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‘Phantom in the forest’
The Day The Plane Crashed

A look back at fatal 1976 military jet crash on Holston Mountain

  • 10 min to read
BHC 04212019 Holston Mnt Plane Crash 01

ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. — Two German military pilots died in 1976, when their supersonic jet crashed into the ridge of Holston Mountain in an often-forgotten tragedy likely only remembered by passersby on a gravel forest service road along the Carter and Sullivan county line in Tennessee.

The Bristol Herald Courier recently obtained the U.S. Air Force mishap report issued following the crash on Oct. 1, 1976, that killed 1st Lt. Kurt Schnurer, 24, and Cadet Werner Michelberger, 26, German pilots training in America. The newspaper obtained the report, which had never been released, through a Freedom of Information Act request at the Air Force Safety Center at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

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The crash site is desolate, marked today by a gravestone marker along U.S. Forest Service Road 56, a narrow gravel road that stretches for about five miles between the former Holston Mountain Fire Tower and the antenna farm on Holston High Point, where several radio and TV towers are located.

It’s about 4,000 feet above sea level near the top of Holston Mountain, a lofty ridge that stretches from Northeast Tennessee near Elizabethton to Southwest Virginia near Damascus.

Last week, it appeared that the marker has been added onto recently. A wooden border wall has been built. There’s also a military toy figure next to the marker and a few flowers.

On the Record, Ep. 72: "The day the plane crashed"

Dawn Peters, a local historian, said Schnurer and Michelberger’s families installed the marker along the route, which borders the Carter and Sullivan county line. The families, who are believed to live in the German cities of Stuttgart and Nonnenhorn, respectively, could not be reached for this story.

It’s not known whether anyone maintains the gravestone, but a few mementos can be found around the marker.

Just as if the plane crashed yesterday, pieces of wreckage can still be found scattered in the woods downhill from the marker.

Cherokee National Forest spokesman Terry McDonald, who works out of the agency’s Cleveland, Tennessee, office about 200 miles from Holston Mountain, said it appears the Air Force, which investigated the crash, previously retrieved all the items it needed and left some pieces at the scene.

The site is now part of a geocache, an activity completed by outdoor enthusiasts using GPS. Geocachers can search for the “phantom in the forest” to locate the wreckage.

McDonald said the Cherokee National Forest had little information to share about the crash site — the marker was placed decades ago and the agency doesn’t maintain the site or know who does, if anyone.

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A memorial for two German pilots who died in a military jet crash during a training flight from Shaw Air Force Base on Oct. 1, 1976, is located in Carter County, Tennessee, on the side of Panhandle Road/National Forest Road 56, near the crest of Holston Mountain.

Training mission

The supersonic jet, manufactured by McDonnell Douglas, crashed at 4:02 p.m. while proceeding to a military training route, according to the mishap report.

The air crew, Schnurer and Michelberger, reported for duty at noon that day to fly a student crew training mission. The mission was to have been flown in mountainous terrain in accordance with the training course’s syllabus.

Schnurer and Michelberger were stationed at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina, with the Tactical Reconnaissance Wing. A number of European countries, including Germany, sent cadets to the U.S. to train with the Air Force.

Schnurer, who piloted the supersonic jet that day, was exceptionally quick to learn to fly excellent patterns and landings, according to a summary performance record.

The document reveals that Schnurer had one weakness, disregarding altitude control.

It adds, “Lt. Schnurer’s excellent contact and navigation abilities should be of great asset to him in the future. His ability to think and lead other aircraft as well as his own will enable him to be responsible for complex aircraft. He will, on rare occasions, let a small distraction bother his flying, but overall, his aircraft control and general airmanship are very fine.”

Michelberger’s performance report was not included in the documentation obtained by the Herald Courier.

On Oct. 1, 1976, the two-man crew received a briefing for their mission at 12:03 p.m. from the Shaw weather detachment in South Carolina. They then attended a daily squadron flight crew briefing at 12:15 p.m. and another briefing at 2:30 p.m.

The plan for the day: The men were to train in mountainous conditions using military training routes that had been designated in the Appalachian Mountains.

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A memorial for two German pilots who died in a military jet crash during a training flight from Shaw Air Force Base on Oct. 1, 1976, is located in Carter County, Tennessee, on the side of Panhandle Road/National Forest Road 56, near the crest of Holston Mountain.

Major Bradley Sevy at Shaw AFB said the Air Force only keeps records of current military training routes and does not have documentation on routes in 1976.

Supersonic jet

In 1976, the air crew arrived at the jet at approximately 2:40 p.m. There were no problems on the preflight or start, the report states.

The two men were to fly a supersonic jet often used by the Air Force, as well as the Navy and Army.

The RF-4C Phantom, a tandem two-seat, twin engine, long range jet was originally developed for the Navy in 1960. It was adopted by the Marine Corps and the Air Force, and had become a popular supersonic jet by the late 1970s. It had a maximum speed that could reach more than twice the speed of sound at about 1,600 miles per hour, with a cruising speed of 575.

The training unit at Shaw Air Force Base received its first RF-4Cs in 1964, 12 years before the fatal flight. Combat-ready planes were available by 1965.

It was between 1973 and 1981 that German pilots, like Schnurer and Michelberger, were trained at Shaw with the RF-4Cs. The Air Force accepted 505 RF-4C jets. Pilots in the Air Force flew 68,601 flying hours on the RF-4C in 1976, according to military data.

The two pilots were training to fly the RF-4C, which can carry a variety of cameras in three different stations in its nose section. It could take photos at both high and low altitude, day or night. It was used for tactical photographic reconnaissance, according to the National Museum of the Air Force.

The airplane — with a call sign of Conny three six — taxied at approximately 3:10 p.m. at Shaw Air Force Base as it prepared for takeoff. The crew received clearance to fly at 6,000 feet and took off at 3:27 p.m. Takeoff and departure were normal, the report states.

Shaw handed the flight over to Jacksonville control as it proceeded on to the area of Spartanburg, South Carolina. At 3:33 p.m., Jacksonville control handed the flight over to Atlanta, which, in turn, handed the flight over to Tri-Cities Approach Control at 3:54 p.m.

“Atlanta controls them and brings them down to 7,000 feet,” said Hubert Estep, a retired Federal Aviation Administration approach control employee from Tri-Cities Airport. “At 7,000 feet, Tri-Cities Approach Control has the responsibilities.”

Estep was working the day of the crash, manning the radar’s western sector. Another man was handling the eastern sector, which included the Air Force jet.

“They came in and made an approach toward the airport and stayed on the approach control frequency instead of going to the tower,” Estep recalled.

Estep referred to approach control, which deals with flights within the airport’s radar. The tower controls flights at the airport.

Estep said the two German pilots were training with another airplane from Shaw.

“They made a left turn out and started back up toward Bristol, being vectored by the east sector,” Estep said. “The lead aircraft called and told [the second control employee] he wanted to cancel his IFR and go with VFR back to Shaw.”

IFRs are instrumental routes and are monitored and controlled by towers at airports across the country. VFRs are visual routes and are not controlled by the towers.

The two German pilots were flying the lead aircraft. Once around Abingdon, Estep said the planes turned southward toward Shaw.

At 4 p.m., as the Germans’ plane traveled toward Holston Mountain, the flight was cleared to 3,600 feet, according to the mishap report. The crew remained with Tri-Cities Approach Control for traffic advisories and contact.

At 4:01 p.m., control asked the crew if they had good flight visibility and Conny three six reported “five to eight miles.”

The crew then said, “Roger sir, we remain on your frequency.”

“Roger,” the Tri-Cities approach control said.

At 4:02 p.m., approach control said, “Conny three six, radar contact lost one mile east of Holston Mountain VOR. Good day, sir.”

The control tower received no reply from the aircraft, according to the report.

Investigators believe the aircraft crashed at 4:02 p.m. into the ridge on Holston Mountain, destroying the aircraft and killing both crew members.

“He didn’t hit the mountain, but he hit a tree that was on top of the mountain,” Estep said. “If he hit the mountain, he would have crashed around Bristol.”

Estep said he later talked to George Papantoniou, then the sheriff of Carter County, about the crash.

“He had gone up there with the rescue squad,” Estep said. “He said he [the pilot] hit the tree on top of the mountain and it flipped his airplane down and crashed on the south side of the mountain.”

Estep said the pilot on the second aircraft returned to Shaw.

According to the findings, the aircraft flew into “unsatisfactory weather,” although 3 1/2 hours earlier the weather was satisfactory. The squadron’s aircraft control officer was not aware of the latest weather observations along the Tri-Cities low level route when releasing Conny three six, the report states.

The National Climatic Data Center reports that fog, rain and drizzle were reported at Tri-Cities Airport. About 0.47 inches of rain fell that day and visibility was at 3.3 miles. The temperature reached 63.9 degrees.

The squadron’s officer learned of the poor weather in the Tri-Cities 17 minutes prior to the crash, but did not attempt to recall the student air crew, the report states.

In addition, the crew deviated from briefed procedures and descended below the minimum vectoring altitude. The crew cancelled instrument flight rules in weather that did not permit continued flight in the conditions, the report adds.

Estep said the weather was foggy at the time and the approach control employee at Tri-Cities Airport alerted the crew.

The plane was designed as an all-weather, day and night reconnaissance jet.

Search and recover

With contact lost, authorities quickly began efforts to locate the missing jet.

Authorities in Sullivan and Carter counties led a search through thick fog late into the night, the Herald Courier reported Oct. 2.

A team of qualified officers from Shaw Air Force Base, where the aircraft was due to land at 5:05 Friday, was to join the search at about 11 p.m. Oct. 1.

About 50 people from local rescue squads and deputies from Sullivan and Carter counties joined the search Saturday before the downed craft was found on the mountain.

The wreckage was located early on Oct. 2 just along the county line, where it had broken up badly on impact and was strewn over a wide area, the newspaper reported. The two occupants were dismembered, according to newspaper reports.

Sgt. Dominick Cardonita said the occupants’ next of kin would be notified through the German Embassy in Washington, D.C.

The area was quickly sealed off because of classified detection equipment on board the jet.

Air Force investigators were scheduled to go into the area over the weekend to determine the cause of the crash.

“We’ll have some technical experts come in,” said Capt. Roger Baschab, public information officer at Shaw in 1976. “These experts would work with others to determine if there were any malfunctions within the jet which caused the accident.”

Baschab said the men could possibly determine the cause of the accident by instruments scattered by the impact.

“We’ll use picks and shovels” to find the instruments, said Col. Roger E. Johnson from Shaw AFB.

Represented at the impact site were three officers from MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida, and six from Shaw AFB.

Baschab said there were also two members of the Explosives Ordnance Disposal Team, four security police and two disaster preparedness people in action.

He said that security personnel were needed “to get people out and save lives” until potentially hazardous materials or classified materials were removed.

Deadly mountain

Towering Holston Mountain has been the site of a number of plane crashes over the past century, resulting in many deaths.

The prominent mountain can be seen from throughout Bristol and Elizabethton, with its highest peak of 4,280 feet at Holston High Point. The second highest point, Rye Patch Knob, rises to 4,260 feet, and Holston High Knob has an elevation of 4,136 feet.

Why have so many planes, including the Air Force jet, crashed on Holston Mountain? According to a number of crash reports, pilots were flying too low, unable to miss the mountain. Several crashes were the result of weather, including fog, rain and snow.

Two Navy pilots died on Feb. 2, 1958, when a plane crashed on Holston Mountain near Shady Valley, Tennessee. It was reported last seen on Feb. 2 in the Bristol area, but wasn’t found until Feb. 14. Weather conditions made it difficult to locate the plane, which was eventually found in the snow.

Aboard the plane were Lt. William L. Harris of Winslow, Arizona, husband of the former Mary Lou Sampson of Bristol, Virginia, and Lt. James R. Silder of Pocatello, Idaho.

Ten people died on the evening of Jan. 8, 1959, when a Southeast Airlines plane, based out of Kingsport, Tennessee, crashed into the ridges of Holston Mountain. The plane was flying from Knoxville’s McGhee-Tyson Airport to Tri-Cities Airport.

At the time of the crash, the Herald Courier reported that the control tower at Tri-Cities Airport lost radio contact with the flight crew while the twin-engine DC3 plane was making a landing approach.

Two occupants of a helicopter died on June 27, 1998, in a crash at the base of Holston Mountain near Hatcher Creek in Sullivan County. U.S. Forest Service Officer Stephen Bowman and National Guard Pilot Charles Harvey were on a mission to detect marijuana patches in the Cherokee National Forest when a dangerous storm approached.

Five people died on Sept. 1, 2007, when a plane carrying Jehovah’s Witnesses ministers, crashed on the mountain. A passing airplane later spotted the smoldering wreckage about 1 1/2 down the southern side of the mountain from the Holston High Point antenna farm.

En route to Virginia Highlands Airport in Abingdon, the plane had just taken off from Elizabethton Municipal Airport when it crashed.

There have been other crashes, as well; the first known is believed to have occurred in the 1940s.

“We have done quite a bit of outreach and education for pilots on controlled flight into terrain,” said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.

There are many reasons why a plane might crash into terrain, but pilot error is the most common, particularly a loss of situational awareness, the FAA reports. A pilot may not know what his or her actual position is, and how that position relates to the surrounding terrain. Fatigue can cause very experienced pilots to make mistakes.

Controlled flight into terrain accidents usually occur during low visibility conditions and when the aircraft is on approach to a destination airport, the FAA said. Other contributing factors include weather, approach design and documentation, failure to use standard phraseology and malfunctioning navigational aids.  

A Very High Frequency Omni-Directional Range [VOR] is located near where the Air Force jet crashed in 1976. The VOR is a ground-based electronic system that provides information for high and low altitude routes and airport approaches.

The VOR on Holston Mountain was established in 1952, according to Bergen. The FAA owns and maintains the VOR.

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rsorrell@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2531 | Twitter: @RSorrellBHC | Facebook.com/robertsorrelltn

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