Double Cone Quarterly
Fall Equinox 2003-- Volume VI, Number 2

The Crash of
Albatross 2128
by Boon Hughey

Those who enjoy spending time brush-busting off trail in the Santa Lucia know that every once in a while you literally stumble across something odd, something quite out of place yet strangely appropriate given the length of time it's been laying there. Of course there's a story that goes with each of these wayward items, but usually the cross-country wanderer is left to conjure up his or her own explanation of how things came to be since nobody familiar with the original episode is around to fill in the blanks. Usually, but not always. Just over two years ago I was enjoying a long summer's day of trailless coastal slope exploration south from Salmon Creek, when I happened to pause for bearings in the middle of a world-class thicket of poison oak and coyote brush near the upper end of a gently sloping brush-choked bowl overlooking the ocean. Something on the ground nearby caught my eye - a long, smooth, sculpted, olive drab plank-like item with a spot or two of faded red marking. prop1.jpg Upon lifting it I realized that it was quite heavy, quite hot from laying in the sun, quite worn by the weather, and definitely a blade from a large airplane propeller. I put it down, scratched my head for a moment, then took a look around for more evidence of wreckage as explanation but found nothing. Just the one propeller blade.

Back home that evening I logged on to the internet and searched the Federal Transportation Safety Board database of airplane crashes in an attempt to explain the discovery, but nothing turned up. Needing closure I ended up writing it off as a piece of a broken propeller that had fallen from a cargo plane as it approached Hunter-Liggett, even though that seemed like a longshot. Then a few weeks ago as I was doing some Google searching I happened upon a website dedicated to aviation history and accident documentation where I found a reference to a US Coast Guard HU-16 Albatross seaplane that had tragically crashed on the seaward slope of Mt Mars near the Monterey-San Luis Obispo county line in August of 1967. Incredibly, the details of the story perfectly matched the propeller I had found a couple years earlier . The story was so dramatic, so localized to the Santa Lucia, and so well-written that I felt it appropriate to reprint it here for the readers of the DCQ to enjoy. Thanks are due Ken Freeze and his Check Six project for giving us permission to reprint the story, as well as putting to rest an unanswered loose end.

Overview of the general crash area as the August fog burns off

Mt. Mars USCG HU-16E Crash
August 7, 1967


The Coast Guard had 91 Grumman HU-16Es (Albatross), the first being delivered in May, 1951. These aircraft, known in the USCG as "The Goat," flew for over 500,000 hours while in service with the Coast Guard.

On March 10, 1983, the last Coast Guard Albatross, number 7250, made its final landing at Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod. The last true amphibious seaplane flown by the Coast Guard was then retired from service.

The Coast Guard HU-16E 2128 (originally ordered by the Air Force) was delivered to the Coast Guard in January 1954. During its career, it had seen many SAR (Search and Rescue) cases. So when 2128 took off from Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco the morning of August 7, 1967, it was just to be one more SAR case. The cabin cruiser Misty, had been reported overdue. The boat was believed to be in the area north of San Luis Obispo, and the crew of 2128 was headed out to find it.

The crew of 2128 took about two hours to get to the area. When they arrived, the pilot, Lt Robert Diller, found thick, high fog, typical of coastal California. The aircraft punched down through the fog and found clear air at 200 feet. In a short time they located the missing vessel off Piedro Blanco. It had run out of gas.

The HU-16E, with its crew of eight, circled overhead waiting for the 95-foot Coast Guard Cutter Cape Porpoise to arrive on scene from Morro Bay, California to assist the Misty.

However, according to Commander Brent Malcolm, USCG (Ret), who was the co-pilot at the time, the crew had lost contact with any navigation aids and, as a result, wasn't quite sure where they were. The pilot pointed the HU-16 out to sea to regain contact with the Big Sur VORTAC located north on the coast. In the process, some altitude was gained thus reducing the horizontal visibility and restricting the pilot's ability to see the shoreline.

While Malcolm was trying to get their bearings, unbeknownst to him, the pilot had turned back towards the coast. "The first clue I had that we were in trouble was when I saw the coast highway pass underneath," said Malcolm.

It was shortly after that the HU-16 struck a slope on Mt Mars, near the Monterey-San Luis Obispo County line, about 1/2 mile off Highway 1.

When the plane crashed, the main fuselage section remained upright and intact. However, the tail section broke off at about the crew entrance door, and came to rest upside down. "We were fortunate that we hit a gentle slope, otherwise it might have been much worse," said Malcolm. "Most of the injuries were sustained by crewmen in the back being thrown out of the aircraft on impact."

Malcolm was able to exit the aircraft through the overhead hatch. He hiked through brush before finding a stream he followed down to the nearby highway. Malcolm said, "I remember following the stream bed, which was very precipitous at times, thinking, here I've survived a terrible crash - I don't want to break my neck getting down this mountain."

Once at the highway, he was able to flag down a passing car. However, others had also witnessed the crash and had already called for help.

A fire also resulted from the crash, but not until well after. Upon impact, the drop tanks broke free and continued on up the mountain side. Eventually, one or both of them leaked and the fuel trickled back to the crash site and ignited. The resulting fire ultimately burned 58 acres.

Before long an Army rescue helicopter from nearby Fort Roberts was on the scene. Along with California Highway Patrol officers, sheriff deputies from both counties and state forestry firemen were able to bring out the injured crew.

Killed in the crash were LTJG Francis J. Charles and crewman AD3 William G. Prowitt. Four others were injured, one of them being AD3 John G. Medek who died a few days later of his injuries.

LTJG Francis J. Charles was not assigned to the air station, but was a newly assigned controller to the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) for the 12th Coast Guard District headquartered in San Francisco. The normal RCC indoctrination at that time had new controllers visit most of the major units in the district. He had spent the night at the air station to observe their operations. When the call came in about the overdue vessel, he decided to go along on the mission. An unfortunate choice, but one probably any Coast Guardsman would have made had they been in his place.

The Demise of HU-16E 2128

"I had just reported in to Air Stations San Francisco as the assistant engineering officer and I was given the assignment of salvaging the aircraft," said Richard Long, Capt. USCG (ret).

Long went down to the crash site along with a couple of enlisted men and salvaged what they could of 2128.

"We hired a local guy with a tractor to cut us a road up to the site to help with the salvage," Long said. "We removed both engines, one propeller, and most of the hydraulics and avionics from the plane. I remember we slid some of the heavier stuff down the hill on the engine cowlings." Long also said that the Coast Guard hired a local man with some mules to help pull some of the heavy equipment out.

Long and his crew received permission to use the private airport at Hearst Castle which was a few miles away. "We staged a lot of the salvaged equipment there and flew a plane in to haul it back to Air Station San Francisco," said Long.

What was left of the HU-16 was sold as scrap. The salvager brought in a portable smelter and melted down the plane and hauled it out as ingots.