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F-51D Mustang #45-11470, Oscoda, MI - 16 August, 1949

A formation of F-51Ds of the Indiana National Guard similar to Lt. Tanner's plane

Pilot - 2nd Lt. William H. Tanner, 29

Cpl. Roy Orr Jr. had just finished mopping up a forest fire on the Wurtsmith AFB gunnery range started by a flight of F-80 jets making a practice bombing run when he heard the drone of another flight coming in. His commanding officer radioed the flight to notify them that the range was not clear and to hold them up. As soon as the firefighting team got back to the tower, they gave Lakeside Yellow the clearance to begin their run. The four plane flight of F-51D Mustangs from the 163rd fighter squadron of the Indiana Air National Guard climbed to 9,000 ft. and set up their run. Flight leader, Yellow #1 made his pass. Orr was looking at the bombing target to score the drop (a miss) when he heard Yellow #2, flown by 2nd Lt. William H. Tanner, begin his pass. Tanner’s plane started its dive much farther to the north than Yellow #1 thus requiring a much steeper dive to the target. As the plane neared the ground, it rolled into an inverted position and crashed into the ground at a 70 degree angle. Witnesses said that the plane disintegrated as it made a 10 foot deep impact crater. Orr and his fire team were at the scene within seconds. Unfortunately, 2nd Lt. William H. Tanner died on impact.

The cause of the accident was listed as “pilot error” but investigators noted that there was significant evidence that Lt. Tanner had blacked out during the dive. While Tanner had 95 flying hours in an F-51 this was his first dive bombing run. Although the maneuver being utilized during this bombing run was sound tactically, it was noted that such a maneuver should only be attempted by a pilot with considerably more experience than Lt. Tanner.

Crash site, 1949:

Note the two gunnery target pits in the background of the crash site pictures


The search for the crash site:

Dave Trojan and I had been drawn to the old Wurtsmith AFB gunnery range by an email from Paul Bolander. He had been exploring the range and had found airplane parts and wanted to know if I knew anything about it. He had uncovered pieces with part numbers and manufacturer stamps that indicated that he had discovered a Lockheed aircraft. Dave and I decided to search the area hoping to find other parts that would help to identify this crash site. On October 20th, 2012 we searched the coordinates given to us by Paul but found the parts few and far between. We fanned out from the original search area and began finding more parts. Finally, about 400 ft. from our original location, we found a part with an unmistakable stamp – “NAA” the manufacturer stamp for North American Aviation. We now definitively had parts from two different aircraft within 400 ft. of each other, with distinct debris fields, but we still did not know what planes they were.

When I returned home I perused the AAIR crash site database and narrowed it down to several possibilities for each crash site based on the manufacturer and listed crash location. As it would turn out, I got lucky when I guessed which reports to order. Each report contained hand drawn maps from witnesses and one report contained an aerial picture of the gunnery range. When compared to GoogleEarth images, everything matched up nearly perfectly. While the crash site that initially drew us there turned out to be that of 1st Lt. Jack R. York’s F-80A Shooting Star #44-85075, 9 July 1948. We had discovered the crash site of Lt. Tanner’s F-51.

Crash site, today:

Slide shows are clickable to enlarge or see a photo album view for comments
This set is from my investigation and contains parts from both debris fields. They are identified on the Flickr page.

North American Aviation P/F-51D Mustang

The Mustang was among the best and most well-known fighters used by the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. Possessing excellent range and maneuverability, the P-51 operated primarily as a long-range escort fighter and also as a ground attack fighter-bomber. The Mustang served in nearly every combat zone during WWII, and later fought in the Korean War.

F-51D Specifications:

Six .50-cal. machine guns and 10 5-in. rockets or 2,000 lbs. of bombs
Engine: Packard-built Rolls-Royce Merlin V-1650 - 1,695 hp
Maximum speed: 437 mph
Cruising speed: 275 mph
Range: 1,000 miles
Ceiling: 41,900 ft. 
Span: 37 ft.
Length: 32 ft. 3 in.
Height: 13 ft. 8 in.
Weight: 12,100 lbs. maximum