Let's not forget the pilot

In 1945, Rob Armstrong’s airplane mysteriously crashed in the Siskiyou Mountains, south of today’s Applegate Lake.

Last month's answer to a "Since You Asked" question about the graves found along wilderness trail No. 957 in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest ("Applegate trail reveals site of 1945 plane crash," Aug. 22), did a good job of explaining how three passengers died there in a July 1945 plane crash, but the pilot was unidentified and his story left untold.

The passengers were Sylvan Gosliner, a Portland businessman; his wife, Ruby; and his wife's sister, recently married Alma Pratt of Oakland, Calif. Gosliner had been on a business trip and Pratt was enjoying a vacation.

More about Rob Armstrong

Rob Armstrong was born in Idaho, where his father built houses around Boise. By the time Armstrong was 5 years old in 1910, his family had moved to Lindsay, Calif., where his father still built houses but also was the proud owner of an orange grove.

When he died in 1945, Rob and his wife, Josephine, had two growing children: a daughter, 14, and a son, 13.

With his young son as head mechanic, Rob had run a trucking business for a while and had plans to open a flight school after World War II. He also owned an olive grove. Today, his nephew, Mike Armstrong, is still in the olive business in Porterville, Calif., just a few miles from Lindsay.

Another nephew, Dale Armstrong, is retired and living in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Sonora, Calif.

Both men have long been avid fliers.

The pilot and owner of the doomed Stinson cabin airplane was Rob Lee Armstrong of Lindsay, Calif. He was a week away from his 40th birthday.

Why Gosliner would charter a flight with a pilot who lived in California's Central Valley is unknown, but Armstrong's nephew, Dale Armstrong, 11 years old at the time of the crash, said he believes the two men had met in Oregon.

"As I remember, Uncle Rob had some cattle property up there in Southern Oregon," he said. "He probably met him up there somehow; because he was flying up there periodically."

He said the family has always wondered what could have caused the crash.

"He was a great pilot," Dale Armstrong said. "He taught cadets during World War II. He couldn't qualify for the service because he was 4F (physically unable to serve), but he sure could teach."

Rob Armstrong left Red Bluff, Calif., mid-afternoon on July 28, 1945, for his next scheduled fuel stop in Eugene. His flight plan said he had four hours' worth of fuel on board.

A forest service lookout north of Yreka said that just before dusk he had seen a low-flying airplane, "obviously having engine trouble and searching for a landing spot."

The plane dived nose-first into the Siskiyou Mountains, the propeller pushing four feet into the ground. The engine was shoved back into the cabin. There was no apparent reason for the crash. Not even a tree in the heavily forested wilderness area was hit — but four people died instantly.

Three days later, the wreck was spotted from the air, and the next day a burial party, accompanied by pack horses, drove over a rough mountain road and hiked nearly five miles into the forest.

Everyone was buried in a mass grave and, except for Rob Armstrong, there they would stay.

"My dad and Dale's dad went in and got him," said Mike Armstrong, another of Rob's nephews. "I guess that was rather traumatic, because my dad would never talk about it.

"My uncle told me they found them in a common grave, wrapped in a blanket, in sort of a gully."

"They were all laid side by side and covered up with rocks," Dale said. "They were in bad shape. Dad thought they had hooked a wing and spun it into the ground."

Dale's father, Fred, and Mike's father, Worth, brothers of Rob Armstrong, along with Rob's wife, Josephine, arrived in Medford the day after the forest burial. After they recovered Rob's body, Fred accompanied it back to Lindsay, while Worth and Josephine continued on to Portland for an evening memorial service with the Gosliner family.

Rob Armstrong was buried in Lindsay's Olive Cemetery under the brokenhearted eyes of his parents.

"The brothers were kind of a rowdy group," Dale said, "but they were close — real close."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.

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