Spruce Knob Plane Wreckage: What Happened


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 who 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.

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.

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.


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]


Aviation Safety Network Incident Report, from NTSB


Various News Clippings, including:




Women’s March DC

Uncertain what exactly to expect of the Women’s March on DC, but knowing that we wanted to both witness it and be a part of it, we left Fredericksburg, VA at about 8AM on 2 January 2017 on one of two Rally buses carrying 100 or so of our neighbors up to DC. Many more had driven up the night before, or were taking the train or metro in that morning.  The Washington Post had warned that at least 1,200 charter buses were expected to park at RFK Stadium for the event but, by the looks of the lot as we arrived, they may have underestimated. Row after row after row of buses let us know that this thing was going to be, well, HUGE.

Women's March DC 2017
Irene, one of our enthusiastic volunteer Bus Leaders, did a great job…with a smile.

We didn’t wear “Pussy Hats.” We didn’t even wear pink. To be honest, we dressed pretty much as if this was another day-hike in cloudy 50° weather. Low key. Henri got a transparent backpack, as recommended by March organizers, and had adorned it with a couple of stickers. Other than that, we were probably two of the more demure marchers of the day. Not to worry. A virtual sea of pink washed over DC and there were more pink hats on both women and men than could have been counted successfully.

Women's March DC 2017
Henri brought some stickers like the ones on her backpack to share with fellow bus riders.
Women's March DC 2017

The sheer number of people who showed up to march was breathtaking, but that wasn’t even the most impressive part. Here’s what impressed us the most: People’s attitudes. From the moment we stepped off the bus in DC, employees of the city were all smiles and encouragement. Every person we encountered who was working the event that day — police, Union Station employees, street security, DC Streetcar employees — ALL of them were smiling, welcoming, patient. They appeared genuinely happy about the day’s turnout despite the fact that it meant a lot of work and probably more than one headache for them.

Women's March DC 2017
Just one of the DC Streetcar employees that was all smiles…ALL DAY.

We spent several hours squished shoulder-to-shoulder on the National Mall waiting for the March to, well, march. People could not move. People could barely squeeze through the crowd to get to Don’s Johns. We were people from all different genders, ethnicities, socio-economic situations, ages, religions, and backgrounds. And yet. From start to finish, we saw people being kind, helpful, supportive, and encouraging to one another. We saw nobody succumb to being tired or hungry, or to the potentially claustrophobic conditions by lashing out at others or resorting to what could have been an ‘every man for himself’ mentality. People were proud to be here. They stayed mindful of the purpose of it and the reality that it was something bigger than any one of us. They looked out for each other, made room for one another, lifted each other up, and showed more patience, human decency, and love than one might have thought possible under the conditions.

Women's March DC 2017

As it turns out, this was much, much more than a women’s march. Yes, there were lots and lots of women and men there marching with signs expressing their fears for “women’s issues,” like continued reproductive rights and funding for Planned Parenthood (and their determination to fight for the protection of both).  And, yes, there were also lots of people there expressing outrage about Trump’s history of behavior and attitudes toward women. But this march was about way more than issues affecting women (which are issues that actually affect all people in one way or another). This march was about major, important issues of concern to America and the world.

In addition to the photo collage at the end of this post, you can see even more of Fergus’ photojournalistic shots of the day HERE.

We saw people from all walks of life marching…

…in favor of embracing diversity
…against the the denigration & vilification of religions, races, or ethnicities
…fed up with gun violence
…against Trump’s apparent dishonesty
…against Trump’s alleged connections to Russia & support of (and from) Putin
…against DeVos and in support of public education
…against Pruitt and in support of climate science
…asking for the government to protect public lands
…in favor of equal rights and respect for LGBTQIA+ Americans
…in support of Americans with disabilities
…against the lack of transparency and Trump’s potential financial conflicts of interest
…expressing the desire to steward Earth better, and fear that this administration will not

Womens March DC 2017
Witnessed so many mothers, sisters, brothers and fathers lifting up the next generation of activists and leaders today. That’s what the Women’s March was all about for me. ~ Fergus
Women's March DC 2017
She is watching. Intently.

After hours of waiting to march, we literally couldn’t. The planned route for the Women’s March was completely filled with people — there was no way to march on the route. Word eventually came down through the crowds to march peacefully where we could, and the mass of people began to break up and move through the city. As we filtered out past the Mall, we passed a small band of about 20 “Bikers for Trump” trying to hold a counter-rally in the midst of an enclave of port-a-potties. It was a striking contrast to the roaring swell of pink marching directly past them. Still, some Women’s March folks stopped to listen — without altercation — for a bit before marching on. [EDIT/UPDATE 22 Jan 2017: Apparently, some of the Women’s March participants did eventually disrupt the Bikers for Trump rally. We’re  not exactly sure from this Youtube video who really can be blamed for the violence — looks an awful lot to us like a big angry biker getting physical with a skinny older man based on very little provocation — but it seems to have been short lived. Nothing like this was happening when we were there, and the police report no arrests or major incidents during the day.]

Women's March DC 2017
“Bikers for Trump” drew a somewhat smaller crowd.

Lewis Ginter Gardenfest of Lights

Took Hunter and his GF Sarah down to RVA’s Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden last night to walk through the “Gardenfest of Lights.” On the way out, we discovered the miniature trains (and the fun, eager older gentlemen who were running them) and the library full of miniature houses (and house like things). Here are some of our favorite photos — click on any of them to see a bigger version or change to slideshow mode. Merry Christmas!