Hawthorne Nevada Airlines flight 708, labeled as the “Gambler’s Flight” heading from Hawthorne to Burbank, Calif. on Feb. 18, 1969 went missing just 16 minutes into their flight after leaving the Hawthorne Airport at 4 a.m. on that date.
Weather on that date was clear but after takeoff, rain and wind created an overcast sky and it was thought that the pilot took an easterly alternative route to avoid the mountains surrounding Hawthorne. This was verified by radio contact with the Tonopah Airport who stated that the pilot was flying a pattern over Owens Valley in Inyo County, Calif.
Flight 708 never made it to Burbank, Calif. and was called in overdue. Search units were put into place activated by Mineral County Sheriff’s Office and the then local unit of Civil Air Patrol. Thirty-two passengers were on board the flight that day, as well as three airline staff. Fred Hall of San Fernando, Calif. was the pilot of the plane, sitting next to him was Ray Hamer of Long Beach. The pair had flown to and from Hawthorne many times. Stewardess Pat Nanness of Los Angeles, only 21 years old, was the only additional staff aboard. She had been a former baton twirler for the Los Angeles Rams.
The DC-3, twin engine plane would be sought after month after month until a private pilot, Stanford Dow from Bakersfield, Calif. believed to have spotted wreckage of an airplane while flying over the area of Mt. Whitney in California, the highest point in continental United States with an elevation of 14,495 feet. Dow’s wife would verify his claim.
Upon his return to Bakersfield, Dow would consult with pilot, Eldon Fussel. Fussel took a helicopter to the site and was able to land on a grassy slope near wreckage. He investigated the wreckage, noting many large pieces that gave evidence that it belonged to Flight 708. His reported “there were three large pieces of wreckage including the tail section.” He believed that the flight had crashed into a solid granite mountain peak and slid down into the snow below.
Details of the site were gruesome. Reports of bodies scattered about the snow as well as personal belongings of the passengers.
The task of removing those involved fell onto federal officials, the military and a rescue team from the Bishop, Calif. Forest Service as well as county officials.
As reported by the Inyo Register, was discovery site was described by reporter John Wintersteen: “The plane was found on a hogback ridge below Mt. Carillon west of Lone Pine.”
The “Gambler’s Flight” would roll rescuer’s snake-eyes when an Air Force helicopter crashed at the wreck scene. Three Army officials as well as two members of Inyo County escaped injury. Inyo County Sheriff Merrill Curtis, cracked a rib and irritated an old back injury and had to be hospitalized.
Vital instruments were collected at the scene including the plane’s “radio compass”.
FBI investigators on scene reported that the climbing “require[d] expert climbing techniques for anyone to get there on foot. Pack animals wouldn’t have a chance.”
The mountain would begin to make the recovery mission slower as wind, rain and hailstones made flying difficult. Four sheriff deputies and two members of the China Lake Search and Rescue Group stayed behind to secure the scene.
Investigators Gerard Bruggink of Washington, D.C. and Willard H. Hart of Oakland, Calif., representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board stated it would be a week before their studies would be complete. Previously these investigative duties had been conducted by the Civil Aeronautics Board. That week would turn to months before investigators would determine whether or not the plane was off course or Hall had actually chosen to cross the Sierra Nevada somewhere near the point of impact.
Copies of fingerprints, dental charts and medical records had to be collected for each person aboard the flight as well as interviews of family members, in a means to help make identification.
Bruggink stated, “Seldom have I seen such a willingness to work together as in this case,” he said, “and I’ve worked on many.”
Hawthorne Nevada Airlines started as an air taxi service, then advanced to the status of scheduled carrier and then authorized to fly Constellation class planes in addition to the DC-3’s. The airline extended service from Hawthorne to Burbank, Longbeach, San Jose and North Lake Tahoe. Prior to Feb. 18, 1969, the airline company had established a record of no crashed and only one emergency landing near Tonopah where there were no fatalities.
On board the “Gambler’s Flight” that fateful day was: Donna Siger of North Hollywood and John Siger of Arleta, Calif. mother and brother of Mrs. James McEwen, then of Hawthorne.
John had just returned from a duty in Vietnam and had flown to Hawthorne with his mother to visit the McEwen family.
It had been reported that another couple aboard the plane had come to Hawthorne for their wedding. The Independent-News had reported that a southern California couple had been married on Feb. 17 in Mineral County.
Fifty years later, many Mineral County residents still remember when Hawthorne had their own airline and the fateful day the “Gambler’s Flight” went missing.