A TWA Airliner Disappeared on Way to Fresno 85 Years Ago. A Local Sleuth Solved the Mystery.
On March 1, 1938, a TWA passenger flight traveling at night from San Francisco to Arizona attempted to make an emergency landing in Fresno after encountering bad weather. The airliner never arrived.
It would take three months, and the dogged efforts of a 23-year-old amateur sleuth from Fresno, to solve the mystery of the disappearance of TWA Flight 8 and the fate of its six passengers and three crew members.
The plane, a twin-engine Douglas DC-2 that had been in service for just three years, made an uneventful departure at 7:30 p.m. But deteriorating weather conditions prompted the pilot to radio for permission to divert to Los Angeles. Soon after, near the Tehachapi mountains, he noticed ice building up on the plane’s wings and advised air traffic control he was going to land in Fresno, instead.
It was the pilot’s last radio contact with anyone on the ground before the aircraft vanished.
A search soon began that would prove fruitless for many weeks. An employee working at the Edison Electric powerhouse at Huntington Lake reported seeing the DC-2 flying low around 9:30 p.m., prompting officials to concentrate their location efforts there. A severe storm prevented searching from the air for days, and automobiles in the day were unsuited for the task in the area’s rugged terrain.
After 3 months of searching, and a reward offer from TWA, there was still no sign of the aircraft or any of those aboard.
Fruit Packer and Part-Time Gold Prospector
That’s when Fresno area fruit-packer and part-time gold prospector H.O. Collier decided to get involved, talking with TWA staff and studying flight path charts. In early June of that year, he hiked into the rugged mountains above Wawona in Yosemite National Park and found the wreckage partially buried in snow at Buena Vista Crest. It had taken Collier just six days to find the crash site.
The bodies of the nine people aboard were all found, as well. Investigators believed the plane crashed at nearly 200 miles per hour, banking sharply and shearing off the tops of trees before colliding with the mountain.
After collecting his $1,000 reward (equal to about $21,000 today), Collier hoped to sell his story to one of the major publications of the day, but was unsuccessful. After a short time as a local celebrity of sorts, Collier’s exploits were largely forgotten.
“He became a local hero. He was the man for six weeks, and was back to being a normal guy some time after that,” said Bob Hoskin, an antiques dealer who purchased Collier’s mementos of the long-ago tragedy.
Hoskin, himself, hoped to find a TV or movie studio that would be interested in the tale but also found no takers.
Collier, who served as a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps in World War II, died months before his 91st birthday in 2005. He is buried at Riverside National Cemetery in Southern California.
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