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November 17, 2005

ARCHIVE: Cold War Crash


Steve Ririe

50 years ago today (Nov. 17, 1955), a top secret flight on the way to Groom Lake crashed near the top of Mount Charleston. Until 1998 the details of the accident were kept secret. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.

(right - Steve Ririe)

Silent Heroes of the Cold War

PLASKON: Early in the morning on November 17, 1955, visitors at the base of Mt Charleston saw the Air Force C-54 aircraft break through the clouds for an instant then erupt into a fireball on the face of the mountain. The road was sealed by military, rescuers vowed silence, and even the family members were kept in the dark. 17 years later, a 12 years old boy scout, Steve Ririe climbed Mt Charleston and rummaged through the old site. He asked around a lot about it, but no one seemed to know anything so he forgot until revisiting in 1998. He believes he was the only one there.

RIRIE: As I sat there I had a feeling that I was not alone though, even though I knew I was not alone. It was a haunting feeling and the thought occurred to me that I ought to find out who these people were and why they ended up on the mountain, and I went home and kind of forgot about it, but I kept waking up night after night after night about the same time with the same thought that I had to find out who they were.

PLASKON: Asking around some more, he found a friend who had written a history book including some details of the crash. From there he found out the plane was on it's way to area 51 with a payload from Lockheed Martin. He called the company, they told him to call the CIA. As it turns out, the same month Ririe felt the unyielding need to know what happened, the CIA had de-classified documents regarding the U2 spy plane. Those documents included the facts of this doomed flight. On board were 4 CIA agents, two engineers from the Lockheed Martin and two from the company that designed a U2 spy plane camera capable of taking pictures at 70 thousand feet. It was the first time the military had flown this rout to Area 51.

RIRIE: They wanted to save time so they decided to fly west of the spring mountain range and once they passed over mount Charleston they decided to take a little turn to the right to Groom Lake.

PLASKON: They were on their way to the second test flight of the U2 spy plane. But a crosswind blew the plane to the east side of the mountain. Since it was flying to a top-secret location, they had to keep radio silence.

RIRIE: Because they didn't want to be traced flying into a base that didn't exist at that time, they were told they couldn't radio or turn on their radio equipment and fly by visual sight and stay at low elevation. That was basically a cocktail for disaster for them.

PLASKON: The pilot broke radio silence anyway calling for help. Nellis heard the transmission, but kept radio silence, Water Town, the community at Area 51 did not. It was the only base authorized to communicate with the plane.

RIRIE: The pilot knew he was in trouble. He tried to do a maneuver in the aircraft and turn to the left to avoid high terrain. He hit the peak at the peak of Mt Charleston, just 50 feet from the top where he could have just buzzed right over.

PLASKON: The glowing flames were visible miles away in Las Vegas. Ririe says the secrecy of the mission not only contributed to this accident, but also impacted the lives of family members of those who died.

RIRIE: There are a lot of stories of what they went through. For one family the CIA broke into their home while they were in church and went through all their stuff and then they knocked on the door and said if you say anything about this, don't talked to friends or neighbors.

PLASKON: Other family members were told their loved ones were killed on a business trip. Ririe says declassifying the documents has given closure to family members like one mother who lived for decades not knowing what happened to her son.

RIRIE: She said to them that today they will know that Billy was a hero won't they and an hour later she died.

PLASKON: Ririe is a member of Silent Heroes of the Cold war, a group set up to commemorate those who died in America's longest war.

RIRIE: A lot of people died. People lost their lives and no body knows about that. We think that we won the cold war without a shot, without a death and that simply is not true, but most of the deaths were clandestine or in secret.

PLASKON: The crash at Mt Charleston is a prime example. The group is meeting tonight at 7 at The Hotel at Mt Charleston to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the accident.

Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR

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