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On December 7, 1922 a US Army De Havilland DH4B biplane swooped out of thick clouds, clipped some pine trees and crashed into the eastern slope of Japacha Peak, in what is now known as Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.

US Army Pilot Charles F. Webber volunteered to fly Calvary Colonel Francis C. Marshall to Fort Hauchuca, Arizona, as part of an inspection tour the Colonel was conducting. The pair left from Rockwell Field on North Island (Coronado), in a WWI-era De Havilland biplane and, with no plane-to-ground radio, were expected to phone when they reached their destination.

Apparently wintery weather, and possible engine trouble, had forced them to turn back to San Diego and in the thick clouds the plane hit the mountainside. When no word arrived from Arizona that the men had arrived, the Army initiated an extensive search. Investigators followed various leads and rumors, aircraft crisscrossed the route, there was even an automobile retracing of the route, but the men were never seen again.

Five months later, on May 12, 1923 a local rancher, named George McCain, came across the burned wreckage and the bones of the two Army officers "shrouded in snow." I can't personally remember a time when the Cuyamacas had any snow in May, so the winter that year must have been exceptional.

Later in the month a party of military and civilian men were guided to the wreckage by McCain, and salvaged all they could from the wreckage, buried the remainder of the wooden fuselage (most had burned), but left the huge V12 engine block.

What remained of the motor was made into a monument to the two men, the ridge above the wreckage was named Airplane Ridge on subsequent maps, and the trail leading to it, named Monument Trail. Over the years the monument has been both improved upon, and vandalized. From what I understand, from a presentation I saw recently, the original engine monument had quite a few parts still affixed to it. Now it's just a nearly bare block, on a stone pedestal with a plaque honoring the two officers.

Monument Plaque

To see the monument you can start from either Green Valley Campground, or (since the campground is closed in winter) the Sweetwater Bridge parking area. From Sweetwater, cross the road (look both ways, it's a highway after all) and catch the Westside trail, and head a little south. The Monument trail will meet up and head west, uphill. There isn't a lot of cover, so expect to be in the sun, and plan accordingly for sunscreen, hat, and a comfortable temperature. This can be a strenuous hike, and it's almost entirely uphill to the monument. From the Sweetwater Bridge parking lot to the monument was a little under two and half miles, and over 800 feet of altitude gain.

I admit to being a little surprised when I finally saw the monument. I'd seen photos of the men who'd salvaged the wreckage, and it was more than a dozen. In the old photos, the men were backed by large trees, and it seemed relatively flat ground, making me imagine it was on the edge of a meadow. In reality, the monument is tucked into a pretty steep hillside, and there were virtually no trees of any size. Of course, the 2003 fire could have killed those. There has been a bee hive inside the engine block for quite a while, so if you're allergic be aware.

The Monument

Bee Hive Entrance

If you decide to continue beyond the monument, there are a number of options for looping around, and back to the parking lot. We continued on the trail down to the West Mesa Fire Road (which had quite a few large fallen trees to deal with), met the Japacha Fire Road, and down to the West Side Trail back to the parking area. This route starts downhill almost immediately, which was a nice break from the 800 feet climb to the monument.

A little snow still hangin' around

Historical information taken largely from The Cuyamacas by Leland Fetzer, and "The Service Knows and Will Remember" The Aircraft Crash Memorial on Japacha Ridge by Alexander D. Bevil from the "Journal of San Diego History"

Aiplane Monument CRSP

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