Two for Forty

I just returned from three days at Cinevent, the annual celebration of Golden Age Hollywood in Columbus, Ohio. I got plenty of opportunity to talk about Fireball there, and about my next book, with the likes of author and archivist James V. D’Arc, author and blogger John McElwee, Errol Flynn Slept Here co-author Michael Mazzone, and legendary Warner Bros. archivist Leith Adams, among many others.

While there, John dropped an 8.5×11 sheet of paper in my lap. It was a flyer pertaining to a topic I hold dear, the site of the crash of TWA Flight 3. In a nutshell, a self-dubbed “adventuresome couple” intends to climb to the site and pay for the trip by retrieving crash items and selling them to those who pay $25 in advance for one item; $40 for two.Carole Lombard crash site TWA Flight 3

I’m staring at the flyer now and will scan it for inclusion with this column. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I know I believe in free speech, free choice, free will, and free enterprise. Many aspire to these “free” concepts and today of all days, Memorial Day, they take on special meaning.

I guess I say, more power to you, Adventuresomes! By way of full disclosure, I purchased a piece of crash wreckage somewhere around 1998, back when eBay was new and I was obsessed with the site and anything related to it. In the back of my mind I asked myself, Is this creepy? I asked, but participated in the auction anyway, bidding against others for this item. A week later I held the piece in hand, a rib from the empennage, and yes, I was uneasy having in my possession part of NC 1946, the Douglas DC-3 born in February 1941 in Santa Monica, California, that would live less than a year and end up strewn in a million pieces over the side of Mt. Potosi, Nevada.

A decade later I would finally climb Potosi to visit the site as research for Fireball. Only then did it hit me where I was and what the wreckage represented. Only then, struggling to stand on sheer mountainside at the spot where 22 humans were blown to bits along with that infant of an airplane, did I comprehend the reality that I stood at something akin to a gravesite. I understood because human souls reached out and touched me. The pilot made contact. The co-pilot. The stewardess. Fifteen Army Air Corps guys. I felt them there. My communication with these souls infused life into my writing. Suddenly, the manuscript had a soul of its own.

That’s one of two enduring memories of my day at Potosi: having those people reach out and touch me in a most physical way. The other is the sheer danger, the sheer exhaustion, of the climb up and back. There are two ways into the crash site: One is the way I went, four-wheeling to the embarkation point, then snaking up the mountain, which I felt I had to experience since I would be describing what the first responders faced trying to reach the site. The other way in involves riding the ridges by four-wheeler to a government gate, then hiking a long way and descending from the crest into the crash site—the route used to bring up bodies from the wreck. In the bullet points atop this flyer, the author describes “2.5 miles of hiking up into steep and rocky terrain.” He leaves out words, most appropriate descriptions, like perilous and life threatening. I trust the Adventuresomes are hardbodies who employ a good guide. Thanks to months of training and planning I had both, and it helped and didn’t help. I never would have found the site on my own because it’s a tiny pinpoint on a vast mountain. I had the luxury of following the guide as he used decades of experience in wilderness to lead me up contours of mountainside that could be climbed. But he couldn’t lend me any sure-footedness that day and despite being reasonably coordinated and physically prepared, I tumbled over time and again, smashing on the rocks and bloodying myself as I’ve described to you in the past.

Adventuresomes, and anyone else who takes on Potosi (I met another future climber in Columbus and urged him also), please don’t underestimate this mountain. It’s a killer. I’ve known several people who tried the “easy” way into the site and many didn’t make it for various reasons. Season is a consideration; weather; snakes; equipment; terrain. A normal wilderness hike is great fun, but if you’re struggling for your very life to climb 5,000 vertical feet on 45-degree angles or worse, with footing that gives way unexpectedly, the experience is something else. Even leaving at dawn, we had to hurry to make it back down the mountain before night swallowed us whole, so difficult was the round trip, with less than 90 minutes spent at the site. You can’t move at night on the mountain, believe me. I wouldn’t even underestimate the first and last parts of the journey by four-wheel drive, because the desert path we took, colorfully named Ninety-Nine Mine Road (it passes the old mine entrance), is not for your average driver. I wasn’t behind the wheel the day I went to Potosi—I couldn’t have made it on my own because this is serious off-roading and I don’t have the experience.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Ninety-Nine Mine Road is much worse in most spots than this photo shows. Here I was able to steady the camera, point, and shoot without being too badly knocked around inside the Jeep.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Behind this mound of earth lay the entrance to the old Ninety-Nine Mine in the foothills before Mt. Potosi.

If you are trying to lug anything extra back down the mountain, say, crash debris, if you put it on your back it’s going to a) weigh you down, b) add extra bulk, and c) change your center of gravity as you try to navigate the steep terrain.

It just occurs to me now that maybe Fireball inspired the Adventuresomes to attempt the climb. I’m not going to make any value judgments about the wisdom of selling crash wreckage to offset costs for the trip. I’m disqualified from making them anyway because I am a past purchaser. On all counts I simply advise, be cautious, dear couple. I want you in one piece to buy my next book, and if that book with James Stewart as main subject inspires you to visit places like Tibenham, East Anglia, where the 445th Bomb Group was based, or Hamburg or Frankfurt, which the 445th bombed, be advised: these places will welcome you with no dangerous climbing required.


  1. As I have feared ever since a well-meaning idiot published GPS coordinates of the site (since taken down, thank God), this site which saw horrible death and destruction is being turned into Six Flags Over Nevada.

    The Adventuresomes seem to have come up with a means of paying for their vacation which borders on the obscene. At the very least, extraordinarily disrespectful. PEOPLE DIED HERE. They were fractured, dismembered, burned beyond recognition.

    Here’s an alternative trek. It’s also the site of a terrible airline crash, war-related, with courageous, gallant souls aboard, near a mine… It fits the parameters. Head to Shanksville PA, near the Diamond T Mine and see if you can retrieve and sell parts of United Airlines Flight 93. It was flown into the ground on September 11, 2001.

    And you won’t need a helicopter to get you out of trouble when you break all four legs.

      1. A little excavation at Gettysburg? Metal detectors along Omaha Beach? Not sure if excursions to the Titanic site are still available, but hey — there’s lots of cool stuff left, and it sells like crazy.

        In the immortal words of Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy, “I never heard of such bad taste.”


  2. I attempted and failed to climb Potosi to access the Flight 3 crash site in 2002. We drove Mt. Potosi Road up to the “trail” on the backside of the mountain. The road up the mountain is treacherous and it takes a very capable driver to navigate the terrain. It was entirely conceivable to me that one wrong move would send us over the edge and likely to a certain death. I say this not to be dramatic but to honestly enlighten anyone attempting this route to drive a well serviced vehicle with a skilled driver at the wheel. Short of that, don’t be foolish.

    The hike in total was about 2-3 miles from where we parked to the ridge above the crash site. I recall walking downhill for an hour or so, and then uphill toward the ridge for another two hours. There is no real trail but our guide was familiar with the path of least resistance, and off we went. The climb was extremely challenging as we took four steps forward and two steps back most of the way on slippery shale, powder fine dirt and loose rocks. One by one members of our group dropped out. We numbered six in total. I made it to within 50 feet of the ridge and called it quits. My climbing partner who’d made the climb a couple of years earlier told me that once we hit the ridge, it was another few hundred feet straight down to the site. I was confident I could make it down but could feel myself running out of steam. I wasn’t sure I could make it back out. I wasn’t going to risk my life or the lives of anyone in our party because of my stupidity. In the end only our guide and another man in our party made it to the crash site. They didn’t stay at the site long and when they staggered down the hill toward us, they were clearly exhausted.

    At this point we still faced a two hour hike back to our vehicle and were strongly encouraged by our guide to stay focused and keep our footing even though our bodies were screaming and our minds were all repeatedly thinking, “are we nuts?” I’m sure we muttered that and much more as we numbly hauled our aching bones off that mountain.

    Like Robert, in fairness I can’t tell someone not to do what I’ve done, but I can tell you that if you attempt it, please take it very seriously. The mileage of the hike is deceptive. The ground can be unforgiving as we learned so many times as we climbed upward and slipped, fell, and slid on our knees or asses downward. We were fortunate to have a mild day so didn’t have to contend with heat though the sun can be abusive even on a nice, breezy day. So I would caution that climbing in this terrain in high heat is a recipe for disaster. As for snakes, I’m glad that didn’t make my radar at the time or I would’ve cooled my heels at the Pioneer Saloon and never moved a muscle.

    My last comment is please be honest with yourself about why you’re doing this. For me this is a sacred place and the climb held great meaning. As much as I would’ve loved to make it to the site and to have that experience, the journey itself ended up being fulfilling and extremely special. I, too, felt the spirits of those who had departed sixty years earlier. I felt them in the warmth of the sun. I felt them as I reclined on my back and stared up through the branches of the pinyon pines. I felt them swirling in the breeze that kept us cool that day. And despite the tragedy that occurred there, I felt overwhelmingly that they were telling me, “All is well.”

    So please consider that it’s a huge risk to take for something you’re doing on a lark or because you think it’s cool or because you want a piece of history. And do please ask yourself… Am I willing to hire a knowledgeable guide to get me there and back safely? Am I in good physical shape to attempt a climb like this? Am I willing to stop and turn around when I or anyone in my party can’t continue? If you can’t answer each of these questions with an emphatic “YES”, then park it at the Pioneer in Goodsprings and enjoy a beer and the wall full of memorabilia.

    1. I’ve always wondered about the “back way in,” MGray, and this is a vivid account of that particular trek. I had heard that the four-wheel portion was very steep and dangerous, and you confirm this. On the other route, the trail is at least devoid of hills and the worst we would have done is roll over–not fall off the mountain!

      Your next-to-last paragraph is so beautifully written that all I can think is: I wish I had said that.

      1. As always, MGray, you are direct, candid, and poignantly eloquent. Your description of that adventure is completely on point in every way. Thank you for posting.


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