Monday, August 13

Finding the Dakota, It's a Family Affair

Image courtesy of The History Blog
By Grant Davies

On this day in 2012, (yeah I know, that's this year) three teenage hikers found a propeller blade sticking out of the snow.

Okay, let's start over. The actual date of the discovery was July 27th, but "if you're gonna have a hit, ya gotta make it fit" so I changed it to fit our usual starting phrase.

And what's the deal with snow in July? Well, if you're in the Swiss Alps, the month is irrelevant because the snow is omnipresent. Since this story isn't about the hikers, and finding a propeller isn't usually a historical event, I massaged the whole introduction to make it fit. Also, since these kids didn't have the decency to contact this blog first with the story (instead, they called a news station), I have decided to omit their names and ignore them for the remainder of this story. I'm vindictive that way.

The real story is about a plane that crashed in November, 1946, and the remarkable way the people on board survived and were rescued. The whole affair was front page news at the time.

The pilot was Captain Ralph Tate Jr., the plane was a US military transport (C-53 Skytrooper Dakota), and the passengers included a General, a Colonel, their families, three other crewmen, and most importantly, his  mother. An even dozen souls in all. For obvious reasons Ralph was trying to avoid bad weather.

Somewhere near Innsbruck, Switzerland, he and his copilot became directionally disoriented. Pretty soon they were as confused as Scott Walker at a union meeting. They went off course and began to think they were in the French Alps. The situation rapidly deteriorated when they were caught in a downdraft.

To avoid an abrupt meeting with an Alp, Ralph was forced to make a "pancake" landing on a glacier. He pulled it off in a move that would have made Sully Sullenberger proud. And even though the worst injury was a broken leg, the problems were far from over.

It's a tad cold there in November, about -5 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and they had to improvise for warmth and food. They gathered up the box lunches and anything that could be used for blankets. They radioed for help with the power left in the batteries, but the signal was bouncing around the mountains like a yodeler's echo. All the searchers were coming up empty. Two days went by. Just when it looked like they had about one more day to live, Ralph heard a plane above and fired a flare. Luckily, his father saw it.

That's right, his own father, Brigadier General Ralph Tate Sr, was piloting a B-29 overhead while searching for them and was on his way back to base in Munich after thinking he had failed. Tate Sr. fired his own flare in answer. The two were able to exchange only a few words on air before the radio batteries in the downed plane finally gave out.

But the spot was marked and the rescue was on. The ensuing heroics went down in Swiss history. Everyone was saved, and the legendary Swiss Air Rescue Guard Rega was essentially born on that day.

To toast the heroes, hoist a Feldschlösschen. But don't let the Swiss beer make you disoriented, you might end up calling your father for a ride home.

As you might imagine, there is a hellava lot more to the story. But I had to make it fit the spot so if you want to read a great account of the whole story you should read it at The History Blog where I first learned about it. It's a terrific place to find great history. 

Editors note: On April 5th, 2013 we received a comment from a reader, Dave Head, from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Dave says that the facts are incorrect in our story in regards to who actually found the Dakota and when. Dave writes about it in the comment section below. Be sure to read it as a follow-up to our story. We have no reason to dispute Dave's version, in fact it seems likely that his source is genuine. We welcome his participation and encourage everyone to help us keep the facts straight. 

Thanks Dave! Cheeky History strives to get it right, but we are only as good as our sources since we don't do any original research. We're glad to have input on any story we write about. And thanks again to The History Blog, they do great work on so much history.


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  2. It's a great story- but not accurate. In fact the Dakota was first found by and RAF Lancaster bomber at 9.31am on the 21st. I know because my father [Fl Lt G.Head] was the pilot. He wrote:
    On November 20th 1946, as air/sea rescue officer for our station, I received a request for assistance in searching for a crashed DC3 (Dakota) which had disappeared whilst flying over the Swiss Alps. We were told it contained high ranking American Officers and wives. Within 25 minutes we had dispatched our stand-by aircraft. That night with the search not locating the crashed aircraft I planned to join the search. When I filed my flight plan with group HQ I was told that further searching would be useless. With the lapse of time and the low temperature it was their opinion that any survivor of the crash would have died. My own CO however told me to go for it and this we did, taking off early on Thursday 21st with food supplies and blankets.

    The search area had been established by 3 radio stations plotting faint signals from the crashed aircraft. After 7 ½ hours in the air we gave up for the day without any sign of the crashed aircraft among the many mountains we searched.
    We landed at search HQ at Istres in southern France. Early next morning we were requested to search an area about 50 miles north of the original area because during the night a 4th radio station had plotted a bearing further north of the original area.
    We arrived over the search area only to find it almost completely covered with cloud, with gaps here and there. At 9.30am my rear gunner called out “circle skip- I think I have spotted it”. We then circled over a gap in the cloud and the mid-upper gunner confirmed that he saw what he though was a crashed aircraft. The cloud closed over and we lost sight of it. The navigator was unable to obtain an accurate fix of our position because of the radio interference from the mountains, so we decided to fly a fixed speed and direction course until clear of the interference. This we did-the navigator plotted a radar position and backtracked to plot the position of the crash site.
    We landed at Istres and gave search HQ all our information, which was relayed to all other search centres and search aircraft, of which there were approximately 100. Later in the afternoon the weather was clearing so we took off and headed for the crash site. Before we reached it other aircraft radioed in that they were over the position we had given and that the aircraft was indeed there. It was on a glacier at an altitude of approximately 11,000 ft. We all dropped our supplies and left it too ground parties to effect the rescue.
    dave Head , New Zealand

  3. Thanks Dave! Cheeky History strives to get it right, but we are only as good as our sources since we don't do any original research. We're glad to have input on any story we write about.

    Our observation is that if everyone agrees on every detail of a historical event, it's pretty suspect. If a hundred people witness an event you are likely to get a hundred different perspectives on what actually happened.

    When new information is added to the mix we can get a more complete picture and everyone who loves history is made better for it.

    Thanks again to The History Blog, they do great work.

    We'll leave it to you two to fight this one out! Cheers!

  4. An editors' note has been added to the end of the article above. Thanks for reading Cheeky History.


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