The Lady of the Lake
We took off from Tonopah, Nevada at 1145, January 29, 1943. We climbed through an overcast to 9,000 feet and on top of the overcast for approximately one-half hour, then flew between two layers of overcast.

– Excerpt from “Report On Crash B-23 #9052” by copilot James V. Kelly, 2nd Lt., Army Air Corps.

In July 2000, 20 TIGHARs spent a week learning about, and putting into practical application, the principles and techniques of aviation archaeology. This was the first time that TIGHAR had offered our popular Introductory Course in Aviation Archaeology and Historic Preservation immediately followed by a Training Expedition to an actual historic crash site. The faculty was made up of TIGHAR’s executive director Ric Gillespie and archaeologist Tim Smith (TIGHAR #1142CE). Bill Carter (TIGHAR #1722CE) provided invaluable local logistical management while expedition veteran John Clauss (TIGHAR #0142CE) kept the field operation running smoothly.

Started to encounter icing conditions. In a short while we lost our radio receiver and tried to climb above overcast. Icing became pretty severe and we were [able] to obtain only 18,000 feet, which did not put us above the overcast except at rare intervals. It became evident that we were unable to maintain that altitude. Spotted a hole off to our left which we went down through.

– Excerpt from “Report On Crash B-23 #9052” by pilot Robert R. Orr, 1st Lt., Army Air Corps.

After two days of classroom work in Boise, Idaho the students convoyed in two large vans to a trail head in the Payette National Forest where they began the five mile hike to a campsite prepared by a professional outfitter near Loon Lake. About half a mile from the camp was the wreck of Douglas B-23 “Dragon” serial number 39-052.

Roughing it at Café Loon Lake. Photo courtesy Nancy Ballenger.

After we lost our altitude we noticed we were flying over a town.... We circled for fifteen minutes looking for a field to make an emergency landing, but we could not due to a blinding snowstorm.

– copilot Kelly

Summer in the high country … our campsite was situated beside a clear mountain stream that fed the lake where moose waded lazily in the early morning mist. Deer carelessly meandered through camp and the surrounding hills often echoed back the brays of the outfitter’s mules.


Possible new Earhart Project team member? TIGHAR photo by R. Gillespie.

The snow was so blinding it was unsafe to continue at low altitude. So we started climbing and icing.... Continued flying northeast in hope we would break out of the storm area. Unable to do so. Climbed to 19,600 feet and managed to climb above snowstorm, but continued to have light icing. Became impossible to maintain altitude and started to lose altitude. Gave order for men to put on parachutes and prepare to leave plane.

– pilot Orr

Our first day “on the airplane” was spent gridding off the site and beginning the mapping process under Tim Smith's direction. What at first had looked like a jumble of wreckage soon began to resolve into a coherent image of frozen violence.


Frozen violence. TIGHAR photo by R. Gillespie.

Someone then spotted a hole in the ceiling and a clearing which turned out to be a lake completely encircled by mountains and trees. Lt. Orr then ordered us to take off chutes and prepare for a crash landing. ... The ceiling was getting lower all the time and the right engine had caught fire.

– copilot Kelly

To our surprise we discovered that the trees that had been sheared off by the careening bomber 57 years ago still stood among the newer growth. Accordioned wings and scattered control surfaces traced a trail from the shoreline through the woods to the battered but largely intact fuselage.

Horizontal tail surfaces and wings outboard of the engines were shorn from the fuselage, absorbing most of the impact as the aircraft came down through the trees. TIGHAR photo by R. Gillespie.

Made one circle over the lake, below the level of the hills surrounding and decided to attempt landing on the lake which was rapidly closing in. Still unable to get the flaps to operate. Made one pass at the lake, but due to the fact that the flaps would not go down, overshot; managed to make another circle as low as possible. Still unable to get flaps to operate. So was unable to set down in the small area of the lake. Cut switches and mushed into the tops of trees at the south end of the lake which bent before snapping, easing us down but stripping wings from plane outside of engine nacelles. Plane came to stop 50 yards from edge of lake. Fuselage intact except for bombardier's compartment which was completely demolished. Climbed out of plane, administered first aid, and prepared for our stay.

– pilot Orr


Everyone was much moved by the feeling of authenticity and immediacy conveyed by the crash site, but that first night, while we sat around the campfire reliving the day, we came to the realization that something was wrong. We had all seen photos of the wreck taken the year before by Craig Fuller (TIGHAR #1589C) of Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Research (AAIR) and we knew that the aircraft had been subject to some vandalism and looting over the years, but the airplane we had just examined was missing some parts – big parts and lots of them – that had been present a year before.

In this photo, taken a year before, the fuselage was still intact. Compare with previous photos, in which large sections have been cut out, including the cabin door, gunner’s windows, a substantial portion of the belly and a complete bulkhead assembly, thus destroying the structural integrity of the fuselage. Photo courtesy Bill Carter, TIGHAR #2313CE.

Crew was all intact. The only injuries at the time was that of Pilot Orr who had cut his hand, S/Sgt Hoover cut his leg and hand. Men proceeded away from plane, a fire was started in a low clearing where there was not much snow.

– passenger Cpl. Earl J. Beaudry

The next day we took a close look at the recent damage. Not only were major portions of the structure missing, but whoever had removed them had done so with power tools and surgical expertise. In coordinating our proposed expedition with the local office of the National Forest Service no one had said anything about a salvage operation, especially one so recent that little piles of aluminum shavings still lay undisturbed where great chunks were cut from the fuselage. When we concluded our survey of the site and headed back to civilization a few days later it was with a determination to find out who had done this.

Click here to go to Part 2 of this report, where we’ll learn what happened to the eight-man crew of #9052 after their miraculously safe arrival in the middle of a wintry nowhere, and we’ll track down who it was that cut up one of the most intact surviving World War II crash sites in the United States – and why.

The TIGHAR Loon Lake Archaeological Survey Team. L to R., front row: Rick Jali #1875CE, Skeet Gifford #0001CEB, Exec. Dir. Ric Gillespie, Nancy Ballenger #2315CE, Megan Fisher #2339CE, Kenton Spading #1382CE. Middle row: Tom Roberts #1956CE, Maria Magers #2196CE, Fred Spading #1383CE, Nick Murray #2356CE, John Humphreys #0206CE, Bill Carter #2313CE, Veryl Fenlason #0053CE, Margot Still #2332CE, Tim Smith #1142CE, Lee Kruczkowski #1821CE, Walt Holm #0980CE. Back row; Roger Kelley #2112CE, Andrew McKenna #1045CE. Not shown (taking photo) John Clauss #0142CE. TIGHAR photo.

Special thanks to Margot Still (TIGHAR #2332CE) and Craig Fuller (TIGHAR #1589C) for their excellent historical research on B-23 #39-052 and to Pat McGinnis at Boeing for her assistance in obtaining historical photos of the B-23 airplane. Special thanks also to Bill Carter (TIGHAR #2313CE) for his outstanding organization of Idaho logistics for the course and expedition; to archaeologist Tim Smith (TIGHAR #1142CE) for his expertise and guidance; and to John Clauss (TIGHAR #0142CE) for his solid support in the field (as usual).

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