Citizen Journal: Pilot crashed into Mount Spokane during 1946 storm


On Halloween evening in 1946, Spokane children were dressing warmly to go out and do their trick-or-treating. An early winter storm was headed their way.

That same afternoon, Spokane used-car dealer Rudolph Lonza took off in his single-engine airplane from Helena. His destination was the Spokane Airport, which was at Felts Field in those days. The weather was bad in Montana but the storm got worse as he approached Spokane.

Lonza was an Army Air Corps flight instructor during World War II and a skilled pilot. That night he was flying his own AT-6 which he had purchased from the U.S. government after the war.

When World War II ended, lots of GIs returned to Spokane. Jobs were becoming available but housing and automobiles were tough to come by.

The big automakers like General Motors and Ford were transforming their production lines from tanks and jeeps back to automobiles. New cars were scarce. Anyone who wanted to purchase a new car back then had to put their name on a waiting list with a new car dealer. A new-car buyer could wait for months for delivery in Spokane. Those waiting lists were often influenced by under-the-radar considerations like your familial relationship to the car salesman or “up-front” money.

When Lonza came home from World War II, he saw a need and jumped into the used-car business. He started selling cars out of his mother’s front yard in north Spokane. In a short time his new business became too big for the front yard and he moved to operating a high volume used-automobile dealership located at Broadway Avenue and Monroe Street near the Spokane County Courthouse.

Lonza built up his reputation using the moniker “Crazy Trader Lonza.” He was a local version of Cal Worthington (“GO SEE CAL”) whose car lots still operate on the West Coast.

“The Crazy Trader” and his brother George had flown to Helena that Halloween to buy used cars to add to the inventory at the Crazy Trader’s lot in Spokane. Brother George drove one of the cars back to Spokane. Lonza crawled back into the cockpit of his airplane and set out for home just as bad weather was settling in.

Lonza steered his plane over the Bitterroot Mountains, then hit the heaviest part of the storm at Mullan Pass, near Lake Coeur d’Alene. He finally passed over the Washington state line. He was attempting to line himself up for an approach to Felts Field when Mount Spokane got in his way.

Wreckage calculations showed that Lonza was flying 600 feet too low in the heavy snowstorm. He smashed into Mount Spokane at the 3,500-foot level on the southeast side of the mountain. The experts’ consensus ruled the cause of the crash was heavy icing on the plane. Lonza still had fuel. Although one tank was found empty, the other tank’s gauge read 30 gallons.

Both wings of the airplane were clipped off by the trees on the way down, but the fuselage remained pretty much intact when it hit the ground in a heavily wooded part of Mount Spokane. Apparently Lonza did not survive the crash.

No one saw the plane go down or knew where to look. And it was snowing. Searches were centered in Western Montana, although records later showed that Lonza had communicated with the Coeur d’Alene airport tower that night. Rudolph’s wife, Mary Lonza, offered a $10,000 reward for anyone finding him alive and $1,000 for finding his body and the wreckage before Jan. 1. That was real money in 1946.

A rumor circulated among the searchers and Spokane townsfolk, that the Crazy Trader had a bundle of cash on his person when his plane went down. The money was for purchasing cars.

Calvin Hudlow, 85, who has lived all his life near the Mount Spokane crash site, reported that “Lonza had a large amount of cash, $7,000 to $10,000 according to the papers.” Hudlow added, “The Crazy Trader wore an expensive diamond ring. There are local theories but no proof as to what may have happened to the cash or the diamond ring.”

Searches went on and on, day after day. Months passed without finding the wreckage; searches for the Crazy Trader dwindled down to a few, mostly done by his family.

More than a year after the crash, Max Mather Sr., who operated a dry cleaner in Spokane, was hunting with his son on the eastern side of Mount Spokane. They spotted Lonza’s leather flying jacket and his suspenders lying out in the open, apparently left there by bears or coyotes. The hunters searched the area and found the airplane wreckage, nosed onto the ground under a canopy of trees.

Mather returned to his Spokane home and called the sheriff to report their discovery. The sheriff insisted that Mather take him back up on the mountain that night to show the location of the crash site.

Lonza’s bones were spread around the area of the airplane. A funeral was finally held for the pilot who left behind a wife and two sons, Gary and Gregory.

The chapter was closed on Spokane’s Crazy Trader. Spokane would never see another used car salesman in the league of Lonza.

However, the matter did not end there for Mather. He has since died, but I spoke with Robert Max Mather Jr., his son. Max Jr. said his father complained that the FBI grilled him at the time of his discovery. They kept him under observation for the next 10 years, suspecting that he had pocketed the ring and the rumored thousands of dollars that Crazy Trader Lonza supposedly carried with him in the airplane that night.

Maybe the FBI should have questioned the coyotes or the bears about the money. And any forest creature wearing an expensive diamond ring.

Darin Z. Krogh can be reached by e-mail at kroghdz@comcast.net. See more of his stories at hillyardbay.com.

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