Oregon Trails: Crater Lake Crashes

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CRATER LAKE, Ore. — Crater Lake in Southern Oregon is unlike any other national park in the country, and it’s the nation’s deepest lake. For more than 150 years it has attracted the curious and adventurous, but it also has attracted some people who never returned.

Clear skies and barely a whisper of breeze makes a beautiful view of Crater Lake from the Rim Village this time of year. The mirror-like lake surface reflects the snow-covered caldera. But it can also be confusing if you’re a pilot flying a helicopter low over the lake. And that may be what happened in late September 1995.

“It’s been described as a kind of a slow, arcing crash that appeared over the north side of the lake, and then just continued almost like an arc, into that part of the lake. It broke apart on contact,” said park historian Stephen Marks.

“But nobody actually saw it go in,” said former park ranger Larry Smith. “From my understanding, they heard the helicopter coming and it was doing just fine, and all of a sudden there was no helicopter. And they’re quite sure it was vertigo and the guy couldn’t see.”

The chopper, much like this Eurocopter AS-350, was taking Portland businessman Edward Tulleners on a trip to Las Vegas, possibly in a demonstration flight. While making a low level pass over the lake it went down, exploding on impact. Much of it sank in pieces with Tuellener and the pilot, George Causey, still on-board.

“Nobody knows who was flying it! The other guy could have been flying it. But it’s all speculation,” said Larry Smith.

Rangers were able to quickly move in with booms to capture the fuel and small oil slick. But the remains of the pilot and passenger, and some of the helicopter is still down there today, more than 1,500 feet underwater.

“Bones and recovery? Very, very difficult,” remarked Stephen Marks, “and probably more risky to even attempt to try to get what could be left.”

Almost 30 years before that, in December 1967, a Seattle glider pilot trying to set a long-distance record from Mt. Ranier to Mt. Shasta hit a huge downdraft over Mt. Mazama and landed in a snowbank on the caldera rim. He escaped without injury and the glider was flown out by helicopter.

But one of the biggest mysteries came shortly after the end of world war two when a squadron of Navy hellcat fighters was flying over the lake. One of the planes experienced problems and disappeared the night of December 3rd, 1945.

Piloted by 22 year old Ensign Frank Lupo of Newark, New Jersey, his whereabouts remained a mystery for 25 years. It was in 1970 that the mystery was solved by Park Ranger David Panebaker. He was looking for the wreckage near Mt. Scott when he discovered more than he expected.

“So he sat down on a log for a few minutes, and in sitting down his perspective changed,” Larry Smith described. “And he suddenly had this feeling somebody was looking at him. And he turned and there was a skull underneath a log, looking back at him!”

It turned out to be Ensign Lupo’s remains. Naval investigators were called in to identify the plane. Again, just by chance, the plane’s old instrument panel was spotted along a trail where souvenir hunters had tossed it years before. And there a small piece of paper with the plane’s I.D. number was hidden.

The mystery of the missing Navy pilot and his plane was solved after 25 years. The 1995 crash of the helicopter in Crater Lake is the only time that rangers know that an aircraft actually plunged into the water. There have been plenty of other crashes around the park, but that’s the only time that anyone actually went into the water, and that lives were lost.

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew over Crater Lake in the same plane he used to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, the “Spirit of St. Louis”. In 1931, an amphibian airplane flown by a Seattle pilot made the first known landing on Crater Lake, and took off, reportedly barely clearing the trees on the caldera rim.