Havoc Ridge by Rob Samuelson
Every time I fly from Tucson, I’m captivated by the overflights of the Rincon Mountains. It seems the Rincons are in the flight path of almost every inbound and outbound flight. In the air, I’m able to identify peaks, creeks, canyons, pinnacles, campsites, and trails of places I’ve been, seen on maps, or contemplated exploring. The flights just add to my wanderlust.
Flying over mountains has its dangers. In early flight, the Wright Brothers used an obstacle-free beach or a flat prairie to test their craft. As the airplane engine became more powerful and wing design created more lift, aircraft expanded their range to mountainous regions such as Arizona. Over the years, I’ve hiked to several airplane crashes interspersed throughout the State. In Saguaro National Park East and adjacent area, there have been eight crashes, but they’ve all been cleaned up save one.
In 1945, a Douglas A-20 Havoc tragically crashed south of Rincon Peak killing all four of its crew. The A-20 was a popular aircraft (7,478 were manufactured) because of its versatility despite its underpowered powerplant. This particular twin-engine, light bomber took off from Davis-Monthan Air Force base on a stormy summer evening. Tragically, it didn’t clear one of the upper ridgelines leaving a terrible scar on the landscape and in the minds of loved ones. With the wind shear of monsoonal weather, the Pratt and Whitney radial engines didn’t have enough thrust to compensate. The Havoc crashed, leaving wreckage scattered over several hundred yards of high mountain terrain.
Based on my research, the fuselage remained at the remote site. Most references to the crash have since disappeared from the Internet, and one blogger specifically wrote me saying that he was told to remove its reference from his site. He did. Even so, ultimately I did find a reference to it which helped me narrow my search area. Its mysterious anonymity simply piqued my interest.
It was one of those beautiful Arizona winter days. It was light jacket weather with clear skies and no wind. Leaving my house, I drove my Jeep to Papago Spring and hiked up the abandon peak trail towards Aliso Spring. From my ridgeline promontory, Aliso Spring seemed out of the way so I decided to take a more rugged detour to explore a waterfall in Shaw Canyon while en route. The abundant bear claw and prickly pear shredded my shins, but the grind paid off with a fascinating multi-tiered cascade nestled in a granite crag.
Exiting the creek bed, I bushwhacked higher, welcoming the relief from the prolific prickles of tormenting succulents. Instead, tall grasses interspersed with pinon pines and alligator junipers hid bowling ball sized rocks which challenged my passage in a different way. Also hidden from view were vermin and the ever present concern of poisonous snakes. Even in the winter at higher elevations, Arizona Black Rattlesnakes may emerge from brumation (a lighter version of hibernation) to sun themselves. I did see sunning snakes, but not of the venomous kind! However, as my herpetologist friend once told me, “You may not see them, but the pit vipers have seen you!” Sobering, to say the least.
Each successive ridgeline offered astounding views of the mountains above and the valleys below. I’d find a protruding boulder to climb just to savor the panoramic vista! It was truly glorious! At last, I saw a glimmer to the east, a piece of wreckage on the next slope over near the location that presumably marked the spot. Below the slope were a few scraps of metal, but up higher were more. I climbed up to each piece and finally reached a high mountain meadow filled with wreckage. I found remnants of both engines, parts of the frame, instruments, and even the propellers. On one piece of the rear fuselage, I could still make out a faint painted star! I took a lot of photos, but left everything in place to honor those missing airmen. I felt like I was on hallowed ground.
For the hike down from the crash site, I decided to take a more direct but steeper route to save time. It was an uneventful return to my Jeep, and I was able to arrive back before dusk. It was a long but wonderful day to be outside. Besides gorgeous scenery, I found the remote memorial of a tragic accident and was able to pay my simple respects to those who paid the ultimate price.
As I reviewed my photographs, I found good photos leading up to and leaving from the crash site, but for reasons unexplained, all of the Nikon photos I took at the crash site were blurry; only my iPhone photos survived. With the site’s anonymity violated, the mystery was no longer. I was standing on consecrated ground of four U.S. airmen in the presence of unseen sentinels guarding its sanctity from intruders like me.