Seeking data on Lockheed Electras contemporary with Earhart's plane, for comparison with aircraft wreckage found on Nikumaroro, TIGHAR examined the site of a 1936 site on the Idaho Panhande National Forests. Following is the text of TIGHAR's final report to the USDA Forest Service and the Idaho State Historic Preservation Officer.
by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR)
On December 18, 1936, Northwest Airlines Westbound Flight 1, carrying mail from Missoula, Montana bound for Spokane, Washington, crashed on the Saint Joe National Forest. The aircraft was a Lockheed Electra 10A #1024, registered as NC 14935. A Bureau of Air Commerce analysis of the crash concluded that Pilot Joe Livermore and co-pilot Arthur Haid had become lost, and perhaps had trouble with their instruments , though local media accounts alluded to bad weather conditions as well. Livermore and Haid were killed in the crash into a mountain ridge, where their bodies, together with several sacks of mail, were recovered a week later.
On July 9-10, 2004, an 8-man team from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), aided by personnel from the Idaho Panhandle National Forests and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, relocated the wreck site and briefly documented its character. This is the report of TIGHAR’s archeological fieldwork.
In the course of fifteen years research into the 1937 disappearance of aviation pioneers Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan, TIGHAR has found four dados – aluminum panels that ran along the deck/fuselage interface inside a commercial aircraft – on Nikumaroro Island in the Republic of Kiribati. These dados may be from Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E, which according to TIGHAR’s hypothesis Earhart landed on Nikumaroro before expiring there.
Unfortunately, specifications for the Lockheed Electra discovered to date do not provide details about whatever dados Earhart’s aircraft may have had, and surviving Electras have all experienced so much interior modification that they cannot be trusted to reflect original conditions. To discover whether Electras of Earhart’s day had dados like those found on Nikumaroro, TIGHAR needs to examine contemporary wreck sites. The aircraft that crashed on the St. Joe National Forest in 1936 is the best analog to Earhart’s plane currently known.
Accordingly, the core purpose of TIGHAR’s fieldwork was to identify and describe any dados that might be found on the NC 14935 wreck site. This, of course, required that the site be found and carefully inspected.
Background research was conducted by TIGHAR members Bill Carter, Walt Holm, and Arthur Rypinski. They found that the circumstances of the crash had been rather heavily (although not always consistently) documented by local media as well as by the Bureau of Air Commerce. Based on accounts by members of the search party that found the wreck, the Kellogg Evening News reported that the aircraft, when found, was “a twisted piece of wreckage strewn along the rugged mountain ridge about 300 feet below the crest.” It went on to say that:
“The giant motors were some distance above the body of the plane, evidently imbedded in the earth and rocks where the plane first struck. The body of the plane appeared to have rolled back down the steep slope some 50 feet. The wings were broken off and the tail of the ship was standing in the air. ”
Another issue of the newspaper reported that:
“The front end of the plane burst into flames and considerable of the wreckage was destroyed. Nine of the 16 mail sacks were burned…..” “It was reported that very little of the wrecked plane could be salvaged, the terrific impact of the machine against the mountain reducing the plane to a mass of wreckage. ”
These descriptions suggested that while the forward part of the aircraft had been destroyed by the crash, the after part of the fuselage may have rolled downhill away from the burning engines and fuel tanks, and been sufficiently well preserved to have permitted the recovery of some mail sacks. This piece of wreckage, it was thought, might preserve dados if they had been present.
The news accounts also provided enough locational detail to allow TIGHAR researchers to narrow the search area to the headwaters of three small west-flowing drainages above the 5,000 foot (1524 meter) elevation on the St. Joe Ranger District.
Field research was carried out on July 9-10, 2004. TIGHAR’s team was made up of seven members:
- Project Director: Walt Holm
- Logistics and Local Research: Bill Carter
- Researchers: John Clauss, Craig Fuller, Thomas King, Andrew McKenna, and Gary Quigg.
We were accompanied and assisted on July 9 by Acting Forest Archeologist Mervin Floodman, and by Quanah Matheson and John Hartman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Mr. Floodman participated on July 10 as well.
Having traveled by 4-wheel drive vehicle to within two miles of the drainage thought most likely to contain the wreck, the team back-packed in to the area, supported by Mr. Shane Sheppard of Coeur d’Alene with an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). Arriving at a pre-selected campsite on the ridge above the headwaters of the stream in which the wreck was thought most likely to lie, the team undertook an initial reconnaissance of the headwaters within about 1-200 meters (320-650’) of the ridge crest.
Team members, plus Messers Floodman, Matheson and Hartman formed a skirmish line approximately ten meters (35’) from one another along the south side of the bowl forming the stream headwaters, and walked north, inspecting the ground in all directions. Within about half an hour, as team members began to break out of heavy brush and lodgepole pine forest into the more lightly vegetated, rocky terrain bordering the stream, the first pieces of aircraft aluminum were found, and it was soon apparent that the streambed itself was choked with wreckage.
TIGHAR survey team on wreck site
Having thus located the NC 14935 site, the team conducted an initial inspection, which indicated that the wreckage tailed off about 150 meters (500’) down the ravine. It was also apparent that the aircraft parts present were predominantly from the engines, landing gear, and wings; fuselage elements were notably absent. Two alternative reasons for the lack of fuselage parts were advanced – (1) that the fuselage had washed farther downstream, and (2) that it had been salvaged at some point in the past for aluminum scrap, souvenirs, or both.
On July 10th, a three-man team (John Clauss, Bill Carter, Andrew McKenna) worked their way downstream about 4/10 of a mile (650 meters) from the lower end of the wreckage site to the point where the stream debouches into a larger creek, inspecting both banks and the stream bed for wreckage. The remainder of the team, assisted by Mr. Floodman, prepared a measured sketch-map of the wreckage site (Figure One). Gary Quigg and Walt Holm scoured the ravine and its banks, marking wreckage with pin-flags, while Craig Fuller and Tom King followed, laying out a measured baseline, identifying and mapping wreckage clusters, taking reference photographs, and recording GPS coordinates and elevations. Work was completed by about 2 pm, whereupon the team packed all gear and retired from the site. No permanent markers were left on or around the site.
General View of Site, facing west-southwest
The news accounts reporting that NC 14935 struck the ridge about 300 feet below its crest proved to be quite accurate. We recorded the elevation of the ridge crest immediately upstream (East-Northeast) of the wreck site at 5635 feet (1718 meters) above sea level. The wreckage was found to be concentrated between 5406 feet (1648 meters) and 5158 feet (1573 meters). The probable point of impact was found at 5326 feet (1623 meters).
The wreckage is distributed for about 150 linear meters (500’) along the steep, steep-sided ravine of a snowmelt-fed stream (dry at the time of our survey) that runs west-southwest, joining a larger creek about half a mile below the wreckage concentration. Very little wreckage is apparent on the slopes above the streambed; what was found there comprised small fragments of glass, aluminum, and hard rubber. The streambed runs through a landscape of metamorphic rubble, over a series of sharp rock outcrops that must form waterfalls when the stream is flowing. There is a fair amount of riparian vegetation along the streambed itself, increasing dramatically downstream toward the mainstem of the creek into which the stream empties. The headwaters are sparsely vegetated for 20 to 40 meters (35-70’) in all directions from the streambed, surrounded by lodgepole pine forest with knee-to-waist high wild huckleberry and other brush.
On the south side of the ravine at an elevation of about 5326 feet (1623 meters), there is a patch of dark, friable soil containing abundant small fragments of burned and unburned aluminum and glass, which we interpret as the site of a burn. Upstream to the northeast, only a few pieces of aluminum, engine fittings, glass shards, and a switch plate (probably engine-associated) were found. Upslope from the apparent burn area to the immediate east, south of the streambed, there is a light scatter of glass fragments and pieces of hard black rubber. To the northeast, north of the stream, a camshaft ring and other apparent engine parts were found, widely scattered.
Immediately upstream of the apparent burn, an unstable rockslide intrudes on the streambank. Across the face of this slide, someone has stretched plastic-coated snowfence material, anchored with rebar posts. A partial roll of the same material lies just upstream, and two mauls were found a few meters upslope – one a hand maul weighing about two pounds, the other a long-handled maul weighing perhaps nine pounds, with a broken handle. We interpret this as a fairly recent landslide control effort, presumably by Forest Service personnel.
Downstream, aircraft parts are almost continuous along the ravine for about 70 meters (230’). The distribution stops abruptly at the head of a steep, rocky drop-off, at the end of which is a small cluster of parts, then another drop-off, then another cluster. Downstream from this last cluster, only one fragment of aluminum and one ceramic insulator, probably from a magneto, were found in searching the ravine all the way to its mouth.
Figure One: Site Sketch Map
Aircraft Parts Noted
As mentioned above, the highest cluster of material on the south slope of the bowl in which the ravine lies is actually a light scatter of broken glass (samples collected), most of it clearly flat but falling into two size grades – 1/8” (3 mm) and 3/32” (2.24 mm) – together with pieces of hard (or hardened by exposure) rubber, some in the form of hoses. About twenty meters (65’) from the ravine on this side, at the edge of the surrounding forest, there is a small cluster comprising two pieces of aluminum, the top or bottom of a ferrous container resembling a large paint can, and the top of a tobacco tin. We interpret this as some kind of secondary deposit.
On the opposite slope, to the north, only a few engine parts were found.
In the ravine itself, about seven meters upstream from the apparent burn area and adjacent to the snow fence, was a small cluster of aluminum fragments, a pipe fitting, an engine push rod, several cylinder head bolts, and electrical wire with a connector. About five meters (17-18’) upstream from the apparent burn was a lever-type valve fitting for a ¼” (0.65 cm) pipe, with a face plate with the following embossed:
- To Operator: Set valve, then pull handle.
- -- Maintenance –
- Weigh cylinder every 6 months
- Walter Kidde & Company, Inc.
- Bloomfield, New Jersey
This item was identified as the cockpit control valve from a LUX Airplane Fire System; ironically, TIGHAR has a copy of a 1937 advertisement for this system that features a testimonial by Amelia Earhart (Appendix I).
Lux valve switch
In and immediately around the apparent burn area, the following were noted:
- Many fragments of aluminum, most burned
- Aluminum slag
- Many shards of glass
- Fragments of hard black plastic or rubber
- Base of a push rod
- Ferrous container, possible instrument casing
- Spring-like wire resembling seat cushion spring
- Control cable
- Two sardine cans
- Fragment of bottle glass
Between the apparent burn and the first drop-off, the following parts were observed:
- Camshaft ring
- Collection of small electrical parts, battery plates, Dzus fasteners on a rock ledge
- Exhaust collection ring
- Steel reinforced aluminum tubing
- Ferrous fragments
- Many curved ferrous tubes resembling seat components (below)
- Gear from engine accessory area
- Fragmentary aluminum access panels, ferrous lined with Dzus fasteners
- Control cable
- Copper tube
- Heavy ferrous pipe with aluminum fittings
- Heavy, complex tubing assembly
- Various apparent engine components
- Long aluminum piece with ferrous edging
- Small brass plaque, no inscription or embossing
- Heavy twisted ferrous plate with puddled aluminum adhering
- Some aluminum slag
- Many fragments burned and unburned aluminum
- Two landing gears, brakes present but wheels gone, one with piece of firewall attached (Upper landing gear shown below)
- Aluminum tube with control cable inside
- Apparent seat springs
- Gear from accessory area of engine
- Exhaust tube
- Control rods
- Ceramic antenna mount
- Large twisted wing fragment (collected)
- Large pieces of split flap
- Large piece of wing trailing edge
- Large burned fitting
- Scattered glass fragments, including one small fragment of 1/16” (1.5 mm) glass (collected)
- Two armatures, likely one from a starter, the other from a generator
- Exhaust system components
- Radial Engine components, including crank, rods, two cylinders, fragments of the case and parts of the propeller hub.
- Portions of an engine cowling
- Portions of a main wing spar
- Aileron fragment
- Other aluminum fragments, probably parts of wings
At the bottom of the first drop-off, an engine cylinder was found, together with several pieces of aluminum skin, one with ferrous edging, and a rubber shock mount. Widely scattered over the next drop-off were fragments of aluminum, apparent seat springs, and at least one piece of aluminum slag.
The cluster at the bottom of the second drop-off comprised much of the second radial engine – including the crank, rods, one piston, two cylinders and the blower rotor. Parts of the exhaust collection ring and an engine mount were just downstream.
Exhaust collection ring and engine mount
The parts of the NC 14935 aircraft represented appear to be from the forward section including the cockpit, engines, landing gear, and adjacent portions of the wings. The after part of the fuselage and tail section are notable by their absence.
As noted above, contemporary news accounts indicate that the engines were embedded in the earth upslope of the main body of wreckage, and that the front end of the aircraft burned while the after section migrated downslope. Today, there is abundant evidence of the burning of the forward part of the plane, but the engines are now downstream from the burn area, in the ravine together with cowling and wing parts.
We think it most likely that NC 14935 struck the mountain at or a bit above what we interpret as a burn area, scattering glass upslope , and embedding the engines either both on the north side of the ravine or one on each side, together with their cowlings and adjoining wing segments. The forward section of the plane burned in place, creating the apparent burn area we see today, while the after section slid down the ravine.
Over the decades since the crash, it appears that the engines and their associated cowling and wing parts have lost major components and washed down from their points of impact into the ravine, and with the rest of the aircraft parts are slowly migrating downslope.
But what happened to the fuselage aft of the part that burned? There seem to be only two plausible possibilities: either it washed on downstream, or it was removed by someone.
TIGHAR’s search of the ravine and its slopes downslope from the wreckage extended to the junction of the snowmelt-fed wash with a larger creek. It revealed only one fragment of aluminum and one ceramic electrical component. The lower part of the wash is densely vegetated and contains a good deal of deadfall; it is not impossible that the fuselage and tail, crushed and flattened, lie hidden there, but the team members who surveyed there regard this as unlikely based on their observations. They also regard it as unlikely that substantial pieces of wreckage have passed through this densely overgrown area into the larger creek.
The near-complete dearth of wreckage along the wash downstream from the last cluster of wreckage (the engine and exhaust system pieces) suggests to us that the alternative explanation is more likely to be correct – that the fuselage and tail were salvaged. This explanation would be consistent with the experience of party member Craig Fuller, who has visited and documented some 200 wreck sites and found that they have almost universally been subjected to salvage, however remote and rugged their locations. Discreet inquiries revealed that the NC 14935 wreck site is known to local residents; aside from the sheer difficulty of doing so, there is nothing to keep people from dragging substantial pieces of wreckage up out of (or down through) the wash.
Two companies that specialize in aluminum products – Kaiser and Alcoa – have (or until recently had) plants near Spokane. Kaiser’s at least was in place during the 1940s. It may well be that aluminum wreckage was salvaged from the site during World War II to be sold to the plant for scrap. Valuable components like engine parts, gauges and radio gear may have been salvaged early on, when they possessed market value, and pieces may have been harvested at any time as souvenirs. Inquiries are being made by both TIGHAR and the Forest Service to assess the possibility that components may still be found in local private collections.
Although dados were not located, the examination of the NC 14935 Crash Site was not without interest in terms of TIGHAR’s research. Besides giving us a better impression than we had heretofore of just what a Lockheed Electra looks like when wrecked, the study yielded some specific potentially useful data. We observed that some (perhaps all) of the aluminum had been coated with some kind of blue wash, visible today only in protected locations. This wash is quite distinctive, and could be useful for comparison with some enigmatic remnants of surface coating detected on a large section of aircraft skin found on Nikumaroro. A piece of wing with vestiges of this wash was recovered from the site for comparative analysis. Three glass fragments were also recovered for comparison with flat glass found on Nikumaroro.
Blue wash on interior of wing panel
Eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places
In its proposal to the Forest Service to conduct this project, TIGHAR offered the opinion that the NC 14935 Crash Site is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Although our inspection has shown that the site has lost a good deal of integrity, we continue to feel that it meets at least National Register Criteria “a” (for association with the history of aviation and airmail in the area) and “d” (for the information it can provide both for TIGHAR’s research and perhaps other research into the structure of early Lockheed aircraft).
TIGHAR is grateful to the following people for their assistance, without which this project could not have been completed:
- Tracy Gravelle, Resource Forester, St. Joe Ranger District, Avery, Idaho
- Mervin Floodman, Acting Archeologist, Idaho Panhandle National Forests
- Mary H. Williams, Heritage Program Manager, Bitterroot National Forest
- Dr. Michael Beckes, Region 1 Archeologist, USDA Forest Service
- John Hartman, Coeur d'Alene Tribe
- Quanah Matheson, Coeur d'Alene Tribe
- Suzi Neitzel, Idaho State Historical Society
- Jessica Sheppard - Coeur d'Alene Idaho
- Shane Sheppard - Coeur d'Alene Idaho
- Lauren Paul - Boise, Idaho
- Air Commerce, Bureau of
- 1937 Report of the Accident Board: Statement of probable causes concerning an accident which occurred to an aircraft of Northwest Airlines, Incorporated, near Kellogg, Idaho, on December 18, 1936. U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington DC, June 9, 1937.
- Kellogg Evening News
- 1936 Issues of December 26 and 28
- King, T. F., R. Jacobson, K. Burns, and K. Spading
- 2001 Amelia Earhart’s Shoes: Is the Mystery Solved? AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.
- Russell, Bert (ed.)
- 2003 Swiftwater People: Lives of Old Timers on the Upper St. Joe & Maries Rivers. Museum of North Idaho Publications.
- n.d.a., The Dado, Part One., accessed 12-Oct-2009.
- n.d.b., Dados Galore, accessed 12-Oct-2009.