Sunapee Mountain Plane Crash Remembered

By William A. Murgatroy Jr.

The remains of the fuselage from the deadly plane crash on Mt. Sunapee in 1949.

On Sunday, November 20, 1949 at around 6 p.m., Arthur Nelson and his wife observed a low flying plane near their home on Center Road in Goshen. A few seconds after the plane disappeared in the low-level clouds near Blood Mountain, there was a red-orange glow in the sky indicating an apparent explosion. This was also witnessed by Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Richardson of Goshen and Roland Hall from the Lewko farm on East Mountain in Newport.

The Search
At 11:00 p.m. a search team was organized at Mount Sunapee State Park, where an approximate crash site was established from the triangulation of reports. The initial search team included Conservation Officer Jesse Scott, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur W. Nelson, Clifford Nelson, Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Richardson and daughter Joanne, State Troopers Leslie Mendez, Kendall P. Smith, Herbert Tucker, and Roger Hilton; also Pilot Harold W. Buker Jr., reporter George Graves, Jr. and others not mentioned in reports.

Starting out in Goshen around midnight, they followed an old logging road. After a short time it changed direction, so they left the easy walking and turned directly uphill through the woods. One of the searchers was George Graves, Jr., publisher of The Newport Guardian. Here is his account: “The entire slope of the mountain was crisscrossed with large and small blown-down timber from the hurricane, and the rocky crags were covered with ice and a thin coating of snow. It was utterly exhausting work with the aid of only a few flashlights. After slipping, falling, sliding, crawling and pulling ourselves up the treacherous rocks by holding onto trees for almost two hours, we arrived at the peak of the mountain, dripping with perspiration and dog-tired.”

He continues, “From the mountain top, every snow-covered ledge looked like part of a plane’s fuselage. After the eleven searchers had fanned out over the peak and searched with flashlights in the dangerous terrain, where ledges dropped down without warning for several hundred feet, it was decided to halt the search until daybreak when pilot Buker could take to the air and spot the wreckage.”

The tired and disappointed main search party left the mountain at 2:30 a.m. The night time search had ended two peaks away from the actual crash location. Nearing exhaustion, Graves and Trooper Mendez decided to remain. They found protection from the bitter wind behind some rocks and pine boughs, where they built a fire and tried to rest until morning. Dawn came around 6:30 a.m., and the two resumed the ground search. Just after daylight, veteran pilot Harold Buker and State Trooper Kendall Smith took off from Parlin Field in Newport and began an aerial search. At 6:45 a.m. Graves and Mendez heard Buker’s plane approaching. When Buker spotted them on the ground he acknowledged by waving his wings. He then circled widely for about five minutes and spotted a partially opened parachute in the trees, and wreckage nearby. Buker returned, cut his engine and shouted down directions to the ground. He kept circling for over an hour until they got to the site. He then left to inform the others and to have a stretcher brought up the mountain. He flew back later and dropped six sandwiches to the hungry Graves and Mendez.

Metal stuck in tree.

The Crash
The airplane had struck the mountain with great force about 300 feet down from the summit, leaving a three-foot deep gouge in the rocky soil 20 feet long. The fuselage landed 75 feet further uphill and the large engine was wedged between two trees even higher on the slope. There was evidence of a large explosion and intense heat. The pilot was carrying a shotgun; its barrel had melted off the receiver. Dirt, rocks, and charred pieces of the plane were scattered like shrapnel from a bomb amongst the burnt trees. Initially the searchers had thought that the pilot survived, after finding an open parachute in a tree. They searched the area for some time before discovering the smashed body tangled in a partially opened parachute, thrown 125 feet uphill from the fuselage. (I wondered if the pilot always wore his parachute or did he put it on, sensing impending danger.) State Medical Examiner Dr. John Munro accompanied the returning searchers to the site, and pronounced the pilot dead from severe head trauma. The body was brought out by mid-afternoon and taken to the Newton Funeral Home in Newport.

The Pilot
The 18-year-old pilot, John M. Moses, a Harvard freshman, had been returning from Bridgeport, Ct. after attending a Yale/Harvard football game on Saturday. His destination was Logan Airport in Boston. A classmate, Gaston Palacious, of Caracas, Venezuela, accompanied him, but returned after the game by train to study for an exam. John Moses was described by friends as an experienced pilot who had flown over 13,000 miles the previous summer in Alaska. An only child, he was the son of Judge Jacob and Sally Clary Moses of Baltimore, Md.

One of the only original Tuskagee Airmen T-6’s still in existence. Picture with permission from Jaysen F. Snow, Midwest Tail Chasers.

The Plane
The two-seat single engine plane was a military surplus AT-6 built by North American Aviation, Inc. (Rockwell), and was powered by a 600 hp Pratt and Whitney engine. It was predominately used as a trainer by all the military air corps during WWII. The 29 foot aircraft had a wingspan of 42 feet, with a top speed of 212 mph and a range of 730 miles. The AT-6 Texan version was used stateside to train the famed Tuskegee Airmen before they advanced to the Curtis P40 and later the P51 Mustang. In the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, it was shown converted to a single seater and painted in Japanese markings to represent Mitsubishi Zeroes. The sleek silver aircraft had been a Christmas gift from Moses’ parents the previous year.

The Cause
Local officials first assumed that Moses ran out of fuel because of being off course. Russell Hilliard, director of the New Hampshire Aeronautics Commission, investigated the crash site on Monday afternoon, November 21st. The press release follows: “an AT-6 airplane, N66221, piloted by Mr. John M. Moses of Baltimore, Md., crashed and burned near the top of Sunapee Mountain about 6 p.m., yesterday.

“The airplane, flying in a northeasterly direction, crashed just below the top of the ridge on the west side of Sunapee Mountain in the town of Newbury. Eye witnesses reported clouds in the vicinity, but they could see the airplane lights until just before the crash. The pilot and only occupant of the airplane was instantly killed and the aircraft was demolished. The airplane had left Bridgeport, Conn., at 4:34 p.m., on a proposed flight to Boston with an estimated elapsed time of one hour and ten minutes for the flight.

“The probable cause of the accident was failure of the pilot to maintain an altitude high enough to clear the terrain. There was no evidence of engine failure or the controls or structure of the aircraft.”

60 years later, a small sign has been placed on a tree in memory of John Moses,
also asking any visitors to respect the site and not to remove any “souvenirs”.

The Site 60 Years Later
On a warm day in April 2009, after a long hike, I found the crash site. Fallen trees damaged by recent ice storms made the steep ascent more difficult. In an earlier attempt I was turned back because of a heavy snow squall. The wreckage is located about a mile from Lake Solitude on a remote hillside near the Goshen / Newbury town line. The dam at Lake Gunnerson, (locally known as ‘The Goshen Ocean’) could be seen off in the distance as my climb neared the site.

The plane’s fuselage lies in the open amongst a few birch trees, about 200 feet below the summit on a southwest slope. There is a thick stand of spruce trees to the northwest. When I first spotted the wrecked aircraft it looked like another fallen birch tree in the reflecting sun. There are a few metal parts scattered about, and, as reported, the engine was thrown uphill from the impact. Small trees have grown around some metal parts, which hang eerily off the ground. The outline of a large cross insignia can be seen faintly on the fuselage. Lying nearby are the remains of a retractable landing gear. The leaf-filled impact gouge can still be seen below the body of the plane, and to the left lies more unidentifiable metal, probably from a wing or the tail section.

Before departing I took some photographs in the late evening sun and said a silent prayer for this young man, promising to return and place some kind of marker in remembrance of his short life.

John M. Moses was a member of the Harvard Flying Club. He was born in Baltimore, Md. on September 12, 1931. On the afternoon of Wednesday, November 23, 1949, he was buried in the Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery. It was the day before Thanksgiving.

Acknowledgments :
The Argus Champion, The Claremont Daily Eagle and The Newport Guardian newspapers. History of Goshen, N.H. by Walter R. Nelson. Matt Hoyt, David Fisher, Horace Cragin, Rita Purmort, Ed Baker and Cindy Dresser. Northwoodlands,Inc. Don and Andy Clifford and Carol Flitton. Tuskegee AT6 photo courtesy of Jasen Snow ,Midwest Tail Chasers.