Windham: Plane down - the 1947 crash at Robins Field

March 5, 2014 

It was a very dark night, and visibility was low as the C-45 took off of Runway 9 at Robins Field. Two minutes into the flight, the plane was down.

The questions about what had happened so quickly to this ordinary flight from Robins Field to Wright Field began. That was 67 years ago last month, Feb. 13, 1947. Questions still remain after all these years.

The C-45 Expeditor was a plane used in World War II and was a part of the Air Force’s fleet of airplanes until 1963. The planes were used mainly to carry passengers around from place to place with light cargo. The C-45 was a low wing, twin engine plane with twin tailfins. It could hold six to 11 passengers.

On Thursday night, Feb. 13, the plane was ready and waiting for the crew and passengers to board. There were five officers, Lt. Col. Gilbert E. Laymen, Capt. William W. Wahlen, Lt. Col. Robert A. Zaiser, Lt. Laverne W. Gonyer, and Maj. Charles H. Geiner. Also, on board were Tech Sgt. Austin E. Gasebier and a civilian, T.R. Billings.

The pilot listed for the flight was Zaiser. This was where the questions began. No one was sure who actually flew the plane that night.

What is known is that the pilot was a lieutenant colonel. When the pilot was asked by the dispatcher on duty to certify seats, belts and parachutes on board, the pilot referred the question to another lieutenant colonel, who signed his initials, G.E.L. We assume that it was Lt. Col. Gilbert E. Laymen.

Laymen was then asked by the dispatcher if he wanted the Army Flight Service to give him a weather check. He replied that he did not, as he had already checked the weather himself.

The captain on board was overheard asking the pilot if he could fly the plane. The pilot answered saying, “Damned if I know, I haven’t flown a 45 in six months.”

After the engines were started and a normal check was made, the C-45 was cleared for takeoff at 9:05 p.m. All witnesses reported that there was no indication that anything was wrong.

With the dark night and smoky conditions, the pilot had no horizon or visible reference from which to fly the plane. For some reason, as the plane was in the air, the pilot made a right turn.

Again, all witnesses who heard the plane take off and fly for the short time it was in the air, heard no sounds that would indicate a problem.

It was little more than two minutes after takeoff that the plane hit the first tree top and then another and then another. The crash was southeast from Robins Field, about a half mile into the dense woods and swamp off of the Ocmulgee River. As the gas tanks erupted, fire and smoke could be seen.

It took rescue crews nine hours to make their way into the swamp only to find the site littered with debris and the bodies of the seven men who were aboard.

For 200 feet, the plane continued to crash into the woods until it hit a tree sideways, and the plane’s main body tore apart.

There were and still are many speculations over what actually happened. It is thought that there were many factors that played a part in this tragedy.

Frist, there was the possibility that the pilot was unfamiliar with how to fly the C-45. Second, the fact that visibility was so low that only the instruments of the plane should have been used. Third, there seemed to be a concern about the weight of the cargo on the plane and where the cargo was placed. There was also the idea that possibly the cargo shifted in the plane to cause the plane not to gain the altitude it needed on takeoff.

The story of the C-45 crash is an interesting one, long forgotten. Unfortunately, it is one of those stories that will not give up all the answers to the lingering questions.

Let us remember these seven men who died tragically on a cold winter night in the dense woods of the Ocmulgee swamp.

Marilyn N. Windham, of Fort Valley, is a volunteer at the Museum of Aviation. Contact her at mnwindham@aol.com.

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