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Flames ravage but also reveal

Wreckage of long-ago plane crashes can emerge after fires in area mountains. The sites and their secrets are one man's passion.

April 30, 2008|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

It was early January. The team charged with stabilizing the scorched, slide-prone mountains above suburban Orange County had hiked for miles up twisting ravines when they spotted odd aluminum globules and jagged hunks of steel rooted in the earth.

A U.S. Forest Service "smoke jumper" -- trained to vault out of airplanes into wildfires -- recognized the tangled debris.

"Looks like an airplane wreck to me," he said. They pinpointed the coordinates and phoned Forest Service officials. What was this dismembered carcass of an airplane doing in the middle of a forest?

When the Santiago fire roared through the Santa Ana Mountains in October, it scoured vast stretches of land, leaving behind black rock, burnt root and these strange, shiny pieces of metal.

It was a fresh example of the wonders, oddities and sad scraps of history exposed when large swaths of wilderness in the American West are burned clear. Murder victims' bones, ancient stone villages and rusted jalopies have all been found.

"It's ground rediscovered," said Tom Lavignino, a Forest Service spokesman who has seen such finds in several states. "After a major burn, it's a lot easier to navigate in these remote areas without getting jabbed in the face or the arm by a bush. So you'll find things. Old cars. Dead people. We've found toxic waste too."

Overwhelmed with post-fire duties, forest staff didn't immediately respond to the call about the plane wreck. But pilots chattered about the mystery find for weeks, zooming low over the wreckage scattered across the bare hills. Was it a downed firefighting plane? He must've hit that ridge. It must've been pretty bad. Wonder if they got out alive. Wonder if there are bodies in there. . . .

Word of the wreck spread. Cleveland National Forest trails manager Debra Clarke took notice, and had an idea: Call Pat.

Within sight of the Santa Ana Mountains, G. Pat Macha, a retired high school teacher, was sitting in his Mission Viejo home office researching an obscure plane wreck when the phone rang. Macha, 62, is one of a unique breed. He's a self-trained aviation archaeologist. Ever since he discovered a downed Air Force transport plane while leading a YMCA hike in the San Bernardino Mountains as a youth, he's been smitten. For decades, he's studied plane crash sites from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the depths of the Pacific Ocean.

"It's a compulsion," he half-joked in an interview. "There's something that attracts your attention, and you're drawn to it. You want to investigate it. You're touching the past."

Maps in his garage are studded with hundreds of pins: Here's where Dean Martin's son crashed in the San Bernardinos. There's where Frank Sinatra's mother went down. Here's where a plane loaded with $15,000 in cash -- big money in 1956 -- struck the north side of San Gorgonio Pass. The plane was found in 1971, but the cash wasn't.

He's also explored dozens of crashes in his own mountainous backyard. By Macha's count, there are more than 60 sites dating to World War II in a 30-mile-long stretch of the Santa Anas, from east of Disneyland to inland of San Juan Capistrano.

The Santa Anas are not Southern California's tallest mountains, but they share a name with the devilish winds that lay siege to the region. And for good reason: Their canyons are perfect funnels for breezes blowing off the Great Basin, forcing them through to the Pacific at speeds as high as 140 mph. At other times, their peaks can be wrapped in clouds or fog. For decades, they were also the closest thing to open terrain for military personnel doing practice runs out of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

"People take Old Saddleback for granted," said Macha, calling the twin peaks of Santiago and Modjeska by their historic name. "They shouldn't. Santiago is a mile high."

Now, forest officials were hoping he could solve the mystery of the crash high above his home. They read off the coordinates on the phone. Macha pulled down one of three books he's written on wrecks, turned a few pages and was pretty sure he had an answer.

Thirty-nine years ago this February, a Lockheed SP2E Neptune that hunted submarines was doing night training to the southeast out of El Toro. It slammed into one bony ridge, then another, then a third, finally exploding into flames and raining metal across a quarter-mile of backcountry.

The Navy hacked a ledge out of the rough mountain, hauled the bodies of seven seamen up over the edge and removed unexploded bombs and larger wreckage. The rest was left just below what is now a popular hiking and mountain-biking trail. The metal fuselage, bits of wing, a million-candle-power searchlight and the bomb bay were swallowed in shrouds of bay laurel, poison oak and sugar bush.

Not anymore.

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