The “Primal Man” Crash
Near Bishop, California
March 13, 1974
"The Struggle for Survival"...
The entertainment industry has
always been a large user of aircraft in the completion of their work.
From bringing the necessary minds from New York and Hollywood together
at the inception of a new project, to bringing the stars to the red
carpet, the folks of Tinseltown have needed fast and reliable
A series of television specials,
entitled “Primal Man”, told the story of mankind's rise and development
from the basic primate. The third one-hour installment of the
series, to be entitled "The Struggle for Survival", was to depict
Australopithecus, man's early ancestor, and tell the
legend of man's survival which began some four million years ago. and
continues through to today with environmental threats to man. The
production, sponsored by the Travelers Insurance Company, and produced
by Wolper Productions, in association with Jack Kaufman Productions,
would require filming in mountainous terrain, in order to accurately
reflect the desired Ice Age setting for the special's characters in a
particular scene - the hunt of a Siberian tiger!
The filming at the
Mammoth Mountain resort begun on Monday, March 11th, and continued for two more
days until Wednesday the 13th. A tiger had been rented for the filming,
but Stan Margulies, the vice president of Wolper Productions, said the animal
was to be returned to Los Angeles by truck. The rest of the production
company would return to Burbank via a chartered plane.
charter company selected by Wolper Productions was Sierra Pacific
Airlines. Formerly called 'Trans Sierra Airlines" and now a
subsidiary of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area corporation, which operates
ski lifts near Mammoth Lakes, the airline had just purchased four of the
44-passenger Convair 440 "Metropolitans" in November of 1973, shortly
after it was acquired by the ski operator. Although Convair 440s
were widely regarded as the major short-haul aircraft used widely by
major commercial airlines in the early 1950s, Sierra Pacific used the
planes to operate regularly scheduled flights of passengers from major
California cities to eastern Sierra ski resort destinations.
the plane used for the charter, a prop-driven
Convair 440, tail number N4819C, was to
be used on a regularly scheduled passenger flight to Mammoth, which was
scheduled to depart Burbank at 3:45 p.m., with the return flight from
Mammoth being the charter - Flight 802. However, because of a problem
with one of the generators on N4819C, the flight was cancelled, and its
passengers were dispatched on another Sierra Pacific flight.
p.m., the problem with the generator (a blown fuse) on aircraft N4819C
was remedied, but because of the late hour, a night takeoff would have
been necessary from Mammoth Lakes Airport, and since the airport was
restricted to daylight operations only, Flight 802 was rescheduled to
pick up the Wolper Production crew at the Bishop Airport.
airport in Bishop is located about 45 miles south of Mammoth Lakes, the
airline arranged bus transportation for the production crew from Mammoth
Lakes to Bishop. The plane finally left Burbank at 6:14 p.m., and
arrived at the Bishop Airport just over an hour later at 7:20 p.m.
The production team was pressed for time -
All were scheduled
to report for more filming in Malibu on Friday, March 15th.
Powered by two 2 Pratt & Whitney
R-2800-CB16 "Double Wasp" 18 cylinder air cooled radial engines, the plane then
took off at 8:24 p.m. and slammed into the ridge at the 7,000-foot level less
than five minutes later.
Click Here to Read
the Crew and Passenger List of Sierra Pacific Charter Flight 802
the Sierra Pacific plane blew up like a fireball, its ton and a half of aviation
gasoline igniting, after slamming into the ridge about five minutes after
takeoff from Bishop Airport Wednesday night. According to Sheriff Floyd
Barton, who saw the fireball from eight miles away on the valley floor, the
plane exploded and "looked like a giant napalm bomb going off."
First on Scene...
Antonio, a pilot for the Western Helicopter Company, flew to the scene
with Dr. Dave Sheldon of Bishop. Afterwards, he said, "The plane
smacked hard into the ridge and spread wreckage for 300 feet.
There wasn't much left of the plane. I could see a tail section, an
engine, not much else. All of it was burning. The bodies were
pretty badly burned too." He said he and the doctor spent 30
minutes hunting through the smoldering bodies and airplane litter,
across the snow-patched slope, "but we couldn't find any survivors so we
In Los Angeles,
Sierra Pacific spokesman Dean Sparkman said the pilot had been in contact with
the control tower at Bishop Airport until just before the crash and had reported
On the scene
of the crash were officials from the Federal Aviation Authority, workers
from the Inyo County coroner's office, and an FBI team, assisting in
identification of the bodies, many of which were badly burned, were on
the scene. All 36 bodies were recovered from the crash site, and
taken to to a makeshift mortuary at Bishop Airport
Parking Choice Saved
"They asked me to go on the flight
because I had shot pictures of them before and made friends, They said,
'Rather than go back alone, why don't you come with us,'" Dennis Plehn,
a 29-year-old photographer, recalled the following day in an interview
with the Associated Press.
"But my car had been parked at
International Airport (in Los Angeles) and their plane was going to
Lockheed airport in Burbank, so I turned them down." he said.
Plehn said another factor which kept him
off the plane was his company's decision to move up his departure time
by a half hour. He was shooting publicity pictures of the television
movie series on behalf of a public relations firm. He had returned to
Los Angeles and was sleeping early Thursday when word of the crash came
"I didn't believe it," he said. "I was
very happy I wasn't on the plane."
A Shot in the Dark...
"The plane was not in the normal climb corridor," according to a
statement of Bill Hendricks, head of a seven-man National Transportation
Safety Board (NTSB) investigating team. He stated that federal
regulations required that the plane climb to 8,000 feet while it was
within two miles of Bishop Airport, then climb to 10,000 and then 13,000
feet as it headed away.
Sierra Pacific spokesman Dean Sparkman said the pilot had been in
contact with the control tower at Bishop Airport until just before the
crash and had reported no difficulties.
on March 19th, 1974, Nancy J. Jacob, wife
of David Jacob, the key grip on the production, and one of the 35
persons killed in the crash, filed suit against Sierra Pacific Airlines,
the Mammoth Mountain Corporation and 50 unidentified persons. Her
Superior Court suit sought $5,000,000 in general damages, and accused
the pilot and Sierra Pacific Airlines of "negligently, wantonly,
recklessly and unlawfully flying a plane." The on-scene investigation by the NTSB
into the crash's cause was
completed on March 22, 1974.
late May of 1974, producer Jack Kaufman announced that the film of a
Siberian tiger hunt, a re-creation of man's ancestors stalking a tiger
through the snow, was recovered from the burned wreckage of the plane,
and would appear in the third segment of "Primal Man".
"Looking at the people you remember the accident," Kaufman said. "I
think for a few days it was a question of whether we would go on. Certainly in my case. I think after the accident everyone
was in a state of shock. You didn't want to go on. But we recovered. We
had to go on or their sacrifice would have been in vain."
Prior to airing, producer David Wolper said, "Everyone connected with
the project gave a little bit of extra effort to make this show the best
we have ever done. This show is the last effort of some truly fine
craftsmen and artists." The
third segment aired on ABC on June 21st, 1974.
The Aircraft Accident Report on the
crash was issued by the NTSB on January 10th, 1975. Surprisingly,
finding no indication of mechanical failure, the NTSB was unable to
determine the probable cause of this accident, or establish the reason
why the flight crew did not maintain a safe distance from hazardous
terrain during night visual flight.
Several theories were suggested by
the NTSB, including that, since
a pilot-trainee in the cockpit during the flight, an “instructional
relationship” could possibly have distracted the captain from adequately
monitoring the plane’s flight path during its climb-out of Bishop
To this day, this crash remains
one of the only three aviation mishaps to be unsolved by the NTSB in its forty
The Safety Board did, however,
recommend the installation of Distance Measuring Equipment (DME),
co-channeled and co-located with the Bishop VOR navigation beacon, a
study of the feasibility of an instrument climb procedure to the
northwest of the Bishop VOR using a designated radial and the DME, and
the requirement that all nighttime departures and arrivals at the Bishop
Airport be conducted in accordance with the prescribed instrument