On the evening of Wednesday, April 1, 1959, an Air Force C-118 – that’s the military version of a DC-6 airliner – was on a training exercise. It was doing “touch and go” landings at McChord Air Force Base, or what’s now JBLM, taking off and landing, and then flying around the nearby countryside.
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At about 8:12 p.m. that night, the tower at McChord asked the pilots of the C-118 to delay their next return to the runway because several fighter planes were landing. The C-118 headed east toward Bonney Lake to fly in a holding pattern.
It was about five minutes later when something went terribly wrong. The C-118 went down.
And within a few days, some people were blaming a UFO. Some still aren’t sure what exactly happened.
The crash site
Lee Corbin is a retired military and airline pilot who for many years has been researching the story of what happened to the C-118. Last Friday, Corbin led a reporter on a hike to a wooded area not far from Highway 410, during an unusual bout of springtime snow.
The woods where Corbin walked are in Pierce County near Bonney Lake, south of Highway 410, and not far from the growing “master planned community” called Tehaleh. Corbin had parked his truck off the side of the road, near a dead end that will one day connect the east and west halves of the development, and then walked up a gentle slope and onto a woodsy plateau.
“At the time this happened, and this is where the UFO controversy comes in, is supposedly the [pilot] made a radio call saying ‘We’ve hit something or something has hit us,’” Corbin said, leading the way along an old logging or fire road leftover from when the land belonged to Weyerhaeuser.
“[And] you don’t find [mention of that] in any of the accident reports, interestingly enough, but several newspapers carried that story,” Corbin said.
That quote mentioned by Corbin – with the pilots reporting some kind of collision – was attributed to Colonel Robert E. Booth, commander of the 1705th Air Transport Group. It appeared in the Seattle Times on April 2, 1959.
What had happened, it was later reported by the Air Force, was that the pilot and co-pilot thought the tower at McChord was tracking the plane’s altitude, and the tower thought the pilot and co-pilot were tracking their own altitude.
It was dark, and there weren’t many houses or lights in that area in those days. As it turned out, the plane was flying too low to clear a place called “Spar Pole Hill” near Orting. The right wing of the C-118 struck the treetops there. The wing was badly damaged, and it caught fire, but the plane kept flying.
Six or so miles north of Spar Pole Hill, the damage from striking the trees proved to be too much.
“The right wing peels off the airplane, and about this same time the co-pilot makes a radio call saying ‘This is it,’ because they know they’re going in,” Corbin said.
The pilot was later credited with somehow steering the plane clear of the homes and businesses in and around downtown Orting.
“So the airplane loses its wing, rolls inverted, then just basically noses in right here,” Corbin said, pointing to a wooded area, dense with underbrush and 50-foot tall evergreens.
The plane crashed and exploded, and a huge fire consumed much of the wreckage and was still smoldering the next day. At the crash site on Friday, Lee Corbin easily found pieces of the wreckage – small chunks of thick and twisted aluminum, some with rivets still attached – just sitting on the forest floor.
All four men aboard the plane died in the fiery crash, including 1st Lieutenant Robert Roy Dimick, the pilot; 1st Lieutenant Thomas E. Lasater, co-pilot; and Technical Sergeant Guy J. Cunningham and Staff Sergeant Arthur T. Foote, both flight engineers.
Corbin has researched military aviation accidents around the Northwest, and he lives not too far from the site of the C-118 crash. He’d ultimately like to see some kind of monument to the crew of the C-118, maybe when the Tehaleh development reaches this, so far, relatively untouched piece of land.
Corbin has also been in touch with the developers and asked them to keep him apprised when work is set to begin in the area near where the C-118 crashed, so that he can help keep a lookout for artifacts that might turn up during any tree removal or excavation.
What actually caused the crash? Officially, the Air Force cited “operator error” and “supervisory error” in the downing of the C-118, pointing to the confusion over who was keeping track of the plane’s altitude.
But in addition to the crash that night, a series of sonic booms had been heard and felt around much of the Puget Sound, and a series of odd and seemingly inexplicable lights had been witnessed near Bonney Lake. This, combined with the news that the pilot had reported that they might’ve hit something, helped spawn theories that the crash was caused by a collision with a UFO.
These theories were collected and written about by a Seattle firefighter named Bob Gribble. Gribble was a pioneer in the amateur scientific study of UFOs – and sharing of information – going back to the 1950s. He’s in his 90s now, and reportedly suffering from dementia.
Gribble is best known in the UFO community for founding the National UFO Reporting Center and UFO hotline in Seattle in the 1970s. When Gribble stepped down from running the hotline, a UW fisheries school graduate named Peter Davenport volunteered to take over.
Davenport had witnessed a UFO as a small child with his family in St. Louis back in the 1950s, and he wrote about UFOs for a local paper in New Hampshire as a teenager.
In July 1994, Davenport heard that Bob Gribble was thinking of closing down the hotline. So he called him up.
“We talked, and before I knew it, Bob said, ‘Would you like the hotline?’ He said, ‘If you’d like it, it’s yours,’” Davenport said by telephone late last week.
“I accepted the responsibility for the hotline in that conversation,” Davenport said. “There are many times when I wished I’d turned my back on the generous offer and not accepted it, because it has resulted in tens of thousands of hours of work, very interesting work in many instances, but work nevertheless.”
Davenport calls the hotline “work,” but it’s more of a volunteer project or labor of scientific love.
“Most of the expenses are met by me, out of my savings, in order to keep the process going. It’s a measure of my dedication to the field, but I’m convinced that we are being visited, frequently visited, by these objects we call UFOs,” Davenport said.
“The US government, is trying to convince people that it’s all a hoax and a fiction, but I don’t believe so,” Davenport said. “And I think it’s extremely important . . . that the American people know the truth about the UFO phenomenon.”
Peter Davenport was based in Seattle for more than 20 years and only recently moved his residence – and the hotline – to Eastern Washington. He’s heard as a guest, discussing recent UFO reports almost every week on “Coast to Coast AM,” broadcast nightly at 10pm on KIRO Radio.
As for the Bonney Lake crash, it’s not as famous as the time when Kenneth Arnold coined the term “flying saucer” near Mount Rainier in 1947 or the Maury Island Incident in the same year, but Peter Davenport had heard of it.
“I think Bob Gribble did mention this case to me once before,” Davenport said. “What triggered my memory was the fact that the plane appeared to have been pressed down vertically to earth rather than hitting, striking the earth at a slant angle.”
Gribble published an article in May 1959 in a publication called “A.P.R.O. Bulletin” – short for “Aerial Phenomena Research Organization.” Gribble’s piece detailed his investigations into the Bonney Lake crash. He described the odd sounds and lights that many witnesses had reported that evening, and what he described as the “silencing” of local officials in Orting – by the military – about what had really happened on the night of April 1, 1959.
UFO mystery years later
Nearly 60 years later, it doesn’t really help clear things up much to see that the crash investigation report prepared back then by the US Air Force still has about two pages of text redacted—even though Lee Corbin has tried for years to get the full report and has been denied multiple times.
All those details aside, it’s fascinating to hear Peter Davenport describe the big-picture, scientific and non-sensationalized national approach that Bob Gribble took to studying UFOs, from right here in Seattle.
“He set up the National UFO Reporting Center and the Aerial Phenomena Research Group, and he also formed a telephone hotline which is the hotline I run today,” Davenport said. “It’s been in continuous operation since October of 1974.” Gribble, Davenport says, also did mass mailings of information about the hotline to law enforcement agencies around the country, to make sure word got out that there was a place to call to report UFO sightings.
As it turns out, Bob Gribble was just one of several nationally influential people in this area who compiled information and studied UFOs for decades.
Dr. Marilyn Childs and her late husband Laurence Childs moved to Seattle in 1971 and were the first husband-and-wife team of UFO investigators. They were part of a local chapter of group called the Mutual UFO Network, or “MUFON” for short.
“What we did was, we kept the metaphysical part out of MUFON,” Childs said earlier this week. “There’s a lot of us who do believe in this stuff, but we want to keep it strictly scientific . . . because if it’s going to [be taken seriously], we’re going to have to do that.”
“So we concentrated on mainly education and scientific research, and we trained our people,” many of whom were engineers from Boeing and Fluke, Childs said.
The various groups also got along with each other, and the members of different organizations attended each other’s meetings and were supportive of their groups’ respective activities.
Marilyn Childs says this was unusual compared to what she heard about or saw in other parts of the country.
“I haven’t ever heard of anybody working together like we all did,” Childs said. “But we just loved each other and nobody was on a big ego trip, and it just worked out perfectly.”
The earlier era described by Childs sounds downright idyllic, and it also seems to have changed somewhat in recent years.
Meanwhile, Peter Davenport is not sure about who’s going to take over the hotline when he retires. He’s also not sure about what will happen to the decades of UFO reports that he and Bob collected. Aside from their value to UFO researchers, these records likely say much about broad aspects of American culture and the human psyche.
“I’ve approached the University of Washington to inquire whether they’d like to have my records, and they expressed disinterest,” Davenport said. “The library said, ‘Because we don’t have courses in the subject, we’re not interested in having the archives.’ Which makes sense, I guess. I might just burn it. There’s very little good that the archives would do if people are not going to pay attention . . . I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t have a solution to that problem.”
Davenport may also write a book about his experiences, but he says it likely won’t be strictly about UFOs.
“It will be about the peculiar facets of human psychology that I’ve been witness to as a UFO investigator,” Davenport said. “People do and say and believe strange things, some of which are true, most of which, in my opinion, are probably not true.”
“But it’s hard to know for sure.”
Have you seen or experienced a UFO? Peter Davenport wants to hear about it! Reach him via the National UFO Reporting Center.