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In memory of a plane crash

An Air Force bomber crashed on Emigrant Peak in 1962. Remembering the men who died has become one man's mission

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It was nighttime, July 23, 1962. Jim Larkin and his future wife were in his car on Swingley Road, headed to go swimming near McLeod. For some reason, Larkin decided to stop the car.

“To this day, I’ve never figured out the why,” Larkin said recently. “It was just something wasn’t right.”

He turned around and drove to the Forest Service office in Livingston, where he worked on trail crews and fought the occasional fire. His boss was in the office, and he was glad to see Larkin, who was 22 at the time. There was work to do.

An Air Force B-47 bomber left Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene, Texas, around 6:30 that night for a routine training mission through Montana. Four men were on board. Radio transcripts and maps of the flight path show they flew around Dillon and crossed the Paradise Valley. They were supposed to turn to the northeast, but instead their plane slammed into the southwestern slope of Emigrant Peak, about 8,500 feet up, creating a fireball. 

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This story was produced in collaboration with Jule Banville, who produces Last Best Stories, a podcast about the people and places of Montana at lastbeststories.org.

A separate audio version of the story is embedded below.

All four of the men died in the crash, their lives cut short more than a thousand miles from their base. There was Capt. Bill Faulconer, a one-time Price is Right contestant from Kansas who thought he’d start farming once he left the Air Force. There was Lt. Fred Hixenbaugh, a West Virginian who used to prank his sisters and loved baseball. There was Lt. David Sutton, from Oklahoma, who was exactly one month into his second year as a full pilot. And there was Lt. Lloyd Sawyers, a Texan who would save the box dinners he got on missions for his two young daughters.

None were over 30, and all of them were married.

Officially, the cause of the crash is undetermined. Air Force documents obtained by the Chronicle through a public records request say the most probable cause is an error by some member of the crew, but they can’t say for sure. More than 20 pages in the investigation are blacked out, and it’s likely no one will ever know exactly what caused the wreck.

Debris scattered everywhere. The explosion started a wildfire, which the Livingston Enterprise reported grew to about 40 acres. Larkin’s job was to run supplies to and from the fire. On one trip down, he brought a finger and wedding ring to the Air Force crews that had arrived.

That stuck in his mind, and once the work was over, he didn’t go back.

“After you’ve picked up parts of a human being and done a few things like that, I just really didn’t want to go back to that site,” Larkin said.

Damage from the fire was fairly minimal, but the wreckage spread out across a good chunk of the mountain, about 2,500 feet below the top. Clean-up crews didn’t pick up everything they found, so remnants of the plane are still there, now as much a part of the landscape as the trees themselves. 

In the years afterward, the crash was little more than an afterthought for most people in the valley. They talked about it from time to time. Most know it happened and that the airplane parts were there. But nothing much was done to recognize it — until now.  

Bryan Wells, who lives at the base of Emigrant Peak, has spent the last year trying to change that, to make sure it isn’t forgotten for good, and that people remember the four veterans who died there 54 years ago. 

The spark

Last year, a retired lieutenant colonel from the Air Force called the Park County Sheriff’s Office looking for information about the crash. The office referred him to Bryan Wells.

Air Force Plane Wreck on Emigrant Peak

Old Chico resident Bryan Wells is planning a memorial for four men who died in a 1962 Air Force bomber crash on Emigrant Peak.

Wells, a tall 61-year-old known by his long gray beard, lives in Old Chico at the base of Emigrant Peak. He has rental cabins, a butcher shop and works a few odd jobs around the valley. He’s lived in the area since he was 9, and much of that time has been spent hiking and exploring the mountains near his home, something that still fascinates him. He would be the guy to call.

Wells heard about the crash when he was a kid, and when he was 15, he decided to hike to it. It isn’t easy to find, but his family leased a cabin nearby when he was young. His dad taught him to hunt there, so he knew the area well enough to make a good guess. He gambled on a route up and picked his way across.

“And I found it. It was pretty crazy. All the trees were cut off from the wings, where it came in, you know," he said. "And then there’s debris everywhere.”

Air Force Plane Wreck on Emigrant Peak

A U.S. Air Force bomber crashed on Emigrant Peak in 1962, killing four men. The wreckage still remains on a remote section of the peak, seen here on Tuesday, June 14, 2016.

After that, the crash stayed on his mind, but he didn’t do anything with it until he got that phone call.

The retired airman wanted to see if the crash was visible from a plane, so he and Wells got on their computers together and found the coordinates on Google Earth. But the cameras couldn’t show them the wreckage, an indicator that it probably wasn’t visible from a plane.

That disappointed both of them, and it inspired Wells to go back and find it. The day after the call, he let the airman know he was going back up there.

It took two tries, but he got there. He has been up there a few times in the last year, and now he knows the route well. No trail goes there, so Wells relies on memory and instinct. He starts at Gold Prize Creek, and from there it’s a matter of choosing the right draws and creek drainages to climb. Once on the right ridge, he heads west, going slightly downhill.

There, the debris appears in small pieces at first and then multiplies. Rusted out cans, shining aluminum, panels with bolts stuck in them, engine pieces. Some of it’s big, some of it’s small. It's everywhere, and it doesn't seem to stop.