Plane Crash Ghost

By R. Patrick Murtha

Back in the late '70s I was an insurance fraud investigator. In between the more interesting cases we would conduct Product Liability and accident investigations to pay the bills. One of these was the investigation of a plane crash in the very northern tip of the state of California. The small airport in this town had a runway that was in an East/West orientation to take advantage of the prevailing winds. On the westerly end, the runway ended at the edge of the cliffs above the Pacific. Approximately a half mile off the end of this runway was a small rock island standing alone as it rose about 150 feet above the water; perhaps a half acre in size. No human had stepped foot on it in 90 years as it was an official bird sanctuary. One clear morning, an experienced pilot who lived in this town and who had flown countless times from this airport, took off into the west and proceeded to slam his airplane into this small island; it was our job to find out why.

We helicoptered out to the island two days later to start our investigation, having to jump off the skids into the foot-deep bird guano with our camera and measuring equipment. While taking a picture of one of the pilot's eyeballs that had been flung into the side of a guano-encrusted rock just past the point of impact, I felt the presence of someone immediately to my right. Thinking it was my partner, I continued to photograph this eye from various angles as I made small talk with my partner, trying not to think too much about what I was doing and what I was photographing because that's the only way one can do this kind of work while remaining emotionally dispassionate. Having gotten my shots, I turned while rewinding the film back into my Nikon's cassette only to see a stranger standing 2 feet away with this curious look on his face. "What are you doing here?" was all I could think to ask, noting my partner was about a hundred feet away with his back turned as he too went about his work. He didn't answer me and just turned around and walked to the broken cockpit of the Piper, turning translucent then transparent as he walked through the out structure of the plane. I wanted to call out to my partner so he could see this but it was too late and I never mentioned this neither to him nor did I put it in my final report (DUH!).

After all facts were gathered it was determined to be caused by "pilot error" but I never felt good about that. However, no mechanical reason could be found for him flying straight into this rock that he was all too familiar with on a clear day. I wish now he could have communicated to me at that time in some way what did cause the accident because the insurance company denied his family any compensation due to the "pilot error" verdict. That wasn't the only time I felt accident victims at the scene of the incidents I would then be sent to investigate but he was certainly the most "solid" entity I've run into.