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Jan-16-2017 00:01printcomments

Carole Lombard's Deadly Plane Crash Happened 75 Years Ago Today

"At the foot of the mountain, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard’s husband, waited in the faint hope that some of those on the plane may have survived."

Carole Lombard
Lombard's career was cut short when she died January 16, 1942, in a plane crash on Mount Potosi, Nevada, while returning from a War Bond tour.

(SALEM, Ore.) -

The Gables
Image: Silver Scenes

January 16th marks the 75th anniversary of the night Hollywood actress Carole Lombard lost her life in a mysterious, tragic plane crash southwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, claiming all 22 souls aboard.

A Transcontinental Western Airlines (TWA) Douglas DC-3 slammed into a mountain about 35 miles from Vegas, taking with it, 33-year old Lombard, her mother, press agent and passengers including 15 US servicemen. Nobody ever figured out what happened.

Doug Scroggins of Las Vegas spent years documenting the crash site on Mount Potosi which is 35 miles southwest of Las Vegas.

He offered this commentary about what happened after the tragic loss of one of Hollywood’s favorites:

"Searchers on horseback toiled over steep, snow-packed trails of the Potosi Range, seeking the spot where Flight 3, with her 22 persons aboard, crashed.

"The search party forged its way up the 8,700-foot peak with little hope of finding anything more than charred bodies and twisted wreckage. At the foot of the mountain, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard’s husband, waited in the faint hope that some of those on the plane may have survived.”

In fact the owners of the Goodsprings Saloon outside of Sin City, will point to a particular place at the bar where Lombard’s husband, actor Clark Gable, “Put his face in his hands and cried like a baby” after coming down from the mountain.

Doug Scroggins sitting next to one of the engines from Flight 3.
All crash photos courtesy Doug Scroggins

The love story between Lombard and Gable was legendary, almost a fairy tale romance, and their mutual affection for one another was widely known to the American public. Losing such a silver screen treasure shortly after entering the bloodiest war in history was difficult for millions.

The crash site, buried in snow this time of year, has yielded many artifacts. Several are shown in the photos accompanying this article.

Scroggins added this interesting detail, “The day before, Lombard’s trip on the ill-fated Flight 3 hinged on the flip of a coin. Her press agent wished to make the journey to Los Angeles by train, but Lombard held out for the plane trip, wanting to get home sooner. They finally tossed a coin and Lombard won.”

Sometimes Lady Luck doesn’t shine on a coin toss. In this case, luck was nowhere to be found.

"At the time, there had not been a good explanation for the disaster," said Scroggins.

"The pilot, Captain Wayne Williams, left Las Vegas reporting only that he had taken off and that visibility and weather conditions were good.

"Flight 3 crashed near the 8,300-foot level of Mount Potosi with flaps retracted, and the plane in level flight. Something happened inside that cockpit and happened so fast that Williams could not react.”

One of the landing gears from the DC-3.

Could Carole Lombard have died from sabotage? It seems distinctly possible. And if so, to what avail?

A 2002 Las Vegas Sun article states, "The crash shocked a nation still stunned by the Pearl Harbor attack the month prior. "Because it involved members of the military and a notable actress on a war-bonds drive, many, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, were suspicious of sabotage. An intensive investigation ensued.”

But that investigation never did yield the final or definitive answers.

Unfortunately, the crash site’s death toll wasn’t restricted to the crash of 1942. At least one individual has died in the ensuing years while trying to access the crash site. Attempting to reach it is not recommended.

At the time, there had not been a good explanation for the disaster. The pilot, Captain Wayne Williams, left Las Vegas experiencing good visibility and weather conditions.

Aircraft's Identification Placard: Serial/Ship Number 3295.

Flight 3 crashed near the 8,300-foot level of Mount Potosi with flaps retracted, and the plane in level flight. What could have "happened inside that cockpit and happened so fast" that Williams could not react?

The sudden crash of Flight 3 against an icy Nevada mountain was so devastating that it destroyed most of the aircraft and its contents but left enough clues behind that would later baffle FBI and aviation investigators.

The central puzzle: Why, with the radio beam apparently functioning, skilled pilots at the controls, and perfect flying weather, was the plane flying 6.7 miles off its proper course?

Further complicating the dark mystery of the cause of the crash, the FBI investigated the possibility of sabotage.

At this time of the year, the peaks of Mount Potosi are covered with snow, inaccessible and impossible to film. Under the season’s snowy canvas, wreckage from Flight 3 litters the mountainside, both engines and landing gear still rest among the rocks.

"AFTER LANDING, PLEASE REMAIN SEATED UNTIL PLANE
COMES TO A COMPLETE STOP" (Passenger Placard)

Aircraft: Douglas DC-3, NC1946, serial number 3295

Operator: Transcontinental Western Airlines (TWA)

FINDINGS INTO THE ACCIDENT: The flight crew had made a critical error in the compass course heading for this leg of their flight. The crews written flight plan, filed with the airline’s operations department, indicated a course heading of 218° which would fly them directly into the mountain.

From the CAB accident report and the contributing factors:

  1. The use of an erroneous compass course
  2. Blackout of most of the beacons in the neighborhood of the accident made necessary by the war emergency
  3. Failure of the pilot to comply with TWA’s directive of July 17, 1941, issued in accordance with a suggestion from the Administrator of Civil Aeronautics requesting pilots to confine their flight movements to the actual on-course signals.

About Douglas Scroggins III: Mr Scroggins has been in the aviation archaeology research group since the late 1980s, researching and locating older commercial and military planes crashes on his spare time.

Full time, Mr. Scroggins owns and operates Scroggins Aviation Mockup & Effects a company that supplies aviation mockup & effects to all the top studios in Hollywood. Some of the most recent films include, Sully, Captain America: Civil War, Jurassic World and Terminator Genisys. And upcoming include: Dunkirk, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Fifty Shades Darker and Jumanji.

Learn more about the crash site findings: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TWA_Flight_3

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Roni Shea January 16, 2017 1:43 am (Pacific time)

Tim, Thanks for the history lesson.

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