Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Highwoods: three peaks and a plane crash site

Me, standing by the tail section of the military transport plane that crashed 64 years ago on South Peak in the Highwoods.
On the late evening of Feb. 8, 1950, a C54 military transport plane crashed into the east side of South Peak in the Highwood Mountains near Geyser, killing its three member crew.
On Saturday I got a first look at the wreckage,  64 years after the crash,  after a long ridge-walk that included climbing South, Middle and North peaks in that small mountain range east of Great Falls.
Dwight Smith, retired Air Force, is quite interested in military plane crashes and after a visit to the site, interested me.
I had been on the peak before, unaware of the crash some 100 feet below me while I stood on top.
My friend Wayne Phillips, who had been to the site with Smith, took me to the spot where we saw a football field sized area strewn with the wreckage that included recognizable tail and single wing sections.
According to Smith, the plane was being tested to fly the Berlin Airlift (1949-51) when the smaller C47 wasn't doing the job.
The C54, built by Douglas, is a pretty good-sized airplane that was capable of carrying up coal and other supplies to a West Berlin blockaded by Russians.
Although the crash site is very well preserved with lots to see, there is little evidence that many folks have been there recently.
It could be that many, like me, didn't know it was there.
It could be that it is tough to reach on public land, the way we did it.


Top: Wayne at crash site with wing section; next, the North Peak to Highwood Baldy ridge line; next, the snowfield coming off North Peak;  bottom: looking back toward South Peak on the way to Middle Peak
For us, it was a drive to Geyser, a trip up the road across the Highwoods, and then a substantial climb to the ridgeline and walk, climbing Middle (elevation: 7,074 feet) and South (elevation: 7,075 feet) peaks. We figured that after climbing North Peak (elevation: 6,943 feet)  as well, we had covered about a dozen miles and gained over 3,600 feet in elevation.
The new Spion Kop wind generators project is some 1,500 feet below the crash site.
It was an eerie, yet solemn experience, as we picked through the wreckage and thought of those three airmen who lost their lives there.
On a brighter note, the ridge walk was glorious.  There are many varieties of wildflowers in bloom, and the hillsides are as green as can be.
The following day my wife and I, and friends Kathy and Larry Meyer, walked along the Center Ridge Trail in the Highwoods above the North Fork of Highwood Creek and then drove the Thane Creek to Geyser Road across the range.
Besides the wildflowers and glorious spring weather, the most notable discovery was that a bear had been turning over large rocks in search of insects.  You don't see much evidence of bears in the Highwoods.
Our route Saturday.  The wreckage was just below the east face of South Peak

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