It also caused minor injuries to another 124 people, many of them firefighters who responded to the crash and subsequent fire. The blast was felt and heard 30 miles away.
The site, which shows no remnants of the crash, is now located near the base car wash and Travis Elementary School.
The first word that a C-47 flying to Hamilton Field had crashed in the hills above Cordelia late at night on April 15, 1945, came when a motorist on Highway 40 picked up Sgt. Earl Morrison, who had stumbled a mile from the wreckage to the side of the road, according to a United Press International story.
The motorist dropped off the airman at a Suisun City Hotel and then disappeared without saying where he picked him up. Another news account stated that the motorist later led the search party to the wreck.
Morrison, who suffered a fractured neck and broken leg, was taken to the hospital at the Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base.
It took a search party five hours scrambling through heavy brush to find the wreckage on land two miles from Cordelia that was owned by D.R. Mangels. The rest of the crew was there – pilot Lt. Col. Melton Smith, who suffered a broken leg, and co-pilot Lt. Douglas Wigg, who was described as relatively unharmed.
The C-47 was flying from Riverside to Hamilton Field when it crashed into the hillside in a thick fog at about 11 p.m.
A month later, on May 12, 1945, another C-47 flying from McClellan Air Force Base to Hamilton Field hit a ridge about four miles southwest of Cordelia, a little less than a half-hour after takeoff, killing the entire aircrew of three, according to Aviation Archaeological Investigation and Research.
Army Air Corps Capt. F. S. Nelson was flying on instruments in the bottom of a low-lying cloud when the B-18 Bolo bomber he was piloting slammed into the top of Twin Sisters, which divides Green Valley from Napa Valley, on the morning of Oct. 24, 1941, according to an account written by aviation archaeologist Don Jordan.
Nelson and his aircrew of four other airmen were flying from Hamilton Field to McClellan Field, which was the first stop on a flight to Fort Douglas, Utah.
Fifteen minutes into the half-hour flight, the obsolete, pre-war bomber crashed into the peak, killing all aboard. After the Army collected the bodies, what little remained of the aircraft after the post-crash fire remained there, quickly forgotten by the military.
When business owner John Roscoe decided to build his home at the top of Twin Sisters, Jordan wrote in his account of the crash that he approached the property owner to get permission to find the site.
The first search of the north peak found nothing, but one of the construction workers later called one of Jordan’s friends, who helped his search, to say he had come across what the worker assumed was a farmer’s rubbish dump. A subsequent search found the B-18’s wreckage site only 100 feet from the new home’s driveway.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.