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From Minnesota to Alaska

Towards the end of April 1935, Lockheed delivered another brand new Electra 10A to Northwest Airlines (1021) with registration NC14915. This Electra had roughly a ten year lifespan and from our research a lot of the dates are an approximation.

Based on what we know it seems that this aircraft only flew with Northwest for a year or two, possibly three, before it was sold to Boston Maine Airways (also known as Boston Maine-Central Vermont Airways); Boston Maine became Northeast Airlines in 1940. After flying for Boston Maine it was sold to National Airlines, out of St. Petersburg, FL., and from their to Morrison-Knudsen Co. in Alaska where it was converted to a 10B.

On January 5, 1943, Harold Gillam, one of Alaska's bush pilots, was piloting NC14915 on a routing flight from Seattle to Anchorage with both freight and passengers aboard. According to Harold Gillam: A Tragic Final Flight: Ketchikan Remembers the Search by June Allen (2004), while Gillam was in Seattle warming up the engine he noticed a small oil leak in one of the engines and doing what he'd apparently done numerous times before, patched the leak with tape and shellac.

Passengers aboard this flight consisted of Robert Gebo, Morrison-Knudsen's general contractor, Susan Baxter, a stenographer for the CAA, Dewey Metzdorf, an Anchorage hotel owner, Joseph H. Tippits, CAA engineer, and Percy Cutting, Morrison-Knudsen mechanic.

June Allen writes that the aircraft had planned to refuel on Annette Island, and that aside from dense fog and the drone of the engines the flight was normal. However, the first mistake came in the form of pilot Harold Gillam believing he was farther west than he actually was. It seems that during the war, with enemy aircraft in the area, Annette Island's airfield would occasionally change their instrument beam to confuse enemy aircraft; this changing of the beam also confused Gillam, who had used a different signal on the southbound flight. These errors would soon prove disastrous.

Passenger Joseph Tippits related the following account:

"We hit a violent downdraft and dropped 4,000 feet almost before we knew it. It was pitch dark and the fog was almost down to the round, but now and then through a hole we could [see] peaks and trees flashing by. We were still flying at full speed. I yelled at Metzdorf to fasten his seat belt! The plane swerved just in time to miss one mountain. Then we saw another one looming up straight ahead. There was an open spot toward the top and Harold gunned the engine trying to make it. But our right wing hit a tree. I could feel everything leaving my body, everything blacked out, then it all came back. I was lying in the dark in the drizzling rain. I called out to the others. There was no answer. All I could hear was the hissing of the hot engine in the snow."

Soon other survivors began to wake up and began assessing their injuries. The cockpit of the Electra had been crushed but miraculously Gillam had survived with only a gash to the head. Susan Baxter had suffered a head injury and her right arm had been caught under the debris. The party managed to free her but due to the severity of her injuries, 23 year old Susan Baxter died two days later. Robert Gebo and Dewey Metzdorf had multiple broken bones and Joseph Tippits and Percy Cutting had been battered and also suffered from broken bones.

Not wanting to waste anytime, Harold Gillam created snow shovels from the aluminum of the aircraft as well as snow shelters. Unfortunately for those stuck in the wilderness the trees hid any sight of them. On the sixth day, Gillam set off on foot, alone, to fetch help, telling others, "I'm going up on a ridge. Maybe I can sight a definite landmark. If I do I'll go to it." He never returned.

In spite of their injuries, Cutting and Tippits set off down the mountain, dragging Gebo and Metzdorf to a spot lower down the mountainside. Leaving them, Cutting and Tippits set off in search of rescue. After almost a month in the wilderness the survivors were finally located. By chance a Coast Guard patrol ship had spotted a fire on the shoreline, and as they drew near the survivors shouted that they had survived the crash a month prior. Word quickly spread and the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad responded.

According to June Allen: "Searchers found Gillam's frozen body wrapped in a parachute on the shore of Boca de Quadra, only a mile from where Tippets and Cutting were finally recused. Gillam had torn his red underwear and tied the pieces to the spruce branches nearby. Over two tall poles stuck in the snow he had put his flight boots. Cutting later reported that he explored the surrounding area and found signs that Gillam had broken through a stream. He believed that the aviator had hung up his clothes to dry and lay down for a rest and never awakened. No autopsy was made and the cause of death remains unknown."

Susan Baxter was sent back to her home in Camas, Washington, for burial, and Harold Gillam was buried in Fairbanks' Pioneer Clay Street Cemetery. The wreckage of NC14915 still wrests up in the Ketchikan area where it crashed almost 80 years ago.

NC14915, now an Electra 10B, being loaded up at Merrill Field, Anchorage, AK, summer 1942 (photo belongs to TIGHAR)


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