The Crash of United Airlines 409 #ThisWeekInWYHistory

Must attribute to Bill Larkins

*Photo credit Bill Larkin, showing a DC-4 in United Airlines livery

On Oct. 6, 1955, 66 people perished when their DC-4 crashed into Medicine Bow Peak in the Snowy Mountain Range of Wyoming. At the time, the crash of United Airlines Flight 409 was the worst air disaster in U.S. history.

Among the dead were three crew members, two infants, several military personnel, and five female members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The four-engine propeller plane took off from the now-closed Stapleton International Airport in Denver that morning and headed toward its destination in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This was at a time before jet airliners, and these propeller-driven aircraft flew at much lower altitudes. It made air travel quite a bit more hazardous. Not only were there terrain collisions, but weather forecasts lacked the sophisticated and widely dispersed technology we have today.

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The normal flight path of the Denver-Salt Lake route was north of Laramie around the high points of the Snowy Mountain Range. However, pilots would occasionally fly over the range to save time.

The night before the crash, there were reports of high winds and snow, and the conditions as UA409 crossed the range the next morning were probably not ideal for flying over ranges.

The plane crashed into the side of a cliff at 7:26 a.m. There were no “black boxes” at the time to determine this. Instead, the onboard clocks were recovered after the craft, frozen at the moment of impact.

The investigation report noted the aircraft exploded on impact, splashing the mountain with debris over a mile-long path. Two huge black marks marred the mountain, as oil from the engines splattered across the surrounding terrain.

The plane struck just 25 feet below the crest of the mountain, at 12,000 feet. The tail section separated from the rest of the aircraft, fell down the cliff, and rested on a ledge halfway down.

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An F-80 fighter jet based out of Cheyenne spotted the wreck a little more than four hours after UA409 went down. The pilots of the jet noted the bad weather in the area.

Rescuers reached the windy spot, but it took several attempts to locate the wreckage. It would not be until Thursday afternoon that the crash site was reached.

Bodies were lowered by rope and pully down the cliff. Some bags were marked “spare parts.” All the dead were identified, and their remains carried out on horseback.

To this day, no one is sure what caused the crash. The pilot was very skilled, and the shortcut over the mountain would not have saved a lot of time. Why he took it, and why he flew at such a low altitude, remain a mystery.

To this day, wreckage remains at the site. A hiker made a YouTube video of his trip there, where he found pieces of scrap metal, wires, and rusted engine parts from the plane. He also found a shoe that appears to be from that era.

Originally from New Mexico, Killough began his career writing freelance for a weekly magazine in Albuquerque while completing his undergraduate degree. In addition to reporting on uranium mining in western New Mexico, he spent three years reporting in western North Dakota during the height of the oil boom. He can be reached at or 701-641-6603.