Remembrance of Medicine Bow Tragedy Leads Forest Service to Issue Visitor Publication
In 1955, United Airlines Flight 409 came within 75 feet of clearing Medicine Bow Peak in Wyoming. The plane crash on the highest point in the Snowy Mountains killed all 66 people aboard. Sixty years later, popular interest in the event remains strong, prompting the U.S. Forest Service to issue a historical brochure on the air tragedy.
Since 1955, thousands of visitors have gazed up at Medicine Bow Peak in the forests of southeastern Wyoming and noticed a smudge against the white granite of the mountain. That smudge was caused by the impact of United Airlines flight 409, which struck the mountain on October 6 of that year, killing all 66 aboard. Now the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has developed a brochure detailing the incident, and its aftermath, available at USFS offices in the Medicine Bow area.
Based on the book “Flight 409” by local historian Mel Duncan and other sources, the new brochure is titled “Flight 409: High Mountain Mistake.” Melanie B. Fullman, USFS District Ranger of the Brush Creek/Hayden Ranger District of the Medicine Bow National Forest, says there has long been public interest in the crash site.
For example, the Forest Service organized summer “Moon Walks,” evening educational hikes in the Snowy Range Mountains and Medicine Bow National Forest, and those led by Mel Duncan were very popular. Duncan and several families of survivors long pushed for a commemorative plaque to be placed nearby the site, but the USFS does not typically allow such markers. Yet in 2001, Duncan’s efforts met with success, and he was allowed to create, fund, and install a marker at the scenic overlook site on Wyoming Highway 130. Now, according to Fullman, “When the snow melts this spring, we will be installing a ‘mailbox’ with brochures at the overlook site.”
As the Daily Yonder recalled in 2009 story, the DC-4 aircraft took off from Chicago in the early morning and landed in Denver at 5:51 a.m., more than an hour late because of bad weather. It was bound for Salt Lake City, then on to San Francisco. The customary route would take the flight north into Wyoming then west at the radio beacon at the town of Rock River, safely around the Snowy Range. The pilot was familiar with the route, having flowing it 45 times in the previous year. But this time, he took a shortcut directly over the mountains, some 25 miles off course. The DC-4 was not pressurized and was attempting to fly well over the recommended altitude. The plane failed to clear the 12,013-foot peak by about 75 feet, and crashed. At approximately 7:30 a.m., 66 people lost their lives.
The new brochure describes the difficulty of recovering remains of both the aircraft and the victims on this high, snowy peak. “Recovery of the widely-scattered remains of the victims and aircraft was extremely challenging due to the difficult terrain at the crash site. … Due to safety concerns, the accident investigation team – not trained in alpine mountaineering techniques— was unable to visit the location where the DC-4 hit.”
Fullman credits the Daily Yonder with reminding the USFS district of public interest in this story and inspiring the creation of the new brochure. As reader comments on the original story built over the years, it was apparent that family of the crash victims still recall the tragic death of loved ones as though it happened yesterday. Story telling pays dividends. Although Mel Duncan died in 2007, the bronze plaque he placed at the crash site will long be a testament to the changes in airline safety and radar coverage that arose as a result of the crash.