The Fourth Plane -- 1:08 -- Ramon Gandia - 11-17-2008


In March, 1967, I was weatherbound in Smith River, BC, while flying my small Piper PA-12 to Alaska.

There, the Indians that worked at the airfield took me on a snowshoe trip to the mountains on the east side of the valley, and showed me a World War II crash site. Three wrecks were clustered together, along with 12 grave markers. Some distance up the slope, a fourth wreck and 4 crosses were located.

This is the story of that fourth Plane.

November, 2004, Cody, Wyoming.

On a cold, blustery day in the Cody cemetery, the family gathered around Albert Robinson's freshly dug grave. The widow, Arlene, quietly wept; the children and grandchildren huddled against the early winter breeze as the casket was lowered into the ground. A few yards away, another grave, this one said, "Tony Parisi, 2LT, US Army Air Corps, 1924-1999" stood among several other such graves.

The family and mourners soon dispersed. Some gathered at Arlene's house, and talked about Albert, his past, and his career. "He spent World War II in the Army," said Arlene. "He learned to fly right here in Cody, along with his buddy Tony. I dated him in High School, and after the war we got married, and he went into the hardware business. Tony also stayed in Cody, but he went to work at the City Public Works department." She told her story, and the grandchildren listened ...

October, 1944, Airway Amber 2.

The Drone of the Wright R2600 radial engines reverberated through the B-25J twin engined bomber. Flight 479, part of the Lend Lease program, was flying these airplanes from Great Falls, Montana, to Fairbanks, Alaska where Russian crews would fly them across Russia to Europe to fight Hitler.

Above the clouds, at 10,000 feet, the four B-25J's were in the classic "finger four" formation, if a bit loose. The planes were staggered like the fingertips of your hand; the flight leader ahead, two trailing on his left, and one trailing on his right. Only the flight leader had received his "Green Card," that is, the rating to fly blind, by instruments alone. The other three pilots were not so rated.

Some time after passing Fort Nelson, BC, on airway Amber Two, 2LT Albert Robinson heard the voice of the flight leader over his short-range tactical UHF set: "Flight 479, this is Flight Leader. Be advised that #4 aircraft is experiencing some engine roughness, and we are going to make a precautionary landing at Smith River."

Albert looked outside, and was immediately apprehensive. A solid cloud deck was under his wings, and not a break in sight.

Procedure called for the formation to make a blind, instrument letdown to the airport, where planes #1 and #4 would land at the same time, and plane #2 and the leader in #3 would go around for a second approach and landing. Only the flight leader would fly the instrument procedure, and the other three aircraft were supposed to fly very close formation with him.

Smith River is a 6-mile wide valley. The Smith River in its middle winds south to meet the Lliard River and the Alcan Highway about 20 miles away. The airport was on the plateau above the river, and the airways Radio Range station 5 miles south of the airport. The Radio Range had 4 beams; the north and south ones aligned with the airstrip, and the east and west ones with the Airway from Fort Nelson to Watson Lake, BC.

The flight leader led the formation through the initial maneuvering. In aircraft #1, Lt Albert Robinson heard the flight leader announce: "We are about to go into the clouds. When we pass the Range station inbound, expect 1 minute and 50 seconds to the runway."

But Lt Robinson was apprehensive.

"Hey, Tony," he said to his copilot, " isn't this approach supposed to be northbound from the Range?"

"I don't know," answered 2LT Tony Parisi.

"Well, I am flying a heading of 085 now, but I don't think that's right," said Albert.

"We are right on the beam," said Tony, as the formation plunged into the clouds, obscuring all visibility. All they could see was #2 aircraft to their right, and Albert doggedly hung on to his wingtip.

About that time, the pilots heard the cone of silence above the Radio Range, and the white marker light flashed on the panel.

"Radio Range!" said Albert, and he pushed the hack timer on his panel. The A-10 hack clock started timing the minutes and seconds from station passage.

But as the flight descended through the swirling clouds, Albert got antsier. "Hey, Sparkie," he said to the radio operator behind them, "see if we have the Smith River approach chart."

"Possible, boss. I'll look," said Sparkie.


"40 seconds," said Tony.

Adjusting his throttles a bit to stay with #2, Albert said, "Time?"

"50 seconds. And yes, the flaps are down, the gear is three greens and the mixtures are set."

"OK. Hey, Sparkie, any word on that chart?"

"I am still looking .... oh, here is the booklet with them."


"One minute, Skipper," said the copilot, "speed 145."

Albert was now tensed on the controls, his hands poised on the throttles, and the anxiety was being communicated to the other crewmembers behind. Smith, the crew chief, an older Airman with a wife and kids back home, was peeking into the cockpit. Sparkie was rummaging through the papers trying to find the right chart.


"1:08, boss," said the copilot, and then, in the mists immediately ahead, rocks and trees materialized.

"Shit!" exclaimed both pilots simultaneously.

Albert, poised on the controls, pulled the wheel hard into his lap, and his hands mashed the throttles all the way to overboost. The alert copilot raised the landing gear switch and pulled the flap lever up. The airplane nosed up and leaped uphill.

The pilots could see trees and rocks in the fog immediately below them, so close it seemed like inches. Then the trees disappeared below them, the engines screamed in fury, and in a few seconds the plane burst into brilliant sunshine. Never did blue sky look so inviting, so energizing, so full of life and promise.

For a while, Robinson and Parisi circled, and called vainly on the radio, but with no answer from the other 3 planes. Switching to his long range set, he called,

"Watson Lake Radio, this Army 112800 on 4220. Can I get Watson Lake Weather?"

"Roger, Army 112800, Watson Lake just cleared up. We have Clear, visibility unlimited, winds light and variable. What is the nature of your call?"

"This is Army 8-0-0, we are separated from our formation, requesting clearance to Watson Lake."

"Roger 8-0-0, you are cleared to Watson Lake via Amber Two, land visually, contact Watson Lake tower on 3105 when airport in sight."

With that, Robinson proceeded to Watson Lake. After filing his report, and learning that the other three bombers were missing, he joined up with another formation, flew to Fairbanks and turned his plane over. To the crew chief he said, "Smitty, besides the overboost, be sure to write up the hack timer. It stopped at 1:08 back in Smith River and I can't get it to run again."

After the War

Lieutenant Robinson and his copilot Parisi stayed together as a team during the remainder of the war. In 1947 Robinson left the service and returned to his home in Cody, Wyoming. He married his high school sweetheart, Arlene, and over the years fathered three fine boys and a girl. His close friend, Tony, chose not to go into the hardware business with Robinson, but instead went to work for the City of Cody, as a manager in the Public Works department.

During the late 1960's Albert was contacted by the US Air Force about serving in Vietnam, but was deemed to be a bit old and not suitable for flying. Parisi was not contacted.

Sparky and Smitty did not live in Wyoming, but every year they all traded Christmas cards, and once in a while they and the wives would all get together and reminisce about the past; what they did and saw, and relived that terrible day in October, 1944 when their buddies perished on that cold, lonesome Canadian mountainside, where their wrecks had been found weeks later after an intense ground search.

The end for Parisi came in 1999, when old age and a brief lung ailment claimed his life. Smitty and Sparky had passed on years before after full and happy lives.

Albert Robinson lived to age 84. His wife, almost as old as he, was always bright and cheerful. After he retired from running the hardware store, two of his boys took over the business, and Albert enjoyed his retirement. One year he even drove the Alcan Highway, and passed the sign that said "Smith River Airport, 42 km", on the turnoff to a forlorn looking road disappearing into the trees to the north.

He considered turning, but he noted that forest fire had devastated the area, and decided not to. The memories were too painful as well, so he kept on driving.

In 2004, after a short illness, his time came and he died peacefully in his sleep.

... 1:09

And then, as Robinson's casket was lowered into the grave, the windscreen disintegrated upon the trees and rocks, and the hack turned 1:09.

Copyright © 2008, Ramon Gandia