Michigan Aviation Archaeology
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YP-38 Lightning #39-699, Atlanta, MI - 23 June, 1941



An example of a YP-38. Only thirteen were ever made. While this plane spent time at Selfridge Airfield, by the date in the picture, it was most likely back at Lockheed in California. Two other YP-38s are known to have crashed while based at Selfridge.
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Pilot: 2nd Lt. Guy L. Putnam Jr., 22 Alameda, CA

Robert Blamer was manning his post at Presque Isle South Fire Tower watching a plane high above the clouds performing maneuvers. He then called Webster Sherman in Presque Isle North Fire Tower five miles away who was directly under the plane to see if he was watching the show. As the two men watched the plane performing lazy eights, Webster heard the pitch of the engines change and the plane picked up velocity as it dove at an almost vertical angle through the clouds (cloud cover was at 10,000 ft.) and crashed into the state forest several miles west of Presque Isle North Fire Tower. Flames shot up fully 300 ft into the air and the men could feel the concussion blast. Blamer used the tools of his trade, normally used to pinpoint forest fires, to locate the crash site and notify fireman at the Pigeon River CCC camp not far from the crash point. Firefighters were on scene within a half an hour. The crash had indeed ignited several fires that needed to be tended to and the plane had come in at such speed that it was disintegrated. The pilot, 2nd Lt. Guy Putnam Jr. was killed instantly.

Less than a half hour before, Lt. Putnam had left the runway at Captain Phelps Collins Airport in Alpena, MI for a transition training flight. He was attached to the 1st Fighter Group, 27th Pursuit Squadron based at Selfridge Field in Mt. Clemens, MI. He had been temporarily reassigned to the 94th Pursuit Squadron (also out of Selfridge) for testing of the new Lockheed Aviation, YP-38 twin-tailed prototype. He had flown from Selfridge to Alpena the day before with another YP-38. A third plane arrived that day and both remaining YP-38s were grounded at Alpena pending investigation into the cause of Putnam’s crash.

At this early stage in development, engineers and pilots alike were unaware of the great speeds that this aircraft could achieve during a dive; the Air Corps had only just taken delivery of the YP-38 a month earlier. In a high speed dive at high altitude, it is likely that Lt. Putnam's plane experienced the effects of aerodynamic compressibility, whereby the plane is unable to respond to the controls. Putnam would have been unable to pull out of the dive and continue to pick up speed, at which point it is likely he lost consciousness.

By September 1941, the YP-38s were committed to a program to test compressibility and test pilots were required to exceed 300 mph in dives starting above 30,000 ft. This was a radically new idea, especially at those high altitudes, but designers were pushing the limits of aerodynamic knowledge and material strength in the quest for maximum performance. The YP-38 was destined to spend the rest of its operational life with dive testing. There were only thirteen ever built.

With WWII looming, the sacrifices of Lt. Putnam and other men like him, would lead to the development of an operational P-38 Lightning that would go on to distinguish itself as one of the most successful fighters of the entire war.

Census information from 1930 indicates that Lt. Putnam's family consisted of his father, mother, Grace Putnam, and sisters Patricia and Jacqueline.


Official crash report did not contain wrecksite photographs.

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The search for the crash site:

I first became aware of this crash site in March of 2007 from a passing reference on the Wreckchasing message boards. Due to other projects already in the works, this one went to the back burner.

Contacts I met while working on the Glennie (MI) B-26 (Glennie is not far from Atlanta) were aware of this crash site as well and were asking me what I knew, sparking my interest anew. At the time I didn’t know anything about it at all other than the fact that it existed. After receiving the official crash report, I began my internet search as per usual. However, since the flight originated from Selfridge Airfield in Mt. Clemens, MI, I also made the short drive to the military air museum there. They were very helpful and let me go though their archives, make copies, and were a wealth of information. Newspaper accounts from two different local papers contained VERY detailed directions to the crash……unfortunately when plotted on a map, they were to separate locations! As is usually the case, the official report lacked sufficient location information to aid in the search. At the very least, I had at least three viable suspect locations to check out….well worth the three hour drive. Unfortunately the Michigan winter was setting in and I would have to wait until spring. Over the winter, a Wreckchasing contact, Dennis Coley, had written and said he’d been to the site in 2006 and offered coordinates and added that he thought the area had probably been logged between his visit and my intended visit, based on indicators he’d seen while on site.

April, 2011 couldn’t arrive soon enough. Atlanta being at a more northerly latitude than my home-town, I had to rely on webcams and snowmobile reports to know when the snow had melted. Finally, the trip was set. The night before I was leaving, the Atlanta area got hit with six inches of snow in a freak storm!

July 9th, 2011 – My wife, Wendy and I awoke to a beautiful summer Saturday with no plans. A spur-of-the-moment idea set the plan into action. After the three hour drive, we arrived at our trail-head location at about 3 pm and began the short hike to the crash site. By 3:30 the gps said we were 100ft away but when I looked to my right, I saw an unmistakable impact crater. No large wreckage was visible but this had to be the place. Wendy and our dogs (Munster and Jethro) continued on as the gps took them, “just in case.”

  

                   Wendy, Munster (tan), & Jethro (black) prepare for the trek                                               Myself in the impact crater

The crater was approximately 12ft wide by 35ft long and about 3ft deep. Reports from the time indicate a nearly vertical dive/impact. The metal detector wouldn’t stop registering hits that were indicating depths of at least 6-8 inches deep. As I did not want to dig, I went to the top edge of the crater with the detector. There, hits were indicating at less than two inches deep and merely kicking the years of built up leaf litter aside revealed many pieces of very small, yet unmistakable aircraft wreckage. Wendy and the dogs circled the periphery out to a 50 yard radius in the hopes of finding larger pieces broken off before impact or strewn about during the crash, but to no avail. Some small bits of aluminum were found that still had remnants of yellow paint on them. We found several pieces that we suspect are parts of a wiring harness, pieces of engine block, a metal gasket and small bits of aluminum fuselage. The most interesting piece appeared to be some sort of a sensor that Wendy found several feet from the top edge of the crater.

We spent a total of two hours at the site. One set of newspaper directions referred to earlier was nearly spot on for the actual crash site location. We had found an old map indicating the locations of the fire towers that the eyewitnesses were manning at the time of the crash. I was hoping to get a picture from the Presque Isle North Fire Tower where Web Sherman was working but all that was remaining was a single support stanchion.
There were areas of older clear cut about two hundred yards from the impact crater to the north and to the south. The crash site has been spared for now.

The recovered parts were placed on a tree that had fallen across the impact crater and a small flag left to mark the final sacrifice of Lieutenant Guy L. Putnam Jr.

Crash site, today:



                                                           


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YP-38 Lightning

The P-38 Lightning, built by Lockheed, was a fighter plane ahead of its time. Known by the German Luftwaffe as Der Gabelschwanz Teufel,         The Fork-Tailed Devil, it was the fighter of choice amongst American pilots.  By war’s end, the P-38 was responsible for downing more Japanese aircraft than any other Allied plane. In one daring mission, 16 P-38s took off from Guadalcanal and intercepted Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s (the mastermind behind the Pearl Harbor attack) plane, shooting it down near Shortland Island in the Pacific. 

 YP-38 Specifications:

  • Two Allison V-1710-11/15 with 1150 horsepower each
  • Performance: Max Speed: 413.00 mph, Climb: 20000.0 Ft/min, Ceiling: 38000 ft., Range: 890 miles
  • Weights: Empty Weight: 11507 lbs, Gross Weight: 13964 lbs, Max Weight: 15416 lbs
  • Dimensions: Wingspan: 52 ft., Length: 37 ft. 10 in., Height: 12 ft. 10 in., Wingarea: 328 sf.
  • Armament: two .30 cal and two .50 cal machine guns, and a 37mm Browning M9 cannon with 15 rounds. The .50 cals each carried 200 rpg, and the .30 cals 500 rpg each. Although most YPs were never equipped with weapons