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B-17F Flying Fortress #42-29563, Potlatch, ID - 2 December, 1943

An example of a B-17F

Pilot: Captain John E. Gaffney
2nd Lieutenant Elmer D. Wilcox
2nd Lieutenant James R. Blown
2nd Lieutenant Walter A. Charles
2nd Lieutenant Albert R. Clark
S/Sergeant Elmo W. Yoder
Sergeant Jack L. Lusk
Sergeant Clyde S. Steagall
Sergeant William M. Watney
2nd Lieutenant George F. Congleton

Still looking for remaining crew pictures

Herbert Huston was driving his car down the highway at 2:30 in the afternoon when he saw a plane flying overhead in the storm. Thinking nothing of it, he continued on. Several miles down the road he spotted an odd hitchhiker on the side of the road, an Army captain, and stops to lend a hand. As it turned out, Huston may have been the last person to see the plane, a B-17, serial number 42-29563,  before it crashed into the forest near Potlatch. The hitchhiker was Captain John E. Gaffney, the pilot of that B-17 who was the last to bail out of the stricken plane.
The B-17 had taken off from Hobbs (NM) Army Air Field on a routine 10 hour navigation flight with Gaffney (the lead instructor), another instructor, four student pilots, three crew members and one passenger bound for Geiger Field in Spokane, WA. Shortly after being granted clearance into Spokane, they lost all radio contact with the ground and despite being given a favorable weather update on their last radio contact, the weather began to deteriorate rapidly. Gaffney decided to turn around and make a forced landing in a clear area where they had their last radio contact. In the worsening snow, the plane began to ice up, even with the use of de-icing equipment. Two of the four engines had quit and they were losing altitude. Gaffney gave the order to bail out  and he was the last to leave the plane. All ten crewmen bailed out safely but were scattered in a 25 mile radius near the town of Potlatch.
The cause of the crash was later determined to be engine failure caused by icing. Radio malfunction was also thought to play a role and investigators were of the opinion that Gaffney should not have continued to Spokane without radio communication but should have turned around sooner, despite the fact that he was given an erroneous weather condition update.
Newspaper reports from the time indicate that the plane was removed shortly after the crash. This was probably done to discourage souvenir seekers because as you will see, most if not all, of the plane was buried in place. In fact, the USFS has an oral history taken from a retired bulldozer operator for the Potlach Timber Company who was hired by the Army to compact and bury the plane, he was only partially successful in the compacting department.

Crash site pictures:


The search for the crash site:

The hardest part of this one was already done for me; the crash site was already located. All I had to do was show up! Bruce Ellis, the project leader, gave the group a briefing before leaving the campground and we got into vehicles to drive to the trail-head. From the trail-head it was an easy downhill, one mile, hike to the crash site through some beautiful sections of forest. Over the course of the week long project, on the hike in, I saw elk, a wolf, and several cattle (never thought I’d see a cow in the woods!).
Nearing the crash site, you could see where the tops of the now dead trees were sheared off by the plane’s descent. The USFS horticulturalist who helped on the dig confirmed that the trees were the correct age to correspond to the damage caused by the crash.
This crash site was the subject of a USFS Passport in Time (PIT) project that began in the summer of 2010. I did not join the project until the summer of 2011. During the summer 2010 excavation, they found many interesting artifacts. Unfortunately (for us) at the conclusion of last year’s work, they re-buried the work areas in order to discourage looting. We spent most of the first half of the first day removing logs and dirt from the work area. After that, the professional archaeologists gridded off the different work areas, known as units, and gave us instructions on what to do when we found plane parts. We were assigned our units, and went to work. All I could think about leading up to the trip was how cool it was going to be to use the screens to sift dirt looking for artifacts. It wasn’t long before I found out that it isn’t as glamorous as it’s cracked up to be! Screening, as it’s called, is hard work! Some of the veteran PIT volunteers even brought their own archaeology tools. As a rookie, I had nothing.
It rained a little bit on the first night, but other than that, the weather was perfect for our 5 day project. Cool nights and a beautiful campground made tenting an amazing experience. The other volunteers thought that I was crazy but at the end a long dusty day at the site, a dip in the chilly Palouse River was a refreshing way to end the day. Try as I might, I couldn’t convince anybody else to give it try! After dinners at camp we all pored over old B-17 parts manuals by campfire light trying to identify the artifacts from the day’s work. At one point we found something called an astrograph in unit #8. We couldn’t find it in any manuals and the retired Air Force guys didn’t even know what it was. I called my wife, Wendy, at home in Michigan (I forgot about the time difference) and she was able to send me a picture of a new one and a description. They were used for celestial navigation, but it was rare to find them on stateside aircraft.
Over the course of the five days we found many interesting items, too many to list. Some of the highlights were: the astrograph (my favorite), oxygen tanks, part of the throttle assembly, the rotted rubber of a tire and cockpit foot pedals. We found the on/off switch for the windshield wipers still in the “fast” position, which was consistent with a plane that had gone down in a snowstorm. Another interesting piece was a spar section that had hand written wax pencil markings. These were probably inspection markings from the factory. One marking was a shorthand code written in red wax pencil, perhaps a defect found by an inspector? It is then crossed out in green as if the defect was fixed and passed inspection. It is amazing to think that has lasted all these years.
We found a large section of aluminum fuselage skin painted with large yellow numbers. One volunteer, tried to reconstruct the number from the crumpled aluminum and came up with what he believes to be "H-5." Stateside aircraft usually carried what were called "buzz numbers." These were large, clearly visible and base specific ID numbers (not necessarily associated with the serial, or tail number), used to discourage the practice of pilots "buzzing the tower." Some research indicates that Hobbs AAF did, indeed use buzz numbers ("H" standing for Hobbs), we'll just need to figure out the rest of the number. This will aid in our goal of finding a picture of the crashed plane, intact, before the fateful day of 2 December, 1943.
I took a lot of pictures but not as many as I would have liked….I was too busy working! In the end, it was very enjoyable. I learned a lot about archaeology and even more about the inner workings of a B-17, my favorite plane of all time. It helped to have a couple guys on the team who were pilots or investigators who could help with part identification.

There is a final PIT scheduled for this site next summer, and I am already making plans to attend.

Crash site, today:

Slide shows are clickable to enlarge or see a photo album view for comments


 The 2011 PIT crew