Travel with a purpose: Couple tours over 100 plane crash sites

KENNEWICK, Wash. (AP) Fog, sleet and light rain blanketed the Blue Mountains as Dave and Vicki McCurry returned to Deadman's Peak recently to revisit a piece of history.

The Pasco couple wants to see if a rumor was true that large parts of a Grumman F6F Hellcat plane that Navy Ensign Norman J. Jacobs crashed on Nov. 14, 1944, were taken out of the Umatilla National Forest.

The McCurrys have visited more than 100 plane crash sites in the past two decades, many involving World War II aircraft. Dave McCurry has written a book chronicling his visits to the sites and their history. He's now at work on his second book.

The weather was nicer on the day Jacobs, a 23-year-old from New York, crashed his plane about 30 miles south of Dayton shortly after leaving the Pasco Naval Air Station, Dave McCurry said.

No radio communications were received after Jacobs left on a routine engineering flight close to the base, then considered one of the best training stations in the country. His body and the plane were found seven months later more than 60 miles from Pasco.

The cause of the crash never was determined.

"It was a nice day, but a little bit of clouds," he said. "(The plane) came through the trees and got shredded by the trees."

The McCurrys walked for more than a hour, following coordinates programmed into their GPS device they first visited the crash site 15 years ago. The weather erased the views of the Walla Walla Valley as they hiked two miles along a ridgeline.

They spotted a small trail leading down a slick slope to the wreckage. They knew they were there when they saw a sign warning people not to take relics.

The site appeared to be unmolested by scavengers. But vegetation has grown over some of the plane's parts and a tree fell on one of its wings. Erosion even has covered some of it with dirt. Dave spotted the 2,000-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine and trudged down the hill to inspect it more closely.

Someday, it might all be gone. "Some of these sites have completely disappeared because of erosion," Dave said.

The trip to the Hellcat crash site is a "cake walk" compared to some of the crashes the McCurrys have visited, Dave said. Now 58, such treks aren't as easy as for him as they once were. But keeping history alive makes it worth it.

"I can't bear the thought of all these people being buried and forgotten," he said. "Without these people, the outcome of World War II might have been different and this would have been Germany or Japan."

Dave published his first book, Aircraft Wrecks of the Pacific Northwest, in March.

The book details his searches for planes, mostly military aircraft, in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The late 1990s saw a spike in interest in military crashes, because that was when the armed forces declassified World War II accident reports.

The McCurrys have spent $30,000 on their hobby over 15 years. While they hope to recoup some of that with book sales, Vicki McCurry said, "He would have done it if he had a book or not."

The area around the former Pasco Naval Air Station, now Tri-Cities Airport, is full of crashed military training planes from the World War II era, Dave McCurry said. The air station had 16 auxiliary airfields in the region.

More than 14,000 aircraft training accidents occurred in the continental United States during World War II, he said.

"Planes are like any other kind of machine where humans are involved," he said. "Boats are going to sink, trains are going to drive off the track. I've been really intrigued to see why accidents happen."

The crashes haven't affected the McCurrys' love of flying. Dave McCurry has been a pilot for 45 years, his wife for almost 25 years.

They spent their lives working in aviation in customer service for United Express, as well as for Bergstrom Aircraft, where Dave McCurry still flies part time.

"What really bothers me is driving around in cars with all the accidents in our area," he said. "When I'm in an airplane, I feel fine. When I'm driving, I get nervous."

"We always told our friends who were druggies, 'I go get high in airplanes,' " Vicki McCurry said.

Dave has been interested in World War II planes since he was a kid, but got involved in aviation archeology as a result of an incident that hit close to home, he said.

He always wanted to find a West Coast Airlines DC-9 that crashed in 1966 near Mount Hood. He had seen the same plane months earlier at the opening of the new terminal at the Pasco airport.

"I had always wondered, what happened? What's there?" he said.

The McCurrys located the plane from the air in 1997, and decided to plan a trip to the crash site. While camping in the wilderness, they happened to meet a group of aviation writers on the same mission. The contacts helped lead to his writing career.

Most of the planes the McCurrys search for are from 60 or more years ago, since federal requirements now require debris to be removed from crash sites. But they did visit the site of an Air Force C-130 transport plane that crashed in 1995 near Bliss, Idaho, which was too difficult to remove.

"The later ones have memorials, placards and crosses," Vicki McCurry said.

Dave McCurry is now close to finishing his second book. They want it to cover more than the initial book.

"It's got the history of the area, like missile silos and bombing ranges," Vicki McCurry said.

But Dave wants to wrap it up by finding a plane that has long eluded him a Bell P-63 Kingcobra fighter plane that crashed near Soap Lake. The couple recently made their 10th trip to where they've been told the plane is located.

They have spent 63 hours hiking and driven more than 2,100 miles to try to find the site without success. But Dave McCurry is certain that the plane is up there.

"It's all just sagebrush and desert plants," he said. "You'd think if it were up there, we'd find it pretty easy, but this one's elusive."

Dave McCurry has searched for other planes for up to eight years off and on, only to eventually find them.

"You don't give up," he said. "You get more and more information from various places."

So it's a special feeling when Dave does find such a plane.

"It just wipes your body out," he said. "When you finally find it, it's just like a gold mine."

His wife and constant companion also likes finding the plane.

"I'm so happy because I know we don't have to go back again," Vicki said.

Information from: Tri-City Herald

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.