The Crash of a DC-6B in Alameda County, California

The Last Flight of a United Airlines Douglas DC-6B: Serial No. N37550, Flight No. 615

Built 14 April 1951; crashed on 24 August 1951

Photos by Neil Mishalov

The general location of this crash site is familiar to me; I have hiked in this area in the past. However, I had no idea that a plane crashed in this area until recently. I hiked to the crash location to review where this tragedy took place almost 54 years ago. 50 people perished in the plane crash.

The crash location is in Garin Regional Park (ONE)(TWO), which is part of the magnificent EAST BAY REGIONAL PARK SYSTEM. Garin Regional Park is located on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay, just east of Hayward/Union City, and is 14.8 miles southeast of Oakland International Airport, the destination of the United Airlines flight.

There is nothing at the crash site to give any indication of what happened at approximately 4:30 a.m., as the plane was descending for a landing at Oakland. I did a fairly extensive walk around the crash site, and all I located was a 3" diameter piece of .25" thick Plexiglas. My guess is that it is a portion of a window.

I was not willing to descend into the canyon below the crash site because it was full of poison oak.

What follows is an abridged account of the plane's last hours and information about the crash location written by Nicholas A. Veronico, the author of "Wreckchasing: Commercial Aircraft Crashes and Crash Sites."


"United Air Lines Flight 615, a Douglas DC-6B N37550, left Boston Massachusetts, at 5:32 p.m. EST on August 23, 1951, en route to San Francisco. Three stops were made as the plane traveled westward; first at Hartford, Connecticut., next at Cleveland, Ohio, and finally at 9:59 p.m. CST, at Chicago, Illinois. During the layover at Chicago, Flight 615 changed crews.

When the flight departed Chicago at 10:59 p.m. CST, Captain Marion W. Hedden, 42, was at the controls. His First Officer was George A. Jewett, 35, assisted by Flight Engineer Marion A. Durante, 36, and Assistant Chief Flight Engineer Arthur W. Kessler, 43. Seeing to the passenger's needs were stewardesses Marilynn Murphy, 24, and La Verne Sholes, 22.

Captain Hedden began his career with United Air Lines on Nov. 1, 1939, and held an Airline Transport rating. He had accumulated 12,032 flight hours, including 417 in the DC-6 and 14 in the new DC-6B. He was granted a DC-6 rating on Jan. 15, 1951, and qualified on the DC-6B on April 26, 1951. The airplane Hedden was flying on the night of Aug. 23/24, was delivered new to United Air Lines on April 14, 1951. It had accumulated 361 hours total time without any engine changes or major mechanical problems.

Upon take-off from Chicago, Flight 615 carried 44 passengers, including two infants, and six crew members. The flight to California was filed as an instrument flight plan from Chicago to Oakland and then under visual flight rules across the bay to San Francisco. The flight plan's assigned altitude for the route was 18,000 feet, passing Denver, Colorado, and Milford, Utah, before heading direct to Oakland. The flight from Oakland to San Francisco was to be accomplished at an altitude ranging from 300 to 500 feet.

The cross-country flight was uneventful. All radio transmissions were routine and at 3:54 a.m. PST, Flight 615 was cleared to the Newark (California) fan marker with instructions to maintain 6,000 feet and to contact Oakland Approach Control over Altamont Pass, which separates the San Francisco Bay Area from California's fertile San Joaquin Valley.

Although some 40 miles from the San Francisco Bay, the Altamont Pass area and its low-lying Livermore Valley are less than 15 miles from the Sacramento River Delta. During the summer months this area usually is blanketed by a marine layer with ground-hugging fog. When flying over the Altamont Pass, it would have been in clear air with a thick undercast.

The flight reported over Stockton, California, at 4:11 a.m., at an altitude of 9,500 feet and descending. The flight was radioed the Oakland altimeter setting of 29.88 inches, which was acknowledged. Five minutes later, the flight reported passing the Altamont Intersection, and then contacted Oakland Approach Control for the first time. Approach Control cleared Flight 615 to the Oakland radio range station with instructions to remain no less than 500 feet above the cloud tops. United 615 then requested direct clearance to Newark with a straight-in range approach. The DC-6B reported that it was approaching the Hayward compass locator (between Altamont and Newark), and requested a straight-in Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach to Oakland. Flight 615 was instructed to stand-by for clearance until another aircraft in the area cleared. Captain Hedden then requested Oakland Approach Control to cancel his ILS approach request. Oakland Approach Control's last instructions to the flight came at 4:25 a.m. The plane was cleared to fly from Newark on a straight-in approach on the southeast course of the Oakland radio range beacon. No further transmissions were received.

14.8 Miles Short Of Oakland

The San Francisco Chronicle's banner headline on the morning of Aug. 25, 1951, read, "Air Crash Kills 50: Big Liner Rams East Bay Hill." N37550 crashed 14.8 miles short of Oakland Airport in the hills behind Union City, California, at an altitude of 983 feet above sea level. The plane was on a course of 296 degrees, flying straight, and descending at the time of impact. A descent was confirmed by the fact that the hill it passed over prior to the crash was taller than the hill of impact. The DC-6B impacted, then cartwheeled over the peak and scattered itself across a small saddle and then into the canyon beyond. The wreckage field was 900 feet wide and 1,640 feet long. The fuel tanks exploded upon impact, causing a small grass fire. The CAB report stated that "the main landing gear was extended at the time [of impact], and reasonable proof exists that the nose wheel was retracted, or nearly retracted. The main landing gear on this model extends before the nose gear and retracts after it. Wing flaps were between the fully retracted and 30 degrees extended position. All four engines were producing substantial power at the time of impact. Examination of propeller blade cuts in the earth and blade index settings showed that the blades were in the forward thrust range. Evidence indicated that the ground speed upon impact was between 225 and 240 miles per hour."

Weather conditions at the time of the crash were low broken stratus clouds with ceilings between 1,000 and 1,500 feet. Visibility below the clouds was better than six miles. Winds were reported below 10 knots and icing was not a factor as the freezing level was stated to be at 13,000 feet. The crew should have been able to see lights through the undercast from the towns of Niles, Centerville/Fremont, and Newark. The CAB went on to state that "the crash occurred during morning twilight and some light was also available from the moon. As Flight 615 broke out under the stratus at about 1,500 feet, downward visibility was possible, but ground objects and contours were probably difficult to recognize and identify. For this reason, it is believed that weather conditions were closer to Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) than VFR at the time of the accident. "Three witnesses saw the flight in the vicinity of Newark. They stated that it was flying in and out of low clouds and noted nothing abnormal except that it was low. The impact site was shrouded in wisps of fog."

The Crash Site Today

Flight 615 crashed in the rising foothills on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay near the borders of Hayward and Union City, California. The crash site is 14.8 miles from Oakland Airport on a true bearing of 123 degrees. The DC-6's final resting place is at the top of Dry Gulch Canyon on the eastern side of Tolman Peak.

In August 1951, the area was pasture land and the geographic features had not yet been named. The crash site is only 1.5 miles from Mission Boulevard, as the crow flies, at the southeastern end of Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Park. Dry Creek Pioneer and its adjoining Garin Regional Park are part of the extensive and well-managed East Bay Regional Park system. This system has preserved large amounts of open space and ridge tops in the East Bay hills.

Postscript

The Aug. 28, 1951, issue of the Oakland Tribune reported that "...Fifty persons might be alive today if radar surveillance equipment had been functioning in the Oakland Municipal Airport control tower.." Installation of the equipment had been delayed by the Korean War as well as product setbacks. Radar would have instantly told controllers that the DC-6 was off course on its descent. This information could have been relayed to the crew, thus saving 50 lives."


This is a picture of the upper portion of Dry Gulch Canyon on the day of the accident. The people standing at the horizon are on the top of Tolman Peak (983 feet), which is the crash site location. A significant portion of the plane hurtled down Dry Gulch Canyon after crashing on Tolman Peak. 54 years after the crash Dry Gulch Canyon is full of brush and poison oak. I was not dressed appropriately to descend into the canyon.

The United States Civil Aeronautics Board accident report concluded that the crash was due to "the failure of the captain to adhere to instrument procedures in the Newark area during an approach to the Oakland Municipal Airport."


The OBITUARY of Arthur Raymond, the chief designer of the DC-6

All photographs were taken with a Canon S50 camera

All Images and Text Copyright © by Neil Mishalov

COPYRIGHT NOTICE & HIKING DISCLAIMER



Topographic Map of the Area with a GPS Tracked Route Superimposed

Hike data gathered with a Garmin 60C GPS RECEIVER

Topographic mapping program for Macintosh OSX by NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC



Satellite Photo Map of the Area with a GPS Tracked Route Superimposed

TerraBrowser satellite mapping program for Macintosh OSX by CHIMOOSOFT

GPS track converter by GPSBABEL




Click on an image to see the full size picture
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Looking west from the crash site. The large white objects in the distance, across San Francisco Bay, are dirigible hangers at Moffett Air Field Looking east from the crash site Looking south from the crash site. The plane headed from this direction. In the distance is Mission Peak
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Looking northwest from the crash site. The urban area is the town of Hayward, California The only debris I was able to locate from the plane. A 3" diameter, .25" thick piece of Plexiglas. I assume it is part of a window porthole At the bottom of this photo is the canyon where a majority of the plane debris landed. In the distance is Oakland Airport, the destination of this tragic flight. The mountain in the background is Mount Tamalpais



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This page created on 11 July 2005, and all photographs copyright 2005, by NEIL MISHALOV

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