How It Ended at Medicine Bow Peak

[imgbelt img=Flight-409-Wreck520.jpg] A deadly airplane crash in 1955 put Laramie, Wyoming, on the national radar screen, briefly. One man never forgot Flight 409 and made sure future generations would remember it, too.


David Whalen

Memorial plaque to the victims of Flight 409, dedicated August 25, 2001

After identifiable remains were removed, Duncan told me, it was necessary to dislodge the section of the DC-4’s tail that had been secured by ropes where it balanced in the rock wall above the crash area. For the task, the guardsmen used Howitzers to “shoot the mountain down,” he said.

The other reason for the shelling was to protect the site from looters and curiosity seekers. Many pieces of the aircraft too small or heavy to recover were left on the mountain. The effort to obliterate wreckage remains with the Howitzers was not entirely successful. So to discourage curiosity seekers, the area was napalmed by seven F-80 fighter aircraft, with two strikes each, Duncan reported. At the time of Duncan’s report in the mid-1990s, at least two of the Pratt and Whitney R-2000 engines were still at the site and readily identifiable in glacial pools, although nearly impossible to reach.

The Civil Aeronautics Board (now the FAA) investigation showed all engines were working at the time of the impact and could not tell whether the crew had been incapacitated at the time of impact. The plane did not hit the mountain head on but appeared to be banking upward when it struck Medicine Bow Peak. The board’s final ruling, according to Duncan, was that “either a shortcut was being attempted or that the crew was incapacitated and the aircraft was flying without assistance.” He added, “The board was reluctant to blame the pilot, but nevertheless stated that he must have purposefully deviated from the prescribed flight route for reasons unknown.” Duncan speculated that the pilot was caught unaware by the turbulent winds near the mountain, his vision hampered by a shroud of clouds hiding the peak.

The area of the crash site is near a popular recreation area in the Range, not too far horizontally, anyway, from a paved two-lane highway. Many people go there to hike the mountain and look for pieces of aircraft. Now that the crash site is more than 50 years old, it is federally protected and no one may legally remove pieces of the wreckage. But people who wish to pay their respects to the victims of UAL Flight 409 can save themselves the steep, rocky hike and instead visit the memorial, positioned just up the highway at the Miner’s Cabin turnout, along the flight path of the aircraft.

Mel Duncan once told me that his interest in Flight 409 had been rekindled after Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 aboard. That act of terrorism and the trials of its perpetrators had gotten him thinking about the families of Flight 409. He felt it was important to get some sort of memorial in the mountains to comfort the families and mark the event for future generations.

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