Airplane Crashes

This chapter is intended to deal with airplane crashes, rather than their general use.

Airplane use was first employed for scouting going forest fires and message-dropping in the late 1920's. Then, planes were used in the transportation of men and supplies for fire and administrative use. They were used for the first time in 1941 to drop smokejumpers; in 1945, to replace lookouts in fire detection; in 1958, to drop chemical fire retardant on fires in the Flathead. Helicopters have been employed for administration and fire duty extensively for the past ten years.

All airplane crashes have been on the Big Prairie and Spotted Bear Districts, except the Stinson Sedan contract patrol plane that crashed in Fatty Creek on the Condon District. This 1955 crash killed three men: Gene Cole, the pilot; Fred Wagner, a passenger; and Gene Tuininga, a Forest Service employee. Tuininga was the first Northern Region employee killed in a plane crash while on active duty. I believe the only other Forest Service employee in the Region to be killed in a plane crash while on duty was Supervisor Blackerby in 1959. This accident took place at Moose Creek Ranger Station in the Nezperce National Forest.

The following is a list of plane crashes in the Flathead National Forest. Only those in which the plane was a total loss are listed.

The first plane to crash on the Forest was an Army plane, wrecked in landing on the Bartlett Meadows near Big Prairie in 1931. No one was injured.

Dick Johnson totaled out a Tri-motor Ford in landing at Big Prairie in September 1938. Dick was injured, but was soon back flying.

A pilot named MacNamer crashed a Luskum in the timber near Schafer in 1943. No one was injured.

An Army trainer crashed into Corrugate Ridge, at the head of Trail Creek above Schafer, in 1943. Both occupants were killed.

Two private planes collided in midair near the Schafer field in 1952. One plane was a Piper Cub; the other was an Aronica. Four people were killed.

In 1953, a trimotor Ford had engine failure on takeoff at the Spotted Bear field and crashed in the lodgepole timber near the airfield. Of the eight men aboard, three, including the pilot, were injured; all recovered.

Jack Little of Polson crashed his Stinson Sedan into the mountainside near the head of Little Salmon Creek in April 1955. Little and his passenger were killed. The wreckage was not discovered until October 1956.

In June 1955, three uranium prospectors from Tacoma, Washington, flying in a gull-winged Stinson, crashed into the mountain in Jungle Creek, south of Spotted Bear, killing all three. The wreckage was not found until October 1956. Of all the crashes in the South and Middle Forks to date, this is the only plane that caught fire and burned; the plane that crashed on the Condon District also burned.

Bob Young crashed in making a forced landing on a gravel bar in the Middle Fork, about a mile below the Schafer airstrip. The plane, a Stinson Sedan, was completely wrecked; but no one was injured in this 1955 crash.

A Great Falls flying club Stinson crashed in the stumps at Meadow Creek in 1956. No one was injured.

A National Guard plane from Great Falls crashed just west of the Chinese Wall in 1961. All three occupants were killed. In 1963, the Spotted Bear patrol plane got tangled up in some crosswinds on the Big Prairie field and was a total wreck. No one was injured.

A total of 14 planes have crashed with a loss of 17 lives. I personally saw the two trimotor Fords crash and have visited the scene of all but four of the other crashes.

The Flathead National Forest has eight airstrips. Four of these airstrips are within the Bob Marshall Wilderness and, therefore, are not open to the public except in emergencies.

The first airstrip was built in the Flathead in 1928 on the plateau about a mile south of Three Forks. It was not a good location and was never used. About 1932, Dick Johnson landed a Travelaire on this field. This was the only plane to ever use this field. It has now grown over with lodgepole pine and has completely lost its identity as an airfield. Construction was started on an airfield on Young's Creek just above Hahn Creek in the early 1930's. It was never completed.

Montana Fish and Game pilots have landed light planes successfully in Little Salmon Parks and on the meadows in Danaher Basin. There have been many planes land on the improvised strip in Bartlett Meadows just west of Big Prairie. In case of an emergency, a small plane could land on top of Sugar Loaf Mountain.