Keepin 'em Flying...
Near Payette, Idaho
October 10, 1958
Working for the Best...
It takes hundreds of man-hours of maintenance, training, and other preparation for every hour of aerial exhibition - from fine-tuning the engine, to coordinating with the air show organizers, a staff of dozens, if not hundreds, support the pilots in their job of flying the death-defying stunts and maneuvers.
To support the flight operations of the team's F-100Cs, the Support Crew, with their tools and equipment, were flown aboard two aircraft, a C-119 and a C-123, both painted the same colors as the Team’s planes.
The team's C-123D, Air Force serial number 55-4521, departed Hill AFB in Utah, bound for McChord AFB in Washington. Aboard were five flight crew members, and 14 maintenance personnel.
Shortly before 6:30 in the evening, when the Thundersbirds' C-123 was flying east of Payete, Idaho.
"There were' three lights blinking and the wheels were down," said irrigation worker Norman Meadows. "It looked like, he was going to try and make a landing."
A rancher, Eldro Gisell. said the plane appeared to be flying through a flock of the big birds. He said "the formations of geese broke up and the birds flew in all directions Then I heard the plane's engines stutter and it seemed to stall. For a moment it sounded like the engines roared wide open and the plane seemed to pull up. Then it knifed downward and I heard the explosion."
But Idaho Aeronautics Director Chet Moulton said he did not think geese could have caused the crash. Regardless - the C-123 impacted a hillside six miles east of Payette, and all 19 aboard were killed.
Click here to see the crew and passenger list of the Thunderbird's C-123B
It set fire to about 5 acres brush and grass, but a quick-thinking farmer plowed a fire break around it to contain the spread.
Brigadier General James C, McGehee, the wing commander at Nellis AFB, flew to the crash site to help find out what caused the crash, and aid in identifying the bodies, which were taken a mortuary there.
The Air Force grounded all 230 of its C-123s the day before the crash for several days to repair a defect in the design of the fuel system, but it was determined that the defect had nothing to do with this crash.
The investigation into the crash was unable to determine the primary cause of the accident, but concluded that the plane was overloaded, and that the pilot may have been incapacitated, crew rest restrictions violated, or the pilot seat's was not occupied by qualified pilot. The theory of bird strike is still popular with many.
As of 2008, the crash was the worst loss of life accident in the history of the Thunderbird Squadron.
Near the crash site, the Payette Kiwanis club and High School Key Club built a memorial to the men lost in the crash shortly afterwards.