By Kelci Parks – Special to the Pahrump Valley Times
“Pull it up!”
“Climb, climb, climb!”
If he heard those words at all, they were the last contact he had with anyone.
It was a little more than a year ago that Lt. William B. DeGroff’s family received news that had eluded them for 40 years — a crash site outside the mining town of Silver Peak in Esmeralda County held remnants of the U.S. Navy A-7 Corsair II their loved one was flying on June 14, 1971.
A single dog tag, crumpled and hanging in a local history buff’s office for two decades after they were found at the site, were returned to the pilot’s family.
Since then, a number of coincidences, chance encounters and lucky finds have shed more on the crash and helped DeGroff’s widow and children make peace with his memory.
A SERIES OF
DeGroff was only 25 when he was killed flying a training mission over Nevada. His 25-year-old wife was at home near Fresno, Calif., with 16-month-old twins when a Navy chaplain and officers notified her of the crash.
Named Kathi Foster today, she says the officials told her very little about the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death.
In fact, they denied her the chance to see the accident site, suggesting to her that one did not even exist because of the explosive nature of the crash. When the Navy finally released details months later, the brief description simply noted that the cause was likely pilot error.
That’s where it stood for four decades. A tragic loss of a father and husband and few answers to soothe a young family’s pain.
A path to peace, however, started to form 20 years after the accident, when Allen Metscher, today the president of the Central Nevada Historical Society, and his brother, were climbing around Vanderbilt Peak and encountered the plane wreckage strewn across the mountainside. Amid the debris was the crumpled dog tag. Metscher hung it in his office, where it waited.
When Tonopah court clerk Lee Guthridge, who grew up near Silver Peak, caught wind of the compelling story of the dog tag, she set to work finding the pilot’s family. She was able to locate DeGroff’s son, Christopher, via the social networking site Facebook. Now in his forties, he’s a successful Chicago attorney. His twin sister, named Sarah Pinter, is all grown up, too.
Neither knew much about what happened to their father until last year. They would learn more over the next 12 months.
THE STORY CONTINUES
This amazing tale of a father’s lost dog tag making its way back to his family after 40 years was just the beginning. Just as a series of chance encounters had lead the pilot’s family to discover a crash site they were told didn’t exist, another chance encounter soon brought more answers. This time in the form of the official accident report.
“This last year was just a continuation of coincidences regarding the DeGroff crash,” Metscher said. “I feel that the bottom line is Lt. William DeGroff didn’t want to be forgotten. I’m sure of it, because of all these happenings that came about. And I for one will never forget him.”
“I had attempted to obtain the report, but I had no luck at all,” he continued. “That’s why I was so happy that Joe was able to obtain one. And we’d have never got it without meeting Joe by coincidence.”
Joe Idoni is an aerospace engineering technician from Pasadena, Calif. He has spent the last 10 years researching crash sites in his free time, much as Metscher has done.
To date, he has found and photographed 214 of them.
After three years on his “to do” list, an opportunity presented itself for Idoni to make the trek out to Vanderbilt Peak. As he often does, he armed himself with old newspaper reports, topographic maps, and any information he could scrounge up from online sources before setting off in search of what was left of DeGroff’s plane.
“The amazing thing is, I hadn’t been out to the Silver Peak crash site in at least eight months,” said Metscher. “I was giving a group a tour of central Nevada on ATVs and we were in the Silver Peak area, so I thought, well, I’ll take them up to that site for a few minutes.”
Within 15 minutes of Metscher’s arrival, Idoni is returning from his search. The two met at the base of the mountain. The men didn’t exchange names, but engaged in brief pleasantries and parted ways.
Later, Metscher accidentally stumbled onto Idoni’s website, which showcases a collection of photographs and information from various plane crashes he has investigated.
“I opened this website, and there were the pictures of the Silver Peak crash, taken by the man I had just spoken with,” said Metscher.
Realizing the irony, he immediately contacted Idoni.
“It was through him that I then finally received a copy of the original accident report,” said Metscher.
Metscher contacted Foster and sent her to Idoni’s website.
“Kathi emailed me after she saw the crash site photos I posted,” said Idoni. “In her email to me, she asked for any information that I might have on the accident. It just so happened that two weeks back I had mailed a request to the Navy for the accident report. After sending her the report, she emailed thanking me for helping her get some answers as to what happened that day. It seems that the Navy gave her very little details about the accident,” Idoni said.
Very little details, indeed.
THE OFFICIAL WORD
“I didn’t know very much at all,” said Foster. “What they gave me right after the crash was a report that was probably about three sentences long. It basically just said what time it happened and all of that.”
She recalled that her only other glimpse into what officials were saying about the accident came from her Casualty Assistance Calls Officer CACO , an individual assigned to grieving military families to help with the tasks of funeral arrangements, relocating, and anything else they might need.
“He did come and tell me that they assumed that it was pilot error,” she said. “But that’s the only thing that I ever heard about anything.”
She never believed that her husband had been at fault. Every so often she would try to obtain the accident report, but says she felt lost in what seemed to be a massive web of government departments and phone numbers.
“I’m sure it was my fault. I just didn’t know where to go. I have called the Navy archives, and I wrote them, and somehow I did not get a response,” she said. “But Idoni must have been doing this very routinely because he knew exactly the right way to do it and who to go through.”
Although the report answered several lingering questions about what happened that day, many others arose in their place.
“They basically blamed it on, oh, many different things,” Foster said, a twinge of uneasiness brimming in her voice. As if it hurt to say the words aloud, she continued, “The report did say that they thought there was some pilot error in there.”
Her tone gave away her incredulity.
In the days following the crash a small, routine investigation was launched to gather information for an official accident report. Those who knew the pilot were interviewed regarding seemingly minute details about the days and weeks prior to the tragedy. Family members were asked questions about every facet of DeGroff’s activities. Somewhere in the flood of questions, a small detail stuck out to officials and weighed heavily in their report.
One person interviewed reportedly mentioned that DeGroff had been a little under the weather days before the training mission and officials went so far as to list it as one of three contributing factors in his death.
The accident board concluded its report with three likely contributing factors, though officially the cause of the crash would remain “unknown.”
“The chase pilot’s failure to give timely and positive warning of the terrain hazard,” was one.
A second was “Lt. DeGroff’s failure to ‘ground’ himself considering the discomfort he was suffering and the resulting lack of sleep the weekend prior to the fateful flight.”
A final factor was “The lack of current and full-systems radar training prior to the flight.”
Metscher addressed the accusation that DeGroff should’ve grounded himself with equal parts contempt for the situation and concern for the family.
“I was actually wondering if some of the information in the accident report might have upset the family. Because it said in there that he had a lack of sleep, and that he had had a cold. I saw that they honed in on that.”
“But it’s typical,” he continued. “Just like in World War II, if you couldn’t figure it out, well, it must have been pilot error that caused the wreck.
“Just typical military.”
Metscher isn’t the only one who doubts the merits of this “contributing factor.”
RELIVING THE DAY
“I would not even call it ill,” Foster said, thinking back to 1971. “I mean, he was congested. I don’t think that could have changed how he did his job that day. He wasn’t running a temperature or anything. He was feeling good enough to go to work.”
As for the other two contributing causes that were listed, the Navy made an attempt to avoid such trouble in the future.
In the wake of the lieutenant’s death, policy changes were implemented regarding the way both reserve and instructor pilots are trained. Flight language was modified to eliminate the chance of misinterpretation and reserve pilots would now perform “dry runs” on the same type of training five days prior to the main training mission.
“They did say in the report that this instructor pilot made several errors in teaching,” Foster said. “They went off course a couple of times and the instructor pilot was too far away at times. He did instruct him, but was not specific with his instructions as far as how close the mountain was and the words that he chose to use.
“Just anything that could go wrong, did. They also said in the report that there could have been a communication failure between the aircrafts, that he didn’t hear what the chase pilot was saying. But he had responded to some of the chase pilot’s commands minutes before.”
“It had been about two months since he had completed a training mission like this one, which was just the Navy’s protocol at the time,” Foster continued. “They said that in the future, they would not let someone do something this intense and specific without doing something similar before.”
Metscher said this sort of trial and error cost a lot of military pilots their lives.
“Unfortunately, a lot of good pilots were lost, but with each one of those accidents they learned a little bit more. After reviewing the report; in many respects, it reminded me of the history of World War II and all the accidents. There were so many untried and unproven pieces of technology, both during WWII and in the 1970s,” he said.
Pieces of the report hint of another factor that tipped the scales out of DeGroff’s favor that day — a need to test himself.
The training mission that morning was one of particular difficulty. Most of the mission was meant to be flown “hooded,” meaning a device was used to block the pilot’s field of vision and leave him to navigate using only radar and instruments.
“It eliminated all visibility of straight ahead,” said Metscher. “They were training them to fly over in the Viet Nam conflict in the dark, through cloud cover, below radar, conditions where they would just be going by instruments.”
The report states that after missing a check point at Gold Point, Nev., DeGroff was told by the instructor pilot that he was going to complete the mission, but without the hood. Officials reported that DeGroff may have decided to wear the hood anyway.
“It looked to me, that it was a determination that Lt. DeGroff may have actually continued to fly with the hood on,” said Metscher. “I honestly think that he really may have been attempting to play the game by the rules. And maybe even testing himself and attempting to make himself a keener pilot.”
The last thing the chase pilot transmitted over the airways was “Pull it up! Climb, climb, climb!”
No one is sure if the command came too late, or if DeGroff could even hear it. It’s likely that he knew what was coming at the last second. The angle at which the aircraft crashed into the mountain indicates he was trying to pull the aircraft up and over the mountain, the official report says.
“There was so much that went on there in just a matter of seconds when the instructor pilot was trying to tell him lift it up as he’s heading right towards that cliff and at the same time the instructor pilot was trying not to crash himself,” Metscher said.
The report says the chase pilot was able to narrowly avoid hitting the mountain and turned back just in time to see the explosion from DeGroff’s plane cascading over the mountain peak.
A VOICE FROM THE PAST
The DeGroff family says the last year has been a mixture of emotions.
“All of this that has happened, it’s just, it’s kind of reliving it in a way, so that’s hard,” said Foster. “But also, you know, I’m finding some peace with it.”
One of the family’s most profound discoveries of the past year was not made in the Nevada desert, but in a small box that had been forgotten, long ago tucked away in storage.
“I found in an old, little box a tape. An eight-track tape. And it was kind of ripped, so I knew it wasn’t a full one, but I took it to a gentleman who does duplications.”
At the time she had no idea what was on it, but she allowed curiosity to run its course. When she popped a duplicate into her stereo and pushed play, she heard the voice of her late husband for the first time since she kissed him goodbye on the morning of June 14, 1971.
“It was right after the twins had been born because they sounded very new; their cries were very new,” she said. “Bill had been really into doing these tapes and sending them to friends and stuff like that. That’s just what you did back then,” she said.
“Well, I found one. He was talking on there, and just saying what he was going to be doing on the base, and saying he was going to be flying a new plane and how cool that was going to be. Now, the kids were 16 months old when he passed away , so, in their memory, they had never heard his voice before. And so, they now have that.”