The 1938 Yosemite TWA crash was the crash and disappearance of a Transcontinental & Western Air Douglas DC-2 on March 1, 1938. During a scheduled passenger flight from San Francisco to Winslow, Arizona, TWA's interstate hub, the flight encountered severe weather and radioed their intention to land in nearby Fresno. The aircraft never arrived, and was found three months later having crashed into a mountain in Yosemite National Park.
The aircraft was TWA plane #327 AC-III, NC13789, a twin-engined Douglas Aircraft Corporation DC-2-112 piloted by Captain John Graves, a former Army Air Corps pilot who won some measure of fame in 1932 when he located and dropped food to a group of snowbound people in northern Arizona. Crew members on board were the co-pilot, First Officer C. W. Wallace, and stewardess Martha Mae Wilson.
Passengers on board included Mr. and Mrs. Walts of San Francisco, Mr. V. Krause, Jay Tracy Dirlam and Mary Louise Dirlam (brother and sister who both attended Stanford University), and Mr. M. H. Salisbury, a TWA pilot.
The aircraft was flying from San Francisco to Winslow, which was a hub connecting TWA's transcontinental Los Angeles-New York route. It departed San Francisco in good visibility, with a cloud ceiling between 6,000 and 7,000 feet (1,800 and 2,100 m), and had sufficient fuel to last until midnight. The accident report list the causes as "a change in wind direction and a sharp increase in velocity, unknown to the pilot, together with the pilot's confusion as to his position with reference to the Fresno Radio Range station, which combined to bring about flight over mountainous terrain, ending in a crash at near his reported cruising altitude."
Two hours after takeoff, the flight encountered a building weather front that developed into the most severe storm on the West Coast in 64 years. During the next four days, the storm caused more than 120 deaths and widespread flooding in Southern California.
As the flight neared the Tehachapi Mountains near Bakersfield, California, Captain Graves noticed ice forming on the wings. He advised air traffic controllers, who ordered him to divert to Los Angeles due to the deteriorating weather conditions. Graves replied that he planned to divert to nearby Fresno due to the local weather conditions. At 9:28 PM, he requested a weather update, and this was his last transmission received by air traffic control.
Officials based their search area on the reports of Mrs. C. G. Landry, who was operating the Edison Electric Company power house on Huntington Lake, approximately 45 miles (72 km) northeast of Fresno, and observed the plane at 9:29 PM flying along the San Joaquin River at an altitude of 500 feet (150 m). The search was concentrated in the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains to the east of Fresno.
The severe storms that lingered throughout the week hampered searches for the missing aircraft. Pelting rain and heavy winds prevented the use of aircraft in the search, forcing searchers to rely on automobiles, which were eminently unsuited for the rugged mountain terrain. Harold Bromley, the Fresno inspector for the Bureau of Air Commerce, told reporters that the "visibility in the Fresno area was practically zero" as a result of the downpour.
The general search involved both TWA and government officials, who drove to Fresno from San Francisco and Los Angeles to aid in the search.
As days passed, Transcontinental & Western Air grew increasingly desperate to find the aircraft, and eventually offered a $1,000 reward (equivalent to $17,014 in 2016) to anyone who could locate the aircraft.
On March 2, 1938, the day after the flight's disappearance, Transcontinental & Western Air headquarters told reporters that it had received a message purporting to be from the United Airlines offices in Fresno claiming that the missing aircraft had been found. The telephoned message said that the plane had been found approximately 20 miles from Fresno with "several passengers injured but everybody alive," as later reported in the Ogden Standard Examiner.
Upon investigation, however, the message turned out to be a hoax, as the plane had not been found. An outraged TWA spokesman denounced the message as "one of the cruelest hoaxes ever perpetrated." Officials at United Airlines offices in both Fresno and San Francisco denied that their employees had been the ones to call in the hoax.
Three months after the crash, the aircraft had still not been located. 23-year-old H.O. Collier of Fresno began a personal search for the missing plane after interviewing numerous TWA personnel and studying charts of the flight path. In early June, Collier hiked into the snowy terrain northeast of Wawona, California, and discovered the wreckage of the aircraft on June 12, 1938. The crash site was located 32 miles (51 km) northwest of the area searched by investigators.
The aircraft was partially buried in the snow of Buena Vista Crest within Yosemite National Park. 8 bodies out of 9 occupants were thrown from the plane. Only the body of stewardess Ms. Wilson was trapped in the wreckage. All nine perished.
Investigators speculated that the aircraft had been blown off course while attempting to divert to Fresno and had subsequently lost radio contact. It appeared that the plane had sheared off the tops of pine trees while in a steep bank and crashed into the mountain 200 feet (61 m) below the summit.
On June 13, 1938, after the discovery of the crash site, Daniel C. Roper, the Secretary of Commerce, named a special board to investigate the crash. As the members of the inquisitorial board made their way cross-country from Washington, D.C., the coroner ruled that the cause of death of the victims of the flight was "accidental."