The known facts

B-17G aircraft # 43-39338, assigned to the European Air Transport Service (EATS) of the US Army and carrying a crew of four Officers and four NCOs, took off from Capodichino Air Base (Naples, Italy) at around 2:00 am local time on November 1st 1946. Its destination was Bovingdon, an airfield near Southampton in England. The Flight Plan required the aircraft to fly a route parallel to the Italian coast as far as the island of Gorgona (between the tip of Corsica and Pisa), make a 45 degree left turn across the Tyrrhenian Sea towards Istres (near Marseilles) from where it would head northwards via Lyon and Paris then across the English Channel to Bovingdon. Various alternative airfields were identified in the event that weather conditions prohibited continuation of the flight at any point. Despite careful planning, the flight came to a tragic end only half way to its destination.

Adverse weather conditions with severe thunderstorms had been forecast in both legs of the route. The aircraft captain, Colonel Hudson H. Upham, after discussing the situation at length with the Capodichino weather experts, his fellow Command Pilot Colonel Ford L. Fair and his Co-pilot, Major Lawrence L. Cobb Jr. and examining a number of possible routes, concurred the Flight Plan and authorized the plane’s departure. Two routine radio messages were transmitted a few minutes after take-off, but these were the only transmissions received from the aircraft throughout its flight. When the aircraft failed to reach Bovingdon around its expected time of arrival, “have you seen” queries were made along the route. As time passed without any sign of the aircraft at either Bovingdon or Orly aerodrome in Paris (its alternative destination), a Missing Aircraft telegram was issued. A number of telegrams were then dispatched to the various airfields along the planned route requesting news of the aircraft, but all replies advised “no sightings”. HQ EATS then issued a series of “Search Instigation” messages to Capodichino, Istres and Orly. These identified the search areas to be covered. A comprehensive search began along the entire route to a depth of 30 miles either side of the planned track.

On November 6th 1946, having received an initial report from Capodichino Air Base, Brigadier-General Lucas Beau of EATS wrote a letter to Major-General Edwards, Commanding General of the US Air Forces in Europe, expressing his conviction that the flight crew of the B-17 were very experienced and highly capable, but he also stated, “To think these experienced officers would clear after being briefed by the station weather officer and forecaster of the icing and severe thunderstorms along their route is beyond my comprehension.”

On November 7th 1946, a preliminary Major Accident Report was issued.

On that same day, the Public Relations Division of the War Department published the news of the loss of three American planes, giving details of the crews and their next-of-kin. Details of the B-17 crew are on page 2.

On November 18th 1946, after almost 3 weeks of intensive search activity involving more than 50 American, French, British and Swiss planes, no sign of the B-17 had been found and Brigadier-General Beau authorized that the formal search should be abandoned. The statement “emphasis on adherence to a Flight Plan filed prior to departure” appears to suggest that EATS was convinced that the lost B-17 was unlikely to be more than 30 miles off the route identified in its flight plan. Although the formal search had been called off, all routine flights along the plane’s presumed flight path were advised to be alert for any signs of its wreckage.

On November 30th, a detailed account of the weather situation as briefed to the pilots and co-pilot was furnished by the Station Weather Officer, Captain Steigner. Among other things, this states that the forecast was correct and did not contribute to the loss of the plane.

On December 2nd, a letter from Brigadier-General Beau formally provided both the Chief of Flying Safety Services at Langley Field (Virginia) and Major-General Edwards with the essential details of the search. It was reiterated that, “This headquarters is continuing to place emphasis on adherence to a flight plan filed prior to flight departure. Emphasis is also placed on the need for continual radio checks with ground stations, made by the radio operator, on continuous wave frequencies. Night cross country flights have been discontinued by European Air Transport Service.”

Attached to his letter were copies of the official documentation regarding the “Missing Air Crew Report” (MACR) dated 7th November. The cover letter for this Report lists the B-17’s eight-man crew:

  • Colonel Ford L. Fair (Command Pilot)
  • Colonel Hudson H. Upham (Command Pilot)
  • Major Lawrence L. Cobb, Jr. (Co-pilot)
  • 2nd Lieutenant Alfredo D. Ramirez (Navigator)
  • M/Sgt John E. Gilbert (Engineer)
  • S/Sgt William A. Hilton (Assistant Engineer)
  • S/Sgt Zoltan J. Dobovich (Radio Operator)
  • T/Sgt William S. Cassell (Assistant Radio Operator)

as “non-battle casualties”.

Nothing more was heard of the aircraft until July 25th 1947. That morning, a French Alpine patrol of the 99th Alpine Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Noël Mollard, came across the remains of an aircraft at around 3,750 meters above sea level (about 12,000 ft). during the course of a training climb on the Aiguille des Glaciers, on the south-east side of Mont Blanc. They found various human remains, documents and crew personal effects which they brought back to their base camp: Examination of papers found at the crash site identified the aircraft as the B-17 missing since the night of November 1st 1946. The French Alpine troops conducted a further expedition on August 1st to enlarge the search area. They found more documents and a number of personal objects belonging to the crew, but very few human remains.. One of the documents led them to believe that there had been nine men aboard the aircraft, but this was later found to have been the crew manifest from the flight from Weisbaden to Naples.

News of the discovery was passed by the French authorities through official channels to the American Legation in Paris, and a team from HQ American Graves Registration Command in Nancy was formed to participate in the search. However, when they got there, conditions on Mont Blanc were such that only one member of the American team (a French-speaking civilian with suitable mountaineering experience) was allowed to make the ascent with the French Alpine troops on August 4th. This expedition found a life jacket, some engine parts, a propeller and more human body fragments. The human remains were brought down the mountain for consignment to the American authorities and on August 6th 1947, a telegram formally stated that wreckage found high on the southeast of Mont Blanc by a French Alpine Patrol had been identified as the EATS B-17 missing since November 1st 1946.

Despite the increasingly hazardous conditions on the glacier due to the unusually hot summer, further searches were made by the French on August 7th (link to Ref 201) and 8th 1947 (link to Ref 202). It may seem strange that so few parts of such a large aircraft could be found less than a year after the accident, but the impact had totally destroyed it (“pulverized” is the word used by the French) and the heavy winter snowfalls had buried most of them below a layer of snow and ice. They were now part of the glacier itself, rendering further recovery at the crash site impossible.

On August 8th 1947, COMGEN EATS issued a Supplemental Missing Aircraft Report by telegram, adding some details concerning the crash site and the weather conditions at the time.

On August 9 1947, with conditions on the glacier becoming prohibitively dangerous (Lt. Mollard and two of his men narrowly avoided death when a snow bridge gave way under them), French Battalion Chief Chalandon, the Commander of the Alpine troops, concurred with Lt. Mollard to stop the search, observing that it could be up to 30 years until movement of the glacier and its melting at lower altitudes would allow any further recovery. It was probable, he said, that, depending on climatic conditions and the dynamics of the glacier itself, parts would continue to appear for years afterwards. Detailed reports concerning the discovery, initial survey of the Mont Blanc crash site, search results and their conclusions were subsequently provided by the French authorities.

On August 11th 1947, at Bourg Saint-Maurice, France, a ceremony was held to honor the deceased US personnel. The impressive ceremony saw troops of the 99th Bataillon d’Infantrie Alpine in full dress, while commemorative addresses were made by Brigade-General Collignon of the French Army and Brigadier-General Powell, Officer Commanding EATS.

The following US Air Forces personnel took part in the ceremony:

  • Brigadier- General James F. Powell, OC EATS
  • Captain Robert L. Lovelace, HQ EATS
  • Captain Donald W. Allen, HQ EATS
  • Captain Clarence S. Parker, HQ EATS
  • Captain Fon E. Johnson, HQ EATS
  • 1st Lieutenant William F. Shimonkevitz, HQ EATS
  • 1st Lieutenant John R. Walker, HQ EATS
  • 2nd Lieutenant Hazel Langdon, HQ EATS
  • Private Billy J. Norman, EUCOM Mortuaries

The remains were then brought to Chambery and thence flown to Rhein-Main Air Base where they were met by an honor guard headed by Colonel Walter S. Lee. They were later buried with full military honors under a common headstone at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. (Link to Ref 230).

On August 18th 1947, in accordance with AAF Regulation 62-14 and USAFE letter 62-2, the Chief of Air Staff, Colonel Alonzo M. Drake, issued Special Order Number 118. This appointed a six-man Aircraft Accident Investigation Board consisting of:

  • Major Charles G. Ferran (President)
  • Captain Bernard R. Peterson (Member)
  • Captain Clarence S. Parker (Member)
  • 1st Lieutenant Robert E. Brunke (Recorder)
  • Captain Fon E. Johnson (Ex-officio Member)
  • Captain William P. Doremus (Ex-officio Member).

On August 21st, Captain Parker, as EATS Chief of Flying Safety provided a briefing to the board with a 4-page report concerning the loss of the plane, its subsequent discovery, and the events up to the date of the convocation of the Board. The official translation of the French report (Link to entire French Translation) was an attachment to this documentation. The French inputs also included both road and topographic maps of the area. Modern maps have been substituted due to the poor quality of the available copied images (images1, images2).

The Board examined all the available evidence and interviewed American witnesses. Their report contained 15 enclosures. These included the Aircraft Clearance Form 23, the Flight Plan, plus confirmation of his report by the Capodichino Weather officer (Captain Steigner), testimony by M/ Sergeant Kable regarding the meteorological briefings given to the crew during the period October 31st – November 1st 1946, and the testimony and interrogation of Lieutenant Ray Gordon - the passenger on the flight of the B-17 from Weisbaden, Germany, who decided not to continue with the flight that night.

Part of the Board’s task was to make a Supplemental update to the previous AAF Form 14 (Report of a Major Accident). This outlined the known circumstances surrounding the fatal flight and attempted to draw some conclusions and make recommendations. Since the original descriptive text (Section M) is somewhat difficult to read, a faithful copy is provided here.

The Board’s conclusions appear to be somewhat ambiguous. They stated that the weather conditions over the Tyrrhenian Sea were not a major contributory factor to the accident, since the worst of the weather was already behind the plane by the time the accident occurred. Curiously, they stated that accurate “winds aloft” data (i.e. wind directions and speeds at various altitudes) was not available, despite the fact that this data was supplied by the 5th Weather Group on the 9th of September 1947 and registered as part of the attachments. They did, however seem confident that a rising easterly/southeasterly warm front produced by the depression would have caused a 10/10 cloud buildup in the Mont Blanc area, giving zero visibility at 12,000 feet.

While the Board of Enquiry concentrates much on the weather conditions prevailing at the time of departure, it makes little attempt to account for the significant deviation from the planned route (the aircraft was over 90 miles off course when it struck Mont Blanc). From French information and the point of impact, it was ascertained that the flight direction immediately prior to the crash passed over Mount Cenis on a heading of approximately 350 degrees (10 degrees left of North). They could only speculate that the pilots might have made a deliberate choice to fly the shorter route, or that they might have been off course due to strong westerly winds coupled with faulty navigation. (Link to 296).

Curiously, what does not emerge is that a combination of direction and drift plus meteorological conditions known to produce icing might well have made a significant contribution to the accident, despite the fact that General Beau even mentions icing as being a possible cause in his letter of November 6th 1946.

Two actions were imposed:

  1. All EATS aircraft were prohibited from overflying the Alps in “instrument weather” conditions (thus the route from Naples via Marseilles and Lyon became mandatory except in daylight and clear-visibility conditions). We may recall that EATS night-time cross-country flights had previously been “discontinued” as one of the early consequences of this crash.
  2. All EATS pilots were ordered to attend a week-long Flight Planning course concentrating on flying in inclement weather in the Mediterranean theatre.

The report was endorsed by the Chief of Air Staff, Colonel Alonzo M. Drake, in a letter dated December 12th 1947 to Major-General Edwards. Among other things, he indicates that the “corrective action” of the Board’s recommendations has already been implemented, and that an exhaustive but unsuccessful search for weather data covering the period of the flight has been conducted.

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