Wyoming History: 70 Years Ago This Month, Doomed Flight 34 Crashed During Winter Storm

Feb. 26, 1954, was a Friday nearly 70 years ago when the matriarch at the Keeline Ranch east of Wright, Wyoming, heard a low flying plane. The days that followed dominated headlines as would-be rescuers fought blizzard-like conditions in a desperate search for Western Air Lines Flight 34.

DK
Dale Killingbeck

February 18, 20247 min read

The Casper Tribune-Herald front page reports the tragic plane crash wreckage has been discovered on March 1, 1954.
The Casper Tribune-Herald front page reports the tragic plane crash wreckage has been discovered on March 1, 1954. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Feb. 26, 1954, was a Friday nearly 70 years ago when the matriarch at the Keeline Ranch east of Wright, Wyoming, heard a low flying plane.

She did not know it at the time, but the souls on that plane were about to leave this world, and one of those would leave a baby he never met.

The days that followed dominated headlines of the time as would-be rescuers on the ground fought sometimes blizzard-like conditions in a desperate search for Western Air Lines Flight 34, which took off from Los Angeles and never landed in its intended destination of Minneapolis.

The plane was supposed to have a layover in Casper, but because of bad weather headed on toward its next scheduled stop in Rapid City, South Dakota.

It never got there.

The crash site was located from the air two days later on Sunday, but searchers were not able to reach it until Monday morning, March 1. None of three crew members or six passengers survived.

Wreckage of the plane that carried those nine people was centered around a creek a half-mile from the old homestead of a one-time Texas Ranger called “Dad Jones.” That homestead in 1954 was on Keeline Ranch property.

“A Western Airlines DC-3 piloted by Chief Pilot Bill Spear first spotted the wreckage on the banks of Black Thunder Creek in an isolated section of territory on the Harry Keeline ranch 40 miles west of Newcastle,” the Casper Morning Star reported March 2. “Almost immediately after Western Airlines reported the wreck, Pilot Al Riggs searching out of Newcastle also reported that he had found the wreckage.”

Twin-Engine Passenger Plane

The twin-engine Convair CV-240 that could handle up to 40 passengers had taken off from LA with five scheduled stops along the way. The flight was routine from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and then to Cedar City and Salt Lake City, Utah.

In Salt Lake City, a new crew took over the aircraft.

Pilot M.R. Cawley, 39, of Bountiful, Utah, had 4,634 hours of experience with the aircraft and co-pilot R.E. Crowther, 35, of Salt Lake City, had 2,300 hours of experience. They were joined by stewardess Mary Grace Creagan, 29, also from Salt Lake.

Among the six passengers were Myron G. Wegner, 27, the Western Airlines manager in Cheyenne; and Vincent Anderson of South Dakota, who had just visited his son, Keith, at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in San Luis Obispo, California.

Other passengers were Harry Martinez of Monrovia, California; Sophia Radjenovich, 69, of Buhl, Minnesota; Alta Mae Reierson, 21, of Caledonia, Minnesota; and Jeannette H. Schultz, 19, of Fairfax, Minnesota.

In Salt Lake City, the aircraft took on 1,000 gallons of fuel. After a minor repair to a nose-wheel cable, the plane took off for Casper at 8:50 a.m. Because of bad weather in Casper, the crew decided to bypass the airport and head for Rapid City instead.

The cockpit’s last reported location shared from the flight deck at 10:25 a.m. had the aircraft nearing Wright, Wyoming, at 17,000 feet.

Searchers move through the debris of the Western Airlines flight crash site.
Searchers move through the debris of the Western Airlines flight crash site. (Courtesy Weston County Museum District)

Last Contact

The crew acknowledged a weather report for Rapid City at 10:27 a.m. as their the last transmission. Attempts to contact the flight at 10:41 a.m. were unsuccessful and continued until 10:53 a.m. when a radio operator advised the airline that the flight was lost.

At 11:06 a.m. an emergency was declared.

A rancher who took off in his own plane to look for the potential crash that Friday reported the weather was terrible. He said he couldn’t fly into the Pumpkin Buttes west of Wright because the “weather was too bad.”

When the plane was discovered on a ranch in Campbell County three-quarters of a mile from the Weston County line, reporters from the Casper Tribune Herald sent to the cover the crash chronicled what ground searchers found, led by Weston County Sheriff Karl Thoeming.

Accounts of the crash tell of a large debris field, mail spread over the area, and unidentifiable parts of bodies. Movie film hung streaming from a tree.

Wyoming Aeronautics Commissioner George Nelson told the Casper-based reporters at the scene that the crash was one of the “most completely disintegrated plane wrecks that I have ever seen .… It looks to me as if he (the pilot) picked up ice (on the plane’s wings) and crashed straight in (to the ground).”

Son Finds His Father

One of the searchers would be Keith Anderson who, hearing about the plane going down, flew from his college to help look for his father, who had just visited him in San Luis Obispo. The March 1 Tribune Herald coverage said he found his father’s torso and arms — recognizable by a shirt.

“Young Anderson, realizing that the virtually unrecognizable corpse was the body of his father, knelt down and offered a silent prayer before he sadly left the area,” the newspaper reported. “He came here Sunday night when the wreckage was reported found and searched the ridges and gullies with his flashlight. He didn’t know until this morning that he came within 100 yards of the crash scene.”

Keith Anderson would go on to become an inventor who used his inventions to “bring television for the first time to most of the Western United States and throughout the Pacific Rim, including the Philippines and Australia,” according to his obituary. He died in 2014.

Some recovered artifacts from the Western Airlines plane crash are at the Red Onion Museum in Upton, Wyoming.
Some recovered artifacts from the Western Airlines plane crash are at the Red Onion Museum in Upton, Wyoming. (Courtesy Weston County Museum District)

Pilot’s Wife Gives Birth

Crash coverage also included a story out of Bountiful, Utah, on March 1, 1954, that that pilot M. Ray Cawley’s wife, Ann, gave birth to a “healthy, 6-pound, 1-ounce son.”

“Hospital attendants reported mother and son were doing as well as could be expected,” the United Press reported.

Grandson Dave Cawley told Cowboy State Daily that the child was his uncle and was named Ray Cawley. Dave Cawley’s father, Richard, was 7 years old at the time. There were three other children, Barbara ,16, Carol, 10, and Lynn Marie, 3.

“My family has long held the experience close,” he said of that crash nearly 70 years ago.

The child who never knew his biological father would grow up, serve in the U.S. Air Force for seven years and Utah National Guard for 27 years, retiring as a master sergeant, according to his obituary. He had a career as an accountant and died leaving a wife and three children on May 29, 2021.

Cawley said his grandmother, Ann, later married a man who lost his wife in another Wyoming plane crash in October 1955 when a United Airlines DC4 plowed into Medicine Bow Peak, killing 66. He also had five children.

Probable Cause

The Convair crash investigation revealed that the probable cause was a “sudden emergency of undetermined origin under adverse weather conditions” that resulted in a high-speed impact with the ground.

Investigators found the weather was a major factor, and severe turbulence and heavy icing was in the area at the time. Wreckage and radio contact appeared to show that the flight was routine until five minutes before the crash, and both engines were working at impact.

The Red Onion Museum in Upton, Wyoming, carries a display of artifacts that were recovered from the scene of the crash. A spokeswoman for the museum said it is currently not open while it undergoes renovations. Among the artifacts is the uniform name tag for pilot Cawley, uniform wings, eating utensils, a ring and more.

The museum also has photos of the crash site and resulting search. A few can also be found on the Weston County Museum District Facebook page.

  • Wreckage of the Western Airlines flight can be seen along the Creekside on the Keeline Ranch, east of Wright, Wyoming.
    Wreckage of the Western Airlines flight can be seen along the Creekside on the Keeline Ranch, east of Wright, Wyoming. (Courtesy Weston County Museum District)
  • Searchers examine the crash site of the Western Airlines passenger plane.
    Searchers examine the crash site of the Western Airlines passenger plane. (Courtesy Weston County Museum District)

Dale Killingbeck can be reached at dale@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Dale Killingbeck

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