Family gets answers about mysterious plane crash in 1969


The Anaheim resident, a former baton twirler for the Los Angeles Rams, flew the "Gamblers Special" a few times a week. It was Hawthorne Nevada Airlines Flight 708, which took passengers from Long Beach and Burbank to Hawthorne, Nev.

"Everyone on that airplane went there for one purpose, only to have fun and gamble," said aviation accident historian Pat Macha.

But on Feb. 18, 1969, the overnight return trip would be like no other.

There was a major winter storm coming in. The pilot knew he was in trouble. He maneuvered the plane upwardly until he ascended to under 12,000 feet, before he struck the side of the hogback north of Mt. Whitney.

Nannes was among 35 passengers and crew who experts say likely died instantly.

Over the next six months, one of the largest air-ground searches in the West would follow. The search itself would prove deadly. Five aircraft crashed and five searchers were killed while trying to find Flight 708.

Taylor Eslick, an aviation enthusiast, is among about a dozen who have made the treacherous, 9-hour climb to the crash site.

"You could still smell petroleum," Eslick said. "Then I started discovering personal items. There was nickels, nickels all over the place up there. I found a mascara applicator and opened it up and the makeup was still wet 42 years later."

Among the stacked coffee cups and personal items, Eslick photographed a jacket preserved by the cold for more than 40 years. He needed to know more about its owner.

"I just really kind of became obsessed with Patty, because knowing aviation history, at that time in '68, '69 and before that, being a flight attendant, a stewardess was very glamorous," Eslick said.

The Nannes family knew the jacket well. Leanne Nannes Geiss, 30, grew up looking at her Aunt Patty's photo.

"There's not a day we're with a grandparent or a holiday that her name doesn't come up," Geiss said.

Last June, her name came up again when Geiss and her sister got a friend request on Facebook from "Aunt Patty."

"We all called each other and said what is going on?" Geiss recalls. "Is this a sick joke?"

As it turned out, Eslick, who is writing a book about the doomed flight, tracked down Nannes' family.

"They were not happy about it," Eslick said about the Facebook profile. "Then I was a little, 'What have I done?'"

"I just kind of fell in love with her, or her story. I just had to know who she was," Eslick said.

The Nannes' would slowly come to accept Eslick. He shared hundreds of photos with them.

"It was as close to the site that we could get, to have the new pictures and to have somebody we could ask as many questions as we could who had physically been there," Geiss said. "

They would also learn about wreck chasers. Nannes' wing pin was missing.

Eslick put the family in touch with Macha, who posted Nannes' picture online. It helped track down the person with the pin who recently returned it to the family.

The family met Macha for the first time and finally got at least one question answered.

"We just really never had an answer," Geiss said. "They never knew what had gone wrong with the plane."

But it was the weather, Macha said. The pilot could not see where he was going and got off his route.

In that meeting, the family would also hear that China Lake Mountain Rescue Group, an all volunteer, non-profit organization involved in the original recovery, was planning on going back to clean up the site to deter crash chasers from taking souvenirs.

"It is a memorial site. It's their graveyard," said Nick Nannes, Patty Nannes' brother.

The Nannes family objected and China Lake canceled the mission.

"Anybody visiting these crash sites: you take pictures only. You never, never remove any personal effects anything from the aircraft," Macha said.

At the family's request, Eslick made a final trip to the crash site last month, hoping to retrieve the turquoise jacket that belonged to Nannes, but there was too much snow.

He visited a memorial he had made on a previous trip. It was a drawing he left for the stewardess. He also passed on a message from loved ones.

"Your families never forgot you and they miss you so much," Eslick said aloud.

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