Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Man Caves and Planes on the Mountain

A Brief History of Sandia Mountain's Lesser-Known Spaces


When we think of man caves today, we think of beer-laden lairs, complete with flatscreen TVs and comfortable seating options. When we asked the editorial room who knew the Sandia Man, the majority said who? A few older Burqueños in the room waxed short on their knowledge of the subject. Who or what is Sandia Man?

The story begins just after the Ice Age. Mammoths, North American sloths and ancient deer roamed this area. A hunter, whose origin is still unknown, found and used a cave site far up a sheer mountain edge for protection from the elements. The cave had been forgotten to time for a thousand years before New Mexico's Father of Fucked-Up (I will explain) Archeology, Frank Hibben, came across the site in 1936. Hibben, then just a student at UNM, found artifacts from the Folsom culture, some 10,000 years ago, inside the cave. But then, as these guys typically do (I'm Native, believe me, we see it all the time), they go one step too far. In his accounts, Hibben mentioned that the rock in the back of the cave suddenly gave way where he found these items. How lucky right? This allowed him to discover even older artifacts, including flint tools, that would predate the famed Clovis points, which at that time and still today are considered the oldest evidence of human life in the area—more than 25,000 years old. The discovery of this new "Sandia Man" era got Hibben in Time magazine and led him to become a rock star in his field.

As time passed Hibben's findings came under more and more scrutiny, partially due to his own making. The man was a fame-hound and loved to be the center of attention. He married the wife of the man who had funded his endeavors across the West. This family was named the Packs, and ex-husband Arthur published Nature magazine. They were the original owners of the famous Ghost Ranch. In 1940 a paper titled "A Chronological Problem Presented by Sandia Cave, NM." was published in the American Antiquity Journal. Wesley Bliss, who worked with Hibben on the initial excavations, penned this piece and was very critical of how the excavation went. His contention was that the portion of rock Hibben broke through was not correctly described. Then Hibben's flint elements also came under question, with allegations he planted them there. Apparently, Hibben was not opposed to "exaggerations" and former students said he often doctored his research. James Hester, an archeologist from Colorado State, was Hibben's assistant as a student and has gone on record in a June 12, 1995 article in the New Yorker as saying he was asked to send ivory samples that were not N.M. in origin off with the cave samples for radiocarbon dating. Hibben never asked for this history-altering box of evidence to be returned after being questioned. Subsequently, it has been examined by many in the field. Most now consider Sandia Man one of archeology's great hoaxes. Still, others say it was just sloppy work. No more artifacts were uncovered in the surrounding areas, as one might suspect, and no human remains were ever found.

Albuquerque's Airline Crash

Ever go up the Tram and someone points out some old plane wreckage? Well, that is the remnants of TWA flight 260. A blemish on what is a fairly clean aviation history in ABQ.

It was just before 7am on a cold Saturday morning in February, 1953. A snowstorm was forming, and clouds covered the mountains. A plane had arrived the day before from Las Vegas, Nev. en route to Baltimore, MD. This was the dawn of passenger plane aviation, and short stops were frequent for fuel and weather. Flying at night was basically unheard of. That morning TWA 260 was set to make a quick jump north to Santa Fe, but it never arrived. There were 16 souls aboard the craft, including the pilots.

Everything seemed normal that morning; the weather, although cloudy, was still negotiable. Flights continued throughout the day. There was one distinct eyewitness account from an Air Force colonel (name unknown) out hunting in the Four Hills area. He described seeing the plane fly overhead and thought to himself that "if the plane was headed north, he was on the wrong path. And if it was headed east, it was far to low in altitude," as recounted by Charles Williams in his book The Crash of TWA Flight 260.

The aircraft was supposed to head north out of Albuquerque, following the Rio Grande Valley, and then make a dogleg east-northeast to Santa Fe's airport. Instead, it made a near-direct line of ascent toward the Sandias. Then radio silence. Air traffic control had no idea of a crash until the next morning when a cargo plane headed on their normal route to Santa Fe spotted the wreckage. The pilot, Ivan Spong, 44,  had made this trip before—11 times that same month! His co-pilot, Jay Creason, had flown it 25 times in all. As the Civil Aeronautics Board stated frequently, a landmark the size of the Sandias is one all pilots should instinctively know is there regardless of instrumentation.

The crash was extraordinarily hard to get to. Not visible from town, the crash lay in a small ravine just near the pinnacle or spire or dragon's tooth, whatever you call it—the big pointy rock on the mountain face. We can see this landmark from Albuquerque, and it is much more visible if viewing the Sandias from an angle. The weather that day neared 0 degrees, and efforts were not started in earnest until the following day. But it took nearly four days for the wreckage to be found. In what I would consider some great customer service, TWA executives actually valued this incident enough to go hiking up the mountain with the help of some Kirtland Air Force men. But these guys had no idea what was in store. Many didn’t have anything on but suits or jeans with regular boots and light jackets. They expected the hike to take an afternoon. Some 14 hours later, in frigid conditions, they were getting emergency-dropped blankets and rations. But those airdrops missed the point by an entire ravine, almost a two-mile hike along sheer cliffs. The airman reportedly shared their food and blankets, but “not their bedrolls” as they had hiked that gear in themselves. TWA officials ultimately declared that there was insufficient material left to make any statements as to what may have malfunctioned on the aircraft.

The Civil Aeronautics Board investigators report in October basically took into account that there were possible compass malfunctions along with other aeronautical devices that should have allowed pilots to fly without visual clues, but said these could not be proven. They left one jarring statement: “The board can conclude only that the direct course taken by the flight was intentional.”  Rumors of a suicide pact between the pilots began to spread. The Airline Pilots Association and the widow of Spong would not let this stand and fought to have these findings amended. TWA pilots regarded the captain as a smart pilot, with Charles William's book on the matter mentioning a “night out for Spong was an anthropologist class by Dr. Hibbens.” That makes Hibbens two for two in odd Sandia lore this article!  

Nonetheless, the CAB released under pressure two more amended reports—concluding, finally, that the crash was not “intentional.” But the board never wavered from placing blame directly on human error. The final statement reads: “The board determines that the probable cure of this accident was the lack of conformity with the prescribe en route procedures and the deviation from airways at an altitude too low to clear obstructions ahead.”

Both of these places are hikable, the Sandia Cave being the far easier of the two.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here