Digging Up the Past: Robins AFB home to 68-year-old crash site

  • Published
  • By Angela Woolen
  • Robins Public Affairs
The swamp is slowly burying the metal remains. Sixty-eight years ago, seven people were killed when a UC-45 crashed shortly after takeoff from Robins Air Force Base.

The airplane was returning to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base with its crew of inspectors. Shortly after 9 p.m. on Feb. 13, 1947, it crashed into the swamp just north of the runway which at that time ran from north to south.

Six military men and one civilian died in the crash. The bodies of the men were all recovered. Lt. Col. Gilbert E. Layman, Capt. William W. Whalen, Lt. Col. Robert A. Zaiser, 1st Lt. Laverne W. Gonyer, Tech. Sgt. Austin E. Casebier, civilian T. R. Billings and Maj. Charles H. Greiner were those who perished in the accident.

Two of the pilots had extensive flight experience. Zaiser, the listed pilot at 33 years old, had 1,092 total flight hours, with 166.5 hours in this particular type of aircraft, according to the accident report.

Conflicting stories from witnesses said that Layman was the pilot. Whalen was listed as the co-pilot but there are witness accounts that he was not in one of the two front seats at takeoff.

The plane was loaded with fuel for its roughly 600-mile journey to Ohio. An explosion was heard by several witnesses.

"The force of the impact ripped off the propeller," said Bill Paul, collections manager at the Museum of Aviation. "It was moving fast when it hit to tear it up like it did." 

Weather most likely a factor

During Paul's research, weather was most likely a factor in the crash. A low ceiling and a typical February evening caused the aircraft to hit one tree after another. The second tree that was hit was about 75-feet tall.

The remains of the aircraft are strewn about in a 450-foot by 50-foot area. Trees have fallen on part of the cockpit. Pieces of the side section of the plane stick out of the murky water. Moss has settled on one of the exposed engines and the tail section a few feet away. Smaller pieces scattered around the area are buried beneath dirt and leaves.

Volunteers and members of the media trudged through the swamp to reach the spot where the remains of the wreckage lay exposed.

This was a first-time visit for Paul who has extensively researched the crash.

"It's interesting. Over the years I've known about it, but to come and see it is a whole new experience," he said. 

The river is slowly burying it

A team of five museum volunteers set out Feb. 11 to salvage pieces of the wreckage. They were joined by base archeologist Dwight Kirkland.

"The river is slowly burying it," Kirkland said. He walked through the wreckage documenting with a GPS device where each piece was located. 

Some of the aluminum pieces would slowly erode away into the silt of the swamp while the metal pieces would be covered a little more each time the swamp bed flooded, Kirkland said.

The spot where the crash site is located is surrounded by part of the Ocmulgee flood plain. The team had to cross a small stream on a fallen log to reach the cockpit.

The crash site is of significance to archeologists because soon it will become an archeological site. Thousands of years from now, people might dig in this site and find the remains of the wreckage, said Kirkland. It was his job to document the site for future generations.

Because of the remoteness of the location, the museum team was only able to bring out a few pieces. The biggest of those was the right propeller which was loaded onto a medical gurney.

Museum curator Mike Rowland and volunteer Arthur Sullivan donned hip waders to bring the heavy piece of the plane across the muddy creek from the wreckage site. Once across the water, it took four men posted on each corner to carry the propeller through the swamp to where the vehicles were parked about a mile away.

Other than the propeller, the team gathered a rudder switch, a throttle quadrant and several additional small components. The items were loaded into a van to be taken back to the museum.

Both Rowland and Paul have volunteers working on restoring a C-45 - a similar aircraft - which was donated by the Department of Agriculture. The projected completion time is in about 18 months.

Once the aircraft is completely restored it will be part of an exhibit at the museum honoring those seven men who lost their lives in the crash. Rowland hopes that family members of the victims might come forward to shed light on those who lost their lives. The pieces of the wreckage will be part of the display.

The museum hopes to bring the tale of the fateful flight out of obscurity before the remaining pieces of the aircraft sink slowly into the swamp at Robins and out of view.

About the UC-45
After the start of World War II, the Army ordered more than 1,500 Beech Model C18S aircraft and designated them UC-45F. The F model was similar to earlier types, but it was configured with a seven-place interior. The nose was lengthened by five inches to allow the cockpit to  be moved slightly forward.