TWA Flight 3 was flying a transcontinental route from New York to greater Los Angeles with multiple intermediate stops, including Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Albuquerque, with a final destination at Burbank, California.
At 4:00 local time on the morning of January 16, in Indianapolis, Indiana, Carole Lombard, her mother Elizabeth Knight, and her MGM press agent Otto Winkler, boarded Flight 3 to return to California. Lombard, anxious to meet her husband Clark Gable in Los Angeles, was returning from a successful War Bonds promotion tour in the Midwest, where she helped raise over $2,000,000.
Upon arrival in Albuquerque, Lombard and her companions were asked to give up their seats for the continuing flight segment, to make room for 15 U.S. Army Air Corps personnel flying to California. Lombard insisted that because of her War Bonds effort, she, too, was essential, and convinced the station agent to let her group reboard the flight. Other passengers were removed, instead, including violinist Joseph Szigeti.
Based on testimony from a Civil Aeronautics Board inquest, Lombard not only wouldn’t budge but threw her weight around — and got her way after citing that she had just sold $2 million worth of bonds in a single day and threatening to make calls to the big shots who had gotten her on the plane in the first place. Because of the weight of Lombard’s copious luggage and equipment carried by the flyers, the plane could only carry a limited amount of fuel leaving Albuquerque — not enough to make it to the final destination, Burbank, Calif.
After a brief refueling stop at what is now Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, the plane took off on a clear night for its final leg to Burbank. Fifteen minutes later, flying almost seven miles off course, it crashed into a nearly vertical cliff on Potosi Mountain in the Spring Mountain Range at 7,770 ft, about 80 ft (24 m) below the top of the cliff and 730 ft (220 m) below the summit, killing all on board instantly.
The accident was investigated by the Civil Aeronautics Board. Eyewitness and other evidence suggested Flight 3 proceeded from its departure in Las Vegas along essentially a straight line, 10° right of the designated airway, into high terrain that rose above their flight altitude of 8,000 ft (2,400 m).
A key piece of evidence was the flight plan form, completed by the first officer in Albuquerque (but not signed by the captain, despite a company requirement to do so). In the form, the planned outbound magnetic course from Las Vegas was filled out as 218°, which is close to the flight path actually flown by the crew to the crash point. Since this course, flown at 8,000 ft, is lower than the terrain in that direction (which rises to about 8,500 ft (2,600 m)), the board concluded it was clearly an error.
The board speculated that since both pilots had flown to Burbank much more frequently from Boulder Airport (BLD) than from Las Vegas, and that from Boulder Airport an outbound magnetic course of 218° would have been a reasonable choice to join the airway to Burbank, the crew likely inadvertently used the Boulder outbound course instead of the appropriate Las Vegas course. Boulder Airport was not used as a refueling point on this trip since it had no runway lighting.
The CAB issued a final report with the following probable cause statement:
Upon the basis of the foregoing findings and of the entire record available at this time, we find that the probable cause of the accident to aircraft NC 1946 on January 16, 1942, was the failure of the captain after departure from Las Vegas to follow the proper course by making use of the navigational facilities available to him.
The CAB added the following contributing factors:
1.) The use of an erroneous compass course
2.) Blackout of most of the beacons in the neighborhood of the accident made necessary by the war emergency
3.) Failure of the pilot to comply with TWA’s directive of July 17, 1941, issued in accordance with a suggestion from the Administrator of Civil Aeronautics requesting pilots to confine their flight movements to the actual on-course signals.
This image below has a red arrow indicating the airplane crash site.