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70th anniversary of Billings' deadliest plane crash: "I heard a fellow across the aisle yell, 'There she goes'"

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1945 Billings Army transport plane crash

In the early hours of December 8, 1945, a C-47 transport airplane was making its way to what was then known as Billings Municipal Airport. The plane, carrying soldiers returning home from World War II, was caught in a blizzard, making the landing approach difficult due to limited visibility. The plane crashed in a field just east of what is today Veterans Park. Two crew members and 17 of the 19 soldiers aboard were killed, making it the deadliest aviation disaster in Billings history and the deadliest in Montana history at the time (later superseded by the 1950 Butte plane crash that killed 21).

The cold front hit Billings at 1:13 a.m. on Dec. 8, 1945, dropping temperatures and bringing heavy snow flurries along the way.

Within an hour, the winter snowstorm would shrink visibility from 10 miles to around a half-mile.

Just before 2 a.m., the control tower operator at what is now called Billings Logan International Airport, first contacted an inbound C-47 transport plane filled with military members returning from World War II and operated by Northwest Airlines as an Army charter.

1945 crash

This photo, taken on Dec. 8, 1945, shows the wreckage of a C-47 transport plane that crashed during a snowstorm in a field near Billings, killing 17 returning World War II troops and two crew members.

Dick Logan, then the airport manager, told The Billings Gazette later that day that the plane came in from the east and that the control tower told the pilot he was too high and the plane circled over Billings for another try at landing.

As the plane looped back around, the tower operator watched it disappear into the snow, and then two minutes later saw its lights approaching below the level of the landing field. He warned the pilot the plane was too low. Soon after, the plane dipped out of sight below the Rims.

When the pilot didn't answer a call, an observer at the airport climbed onto the roof of the tower and looked into the valley below, spotting the burning wreckage.

The crash killed 19 of the 23 people on board and remains the deadliest aviation disaster in Billings history.

Nose first

The military members were being discharged or reassigned after fighting overseas. Piloted by Capt. George D. Miller and Vernon Pfannkuch, the transport took off from Newark, N.J., bound for Seattle.

Along the way, it landed in Minneapolis, where Miller and Pfannkuch took over, and then in Fargo, N.D., to refuel.

According to documents filed in the crash of the C-47 and court briefings from a lawsuit against Northwest, the flight was mostly routine until it neared Billings, with one surviving passenger reporting some turbulence in the 15 or so minutes before the crash.

The "pilot descended too rapidly in the turn to the left and failed to allow for the possibility of a downdraft," said the investigation report, provided to the Gazette by the Air Force Historical Research Agency. "At any rate, (the) pilot wound up below the level of the field, still in a turning attitude, (then the) aircraft struck a tree, crashed and burned."

It crashed nose first into a field between Poly Drive and Rimrock Road, somewhere to the east of 13th Street West and roughly a half-mile south of the airport, and within a day there would be just four survivors.

"The plane was lurching for several minutes," Technician Fifth Grade Emil A. Hasch, one of the surivors and Yakima, Wash., native, told The Gazette from a Billings hospital the next day. "There was a pull up. Then the nose went down hard. I heard a fellow across the aisle yell, 'There she goes.'" 

Still buckled

A witness identified in the Dec. 9, 1945, edition of The Gazette as Mrs. J.E. Vogel said she and her husband heard the plane's engines roar, followed by silence, before they saw flames in the field across the street and called police.

Crash front page

The December 8, 1945, issue of the Billings Gazette has a red headline announcing the deadly crash of a transport airplane in a field near what is today Veterans Park.

They, along with a few others, ran across the street to help the men who'd been thrown from the plane and to pull others from the wreckage.

F.H. Thayer and his wife listened to the engines rev and its landing lights shone through their home's window just before the crash.

Soon, emergency services swarmed the scene. Billings police Officer George Cunningham reported that the flames burned bright enough to light the field as they pulled survivors and charred bodies from the wreckage.

A number of the bodies were still in sitting positions as responders removed them, and eye-witness accounts indicate many died while still buckled into their seats.

"All of us had our safety belts fastened," Hasch said. "Some of the boys had pulled theirs tight. Mine was loose, though. I could move easily in my seat."

Seventeen of the 19 returning soldiers died during or shortly after the crash, as did Miller and Pfannkuch. The military personnel killed were:

Maj. Ray Craft, Staff Sgt. Thomas Thomsen, Tech Sgt. Glenn Marr, Sgt. Don Haley, Technician Fourth Grade Virgil Kinne, Technician Fourth Grade Warren Parrish, Lt. Anthony Alnsky, Pfc. Clayton Thompson, Technician Fourth Grade Fred Chapman, Pfc. Maceo Hobbs, Pfc. Walter Orchard, Technician Fifth Grade John Marshall, Sgt. Charles Ennen, Cpl. Lorrell Cassell, Technician Fifth Grade Ned Neasham, Pfc. David Gillett and Technician Fourth Grade Adolph Tokie.

Survivors included Hasch, Pfc. Raymond Parkins, Cpl. Milford Barnes and Technician Fifth Grade Raymond Emerson. 

Crash follow story

The December 10, 1945, issue of the Billings Gazette features a follow up story about the fatal crash of a transport airplane in a field near 13th Street West and Poly Drive.

Besides the crew, who were from Minnesota, all of the men on the plane were from Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

Within a day, Air Corps investigators from Great Falls and Ohio were on scene and the crash made headlines across the region.

On Dec. 10, The Gazette reported that three local boys — Arden Braaten along with brothers Gary and Lewis Hines — found a small medal box and personal mementos belonging to at least one of the victims.

Among three photos found was one of a soldier at a beach, with "At ease on the beach. The bracelet on my left wrist is a gift from my beloved," written on the back.

Hasch was returning after 16 months in Europe with an infantry unit and told a reporter that he initially was hesitant to get on a plane.

"I didn't want to fly to the coast," he said. "I don't like planes, and I asked to go by train when we landed in the states Nov. 28. But the orders were to fly."

Another survivor, Parkins, said he was being discharged after two years of service, including in Europe with a field artillery unit. His wife had to tell him about the crash.

"I didn't know where I was when I woke this morning," Parkins said.

Air Corps investigators didn't definitively determine the exact cause of the crash, but said the engines appeared to be working properly and that all evidence points to the pilot dropping too low in the blinding snowstorm and not accounting for a possible downdraft.

Memorial

Today, a marker at Veteran's Park near the busy intersection of 13th and Poly, which is likely a little west of the actual crash site, notes the disaster.

In 2006, the Billings United Veterans Council and the American Legion Post 119 in the Heights dedicated the plaque with the names of everyone on the flight, even though none were from Billings or Montana.

"They're veterans," said then-Post Commander Dick Grimm in a 2006 Gazette article. "What else can you say?"

The 24-by-24 plaque with a brief description of the crash sits on the lower half of a concrete monument that is topped with the sculpture of a soaring eagle.

Note: This article has been edited to reflect that the airplane was a C-47 transport plane.

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