by Mike Smith
It is sometimes said that if the Manzano Mountains were the Deep South, the Sandia Mountains, to their north, would be New England. The Sandias are generally thought of as someplace accessible and sunny—after all, you can ride an aerial tram right to their highest peak or drive on paved, tree-lined roads all around and on them. More than three million tourists a year visit the Sandia Mountains, and their reputation is generally that of a place known for its natural beauty, its verdant forests, and its edgeless views. And yet . . .
And yet, the Sandias have their dark side as well. Throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, the East Mountains was known as a place where criminals could drive to from the city below to abandon bodies or evidence or still-living victims. Famous murders have taken place from one end of the mountain chain to the other, from the 1930s to the 1970s and beyond, from San Antonio to Placitas. And dozens upon dozens of men and women have died tragically, colliding with the granite of the mountains, in plane crash after plane crash. Let any place exist long enough, and no matter what its board of tourism may tell you, it will experience not only light but darkness, not only happiness but tragedy, not only life but death.
From 1935 to the present, more than two dozen aircraft have crashed into the great granite wall of the Sandia Mountains. The fact is: if you’re heading east through the air from Albuquerque, or west through the air toward Albuquerque, they’re in the way. And a lot of aircraft have found that out the hard way. Small-engine planes. Helicopters. Hang gliders. Even a commercial airliner. During World War II, at least two military planes crashed into the mountains, according to historian Don Alberts, quoted in a June 23, 2007 Albuquerque Tribune article. The pieces of one of them still lie scattered near the mountains’ northern end—as do elsewhere in the mountains a number of bombs filled with sand, another remnant of wartime aerial activity in the area.
In 1955, TWA Flight 260 crashed into the western face of the Sandias—in what’s now known as TWA Canyon—killing everyone aboard, thirteen passengers and three crew members. The plane had taken off, the radio had fallen silent, and the radio had remained silent. Once the debris and the bodies had been located, the crash was initially blamed on the pilot—he was accused posthumously of having crashed the plane intentionally, killing the others on board along with himself. Later investigations proved that instrument failure was actually at fault, and the pilot’s name was cleared of all charges. Large pieces of the wreck are still visible today in TWA Canyon, some of them even visible from the aerial tram up to the Peak. Wreckage often remains behind at these sites, because the debris is large and the areas typically hard to get to.
Other crashes may have their origins in actual events, but have since become the stuff of folklore, their dates shifting, their details amorphous and indistinct. Sandia locals talk of a crash in Tijeras Canyon, at the mountains’ southern end, perhaps during the 1960s, in which three people were reported missing. When their little plane was finally found, it contained not three but four bodies, one of which appeared to have been already dead at the time of the crash. Another story tells of a small plane that crashed on the mountains’ east side, near what’s now the San Antonio Open Space, perhaps during the 1970s. This one had allegedly just flown here from Las Vegas, Nevada, where one of its occupants had won a sizable jackpot. The plane crashed, its propeller lodged into a tree, and the locals began fervently, quietly, searching the mountain forests for the missing money. But no one ever admitted to having found it.
An urban legend exists of a large plane flying directly into the Sandias and then never being found. And conversely, wreck sites exist with no apparent documentation of when these planes crashed or who piloted them. Historian Jerry Sussman, in the same article quoted above, said he once found a plane near the mountains’ southern end—“pretty much intact . . . nose down . . . in a brushy area.”
In 1999 three golfers returning from a tournament were killed when their small plane had its engine fail, causing their aircraft to plummet and explode against the mountains’ western side. Golf balls now mark the site as a memorial—as do pieces of the plane and the scattered bone fragments of the men who were aboard.
In 2007 one man was killed when the small Cessna he piloted crashed into an area near the La Luz Trail on the mountains’ west side. According to a June 18, 2007 article in the Albuquerque Journal, a National Guard medic tried to approach the scene, but had to run away because of all the bears the fatal crash had attracted. It took some time for the bears to leave so that the unfortunate man’s remains could at last be retrieved.
Most of these sites can be hiked to, although many of them are in extremely remote locations, and the hikes required to reach them can be strenuous. There are local hikers who have tried to visit them all, and some have come close to succeeding. It should be stressed, however, that if you decide to go through the trouble of visiting one or more of these sites, the experience will not be the sort of fun and happy day hike most people seek out. These are all sites of death, of the too-soon demises of people mourned by their families and friends. You may be chattering away as you hike your way up to them, but you will inevitably fall silent when you reach your destination. You may approach them from a sunlit glade, but you will always reach them in the shadows.
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