Officials pull marijuana from the plane that crashed in the frozen Lower Merced Pass Lake in Yosemite in 1976. The twin-engine Lodestar was overloaded and lost an engine before crashing. "Somehow, people got wind of this and it was like the Klondike gold rush," said John Dill, a longtime Yosemite ranger, of people who rushed up there to get marijuana.
Crashes in Sierra have spawned legends, tragedy
By Cyndee Fontana and Mark Grossi / The Fresno Bee
09/13/08 04:35:20
In December 1976, a twin-engine Lodestar stuffed with marijuana plunged into an icy lake in Yosemite National Park.

Authorities postponed a salvage operation, thinking no one would try to fish out hay-sized bales of pot in the frozen Lower Merced Pass Lake. They were wrong.

"Somehow, people got wind of this and it was like the Klondike gold rush," said John Dill, a longtime Yosemite ranger. "You couldn't find an ice ax anywhere."

Over decades, hundreds of planes have crashed along the 400-mile swath of the Sierra. Some have spawned urban legends. Others are pure tragedy.

From the Air Force pilot first hailed as a hero, then disgraced, to the grieving father who never found his son, a missing pilot, here are some of the Sierra's most famous tales of lost flights:

Hero or liar?

Bearded and bone-thin, Air Force 1st Lt. David A. Steeves walked out of the Sierra after a 54-day test of survival.

He and his T-33 trainer jet vanished on May 9, 1957. The Air Force stopped searching after a month, and Steeves was declared dead.

But on July 1, 1957, Steeves emerged -- 45 pounds lighter -- near Granite Basin in Kings Canyon.

An explosion inside the aircraft knocked him unconscious, he said. Steeves awoke just in time to bail out near Helen Lake, around 11,600 feet.

Steeves injured both ankles in the drop and crept about a dozen miles through snow before stumbling upon an abandoned cabin. He devoured the few cans of food there, but also fished, picked strawberries and killed a deer by rigging his pistol to a trap.

After nearly eight weeks, and a few false starts, Steeves took a trail toward Granite Basin and crossed paths with park visitors who led him to a ranger station.

Steeves, 23, was cheered as a hero. The Saturday Evening Post assigned a reporter; he shadowed Steeves as the pilot retraced much of his survival trek.

But doubt soon overshadowed the tale. The Post reporter decided Steeves' account was too improbable and the magazine canceled its story. Most glaringly, where was the plane?

Rumors spread that Steeves flew to Mexico, sold the plane, and returned to the Sierra to fake a survival story. His Air Force career was destroyed.

He settled in Fresno and launched a flight business. He acted in a local production of William Saroyan's "The Cave Dwellers."

Published accounts say Steeves occasionally flew over the Sierra to search for his missing plane. He died in a light plane crash in Idaho in 1965, still under a cloud of suspicion.

A dozen years later, Boy Scouts found the canopy of his plane on a Kings Canyon mountain peak.

Allen J. Schuh, a retired psychology professor in the Bay Area who analyzed the incident, called Steeves a good man who could have been spared decades of doubt.

Schuh believes the air squadron searching for Steeves and his plane actually spotted the wreckage in 1957. Reports show crews saw a crashed plane -- well east of Steeves' projected flight path -- but didn't investigate on the ground, he said.

Flight of P-40s

Just before noon on Oct. 24, 1941, a squadron of 19 fighter planes left an airfield near Riverside for Sacramento. By the end of the day, two pilots had died in crashes and three were forced to abandon their aircraft.

Off course in bad weather, some smashed into the rugged Sierra. Others were running on fumes or undermined by mechanical problems. That day, only 14 of the 19 planes landed safely.

News accounts said the P-40 Tomahawks, flying in close formation, first sailed into dense fog and storm clouds over the Tehachapis. The Army Air Corps pilots began losing sight of each other. They drifted apart, with the pilots who landed safely touching down in Smith Valley, Nev., Tulare County and Sacramento.

The three pilots who parachuted out survived. But two others died when their planes went down over the Sierra.

Second Lt. Richard N. Long, due to be married within the week, was killed when his plane crashed in Kings Canyon National Park. It was 18 years before anyone found the wreckage.

First Lt. William Birrell died when his plane crashed near Bass Lake and exploded into flames. Birrell's body was recovered within days.

G. Pat Macha, an author and aviation archaeologist, said the tragedy didn't end there. At least two other aircraft were later lost, and two crewmen killed, while searching for the missing pilots, Macha said.

Hester Lake

Clinton Hester spent 14 years combing the Sierra in a futile search for his missing son. Today, Hester Lake in Kings Canyon memorializes both.

On Dec. 5, 1943, 2nd Lt. Robert Hester was co-pilot on a B-24 bomber heading from Fresno's Hammer Field to Bakersfield, Tucson and then back. Deteriorating weather conditions meant the plane likely encountered patches of clouds and high winds over the Sierra.

The plane, and its crew of six, vanished. Authorities dispatched more than a dozen aircraft in a fruitless search for the missing B-24 -- one of those search planes crashed into Huntington Lake, killing six of eight men aboard.

Clinton Hester looked for his boy for more than a decade. Hester, who lived in Los Angeles, arrived at the park with the snowmelt and left only when flakes began to fall again.

Heart problems finally ended his quest. He died in 1959, never having found his son.

In the summer of 1960, two geologists and a park ranger spotted the missing B-24 at an unnamed, isolated lake at an elevation of roughly 12,000 feet. Divers found some remains; identification numbers on the aircraft confirmed it was Hester's plane.

A few months later, the Department of the Interior named the lake after father and son.

The Rowells

The pilot ferrying Galen and Barbara Rowell from Oakland to Bishop couldn't legally operate as an air taxi. So the Rowells offered to reward him not with cash, but with one of their acclaimed photographs.

The Rowells, and especially Galen, were celebrated photographers whose work appeared in the pages of National Geographic, Outdoor Photographer and Audubon. Both published photography books and were known for their work in the conservation of wild lands.

But on Aug. 11, 2002, the twin-prop Aero Commander carrying Galen Rowell, 61, and Barbara Cushman Rowell, 54, crashed as it approached the Bishop airport. The pilot and another passenger also were killed.

The plane went down just south of the airport situated in the eastern Sierra at 4,102 feet. The Rowells were heading home to Bishop after attending a photo workshop in the Arctic.

Some of Galen Rowell's most enduring images are of the Sierra Nevada. He published nearly 20 photography books before his death, and his last project updated naturalist John Muir's classic "The Yosemite" -- pairing Rowell's photographs with Muir's text.

High in the Sierra

Some got high and some got rich -- that's the legend, at least.

On Dec. 9, 1976, a low-flying plane loaded with marijuana crashed in Yosemite while shuttling pot between Mexico and Nevada.

Butch Farabee, a retired ranger then working in Yosemite, said the overloaded plane dropped an engine before pitching into the high-altitude lake.

A few cross-country skiers discovered debris in late January and reported it to park officials. Authorities found the plane and much of its cargo resting in the lake, under a thick layer of ice.

Divers looked for the pilot and co-pilot. But the water was frigid and contaminated with fuel; sharp pieces of metal were frozen into the surface.

After a few days, officials ended the recovery operation until spring. But word spread that there was choice marijuana available for anyone enterprising enough to collect it.

Soon, hikers and even workers in the park were hauling out 80-pound bales of pot. It took a few days before officials caught on, Farabee said, and returned to scatter 12 to 15 "entrepreneurs" off the frozen lake.

No one knows how much marijuana left with them. Farabee doubts it was enough to build mansions, as the legend goes.

But he added: "I wouldn't suggest there weren't a few people who made enough to buy a pickup truck or take a vacation."

The reporters can be reached at, or (559)441-6330.