ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE -- In the woods east of the Robins runway are remnants of a tragedy that happened 68 years ago.
On Feb. 13, 1947, a twin-engine C-45 took off with seven people on board. They were headed to Wright Field, now called Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
They never made it off the base.
Witnesses reported that shortly after takeoff at 9:07 p.m., the plane made an unexplained right turn. Firefighters doing calisthenics were the first to report hearing the sounds of a crash in the darkness, and then they saw flames coming from the swamp.
Everyone on board was killed.
Parts of the wreckage, including both engines, are still there today. The wreckage, spread over about 450 feet, was never removed because of the location, and it has remained largely untouched despite being accessible to hunters and hikers over the years. Most of it is within about a 30-yard area.
On Wednesday, a team from the Museum of Aviation went to the site to recover artifacts. The museum staff is restoring a C-45 and plans to create a display to go with it that will memorialize the crash.
The largest and most recognizable part retrieved was the left propeller, which was hauled out on a stretcher. The bent propeller will be cleaned of its grime but mostly left as is to reflect its decades in the forest. Several other smaller parts were also retrieved, but the engines and other larger parts remain behind.
“The rest of the site will be left alone, respected, and over time it will disappear,” said Mike Rowland, the museum’s curator.
The museum has some parts that were collected in the early 1980s, but until Wednesday there had been no other parts retrieved from the site. Rowland said the swamp is slowly digesting the wreckage, and this may be the last chance to save any of it.
The area, about a mile east of the runway, is accessible to anyone who works at the base. Many of the parts are small enough for someone to take, but there appears to have been little scavenging.
“I think overall, people have been very respectful,” Rowland said. “They come in here and they realize this is a crash, and that it’s very likely people died, and I think there is a natural sense of respect.”
He does not discourage anyone from going to it today, but he asks only that they don’t disturb anything.
Bill Paul, the museum’s collections manager, was visiting the site for the first time.
“It’s sort of a weird feeling,” he said as he worked to excavate an unknown part from the soil. “I’ve known about the site for years and know the story, and to actually come out to the site and see it firsthand, it just really drives what happened home.”
The Army Air Corps investigation concluded that pilot error was the likely cause of the crash, but it’s not certain who was actually flying.
Lt. Col. Robert Zaiser, listed in the accident report as the pilot, made a troubling statement before takeoff. According to the report, radio transmissions indicated that as they prepared to take off, Capt. William Whalen, serving as the co-pilot, asked Zaiser if he could fly the plane.
“Damned if I know,” Zaiser responded. “I haven’t flown a 45 in six months.”
The report concluded that the plane was loaded near or over its maximum capacity, and Zaiser lacked the experience with the plane to control it in that state. Witnesses reported hearing nothing that would indicate mechanical trouble.
However, there are also witness statements that indicated Lt. Col. Gilbert Layman was the pilot.
Others on board were 1st Lt. Laverne Gonyer, Tech Sgt. Austin Casebier, Maj. Charles Greiner and a civilian, T.R. Billings. They were from Wright Field and had been to Robins, then called Robins Field, for an inspection.
Arthur Sullivan, a museum volunteer who has long had an interest in the crash, has done a good bit of research into it and the possible causes. He has been to the site several times and led the way to it Wednesday.
He said it probably will never be known for sure what happened, but that’s not the most important thing about it to him.
He pointed out that at least one of the men, Zaiser, was a bomber pilot in World War II.
“Everybody remembers those killed in wartime, but these were guys doing their everyday job, and they still made that sacrifice for their country,” he said. “The important thing for us to take away from it as researchers is remembrance of their sacrifice.”
The museum hopes to get photos of all of the men to go with its display. Rowland said he is not certain when the display will be done, but it could be a while.
CRASH CHANGED THE SWAMP
The crash had an influence that can be seen in the forest all around it today.
In 1947, according to base historian Bill Head, those woods were quite different. It was mostly swamp thick with growth.
Today, even though it’s the same time of year as the crash, getting to the site is a relatively easy hike. A road into the woods gets part of the way, then there is a walking bridge over a large creek and about 20 minutes of walking over mostly dry land with little undergrowth.
But that’s not at all what it was like for rescuers the night of the crash. The accident report says it took them nine hours to get to the site, although Head said it was actually 14 hours.
As a direct result of the crash and the difficulty in getting to it, according to Head, the Air Force basically decided to change the whole area. The large creek with the bridge is actually man-made, he said, to drain the swamp. Trails were cut through the woods to make it easier to navigate, and much of the undergrowth was cut back.
The crash is the deadliest ever on the base, according to Head, but it was not that uncommon at the time. During World War II, pilot trainees were flying out of Cochran Field, now the Middle Georgia Regional Airport, and many of them died in crashes over the swamp, according to Head.
So while the C-45 site is the largest, parts from other wreckage have been found in the woods.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.