Wreckage of plane carrying Seattle councilman Wing Luke found on October 3, 1968.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 7/28/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1569

On October 3, 1968, a helicopter pilot discovers the wreckage of the small airplane in which Seattle City Councilman Wing Luke (1925-1965) perished three years earlier, along with Seattle philanthropist Sidney Gerber and Gerber's assistant Kate Ladue. The crash site is on the side of Merchant Peak east of Index in Snohomish County. Pilot Robert Nokes spots the wreckage by a waterfall on the mountainside on Thursday afternoon October 3, and the missing plane is positively identified the following day by State Aeronautics Commission officials who lower themselves 500 feet down the mountain with ropes. The Cessna floatplane disappeared in stormy conditions on May 16, 1965, in the Cascade Range as Luke, Gerber, and Ladue were returning to Seattle from Eastern Washington. 

Ill-fated Trip 

Wing Luke was elected to the Seattle City Council in 1962, and became the first Chinese American from a large mainland city to hold such an office. Gerber, a business and civic leader, chaired Washington's first equal opportunity commission.

On the morning of May 16, 1965, the Cessna 180, with Gerber at the controls, took off from Lake Wannacutt, some 10 miles south of Oroville in Okanogan County, where they had been on a fishing trip, for a flight over the Cascades to Seattle, where they expected to reach Boeing Field around 2 p.m. The plane was last heard from just after 1:00 that afternoon, when Gerber reported he was over Lake Wenatchee.

During the afternoon, weather conditions over the mountains deteriorated, with high winds, low visibility, snow, and icing. Reconstructing the plane's route after the wreckage was discovered three years later, aeronautics officials concluded that Gerber had turned the plane south from its westerly route across the mountains, maybe because he was disoriented by the storm or hoping that the canyon he entered would provide shelter. Unfortunately the canyon terminated in the rocky face of Merchant Peak, and the plane crashed at nearly 5,000 feet on the side of the 5,800-foot mountain. 

Search and Discovery 

By the next day, the disappearance of the plane carrying Luke and his companions had triggered what The Seattle Times, at the time of the discovery three and a half years later, described as "the largest, most costly search in the air and on the ground in the state's history" (Gough). Despite the massive effort, searchers found no trace of the plane, and its location remained a mystery until Nokes discovered it.

On October 3, 1968, Nokes, who worked for Aerocopters Inc. at Boeing Field, was making a geological survey flight when he spotted the barely visible wreckage scattered in and near a waterfall on Merchant Peak, about six miles east of Index. Nokes reported the discovery to the Aeronautics Commission the next day, and by late that Friday, October 4, two commission officials had lowered themselves 500 feet down the mountainside, using ropes, and confirmed that the wreckage was the Cessna carrying Luke, Gerber, and Ladue. They reported that it appeared the three victims had died instantly in the crash.


Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995), 261; William Gough, "Luke Plane Crash Triggered Costliest Search in State's History," The Seattle Times, October 13, 1968, p. 24; "Wiing Luke's Plane Found," Ibid., October 6, 1968, p. 1.
Note: This essay, including the date of the discovery, was corrected and expanded on May 14, 2015.

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