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“Don’t tell my wife about this!”

by Tina Wynecoop

This summer I read with interest a report by Jim Camden in The Spokesman Review about a jet plane crash in the Colville National Forest in 1955. His article reminded me of a similar 1955 jet plane crash in the Little Spokane River Valley. I had interviewed life-long local residents Dan Forsyth and Jim Pounder about the event. Here is the account I wrote for our January 2011 FLSRV newsletter under the heading ‘Plane Crash’:

I didn’t find a written record of the 1950’s Navy jet trainer plane that crashed into a rocky hillside upslope from the Little Spokane River between Midway and Riverview Roads, The vivid memories of young boys and a twisted piece of metal suffice as proof that it happened. Early one morning c.1954 Jim was awakened from where he slept outside in the family’s sleeping porch, by the sound of a plane coming in low from the east over the little town of Colbert. It crashed near the Hotchkiss place. ‘The jolt felt just like an earthquake.’

The plane’s hydraulics had failed and the pilot bailed out somewhere near Hilltop Road not far from Highway 2. All that was left of the plane was a smoking hole and a few fragments. The military brass rolled in and had the crash site fenced off. Dan recalls hearing sirens and seeing all the airplanes buzzing around after the crash. He and Jim remember that the pilot suffered a leg injury and was found limping along the road. Dan stated, ‘I have a piece of the plane which I collected from the crash site’ all we were told was to show what we found to the person in charge and ask if it was something we could keep. I have that metal in a drawer somewhere.’

I forwarded my article to reporter Camden. In return he sent me a 1955 newspaper copy about this Little Spokane crash. Details about both crashes are strikingly similar. In the span of a few months, two jets malfunction, both pilots eject, parachutes meet conifers in remote terrain, and bravery, grit and survival trump the disaster of two flights gone awry.

First, a synopsis of Camden’s article, ‘Forest Service, Fairchild Solve Mystery of Plane Crash Discovered in the Colville National Forest,’ (July 25, 2016): ‘Retired Major Charles Seeley was in a controlled dive in his F-86A Sabre jet (48-292N) at about 21,000 feet altitude. His plane began rolling out of control and he ejected from it on one of the coldest March 23 days on record (1955). The pilot walked away from the wreckage and made it to a logging road he had noticed as his parachute floated down into the forest and caught in a tree. The ground was covered in three feet of snow and he wasn’t wearing winter gear. A logger picked him up and drove him to a branch road where a dozer operator transported Seeley to Newport.

Many years later and quite by happenstance the plane was relocated in a remote area south of Ione, WA in 2014. The wreckage had been there long enough for trees to grow around and through it. Forest Service records had no mention of a military plane crash. Following the accident the Air Force convened an investigation and concluded that pilot Seeley had done everything possible to recover from the out-of-control spin and stayed with his aircraft as long as possible. The investigation showed there were short-circuits in some of the aileron switches in the cockpit.’

Following is the newspaper account of the memorable jet crash in the Little Spokane River Valley, published in The Spokane Daily Chronicle (August 24, 1955) with its front page headline: ‘Plane Burns.’ The caption accompanying the event’s photographs stated: ‘A Spokane rug cleaner who flies jet fighter planes as a Marine Corps reserve captain was injured today when he bailed out of his disabled plane near Colbert.’ Here is the abbreviated version from the article: ‘Captain N. C. Christensen, N5627 Forest Blvd., was flying in formation in his F9F- 6 Cougar jet when the ship’s hydraulic control system failed. Christensen ejected upside down in the plane’s catapult seat at about 12,000 feet altitude about 3/4 of a mile east of the town of Colbert.’ With a possible broken leg and bruises on the face, and partially coherent, he told the ambulance crew, ‘Don’t tell my wife about this’ as he was transported to the Air Force base hospital at Fairchild.

According to the article his parachute had caught in pine trees and farmers got him down. Someone kept the chute as a prize. The pilotless plane continued west and crashed and burned on the Roy [and Charmaine] Hotchkiss farm [near Riverview Road between Midway and Colbert Roads]. There were eyewitnesses: Mrs. Jerry Sherred said she saw the parachute float over her chicken coop and called the Washington State Patrol. One of the other pilots in the formation radioed for help. That same morning Ed Molander was walking out his driveway to Little Spokane Drive to get his newspaper when the disabled jet flew right over his head. Literally. He dropped to the ground. He thought he was going to be hit — it came in so low. It crashed about 500 yards beyond him. The plane hit a tall pine tree and broke its trunk off. The jet plummeted straight into the ground, creating a deep crater and setting the grasses on fire. Mr. Molander’s upstream neighbor, and Dan Forthyth’s aunt, Echo Fuson, witnessed the aftermath from her front yard. (She was the one who acquired the two small pieces of the jet and wrote the note shown in the photographs.)

After the investigations were completed they were followed by truck-loads of dirt which were dumped into the crater. ‘The investigators cleaned up what they wanted. I don’t know if they buried much of the plane in the hole or just filled the hole,’ says Dan Forsyth, and he added, ‘The plane crash was a big deal in our neighborhood.’ Dan and I walked to Molander’s old driveway and I got goose bumps standing near the spot where the plane that nearly swiped the hat off Ed Molander’s head had passed over. Dan held his arms out to show me the trajectory of the pilotless plane. He made it a reality. He said, ‘It was a pretty big event. There were a lot of people in the valley who were wandering around in that field the first day. My brother says the military had control of the area the second day and by then you couldn’t just walk in and inspect the disaster for yourself.

My family moved to the LSR valley in 1976. Several years later we heard vague stories about this far from the edge of the basalt cliff on the east side of our property. Our house and yard are situated directly above and west of the Hotchkiss place where there was a small airstrip carved in the field. Occasionally a small plane would come and go and on its takeoff it would become airborne and emerge seemingly and magically out of nowhere above our cliff. Perhaps these flights impressed our two little boys to become pilots. I don’t know for sure but there is a possible connection, since both are pilots and one of them would transport skydivers above our home and the Little Spokane River Valley. Up and up he would take them until the plane became a mere speck and then a dozen more ‘mere specks’ hanging from parachutes would float gently down in plain view. Goose bumps, again!

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