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Drought reveals Kingsley history for first time

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jefferson Thompson
  • 173rd Fighter Wing
Kingsley Field's location in the high desert of southern Oregon, with its mixture of sunny days and proximity to the west coast, made it home to a frantic effort to train fighter pilots during World War II. In those days, the small base sent as many as 2,000 flights from the base in a single week. Compare that to the modern era of flying, and though Kingsley boasts the highest number of hours flown for any Air National Guard unit, we average 1/20th of that with around 100 flights per week.

At the peak of operations the Navy pilots flew morning and night to places like nearby Goose Lake to practice bombing and strafing large floating targets called rafts in preparation for combat missions over the South Pacific. Unfortunately, this frenzied effort had trade-offs; perhaps none more apparent than the sheer number of aircraft crashes--nearly one a week in those days, says base historian Maj. Ryan Bartholomew. Nearby residents in Malin described a constant buzz as swarms of aircraft flew between range space and the Klamath Falls airstrip.

As a result there are a number of crash sites that can be visited sometimes at the end of a rough 4x4 trail, and some that can't--like the ones at the bottom of Goose Lake.

That changed this summer as a extended drought pushed water levels to their lowest point in years. The water level has receded past the hardpan of the lake bottom leaving it accessible to all-terrain vehicles and four-wheel-drive trucks.

So for the first time in 70 years a group of 173rd Fighter Wing Airmen traveled to Goose Lake to document first-hand a part of the history of Kingsley Field.

"It's the first time," said Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Chuck Pore on venturing out to where the wreckage lies. "It's usually covered in water and when it isn't, it's deep mud."

The reason for the Lake County Sheriff's Office interest--looting. It seems that enterprising thieves have taken the opportunity to collect rare pieces of aircraft wreckage to sell or possibly scrap.

Scattered across the dry, cracked acres of the lakebed lay pieces of at least two aircraft, a Curtiss SB2C Helldiver aircraft and a Vought F4U Corsair aircraft, with its signature down-swept wings. Many pieces are in remarkably good condition considering the circumstances, and show little rust or corrosion.

The reasons for the crashes are speculation but it is known that the war effort allowed for little extended training and required pilots with as little as 10 hours tactical flight time to head for operational combat squadrons on board aircraft carriers, said Bartholomew.

In contrast, today's student pilots spend six months on their initial introduction to the Air Force F-15 Eagle aircraft and even people transitioning from other fighter platforms spend more than 10 hours at the more advanced Kingsley courses.

It paints a picture of a different time when the urgency of WWII trumped basic safety concerns.

"At least 37 men died in training at Klamath Naval Air Station including three in Goose Lake," said Bartholomew. "While they did not die in combat, they died in the line of duty and they should be remembered for their sacrifice."