The Unforgiving San Gorgonia

By Brad Dison

Thursday, January 6, 1977, was a cold day in Palm Springs, California, colder than usual. Natalina “Dolly” Garaventa and Ann Carboni, both wealthy elderly widows, had big plans for the weekend. They were going to fly into Las Vegas to see Frank Sinatra’s opening night performance at Caesar’s Palace and do a little gambling. Dolly was a long-time fan of the Rat Pack crooner and had seen Frank perform more times than she could count. Dolly and Ann made their way to the airport and boarded a private Learjet piloted by Donald Weier and Jerold Foley. At about 5:00 p.m., the air traffic controller gave the pilots permission to takeoff. The jet left the runway and began to climb.

At just over 11,500 feet, San Gorgonia Mountain is one of the highest peaks in the continental United States. On this day, San Gorgonia Mountain was covered by several feet of freshly fallen snow, and it was still snowing. Normal procedure was for aircrafts arriving and departing from the Palm Springs airport to fly around the mountain but not over it. The air traffic controller watched as the jet reached 9,000 feet at 345 miles per hour. Then, just four minutes after takeoff, the Learjet disappeared from the screen. The air traffic controller was in disbelief and he looked more closely at the radar screen. The jet was gone. He immediately notified search and rescue teams who gathered at the mountain to search for the missing jet.

Just before he was about to walk on stage, Sinatra learned about the missing jet and its passengers. Frank was visibly shaken backstage but, as the true professional he was, he performed the matinee and evening shows as planned. The crowds at both shows remembered that Frank performed impeccably. No one in the crowd knew of his concern. Off stage, Frank waited impatiently for any news.

Teams of search and rescue personnel searched the mountain but were hindered by the driving snow. Unable to continue the search that day, the thirty-five searchers spent the frigid night in tents on San Gorgonia Mountain. The search resumed the next morning. The searches struggled to move in the waist-deep snow. They looked for any fresh damage to the trees on the mountain but found nothing. The search continued.

On Sunday, January 9th, three days after the Learjet disappeared, a searcher in a helicopter spotted a coat hanging in a tree. A few feet away he saw a moo-moo style dress hanging in another tree. He then saw luggage scattered about on the snow-covered ground, followed by the remains of the Learjet. The jet had disintegrated on impact. All aboard were killed instantly. The pilots, investigators concluded, never knew they were in any sort of trouble.

Out of respect for the missing fans and pilots of the Learjet, Frank Sinatra cancelled all of his shows following the second show on the night the jet disappeared. But Dolly was more than just Frank Sinatra’s biggest fan, she was also…his mother. Natalina “Dolly” Garaventa Sinatra.

But there is more to this tale. Ten years later, on Saturday, March 21, 1987, Captains Ramon Ortiz and Paul Martin piloted one of three California Air National Guard F-4C Phantom jets in a formation near San Gorgonia Mountain. The trio of F-4C jets took off at about 1:45 p.m. on a weekend training mission.

The mountain was nearly invisible in the heavy cloud cover. The jets travelled at an altitude of 9,300 feet at 400 miles per hour. Air traffic controllers ordered the three jets to make a left turn to avoid close contact with the mountain. The pilots of two of the jets acknowledged the order and made the left turn. Captains Ramon and Paul never responded. Similar to Dolly’s jet crash, air traffic controllers focused on the radar screen but the F-4C jet was gone. The jet disappeared just ten minutes after it left the airport.

As with Dolly’s crash, searchers converged on the mountain to look for the jet but snow, which reached depths of up to eight feet, made the search nearly impossible. Both pilots had extensive training in survival techniques, including snowy terrain. Searchers and family members held out hope that the two pilots had survived.

To everyone’s surprise, searchers found two pilots, alive and well, who had survived a plane crash. Word spread quickly about the safe pilots. Families and friends of the F-4C pilots were relieved, but only temporarily. The pilots who were found alive and well were from a different plane crash on the same mountain. The search resumed. From daylight until dark, searchers slowly scoured the mountain. At night, they slept in tents on the freezing mountain.

On Wednesday, March 25th, six days after the jet disappeared from radar, searchers located the crashed F-4C Phantom. The pilots had made no attempt to eject from their jet. They both died instantly. Investigators concluded, like Dolly’s crash, that they never knew they were in any sort of trouble. The same mountain which claimed the mother of Frank Sinatra, also claimed Paul Martin,…Dean Paul Martin, the oldest son of Rat Pack Crooner Dean Martin.

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