Placerville man's desert jet wreckage mystery solved

1:41 PM, May 26, 2011   |    comments
Donnie Prince displayed wreckage he discovered in the Nevada desert
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PLACERVILLE, CA - It turns out a Placerville man who stumbled upon aircraft wreckage while camping in the Nevada desert wasn't the first person to make the discovery.

The United States Navy knew it was there all along.

Donnie Prince, 60, is a former Air Force mechanic who was certain the pieces he found May 13 on a dry lake bed northwest of Lovelock were parts from a small jet -- and he was right.

The wreckage he found is what remains of a Navy F8U-1 fighter jet from the nearby Fallon Naval Air Station that crashed while on gunnery practice in August, 1960, at a loss to the government of just over $1 million.

The Navy pilot ejected safely and was rescued by an Air Force helicopter crew from Reno.

Prince also found a large bone near the wreckage, which happily has no connection to the crash. 

After News10 reported Prince's mysterious discovery, a Northern California aviation archaelogist provided a 1960 newspaper article describing the incident, along with the Navy's official accident report.

The accident report provides the same map coordinates as Prince reported in what was then known as the Shawave Gunnery Range.

Craig Fuller of Aviation Archaeological Investigation and Research in Rohnert Park said it was common in that era for the military to pick up the larger pieces of aircraft wreckage and leave the smaller components behind.

The accident report, in fact, includes pictures of large aircraft parts that were salvaged by Fallon NAS.

According to the report, 38-year-old Commander Leslie Fortner was number two in a three-plane flight shooting at a target towed by another aircraft.  The F8U was the last American fighter to use guns as its primary weapon.

Fortner made a rapid climb with the jet's afterburner and had just leveled off at 20,000 feet above sea level -- about 16,000 feet over the desert floor.

Fortner's jet suddenly lost its thrust, and he later told investigators he thought the plane's fuel pump had failed.  As he tried to restart the engine, the pilot accidently grabbed the wrong lever and jettisoned the canopy.

Even with the fighters' canopy gone, Fortner continued trying to restart the engine until finally ejecting about a mile above the desert, where he was picked up by the Air Force crew within a half hour.

An inquiry later determined the jet engine failed as a result of fuel starvation because Fortner had failed to manually switch tanks. 

The Navy had previously recognized the manual fuel switch as a shortcoming with the F8U and had already begun installing a low- fuel warning light in them.

The report otherwise praised Fortner, a World War II veteran who had flown 100 combat missions and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.

A search of the Social Security Administration's master death index indicates Fortner may still be alive.

Prince said he notified the Navy and civil aviation authorities a few days after his discovery, but never heard back from them.

Prince continued to be worried about the possibility of family members wondering what had happened to the pilot until he saw the 1960 Navy accident report.

"I'm relieved that nobody was killed.  It really is a big relief," he said.

by George Warren, GWarren@news10.net

News10/KXTV

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