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F-86 wreckage rediscovered 60 years later

  • Published
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
In September 2015, a small team with the United States Forest Service gathered more than 60 miles from Fairchild Air Force Base to begin surveying land near Timber Mountain, Washington, in the 1.1 million acre Colville National Forest.

After hours of surveying, they came across aircraft wreckage with no indication of the aircraft’s origin, mission or age. After nearly 10 months of research, the aircraft was identified as a Washington National Guard F-86 Sabre that crashed March 23, 1955.

“I explored numerous Air Force aircraft crash websites to retrieve data about the crash and found no reference to any mishap in that area,” said Todd Foster, 336th Training Group training area manager. “I enlisted assistance from our helicopter squadron to search for information and nothing came up. At that point, for all involved, this had officially became a mystery.”

The F-86 was assigned to the 116th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, Washington National Guard. In 1950, the squadron was the first guard unit west of the Mississippi River equipped with jets. The need for more space and longer runways prompted the squadron to move from Felts Field to Geiger Field; known today as the Spokane International Airport.

On March 23, 1955, the F-86 was one of four flown out of Geiger Field. It was flown by Maj. John C. Seeley, an executive officer of the 116th FIS. The formation was conducting gunnery passes on numerous B-29 Superfortresses during an exercise. The formation completed multiple successful gunnery passes before Seeley’s F-86 went into a tight downward spin. Seeley fought the spin without success while rapidly descending nearly 13,000 feet.

With the altitude of 12,000 feet quickly approaching, Seeley made the decision to eject from the aircraft. He prepared himself for ejection and applied pressure to the lever. The lever gave no slack and remained jammed as the ground became close. After repeatedly applying additional pressure to the lever, Seeley was able to overcome the mechanical issue and eject from the aircraft. After ejecting, the F-86 continued to spin, meeting speeds upwards of 400 miles per hour before crashing.

After the F-86 crashed, Seeley continued his descent via parachute and landed approximately 3 miles from the aircraft crash site. With minor injuries, Seeley made his way to a logging road where he was found by a passerby and driven to Newport, Washington. From there, he was escorted back to Geiger Field.

“On July 5, a group of us from Fairchild alongside a small archeology team with the USFS visited the site to gather information needed to identify the aircraft origin and discover the truth behind the crash,” Foster said. “After approximately two hours of hiking, we were able to locate the site spread out over nearly seven acres.”

“We spent hours locating remains, most the size of a large suitcase, all buried under 60 years of forest litter such as pine needles and fallen trees,” Foster continued.

Not knowing the fate or identity of the F-86 pilot at the time, Foster and the team continued to search for information relating to whether the pilot ejected out of the aircraft or impacted the hill with the plane.

Foster, alongside James O’Connell, 92nd Air Refueling Wing historian, and the USFS, was able to use the information gathered to identify the aircraft and its origin. From there, the pieces began to fall into place.

A member with the USFS located a lieutenant from 1955 who witnessed the crash. Still living in Spokane, Hal Morrill, now 88 years-old, was able to fill in the remaining of the missing pieces.

“Since the mystery consumed many of my months, I wanted to hear the whole story and meet one of the men who was there,” Foster said. “We went to meet Hal in late July; he told us the story of the crash as well as the days that followed. He showed us images of himself and Lt. Dallas Sartz, standing in the impact crater of crash site.”

The photographs Hal possessed showed feet of snow in the background which concealed most of the aircraft wreckage. At the time, they believed most of the aircraft to be underground. With no possible way of getting equipment to the site, a cleanup wasn’t plausible, Foster said.

After 60 years, the pieces of the F-86 have become part of the Colville National Forest. As an official archeology site, the remnants of the crash will remain within the forest, protected for generations to come.

“I was not able to let this go; everyone loves a good mystery,” Foster concluded. “From having no information on this incident, to being able to find a wingman who witnessed the entirety of the crash, what an amazing story.”