Spruce Knob Plane Wreckage: What Happened

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On 31 October 1973, two people perished when their plane crashed into the side of Spruce Knob, near Riverton, WV. The site of the wreckage, which persists to this day, is easily accessible just a few miles from the trailhead of Lumberjack Trail. The crash site is documented on many hiking maps/routes, including those featured on Hiking Upward; however, most don’t say anything about the event that resulted in the debris. Often, you’ll just see a tiny red plane shape marking the spot on a trail map. Those that do provide some information note little more than the year of the crash and perhaps the type of plane. Hiking Upward does mention that two people died in the crash and encourages hikers to be appropriately reverential when they visit the site.

When we went hiking near the site of the crash in early April of this year, we had noted it on the trail map and expected to see a few pieces of rusting metal, probably partially embedded in the earth as it reclaimed them. After all, it had been 45 years since the crash occurred. Upon arriving at the site, we were taken aback by how much of the plane, including its fuselage, severed wings, engines, and interior seating, were strewn along the mountainside — most of it still brightly painted. We were surprised by how much detritus was still there. We were struck by how far-flung it was. Most of all, we were overtaken by a deep sadness for the people who experienced the trauma of this event, who lost their lives. The site is devastating, even now.

We asked locals near Seneca Rock & Spruce Knob about the wreckage; they didn’t know what we were talking about. There appears to be little, if any, local lore about the site. Upon our return, we went online to read the story, but found that information about the pilot and passenger, and what they had endured, was difficult to find. The crash predates the Internet, which means much of the information about it is archived in ways that most people wouldn’t find. We couldn’t locate any other hikers’ blogs that discussed it. Though it came up on the sites of serial plane-crash chasers (a thing we didn’t know existed), nothing gets mentioned about who was affected in the accident.

Hiking Upward put a video of their encounter with the wreckage on Youtube:

 

And then there are disrespectful people like these two, who thought it was funny and cute to play with the wreckage (minute 1:55), treating the site as just a fun tourist spot to amuse themselves:

 

We were affected deeply by our encounter with the site. Henri, in particular, couldn’t stop thinking about the two people who had lost their lives. She wanted to know who they were and wanted others to know, too. It took a lot of online sleuthing to piece together some of the human story of what happened here in 1973. But it’s not just twisted scrap metal up there on that mountainside. It’s the history of two people who mattered then and should continue to matter now.

It’s not just twisted scrap metal up there on that mountainside. It’s the history of two people who mattered then and should continue to matter now.

There is evidence at the site, for those who take the time to look, that family and other loved ones care profoundly about those tho perished. There is a makeshift memorial set up near the crash, with two handmade crosses juxtaposed aside two conjoined seats from the fuselage. It is likely difficult to see during the summer (overgrowth) and winter (snow). In the spring and fall, it is visible and deeply touching.

For those others who encounter the site along the trail, we wanted to do the research and write this post in memoriam. Our hope is that all those who read this post and then visit the site will show it the reverence it deserves.

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A makeshift memorial at the crash site. The two seats near the markers serve to remind us of the two young men who died here.
WHAT HAPPENED

1973 — On October 30, two young men set out on a flight from Flint, Michigan at 11:30 PM. They were returning to Cumberland, MD after completing a cargo trip for their employer, Nicholson Air Service, based at the Cumberland Regional Airport. During a pre-flight briefing, the pilot was advised about potential icing. The Piper Aztec PA-23 he was flying did not feature wing deicing equipment. We have been unable to determine why the pilot was taking off so late at night in potentially icy conditions; the Aviation Safety Network report of the incident indicates that this was an “unscheduled” flight. Near Bellaire, Ohio (just east of Columbus), the pilot made contact with aviation officials, stating that the plane’s wings were icing at 9000 feet and requesting to drop to 7000 feet. Permission was granted, but this was the last anyone heard from the flight. News reports state that the plane disappeared from the Cleveland air route traffic control radar screen at 12:30 AM on October 31. The plane never landed at Cumberland Regional Airport.

Piper Aztec PA-23 1974
This is what an intact Piper Aztec PA-23 looked like circa 1973. [photo by Peter Davis]

A four-day, four-state search was launched, though it was hampered/delayed some by weather conditions that inhibited flying. On November 4 or 5, the wreckage was discovered by a person unassociated with the search who was hiking Spruce Knob in the Monongahela National Forest. We have not been able to obtain information on the identity of the hiker who first encountered the wreckage. Both the pilot and the passenger had perished when the plane went down.

Flight

Who Perished Here

The plane was piloted by 24-year-old James Thompson (J.T.) Watson, Jr. of Keyser, WV. The passenger was 17-year-old Jonathan Randolph (Randy) Johnson, of Cumberland, MD. Both young men worked for the Nicholson Air Service.

Watson had been an engineering student at Potomac State College prior to spending the year preceding the plane crash (1971-1972) serving in the U.S. Army. We have not been able to verify whether Watson served in Vietnam during that year, but it seems plausible. He was survived by his parents and one sister.

Johnson, a member of the Cumberland Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, had fulfilled all requirements to earn his solo flight certificate at the time of the accident. In the months after his passing, his squadron set up and collected funds for a memorial scholarship in his name, with the aim of helping other young men and women pay for flying lessons and other costs. At least 4 cadets benefitted from the generosity of this fund in 1974 (see news clippings below). He was survived by his parents and two sisters.

J.T. Watson 1969
J.T. Watson 1969

J.T. Watson, Jr. (17 Feb 1949 – 31 Oct 1973) is laid to rest in Keyser, WV.

Randy Johnson (29 May 1956- 31 Oct 1973) is interred in Cumberland, MD. [No photo available]

SOURCES

Aviation Safety Network Incident Report, from NTSB

Ancestry.com

Various News Clippings, including:

 

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Wow, thanks for the info. I went down to the site on my backpacking trip through those parts. It was indeed an emotional experience.

    Like

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