Family wants Sierra mystery solved, 42 years later

August 5, 2009 7:14:20 AM PDT
Somewhere after Amelia Earhart in the annals of aviators who have flown into oblivion is the Webb Family: Ruby and Carroll and their son William, a budding pilot with just 70 hours in the cockpit. On June 2, 1967, their 140-horsepower Piper Cherokee, overloaded and underpowered for the Sierra Nevada's 12,000-plus-foot peaks, set off on a flight to Ogden, Utah, and disappeared into the snowy wilderness east of Fresno.

After 42 years of uncertainty, relatives are hopeful the mystery of the last plane believed missing in the Sierra Nevada is ending. They say their best chance lies with a dogged ranger who believes wreckage sighted years ago on a remote peak in Sequoia National Park never has been checked out.

"My mom doesn't have a lot of time left to wait to learn what happened to her parents," said Susan Wheeler, who was 7 when her grandparents and uncle disappeared. Her mother is 72.

Next week, Sequoia National Park Ranger Dan Pontbriand plans to fly with a sheriff's lieutenant and the state Search and Rescue coordinator over the area south of 14,505-foot-tall Mount Whitney. "If you have a subtle clue and there's any validity, you'd better run it down until there's nothing left of it," Pontbriand said.

The family's interest in finding their long-lost loved ones was revived during the 2007 search for the plane and remains of millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett in the eastern Sierra Nevada.

During the exhaustive, highly publicized search for Fossett, Wheeler read that the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida keeps a list of all known crash sites. Those in California cover 55 pages - and rescue officials say it appears all but one have been checked by law enforcement and amateur aviation archeologists who use the list to find crash sites to explore.

"For whatever reason, someone looked out of a window and said there's a Piper (Cherokee) PA-28 and nobody went to investigate it," said Matt Scharper, the state's rescue coordinator for the Emergency Management Agency. "The question is, is it what the Wheelers need for closure?"

After Wheeler made repeated calls to law enforcement agencies seeking information about the mystery crash, she contacted Pontbriand.

It turned out that the ranger was no stranger to long shot searches. In 2001, when he was working at Olympic National Park, he led a team of divers who found the final resting place of Russel and Blanch Warren, whose car was believed to have plunged into the 1,000-foot depths of Washington's Lake Crescent in 1929.

With the couple's grandchildren watching from shore, the divers found a glass vase that had been on the car's dash, and eventually a femur and skull.

"I'm still friends with all of them," Pontbriand said. "I was happy I could give them closure."

A lake is easier to search than the vast Sierra Nevada.

Before his blue and white rented plane disappeared, pilot William Webb, 28, who worked in San Jose, told the FAA he would be flying over the Sierra to Ely, Nev., where he planned to refuel. But Wheeler and others think a storm warning might have prompted him to take a more southerly route through Cottonwood Pass, a low saddle between two ridges of towering peaks.

While his flight instructor characterized him as a competent flyer, experts say, Webb likely did not have the experience to navigate the storm. At 12,000 feet, the altitude he would have needed to clear most peaks, his 140 horsepower carbureted engine would have been able to muster only about half of that.

"It would have been like flying a lawnmower," Pontbriand said.

If ice developed on the plane's wings, Webb would have been forced to descend, putting him on a collision course with Cirque Peak in the southern Sierra, he said.

Associated Press accounts at the time say the search for the Webbs ended 10 days after they disappeared.

The Civil Air Patrol looked again in October 1967 after learning then that their two-week search in March for a family crashed in the Trinity Alps had ended too soon: a girl and her mother survived 54 days before she noted in a diary on her 16th birthday "I hope you are happy Search and Rescue. You haven't found us yet." They were eaten by bears.

Wheeler had assumed all of these years that someone was on the lookout for her family, especially since her grandfather was a civilian employee of the fuel crew at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden. However, the detailed records of the search for the missing family were purged from government files in 1974.

Wheeler said she and her mother, Nancy Webb Nilson of Ogden, Utah, hope that even if they have not located the crash site that their search will rekindle efforts to find them.

"I'm trying to find a way to get the word out that we're looking for these people because we don't have the help Steve Fossett's family had," Wheeler said. "Maybe they were found and nobody knew how to get a hold of us because nobody knew who they were. I want to find them for my mom."