27 June, 2022

The unusual story of the first unmanned flight at Gray Army Airfield

Story by Capt. Kyle Abraham 
Photo By Capt. Kyle Abraham | A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter assigned to Bravo Company, 2-158 Assault Helicopter Battalion, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade flies above Puget Sound on Jun. 16, 2021. Mount Rainier and the Cascade range are visible in the background. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Kyle Abraham, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade)

The misty, rugged, forest coasts of the Pacific Northwest are home to some of the most prolific and unusual legends. Bigfoot, also called sasquatch, is the one that comes to mind first. Bumper stickers with a bigfoot likeness adorn many of the vehicles in both the local community, and at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. Even the UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters of Bravo “Bigfoot” Company, 2-158th Assault Helicopter Battalion have a spray-painted bigfoot silhouette as a tribute to the legend that dominates the northwest.

Large, mysterious creatures in blurry photographs aside, Gray Army Airfield is the origin of a bizarre occurrence that is part of the unusual history that seems to fit the profile of the region we call home—the discovery of a U.S. Army L-16 “Champion” observation aircraft on the Bob Johnson farm, absent crew or any sign of one, on Feb. 15, 1949, in Kittitas County, central Washington.

The origins of the aircraft found on the farm started the day before, at then Gray Field, Fort Lewis, Wash. clear on the other side of the Cascade Range that separates western and central Washington.

The day before this discovery, a Monday morning and Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 1949, a U.S. Army L-16 aircrew consisting of 1st Lt. Herbert Winters and Cpl. William Keiser began what is a familiar sight on any military flightline since the beginning of military aviation: preflight procedures and inspection of their aircraft. What was, ostensibly, to be a routine training flight was about to turn into a fiasco of legendary proportions.

The L-16 “Champion” was the successor to the L-4 “Grasshopper” and built for observation, artillery spotting, general utility, and rescue. The Army had employed the L-4 with success in World War Two and hoped the L-16 would build on those lessons with capabilities that would further modernize and distinguish a fleet that was now significantly reduced due to the recent creation of the U.S. Air Force.

In the Nov.-Dec. 1947 edition of The Field Artillery Journal, the Air Training Department of The Artillery School published an article lauding the L-16 as, “the new Grasshopper,” and “On the ground the L-16 seems quite sturdy and handsome.” The article went on to state, “On take-off, a pilot accustomed to the L-4 will immediately notice the torque correction required. This characteristic goes with the additional 15 horsepower. It is nothing to be alarmed about.”

1st Lt. Winters and Cpl. Keiser were, in fact, about to become very alarmed.

At approximately 11:30 a.m. the pair were preparing to begin their flight, with Keiser in the second seat and Winters outside ready to start the propeller by hand. The startup was uneventful, and the aircraft roared to life as Winters cranked the propeller and walked back toward the cabin. Being a good junior noncommissioned officer, ensuring his officer had maximum time to accomplish his duties, Cpl. Keiser leaned over to open Winter’s door.

This is the moment a mundane training flight turned into an Army and Washington legend.

The Corporal knocked the throttle wide open when he leaned over, and the extra 15 horsepower that should not have alarmed the crew came to life. Knocking over Winters in the process, the L-16 began to scream down the airfield, minus one pilot and plus one mortified junior NCO. Unable to slow the aircraft, Keiser jumped from the plane; he was reported by the Ellensburg Daily Record as having a broken leg and several missing teeth due to the fall.

Watching helplessly, the Soldiers of Gray Field saw the aircraft start to climb on its own, which is in keeping with the Artillery School’s article, “The L-16 climbs steeply after take-off [...] The angle of climb is steeper than that of the L-4.” The Army’s military police reported that the aircraft had made several low passes over American Lake on what is now JBLM-North, before circling northwest of Tacoma and vanishing into the clouds.

Gray Airfield authorities estimated with the two hours of fuel on board the aircraft, it would most likely crash after running out somewhere in the forests east of Puget Sound. No one reported seeing or hearing the aircraft the rest of the day, however.

The next morning, Feb. 15, 1949, Frank Gates discovered an unusual sight from his snowy Kittitas County ranch-- an airplane bearing Army markings. Gates called a known pilot in the area, Bob Krouskop, who flew his ski-equipped plane to the downed craft and verified it was the Army airplane he had heard went missing the day before from Gray Field. Aircraft today still use skis to land on snowy and marshy areas, such as the UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters assigned to 1-52 General Support Aviation Battalion at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

Gates and Krouskop recorded the aircraft markings and called the Civil Aeronautics Administration, the forerunner to the modern Federal Aviation Administration, who corroborated that it was the missing airplane. The property it was on was the Bob Johnson farm just east of the small city of Kittitas, and Krouskop was reported as having said, “It looked like a pretty good landing,” and while the fuel tank was empty, “the wayward plane can be repaired.”

Army authorities at Fort Lewis were quoted in the previously mentioned article as, “marveling at the plane’s crossing the Cascades without a pilot in a heavy snowstorm.” This would be the modern equivalent of 16th Combat Aviation Brigade commander Col. Shane Finison saying to the media, “I’m not even mad, that’s amazing.”

The L-16 was eventually recovered and returned to Gray Field in the back of an Army truck. Many L-16s would go on to serve with distinction in the Korean War.

The mystery of how this modest observation craft was able to somewhat safely take off, and fly itself over a major mountain range in a snowstorm, without a pilot begs the question: can it happen again? The 16th Combat Aviation Brigade Soldiers assigned to JBLM interviewed about this subject have the consensus of, “probably not.”

At present, the 4-6 Air Cavalry Squadron is the home of (deliberately) unmanned aviation at JBLM. Their RQ-7 Shadow unmanned aerial system is critical for aerial observation, and teaming with AH-64E Apache attack helicopters to launch laser guided munitions from cover, increasing manned aircraft survivability.

When asked if a Shadow could launch on its own, Staff Sgt. Marco Gutierrez-Olmos, the Standardization Operator for 4-6 ACS said, “I have not personally experienced an inadvertent launch, but I know that one of the reasons that one of the many hardware and software redundancies we have in place to prevent it are because it has happened in much earlier versions of some [unmanned aerial systems].”

We don’t know what fate awaited 1st Lt. Winters after the L-16 incident, but Gutierrez said, “The accidental or premature launch attributed to human error would most likely result in revocation of Aircraft Commander status.”

When asked about what would happen if somehow an unmanned aerial system were to accidentally launch, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Michael Brownfield, a Shadow platoon leader in 4-6 ACS, said, “There are a significant number of actions that would need to happen before an aircraft would allow itself to launch. However, typically there is a “return home” feature built into the aircraft in case the controller loses communication with it. It will loiter around the home point until it runs out of fuel, or the controller regains communication.”

What about manned aircraft, though? Capt. Grant Hendrix, a CH-47 Chinook pilot and commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade wasn’t confident it could occur in a rotary wing manned aircraft, “We can do things like ‘hold hover’ and other tasks that can be automated in-flight, but the control inputs required to take off, much less fly, in a helicopter make it extremely unlikely that it can occur without a human behind the controls or controlling it remotely.”

It's certainly for the best that Army aviation is much safer and much less able to create a modern-day legend of, say, an AH-64E Apache attack helicopter landing itself at a Kittitas County farmstead. The lessons learned from this strange occurrence in 1949 undoubtedly ensured that no unmanned aerial flights took place again until the arrival of military unmanned aerial systems at JBLM.

While the legend of the flightless aircraft is grounded in fact and adds to the collection of odd history in the northwest, we can only hope that the only “bigfoot” sightings remain on bumper stickers and stenciled on helicopters from 16th Combat Aviation Brigade.

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