Friday, April 29, 2011

1945 Plane Crash in Bovina

Sixty-six years ago this evening, at 9:00 P.M on April 29, 1945, Robert B. Clark, a young West Point cadet from Holdrege, Nebraska**, took off in an AT-6 Texan trainer from Bolling Field, Washington, DC on a regular training trick to Stewart Field in Newburgh, NY.  The weather conditions were poor as he progressed closer to New York State, with showers and clouds at 3000 feet near Newburgh.  Though the pilot was instructed to report his progress near Allentown, Pennsylvania, no such contact was made.

A little before midnight, Clark apparently realized that he had overshot Newburgh and was trying to get his bearings.  He circled over the Bramley Mountain area of Bovina and flew under the cloud ceiling in order to get some visual sighting.  Shortly after the plane's left wing tip struck a tree and then crashed into the side of Moon Mountain, just east of Bramley Mountain.  Perry Craft and Stanley Crank from Bloomville heard the crash, as did Howard LaFever (my uncle) who was on Bramley Mountain.  Craft and LaFever both contacted the State Police.  Trooper J.F. Taylor from the New York State Police received the call and immediately went to Stanley Cronk's home.  Taylor and Cronk, along with Craft and LaFever, set out in the fog and drizzle to search for the plane.  At 1:50 am on April 30th, LaFever and Taylor, using strong police flashlights and following the odor of airplane fuel, found the first signs of the craft and a few minutes later found the fuselage and the body of the pilot in the cockpit.  Clark had been killed instantly.  LaFever was sent to a near-by phone to call the authorities.  Sargent W.M. Waldron from Troop "C" in Sidney arrived to guard the plane until the Army authorities arrived. 

The army did send soldiers to secure the site.  Nonetheless, a number of Bovina people got souvenirs of the plane, including Dick Davidson and my dad, Charlie LaFever.  Dad was 13 when the crash happened.  He got one of the cylinders from the plane's Pratt Whitney radial engine.  I still have the piece - it weights 43 pounds.  George LaFever recalled hearing that some of the wreck was removed using horses. 

The accident was investigated by the Army.  Investigators noted that the pilot had both radios on and that the throttle was full forward when he crashed.  The altimeter read 2460 feet - Moon Mountain is 2665 feet high. The crash site was heavily wooded, with a debris field about 300 feet long from point of first impact to the final resting place of the cockpit. The investigators determined that pilot error was the main cause of the crash, noting that the he flew closer than 2000 feet laterally and 500 feet vertically to a cloud formation. 

I remember my dad mentioning the crash - the piece he retrieved from the plane was in our back yard for years - but I started actively pursuing this after inquires from Steve Burnett and Chris Ingvordsen.  I checked with some folks who were in Bovina in the 40s, including Ed and Dick Davidson and my uncle, George LaFever.  One of my early challenges was pinpointing the date so I could find something in the newspapers.  I submitted an inquiry to the Delaware County Genealogy listserv and within a half hour, I had a response from Rhonda, who had located the news article on the Old Fulton Postcards website.  She found it in the Binghamton Press.  None of the newspapers available on-line included any mention of Bovina, though they did mention Bramley Mountain.  That may explain why I was not successful in locating the article. Once I had that article, I had the pilot name.  That led me to reports of the crash in the New York Times, Poughkeepsie Journal and Gloversville Morning Herald.  Locally, I found a short article in the Delaware Republican and a more detailed article in Oneonta Daily Star, which accurately included Bovina and Moon Mountain as the site of the crash. I still need to check the Walton Reporter, Stamford Mirror and Catskill Mountain News. I hope one of these may include a photograph of the pilot.  With the date of the crash and some details in hand, I was able to request a copy of the army's investigation of the crash from Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Research, a California based organization studying and documenting airplane crash sites throughout the United States. 

Today, in conditions that may have resembled those 66 years ago, I attempted to more accurately locate the crash site.  I met up with my uncle, George LaFever, who pointed out about where he believed the site was.  George was 9 when the crash happened and in the 1960s recalls still being able to see some debris.  Chris Ingvordsen and I went to Don Farley's place off Reagan Road and the three of us set off with a metal detector, altimeter, and GPS to see if we could find any remnant of the crash.  We are pretty sure we were near or at the site, but had no success in finding any debris to confirm this.  But we will try again.  And I continue to seek more information - I'm hoping to do an exhibit at the Bovina Museum this summer that includes the cylinder that my dad recovered years ago, along with more information about the unfortunate victim, Cadet Clark.  So stay tuned for further developments.  And if you remember hearing about this crash and have some details to share, please let me know.

**The original entry said Norton, Kansas, but I have since learned this was not correct, so I updated this on the blog.  See the May 30 entry for further information about Cadet Clark.  

1 comment:

  1. This is great stuff, Ray! Thanks for sharing.