Let’s get right to the point. Ron Carlson would like to give you $30,000. Really. If not you, then someone very much like you. And he’s dead serious. All you have to do is find the location of his TBM Avenger, N337VT. That’s it.
Admittedly, collecting on the reward will be a little tougher than heading down to the airport, flinging open a hangar door, and shouting, “Ta da.”
7VT is truly lost. She’s deep in the mountain forests and valleys of northeast Arizona. But there are clues to its likely whereabouts. Tantalizing clues that narrow the search field considerably.
But don’t just rush out and start searching on foot. While that will undoubtedly be the method used to finally locate the airplane with precision and absolute confidence, you can’t just run off into the woods with your backpack and start searching.
The airplane is located something like six to 10 miles southwest of Mount Baldy, smack dab in the heart of an Apache Reservation. That’s sovereign land, y’all. You’ll need the permission of the White Mountain Apache Tribe to go hunting for this particular treasure.
And there’s the rub. But rather than get deep into the weeds on territorial rights, let’s back up a bit to get some perspective on this whole thing.
Like so many of us, Ron Carlson is a true devotee of World War II aircraft. He studies them, even reveres them.
Unlike most of us, Ron had the means to find and purchase a TBM Avenger. That’s pretty special. He personally worked on the airplane, cleaning and waxing right down to the level of individual rivets. He was and is deeply connected to the airplane.
There’s a joy to flying a machine built in the early days of powered heavier-than-air flight. While sitting in his bucket seat, atop the parachute designed to serve as a seat cushion and life-saving device, Ron and his flying buddy Ken were able to experience very nearly an identical experience to that a World War II Navy pilot might have experienced.
The Avenger is a beast. Heavy on the controls, the 54′ wingspan rolls with great effort. Sitting behind a whirling propeller driven by a Wright Twin Cyclone, Ron and Ken were reliving history. Aside from the GPS they used to navigate, the airplane was a true reminder of a time gone by, when young airmen took to the skies to do battle in an effort to free people invaded by hostile armies, and to prevent the spread of that hostility from making it to the land they called home.
Thrumming along from Phoenix to Las Vegas, Ron and Ken were doing just fine. Until they weren’t. The engine lost power. Oil blew aft in sheets. Altitude was lost, emergency options were considered, and the decision was made to bail out.
Frankly, I don’t think Ron or Ken ever considered experiencing the worst aspects of what young Navy fliers might face one day. But they did, and they did it successfully. Bumped, bruised, and temporarily broken, they survived the jump.
And while neither saw where the airplane came to rest, it is likely it survived as well. As the old adage goes, so far nobody has left one up there. Which means N337VT is out there, right now, waiting for someone to come along and find her.
If you plug 33.792289, -109.667258 into Google maps, you’ll find the marsh that Ron considered putting his bird down in as the altimeter spun the wrong way. An experienced bush pilot, he determined the marsh along Boggy Creek wasn’t a viable option. But it does serve as an important waypoint for those who might search.
Nearby, at 33.814381, -109.653824 ATC received the last ping from the Avenger’s transponder. She was at 10,000′, descending at 1,000′ per minute, and headed to the northwest.
Remember this is the mountains of Northeast Arizona — 10,000′ MSL isn’t all that high AGL.
“When I left the airplane I was about 800′ above the ground,” Ron recalls.
The pair came down separately, some distance apart, in a thick forest of tall, pointy obstacles not far from that point, where the last ping was reported. The airplane may well have flown for a distance after they bailed out. But with such a descent rate in mountainous terrain, it likely didn’t go far.
So why does Ron want to gift you with $30,000 for finding the airplane? The insurance company has made its payments, so the airplane belongs to them now, not Ron. The answer is simple and comes in three parts.
“It’s part of me,” Ron says. A sentiment the owner of any classic aircraft can relate to entirely.
“It’s a flying museum” is his second point of reason. He considers these classic era aircraft to be living history, worthy of our respect and our investment. He’s not alone in that assessment either.
Finally, and perhaps most logically, Ron wants to know what went wrong. With barely 60 hours on a completely rebuilt machine, an engine failure shouldn’t have been in the cards — but it was and the men inside the machine paid a price for that failure. He simply wants to know what happened. Who wouldn’t?
And that’s the story of Ron Carlson and N337VT. There really is treasure awaiting someone in the White Mountains of Arizona. Whoever takes up the search, I wish you the best of luck.
But know this before you go: Many out West frequently carry a firearm. The Apache may not be all that agreeable to the idea. You’ve been warned.
Also, the Apache have been known to disallow drones in the White Mountains. It may be possible to get a permit from the Apache, so be sure to ask if you are interested.
And it appears the owners of the land aren’t all that thrilled to have folks tromping through their forest looking for crashed aircraft. So you’ve got that working against you.
I wish you luck, one and all. Most of all, I wish luck and good fortune to Ron and Ken. They’ve had enough excitement already.
Editor’s Note: While Ron’s website still reads that the reward is $20,000, Ron confirmed in a conversation with Jamie that it was recently raised to $30,000.