Along the Way: The Blue Mountain Airplane Crash

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Monument to the 1956 airplane crash on Blue Mountain

Standing at the Three Square Hollow Vista, I took in the view of the Cumberland Valley. Far below was the community of Newville and on the far side of the valley, South Mountain rose majestically, draped in the green splendor of Michaux State Forest. Here, on the northern side of the Cumberland Valley, vultures drifted lazily in the wind and in the woods nearby a hawk screamed as it passed through the wilds of Tuscarora State Forest. The shade of the trees was a relief from the hot, humid day.

The vista atop Blue Mountain, near the junction of Three Square Hollow and Cowpens Roads, was an added bonus to the day’s journey and it put a positive spin on a somber trip. I had made my way up the narrow road while silently hoping that the warning signs were wrong because I had no desire to meet a lumber truck coming down the mountainside. Thankfully, I met no lumber trucks descending the steep road as I made my way up the mountainside.

After taking in the view, I drove a short distance westward on Three Square Hollow Road to a monument erected to an airplane crash that happened here on October 26, 1956. Parking was limited so I pulled off the edge of the road and walked over to the memorial that had been placed here in 2006. I paused in front of the monument to read the plaque remembering the disaster and those killed. Engraved on the plaque were the names of the flight crew, along with a picture of the plane and other information about their mission at the time of the crash.

As I stood there paying my respects to the lives lost, I was transported from this hot, humid day to another one years ago that was foggy and rainy. On the morning of October 26, the C-119G-FA – known affectionately as “the Flying Boxcar” – took off from Sewart Air Force Base near Nashville, Tennessee, headed towards the Olmsted Air Force at Middleton. The four members of the flight crew were: First Lieutenant Robert S. Hantsch, pilot; Second Lieutenant Walter B. Gordon, Jr., co-pilot; Tech Sergeant Marvin W. Seigler, crew chief; and First Lieutenant Gracye E. Young, flight nurse. Their assignment was to pick up cargo from Olmsted and return with it to Sewart.  Note: The Olmsted Air Force Base was located where Penn State’s Harrisburg Campus currently exists. Some modern sources state the plane was from Stewart Air Force Base, but it was from Sewart Air Force Base in Tennessee.

By 1:30 p.m. the plane was over Altoona and was cleared for approach. However, as the plane approached Harrisburg visibility was limited due to rain and fog. At 2 p.m., the pilot radioed they had missed the approach and was cleared for the approach a second time at 3:06 p.m. A couple minutes later, the plane began its second attempt to land.

Due to the fog and rain, the view of the mountain was obscured from view as the plane circled and prepared to descend. Official reports state the visibility on top of Blue Mountain was zero, so when the north face of the Blue Mountain appeared out of the fog it was too late and there was no chance for the pilot to react. At 3:15 p.m. the plane slammed into the mountaintop, killing all four on board instantly. The Air Force immediately took over the crash site, removing the wreckage and recovering the bodies of the four who perished in the crash.

I finished paying my respects to the flight crew who lost their lives here, then left the memorial in the silence of Tuscarora State Forest to begin my descent back down into the Cumberland Valley.

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