Carole Lombard Crash Site on Mt. Potosi

H.W. Stockman (some photos by Nick and Steve)

Aug. 6 and Sept. 20, 2003

On Jan 16, 1942, a DC-3 crashed into Mount Potosi, west of Las Vegas; the crash was particularly violent, and all on board died. Among the passengers was Carole Lombard, wife of Clark Gable; she was returning from a War Bond rally.

Why did the plane crash? To be honest, the answer is still unknown. One explanation given me, by an historian:

The pilot had previously stopped at Boulder City, and the flight path to California was set for that point of departure, with a suggested flying altitude of 8000'. However, because there was a "lights-off" at the Boulder City airport (as part of the war precautions), the pilot had to fly north to Nellis Air Base (Back then, part of the Army) so he could take off after dark. In the rush, the travel bearings were not reset, but now there was an 8500' mountain between Nellis and the California destination. [NB: The Nellis and Boulder airstrips were not in the current-day locations.]

Nick and I located the crash site by going through historical records, by using our knowledge of the local terrain, biota, and our GPS skills and navigational geography. It was a fun mental exercise. What's more, we were able to find everything we needed on the web. Before you jump to the conclusion that the process must be easy: in the same time frame, I also found everything I needed "on the web" to derive the Lambossy solutions for fast oscillatory flow in a tube, in terms of Bessel functions. That is, both problems required some thought and experience, and I doubt many people would have the interest or background to put all the information together for a solution.

Please read the epilogue below the photos.

Our first Visit -- August, 2003.

Nick and I were first contacted by a Californian, Mister X, who writes about celebrity crashes. He had previously visited the site as part of a group, via the top road, and wanted to return. Nick and I are familiar with this rough country, but we weren't so sure a person who previously hiked on trails would have proper expectations. So we set about to find an "easy way."

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Well OK, our first direct route to the site, while fast, involved a bit of class 3. When we got to the top ridge, Nick concluded we would need a hot-air balloon to get Mr. X up that way. We used binoculars at the ridge, and eagle-eyed Nick saw a glinting piece of aluminum, in our predicted "circle of confusion." So our first guess brought us directly to the site.

Sifter-S

When we got to the site, we found lots of trash. There were plastic water bottles, cans, this sifter, and multiple shovels. We collected this junk from all over, and found more crap later that day. Nick and I tried to carry as much trash down as we could fit in our packs.

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This much-photographed engine
is actually from the crash of another,
smaller plane in 1947.
(Thanks Eugene T.)

 

 

 

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Nick down by a landing gear strut cage.

Plaque

A plaque placed near the site.

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I believe a plane wing hit this wall. I found popped rivets in the limestone cracks over about 30' vertical, attesting to the violence of the collision.

 

The second trip -- my 49th birthday, September 20, 2003.

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On that first trip, I took down these fasteners, photographed them, and later brought them back to the site. The top fastener is typically used in a woman's bra clip (there were at least 3 women on the plane).

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John is at left, Mister X is 2nd from left. Nick is in the middle, and I am at right. On the previous trip, we found a class 2 route for Mister X and his friend John.

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Our class 2 route was apparently the same route used by salvage crews back in 1942. Aluminum was in short supply during the war, so aluminum parts were stripped and brought back down for recycling. Any steel parts -- such as these valves -- were stripped from the aluminum heads and abandoned en route.

 

 

 

engin

Here's Mister X at the bottom of the site, near engine #2.

exhaust_manif_small_and_molten_aluminum

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We spent a fair amount of time photographing serial numbers on parts.

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There are blobs of molten aluminum all over the site, perhaps from fires that ensued after this flying fuel-and-aluminum bomb hit the cliff and ignited.

 

 

 

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A view from the site toward Red Rock and La Madre.

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Mister X comes down a class 2 chute. For Nick and me, this was an easy route, but it challenged our visitors -- they had hiked miles before, but always on trails.

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Nick waits patiently below, giving instructions to the visitors.

 

 

 

If you are looking for instructions to locate the crash site, you won't find them here. The reasons are simple. First of all, this site very probably has human remains; it was a very violent accident. For example, Carole Lombard's left hand was never found, even though Clark Gable offered a reward for her "wedding ring." I found remnants of clothing that indicate human ashes are probably present. Second, vandalism of crash sites is universal; people can't seem to resist the urge to take souvenirs. The site is littered with holes dug by treasure hunters, and there has been some scandal associated with the claimed discovery of the Lombard ring. Third, previous visitors to this site left a lot of trash; I don't want to increase the amount of trash. Fourth, giving coordinates to the site opens up visitation by a casual crowd "from above". While we took a "difficult" trek up to the site from low elevation, it is widely known that the site is close to the mountaintop. The site can be visited by a short, low-exertion trip from the radio tower road on top of Potosi (in fact. Mr. X took that route on his first visit). While that road is officially closed to the public, the reality is that tough 4WD vehicles, ATVs and cycles go around the gate and travel up and down the access road at will. If the coordinates of the site were known, it would be easy for a wider audience to visit by "the back way." People interested in easy ways often don't pick up after themselves. Fifth, some members of the Forest Service were not exactly happy that we found the site; the Forest Service gets upset at a lot of things, but one might understand their fear of increased visitation on a steep talus slope. My guess is that they reserved judgement pending the "outcome" of our discovery.

People have asked me for instructions to the site. I would respond that I would gladly take visitors to the site, but I wouldn't simply send them instructions. Hence, I was willing to give up a lot of my free time to those who were actually committed, rather than the merely curious. If people were not willing to commit to a bit of exercise, to visit the site themselves, I figured they probably had ulterior motives. Ah well, all this precaution was about to become moot. Another Vegas local (Mister Y) got the instructions to the site, ultimately from us… and published the instructions on the web. It's a free country; I can't tell him what to do; there are much worse things on the web. So if you want explicit instructions, visit Mr. Y's web site. Just think about what I said above, and what I say below, if you feel the urge to collect souvenirs.

I still feel Mr. X is a nice guy. He kept in contact with us for some time after the Sept. 20 visit, and we tried hard to find an easier way for him to visit the site. I trusted Mr. X's sincerity, as he talked about the site as "a cathedral". He also found it "frightening" that we obtained our information on the web, but I assured him that the average person would not be able to locate the site from that information; I was thus convinced that he would keep the site location a secret. I suppose in my naïve view, I thought he would write a discreet book about the Lombard crash. We inquired about getting access to the top road, which either requires keys from the USFS or the radio security people, or a hefty 4WD capable of driving around the locked gate. I volunteered to accompany Mr. X again, and made him numerous maps showing alternate road and bush routes. He successfully contacted someone who would drive up the back road, and I was set to lead them across the top; then that fellow died in a violent car crash. Frustrated, Mr. X contacted Mr. Y, and we began sliding down the slippery slope.

I have no doubt that Mr. X feels much more emotion than I, when he visits the crash site. But it is always good to assess if one's reverence corresponds to what Clemens described for the "Pilgrims" in Innocents Abroad. The latter Pilgrims were religious and in some way reverent, but had an insatiable appetite for souvenirs. They couldn't seem to visit a shrine without hacking off a part of the pews or walls. Some times it is hard to recognized this behavior in ourselves. On my first trip, I didn't have a good macro lens, so I brought a few small items back to a flatbed scanner… but I eventually brought the same items back to the crash site. In these days of digital photography, you can get a very good record of an artifact at a grave site, and return the item to its resting place. You don't need to bring a piece of the grave back to your house, permanently.