Offering Aviation History & Adventure First-Hand!

Mt. Mars USCG HU-16E Crash
August 7, 1967
By Ken Freeze, PACS, USCG (ret)

The Coast Guard had 91 Grumman HU-16Es (Albatross), the first being delivered in May, 1951. These aircraft, known in the USCG as "The Goat," flew for over 500,000 hours while in service with the Coast Guard.  

On March 10, 1983, the last Coast Guard Albatross, number 7250, made its final landing at Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod.  The last true amphibious seaplane flown by the Coast Guard was then retired from service.

The Coast Guard HU-16E 2128 (originally ordered by the Air Force) was delivered to the Coast Guard in January 1954. During its career, it had seen many SAR (Search and Rescue) cases. So when 2128 took off from Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco the morning of August 7, 1967, it was just to be one more SAR case. The cabin cruiser Misty, had been reported overdue. The boat was believed to be in the area north of San Luis Obispo, and the crew of 2128 was headed out to find it.

The crew of 2128 took about two hours to get to the area. When they arrived, the pilot, Lt Robert Diller, found thick, high fog, typical of coastal California. The aircraft punched down through the fog and found clear air at 200 feet. In a short time they located the missing vessel off Piedro Blanco. It had run out of gas.

The HU-16E, with its crew of eight, circled overhead waiting for the 95-foot Coast Guard Cutter Cape Porpoise to arrive on scene from Morro Bay, California to assist the Misty.

However, according to Commander Brent Malcolm, USCG (Ret), who was the co-pilot at the time, the crew had lost contact with any navigation aids and, as a result, wasn't quite sure where they were. The pilot pointed the HU-16 out to sea to regain contact with the Big Sur VORTAC located north on the coast. In the process, some altitude was gained thus reducing the horizontal visibility and restricting the pilot's ability to see the shoreline.

It was also at about this time that AD2 George E. Gilliam, who was the crew chief aboard the 2128 decided to make a safety check of the plane.


While Malcolm was trying to get their bearings, unbeknownst to him, the pilot had turned back towards the coast. "The first clue I had that we were in trouble was when I saw the coast highway pass underneath," said Malcolm.


(Photo courtesy of Larry Nudson)

It was shortly after that the HU-16 struck a slope on Mt Mars, near the Monterey-San Luis Obispo County line, about 1/2 mile off Highway 1. 
When the plane crashed, the main fuselage section remained upright and intact. However, the tail section broke off at about the crew entrance door, and came to rest upside down. "We were fortunate that we hit a gentle slope, otherwise it might have been much worse," said Malcolm. "Most of the injuries were sustained by crewmen in the back being thrown out of the aircraft on impact."

(Photo courtesy of Larry Nudson)

(Photo courtesy of Larry Nudson)

Malcolm was able to exit the aircraft through the overhead hatch. He hiked through brush before finding a stream he followed down to the nearby highway.  Malcolm said, "I remember following the stream bed, which was very precipitous at times, thinking, here I've survived a terrible crash - I don't want to break my neck getting down this mountain."

Once at the highway, he was able to flag down a passing car. However, others had also witnessed the crash and had already called for help.

A fire also resulted from the crash, but not until well after. Upon impact, the drop tanks broke free and continued on up the mountain side. Eventually, one or both of them leaked and the fuel trickled back to the crash site and ignited. The resulting fire ultimately burned 58 acres.

Photo of the crash site shows the wing and tail of the HU-16E (center) resting near trees on the hillside. 

Photo by Jim Vestal

Before long an Army rescue helicopter from nearby Fort Roberts was on the scene. Along with California Highway Patrol officers, sheriff deputies from both counties and state forestry firemen were able to bring out the injured crew. Pictured here is AD2 George E. Gilliam in a stretcher being taken down the hill.

Killed in the crash were LTJG Francis J. Charles and crewman AD3 William E. Prowitt. Four others were injured, one of them being AD3 John G. Medek who died a few days later of his injuries.

LTJG Francis J. Charles was not assigned to the air station, but was a newly assigned controller to the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) for the 12th Coast Guard District headquartered in San Francisco. The normal RCC indoctrination at that time had new controllers visit most of the major units in the district. He had spent the night at the air station to observe their operations. When the call came in about the overdue vessel, he decided to go along on the mission. An unfortunate choice, but one probably any Coast Guardsman would have made had they been in his place.

The Demise of HU-16E 2128

"I had just reported in to Air Stations San Francisco as the assistant engineering officer and I was given the assignment of salvaging the aircraft," said Richard Long, Capt. USCG (ret).

Long went down to the crash site along with a couple of enlisted men and salvaged what they could of 2128.

"We hired a local guy with a tractor to cut us a road up to the site to help with the salvage," Long said. "We removed both engines, one propeller, and most of the hydraulics and avionics from the plane. I remember we slid some of the heavier stuff down the hill on the engine cowlings." Long also said that the Coast Guard hired a local man with some mules to help pull some of the heavy equipment out.

Long and his crew received permission to use the private airport at Hearst Castle which was a few miles away. "We staged a lot of the salvaged equipment there and flew a plane in to haul it back to Air Station San Francisco," said Long.

What was left of the HU-16 was sold as scrap. The salvager brought in a portable smelter and melted down the plane and hauled it out as ingots.

If you have any information about this, or any other Coast Guard fatal crash, please contact us.

The Crash Site Today

The crash of HU-16E 2128 was one of the first crashes that we started researching. It took nearly two years to compile all the information and photos contained on this page.

The photo to the left was published in the Cambrian Newspaper the week of the crash.  While the quality is poor, the  arrow points to the plane's wing. 

The photo to the right is the same view from the road today.

Also seen in the photo is the canyon and stream bed that Brent Malcolm followed down to the road where he flagged down a passing car.

This is the site as in appeared in the Fall of 2009. This is where the HU-16E came to rest on the hillside. 
The road that was cut into the hillside leads right up to a stand of oak trees next to the crash site. The site is now very overgrown with brush but aluminum slag from the fire can be found.

 (Click on the photo for a larger view.)

The 'X' marks the location on the crash site on the side of Mars Mt. above Highway 1.

A Discovery

Boon Hughey is a guy that loves the outdoors. Over the years he has hiked many miles of trails along the coastal ranges of Central California. It was on one of his hikes of exploration in 2001 that he made an interesting find.  A prop blade from an airplane. But from where might a prop like this come from and how did is end up in the middle of nowhere?

After a little bit of searching on the Internet, Boon found this page and contacted us about the prop.

In 2003, we met with Boon and relocated the prop. We then formulated a plan to recover the prop at a later date and return it to Air Station San Francisco for future use in a memorial.

Drew Ross (left) and Ken Freeze (right) with a blade from the prop of 2128 that was located about 150 yards northwest and over a ridge from the crash site by Boon Hughey.

In 2004 I tracked down Drew Ross whose family once owned the land where the crash occurred. He helped to locate the site with help of his relatives whose cabins had been built adjacent to the crash site some years after the incident. He said they remembered picking up pieces of aluminum they had found in the area and burying them in a pit.

I met with Drew and we spent part of a morning with a metal detector searching the area for any scraps of evidence of the aircraft or of the smelter. The area was loaded with all sorts of relics from past inhabits, but nothing that could be positively identified as coming from an aircraft.

It turned out the site was up the hill a bit further and during a trip in the fall of 2009 I was able to pin point the exact location with melted aluminum slag and some aircraft parts.


It has been a couple of years since the propeller was recovered from the side of Mars Mt. On Oct 18, 2009, I went to Air Station San Francisco and transferred the propeller from the crash of Coast Guard HU-16 2128 to LTjg Matt Kroll. He is the air station’s public affairs officer.

Over the years I've tried several times times to get people at the air station interested in the prop and using it as some sort of memorial. The interest was never there but I knew that eventually the right people would arrive and that this broken and bent prop would be seen as more then just a piece of scrap. Those people are finally in place. I was contacted the first part of October by the air station's Executive Officer CDR Matt Callan. He was actually responding to an email chain I have started months earlier, one that I had thought had gone dry again.

LTjg Kroll, the station's Public Affairs Office, said everyone at the station had heard that it was coming and were excited about its arrival. They are going to be looking at several different options for its use at a memorial to the 20 aviators who had lost their lives while on missions from Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco. Currently there is only one memorial at the station devoted to aviation and it is to AMM1 Leonard L. Stonerock who was killed in 1941 along with two others from the station. Perhaps the best part is that there is a self imposed deadline of having the memorial completed for the 70th anniversary of the air station.


The Final Chapter

On May 28, 2010 the Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco dedicated a memorial to all this who had lost their lives during missions from Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco. The station's Commanding Officer, Commander Sam Creech, said that the propeller of HU-16 2128 was incorporated into the memorial to serve as a constant reminder of what can happen on any mission.

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This page last updated Wednesday, July 01, 2015

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