On the morning of March 1, 1964, a few hours before 85 people were killed in Lake Tahoe’s worst plane crash, the crew of Paradise Airlines Flight 901A was in Oakland, Calif., preparing for their ill-fated flight.
The Oakland company dispatcher checked weather charts and forecasts, of which one — from the U.S. Weather Bureau — showed poor flying conditions at Lake Tahoe, according to an aircraft accident report from the now-defunct Civil Aeronautics Board.
Despite this, the dispatcher forecast more favorable weather based on his own assessments of the data. It would be reported later that at the time of the crash, the plane was flying in a blinding snowstorm.
“I remember looking out the window at the time …” said Bill Kingman, who lived in South Lake Tahoe in 1964 as a radio disc jockey, “and there was zero visibility. And I remember thinking no one can fly in this.”
March 1 marks the 50th anniversary of the Paradise Airlines Flight 901A crash, the largest plane crash in Tahoe’s history by a broad margin, according to history buffs in the region.
To certain descendants of the victims, today is a time of reflection. To others, the date brings up memories of a tragic accident that now only consists of debris still found at the crash site, about one mile south of Genoa Peak.
The plan on March 1, 1964, was for the aircraft to take off from Oakland and make two stops — one in Salinas, Calif., and one in San Jose, Calif. — before arriving at Lake Tahoe Airport shortly before noon.
At 8:43 a.m., the plane departed Oakland. It had 81 passengers on board and a crew of four by the time it was headed toward Lake Tahoe.
At 10:57 a.m., it made radio communication with an outbound Paradise Airlines flight from the basin. The captain advised Flight 901A of “icing at 12,000 (feet)” and snow showers, according to the accident report.
At 11:27 a.m., the plane made contact with an Paradise Airlines passenger agent at Tahoe Valley Airport, which relayed the weather in the area: 2,000 feet overcast with three miles of visibility.
The last known transmission came through two minutes later, when the passenger agent heard a radio call, but he wasn’t able to establish a connection.
With communications cut off, the aircraft wasn’t found until the next morning.
A ‘gruesome’ scene
A captain from Stead Air Force Base spotted the plane wreckage March 2, 1964, at 7:36 a.m., according to Tahoe Daily Tribune articles from that time.
There were no survivors.
Snow covered bodies and parts of the airplane, which were strewn around parts of the 8,800-foot ridge between the Lake Tahoe Basin and the Carson Valley — about three miles north of Kingsbury Grade.
A headline in a 1964 Tahoe Daily Tribune newspaper called the crash site “gruesome,” and the accompanying article described the eyewitness reports of George Costa, who was the first to arrive at the scene with an unidentified companion.
“When he saw a hand sticking out of the snow he got sick and turned back,” Costa had told the Tribune.
The location of the crash was so remote that personnel assisting with it were flown to the site by helicopter or driven in by snow cats. The El Dorado County Sheriff at the time, Ernie Carlson, estimated it would take two or three days before the bodies could all be brought out.
A partial list of the aircraft victims was listed in the Tribune, and an investigation began into the cause of the accident.
It was eventually determined that the plane had crashed after clipping the top of a ridge.
One pilot involved in the search told the Tribune that if Flight 901A was 100 feet higher “he would have made it.”
Later, the Civil Aeronautics Board determined that the probable cause of the accident was the pilot’s deviation from prescribed flight procedures while attempting a visual landing in unfavorable weather.
The decision had led to “geographical disorientation” and an abandoned landing attempt, according to the accident report.
Maintenance records for the Lockheed Constellation also revealed multiple reports of malfunctions in the fluxgate compass system and discrepancies reported in both altimeters prior to the day of the crash.
Maintenance was performed on those instruments the night before the incident, but according to the accident report, the possibility of mechanical error still existed at the time of the crash.
Remembering their families
It has been 50 years since the Flight 901A plane crash took the lives of Tim Lampe’s parents.
The Lake Tahoe resident was 5 years old when his brothers and sisters heard about the accident from reports on TV. It’s one of his few things he can remember from that time in his life.
“That I carry with me ‘til today,” he said Monday.
Lampe thinks about his parents frequently, and even more so around the 50th anniversary of the crash, he said.
He’s been thinking about taking another trip up to the site soon, as he sometimes does to feel closer to his parents.
“I go up there and say hi to my mom and dad,” he said. “It’s like ground zero, you know?”
One time, Lampe found a worn-down makeup case among the bits of debris still strewn around the site. He knew it didn’t belong to his mom, but findings like those help him remember the people that lost their lives on this day, 50 years ago.
“At that moment I lost it,” he said of the finding, “because it just personalized it for me.”
Lampe brings family members of other crash victims to the site every now and then to give them a chance to find closure, too, he said.
Last summer, Stockton resident Carrie Hake made the hike up with her brother, Jim Capitola. She saw rusty metal frames to which plane seats were once attached, along with other rubble from wreckage.
The trip was too much of a shock to bring her the closure she sought, Hake said. But she would like to make another trip soon.
“It didn’t bring closure,” she said. “In a way it kind of opened the wound a little bit, but it’s something my brother and I needed to do.”
Hake wrote a poem for her parents for the 50th anniversary of the plane crash, she said. She’s always felt something missing since they died, but more so as a parent and adult.
“So many times I wished for the day when my kids could know their grandparents,” Hake said. “It was a hard thing.”