The New Mexico Plane Crash From The 1950s You Can Visit
At 7:05 a.m. on February 19, 1955, TWA Flight 260 took off from the Albuquerque airport for a short flight to Santa Fe. To avoid flying over the Sandia Mountains, the plane’s approved air route was a dogleg running north-northwest from Albuquerque, then east-northeast into Santa Fe. But at 7:08 a.m. Flight 260 was headed directly toward Sandia Ridge, almost entirely obscured by storm clouds.
A local resident who saw Flight 260 overhead observed that if the plane was eastbound, it was too low; if it was northbound, it was off course.
At 7:12 a.m. the plane’s terrain-warning bell sounded its alarm. Both pilots saw the sheer west face of the Sandias just beyond the right wingtip––an appalling shock considering they should have been ten miles further west.
Reacting instantly, they rolled the plane steeply to the left, pulled its nose up, and started to level the wings. It was their final act. Hidden by the storm, another cliffside lay directly ahead. When they struck it, they were still in a left bank, nose high.
In a secluded canyon tucked into Sandia Peak above Albuquerque, New Mexico, a sign and wreckage commemorate the 1955 crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 260. The flight, a Martin 4-0-4, left Albuquerque airport on February 19 at 7:00 a.m. en route to Santa Fe. Ten minutes later, the plane crashed into Sandia Peak, killing all aboard (Thirteen passengers and three crew). The National Transportation Safety Board later determined a failure of the navigational instruments as the cause of the crash.
Though the bodies of the victims were removed, much of the mechanical wreckage remains at the site, as well as a sign recording the details of the disaster and the names and hometowns of the victims. The site is located in a narrow ravine near the top of the mountain. The famous Sandia Peak Tramway cable car travels above the site.
Only minutes after Flight 260 took off, much of the plane’s shredded fuselage littered the pinnacle of Dragon’s Tooth. The tail section dangled precariously above a rock fissure’s floor, 700 feet below. Fog hid the carnage from view, and authorities knew only that the crew failed to make its first post-takeoff radio call.
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The bodies were recovered over four days. TWA hauled off the plane’s tail section and nose cone, and later volunteers tossed most of the wreckage remaining on the Dragon’s Tooth into the fissure. It’s now known to locals as TWA Canyon, and remains accessible to those who make the arduous hike on the Cibola National Forest floor.
The Sandias were familiar to TWA Capt. Ivan Spong, who was joined by co-pilot J.J. Creason and hostess Sharon Schoening. The doomed plane was on its way to Santa Fe, N.M., the first of many stops en route to Baltimore, and the flight plan was one the crew used regularly.
This time, the plane flew too far east, flying into clouds shrouding the mountain and careening into Dragon’s Tooth at about 9,000 feet, the flight’s planned cruising altitude. Because Spong knew the correct route but did not follow it, Civil Aeronautics Board investigators ruled in October 1955 the crash was a deliberate act.
That didn’t sit well with TWA Capt. Larry DeCelles, now an 86-year-old Arizona retiree and once Spong’s colleague, who launched his own investigation.
“I thought it was preposterous that they assumed he tried to commit suicide and murder his passengers,” DeCelles said.
Thanks in part to DeCelles’ work, in 1960 the board attributed the crash to “reasons unknown” and pointed to a fluxgate compass malfunction as a possible cause.
ONE BOY REMEMBERS HIS FATHER
Bob Tips awoke with a start at 7:13 a.m. Feb. 19, 1955, and saw sleet outside his window.
“I was just wide awake, didn’t know why,” said Tips, now 72. “Didn’t have any idea.”
Tips, a sophomore ROTC student at the University of Oklahoma, did what most 19-year-olds do on such a Saturday. He sought refuge under his bunk bed’s sheets and went back to sleep.
He’d find out later his dad, 49-year-old Harold Tips, who had been away on business, was on his way home to Tulsa and boarded TWA Flight 260 in Albuquerque, N.M.
About 10 minutes later, the plane slammed into a fog-covered New Mexico mountain.
Harold and the 15 others aboard died at 7:13 a.m. near Albuquerque on the western face of Sandia Peak.
Bob Tips, a brigadier general in the Army Reserve and semiretired attorney, still lives in the Tulsa home his dad built a few years before the crash. The avid fisherman and former general aviation pilot has children in different corners of the country and lives with Ann, his wife of 3½ years.
Tips never learned much about what happened in the final minutes of his dad’s life. Most of what he knew is in newspaper accounts of the crash, yellowed clippings his mother collected in a box. That changed when he met Hugh Prather.
“I had just started to get to know my dad man-to-man instead of father-to-son, and I always felt there was a missing link there,” Tips said. “This helps bring that chapter to a close.”
Prather was a 12-year-old boy living in northern New Mexico when Flight 260 smashed into a rugged rock formation known locally as Dragon’s Tooth.
Years later, during one of his many hikes to the crash site, Prather decided to help memorialize Flight 260 at the spot where some of the wreckage remains today.
“As I wandered around the site, that incredible testimony to tragedy, I thought, ‘Wow, there’s no marker here beyond the wreckage itself,’ ” said Prather, a 65-year-old retired school superintendent who recently moved to Oklahoma City with his wife.
Fifty years after the crash on Feb. 19, 2005, Prather made the steep, eight-mile round-trip hike to the crash site. He carried a simple memorial — the names of the 16 victims and a brief account of the crash encased in Plexiglas and redwood. Prather affixed the memorial to one of the largest pieces of the remaining wreckage.
Getting to the site:
Take the Domingo Baca/TWA Canyon trail up the mountain. The 3.5-mile trail to the site is a moderate-to-strenuous climb through the Cibola National Forest. Sections of the trail are difficult to follow, so a map or directions are recommended. A small creek flows along the trail route in some months.