Incident Name: Moose Creek
Personnel: 3 lives lost
Agency/Organization: Johnson Flying Service under contract with the US Forest Service
Position: aerial firefighters: smokejumpers, fire manager
Gary G. Williams, 23, Missoula Smokejumper of West Valley, N.Y.
Jon A. Rolf, 23, Missoula Smokejumper of Buchannan, N.Y.
Alva W. Blackerby, Nez Percr Forest Supervisor, of Grangeville, ID
Herbert Culver, pilot, survived
Roland M. Stoleson, smokejumper foreman at the Grangeville air base survived.
A Ford Tri-Motor Smokejumper plane carried three smokejumpers, the Nez Perce Forest Supervisor and the pilot to the Moose Creek airstrip to deliver supplies during the busy fire season, then to carry the smokejumpers to jump a small fire on Petibopne Ridge. The plane made the usual flyover to check the wind sock then flew along the Selway River to turn around and approach the strip to land. As the plane was landing, there was a strong gust of wind, a tailwind, that pushed it ahead into the trees at the east end of the runway. Two smokejumpers suffered fatal burns: Williams died on-scene, Rolf died later that day in a Grangeville ID hospital. The Blackerby died from burn complications several weeks later. Pilot Culver was transported to a hospital in Missoula MT; he recovered from his burns.
Tri-Motor - Aircraft Example with Smokejumpers, photo credit Leo Keith Brown who was a Smokejumper at McCall SJ Base in 1948:
Tri-Motor at Moose Creek Airstrip
East end of the USFS Moose Creek Airstrip, Nezperce National Forest in ID
- Concise Information from contributors:
- 8/4/1959, Tri-Motor SJ plane
- 3 killed and Culver, the pilot, survived for several years: Gary G. Williams, 23; Jon A. Rolf, 25; Alva W. Blackerby; Herbert Culver, pilot
- Operator: Johnson Flying Service of Boise ID under contract with the US Forest Service
- Type: FORD Tri-Motor
- Location: Moose Creek Airstrip, ID
- FAA Registration # N8419
- US Forest Service Heroes Memorial: Jon Rolf | Gary Williams | Alva W. Blackerby
- Smokejumpers Killed in the Line of Duty (375 K), beginning on page 21
- Haunting Tragedies on the Nez Perce National Forest (1959 and 1979)
6/19/2009 | Lewiston Morning Tribune (no longer online) (The article describes two tragic airplane crashes. The earliest was in 1959; text follows.)
...on Aug. 4, 1959, a Ford Tri-Motor plane crashed into some gasoline barrels while landing at the Moose Creek airstrip and killed two smokejumpers and the Nez Perce Forest supervisor, Alva W. Blackerby, of Grangeville.
"I think about it often," said a thick-voiced Roland M. Stoleson, now living in Ogden, Utah. He is the only living survivor of that crash. "It's hard to talk about."
The 1959 accident happened during a busy fire season. Smokejumpers Gary G. Williams, 23, of West Valley, N.Y., and John A. Rolf, 23, of Buchannan, N.Y., were on a mission into Moose Creek, along with Stoleson, who was the smokejumper foreman at the Grangeville air base. The plane also carried some supplies for the Moose Creek district, and Blackerby rode along to observe the activity. Herbert Culver was the pilot.
Earnest Scott of Riggins was the fire dispatcher at the Fenn Ranger Station. "I heard the aircraft coming and I stepped out to watch it go by," Scott said. "I knew the forest supervisor, Mr. Blackerby - we called him 'Blackie' - was in the plane. He was going to Moose Creek.
"I went back in my office and maybe 30 minutes or less on the radio I heard this excited voice calling for (fire retardant). When he settled down I found out there was a plane crash and … he (the pilot) ended up in the trees by the ranger station. It was on the ground rolling out and they couldn't stop it before he hit the trees." Scott got on his radio and ordered assistance from the supervisor's office because communications from Moose Creek were limited.
Blackerby had taken the co-pilot seat, which Stoleson said he usually occupied on such flights. Williams and Rolf were sitting in the back compartment with Stoleson.
"We made our usual flyover Moose Creek to check the wind sock, then went back down the Selway (River) to turn around and go in our final end of the strip itself," Stoleson recalled.
"So we came back in and just as we were setting down there was a strong gust of wind that pushed us ahead into the trees. The pilot knew what was going to happen because he yelled back at us and said, 'We're going to hit.' "We knew we were in trouble. Then we hit."
At first Stoleson said he thought everything was OK. But then fire exploded back through the airplane. A tree that had caught on fire also fell on the plane. Stoleson ditched through the open door, but not without being burned on the face and arms.
Williams, who had been sitting under the gas tank of the plane, was burned extensively. He was carried outside and laid on the ground. "They weren't dead at the time," Stoleson said. Some of the rescuers talked to the injured men and Williams asked one of the smokejumpers, who was a good singer, to sing him a song. Then he died.
Rolf and Blackerby were taken to hospitals where they died a short time later. The pilot, Culver, was also badly burned but survived for several years.
Scott remembers how the incident shook all the employees of the forest. "It was devistating," he said. "Especially about the forest supervisor. Blackie was well-liked and the fact that these smokejumpers were so young and just starting their careers. It affects every one of us."
- Gary Williams and John Rolf named as fallen
- "Remnants of the Tri-Motor are still located off the edge of the runway amongst the trees. Portions of the Tri-Motor were salvaged and the aircraft was rebuilt and is flying today. One of only 18 Ford Tri-Motors still in existence, let alone airworthy."
- Informational Memorial Plaque- sent in by a Smokejumper:
- Smokejumpers Memoriam: John Rolf | Gary Williams (kias_in_brief is no longer online)
- Consult smokejumpers.com to find info on their new website. here's some obit info: Jon Rolf | Gary G Williams
- Jon Rolf Obituary from the Missoulian, Aug 6, 1959: Jon Rolf from Buchanan, NY was 25 when he died. He was born July 21, 1933 in Peekskill, NY and graduated from Hendrick High School in Montrose, NY in 1950. He entered the Navy in May 1951 and served until December, 1954. John studied forestry at Paul Smith College from 1955 through 1957 and attended Hartwick College at Oneonta, NY from 1957 through 1959. He worked for the Forest Service during the summer of 1956 as a laborer in Oregon, then trained as a smokejumper in the summer of 1957. He returned for the 1958 and 1959 seasons.
- Gary Williams Obituary from the Missoulian, Aug 6, 1959: Gary Williams was born May 20, 1936 at West Valley, NY and graduated from West Valley Central School in 1954. In 1955 he entered New York Ranger School, part of NY Sate Ciollege of Forestry, at Wamakena, NY. He left that school in February 1956. That summer he worked for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in CA. He entered the Army in October of that year and served at Fort Sill, OK with a guided misslie unit. Gary completed his military service in September, 1958 after which he entered the University of Montana at Missoula for his junior year. He became a smokejumper in 1959.
- US Forest Service Heroes Memorial: Jon Rolf | Gary Williams | Alva Blackerby
- YouTube: Tri-Motor Walk Around and Cockpit Tour. Part 1 (5 min) Interesting!
- YouTube: Ford Tri-Motor, We Go For a Ride! Part 2 (6.5 min)
Dedication to the memory of Gary Williams in the Montana State University Forestry Kaimin, page 2
Contributors to this article: Larry Smith, Brett Rogers, Carl Gidlund, The Wildland Firefighter Foundation, Brownie's family, Mellie, John Miller, Rick Messier
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