Mystery Plane Identified As 1974 Crash

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When a Civil Air Patrol pilot spotted engines and metal debris on Granny Ridge, he thought it was the wreckage of a Cessna 182 that went missing New Year's Eve 2005.

But the wreckage turned out to be from a Lockheed PV-2 bomber, turned into a fire bomber. The two crewmembers that were fighting the June 1974 fire lost their lives in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest, in an area of the Mogollon Rim near Chevelon Canyon.

"My wife (CAP Lt. Sally Tyrell) and I went out to the crash site. The main thing that identified the plane for us was the tail wheel strut," said Lt. Col. Charles Bendixen. He is the Squadron Commander in Flagstaff and is one of the CAP pilots who flew back to investigate the 31-year-old wreck.

"The old crash was less than half a mile from the Cessna," he said.

Bendixen drove in on a forest road, then hiked half a mile through a ravine to get to the wreckage, within a thick growth of pine trees.

Once armed with a registration number, N7263C, he was able to research the crash.

Larry Mortinson and Timothy Chittenden are the only two PV2 firefighters listed on the memorial page of the Associated Air Tanker Pilots Web site as those who lost their lives in 1974. Neither it nor the National Transportation Safety Board reports which gentleman was the pilot -- only that the pilot was 31 years of age and had 2,200 total hours of flight time, 400 in the PV-2, and was instrument rated.

On June 12, 1974 at 1:57 p.m. the fire bomber stalled when the pilot failed to "obtain/maintain flying speed" and "lost control in a steep bank," reads the NTSB report. The temperature was 98 degrees, wind velocity was at twenty knots (23 miles per hour) at 285 compass degrees (west) and visibility was three miles or better.

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A PV-2 before conversion to a fire bomber.

Actual elevation at the crash site was less than half the "density altitude" of about 12,000 feet.

"As air temperature rises, the air gets less dense and acts like a higher elevation," explained CAP Col. John Varljen. "Payson Airport is 5,100 feet ... in the summertime, at 100 degrees, it acts as if the airport is at 8,000 feet. The less dense the air, the longer it takes to take off, and the stall speed changes."

According to Bendixen, Mortinson and Chittenden's bodies would have been recovered after the crash.

Light debris from the site was removed, but a crane would be required to remove the weighty 2,000-horsepower engines, and it probably wasn't worth salvaging, Bendixen said.

"It has been fun sleuthing this whole thing," he said. "I talked with a supervisor from Sitgreaves National Forest who actually talked to two of the old-timer firefighters who saw the crash."

The Roundup was unable to reach those firefighters for comment, but spoke with Dan Leeds, a firefighter in Greer, who recalled a fire fatality three or four summers earlier, during the Tragedy Fire.

"The fire started just after midnight during a high wind as a storm front moved through and threw a large tree across power lines, igniting dry fuels, then it just took off," Leeds said. "Later that morning a slurry bomber was approaching the fire and we believe a down draft sucked him into the treetops, killing the pilot, Robert Bloomfield."

The names of 113 pilots in addition to Mortinson, Chittenden, and Bloomfield who have lost their lives in the dangerous business of fighting fires from the air between 1970 and 2005 are memorialized at www.airtanker.com.

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