When Capt. Craig Button’s A-10 Thunderbolt went down while on a 1997 training mission, nobody knew why. Ten years later, the questions remain and four 500-pound bombs are still missing.
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published by: Scottsdale Times, November 2007
At one time or another, most of us have had our own little embarrassing melt-down at work. The Monday morning rant-gone-wrong around the lunchroom coffeemaker. That never-ending battle between man and copy machine that can make even the sweetest receptionist go Office Space.
Usually, the mess we leave behind is minimal: A splash of coffee across the breakroom bulletin board; a pile of cracked paper trays bursting out of a wobbly wastebasket.
But when Craig Button wigged out on the job in April of 1997, he was piloting an Air Force A-10 jet carrying four 500-pound bombs, headed for a testing range near Gila Bend. It was Button’s first live bomb test mission out of Tucson’s Davis-Monthon Air Force Base.
Button, just after entering the range, stealthily dropped out of the three-pilot “V” formation he was trailing and ventured 800 miles off course, finally crashing his A-10 into Gold Dust Peak near Eagle, Colorado in what Air Force officials eventually ruled a suicide. But his actions left behind more than just baffled superiors. It also left behind 21,500 pounds of aircraft debris, 500 30-millimeter cannon rounds of ammunition and those four quarter-ton Mark 82 bombs, which to this date have never been recovered.
We may never know exactly what made Button snap that day. An exhaustive eight-month investigation that extended from the Air Force to the Pentagon and included a “psychological autopsy” turned up enough possible bug-a-boos in the 32-year-old pilot’s psyche to flesh out a blockbuster movie screenplay. Everything from an unrequited love affair, conflict with his parents’ religious beliefs, a long-time penchant for daredevil flying and even suggestions of a gay romance with another Davis-Monthon pilot.
But, possibly because Button didn’t die a hero (the gay allegations alone might have been grounds for a discharge at the time), the final Air Force report is curt in its conclusions, with emphasis on words like “deliberate” and “full control” pretty much washing the military’s hands of the apparently troubled fighter pilot and his unexplained actions.
“The last thing we have on it is, ‘Captain Craig Button deliberately flew his A-10 Thunderbolt 800 miles off course and crashed into a Colorado mountain,’” says Airman Jamie Coggin, public affairs officer for Davis-Monthon, reading the summary paragraph of the concluding report on the case. “‘He had full control of the plane and had made passes at some airfields; he left formation and flew for three hours in radio silence before the crash.’”
As is the case with most personnel leaving an organization on bad terms, however, the mess that Button left behind has become his most enduring legacy. As Coggin comes to the last line in the report’s summary paragraph, even she’s given pause.
“Four 500-pound bombs that the plane carried were not with wreckage and have not been found,’” she says, falling momentarily silent. “Oo-kay.”
The request for updated information comes at a time of some scrutiny over how missing aircraft cases are wrapped up by government investigators. Recently, the search for millionaire adventurer Steve Fosset’s missing plane in Nevada turned up a number of other crashed planes, which until now had been believed missing, and some are beginning to wonder how thoroughly such disappearances are examined.
In Button’s case, the remaining nagging question is fairly straightforward: Exactly when do you decide that you’ve satisfactorily looked long and hard enough for a ton of missing munitions lost somewhere between two states?
That’s a question neither the Air Force nor the contractor that handled the remediation efforts, Pasadena-based Tetra Tech. Inc. (which deferred all comments to the Air Force), feels comfortable answering.
“I’ll have to forward this up to the Pentagon’s public affairs office,” Coggin says, effectively passing the request into a bureaucratic black hole.
The investigation into the probable causes of Button’s crash-and-burn may have been tidily wrapped up ten years ago. But the explosive mementos he left behind, somewhere between southern Arizona and northern Colorado, are still causing paperwork for the Pentagon.
A Mountain of a Mess
John Peleaux, the leader of the mountaineering team that spent two and a half months in the summer of 1997 combing every square foot of Gold Dust Peak for aircraft parts and unexploded ordnance, or UXOs, still wonders what became of those disappeared bombs.
“All we know is that [Button] did not have the bombs onboard at the time of the crash, because we looked all over that mountain for them,” says Peleaux, whose Evergreen, Colorado-based company, Innovative Access, was subcontracted by the Air Force to lead a 12-man team that systematically scaled and inspected the entire northwest face of the 13,000-foot peak.
Peleaux’s search turned up nearly 11 tons of aircraft debris, mostly in tiny pieces that wound up being carried from the range on dozens of large pallets. But remnants from the bombs were not among the wreckage, leading officials to conclude they would have had to have been dropped somewhere between the Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range near Gila Bend, where Button broke formation, and the peak near Eagle, Colorado, where the wreckage was found 18 days after the crash.
“At the time, the Air Force general in charge told us several people had called in about very loud noises,” Peleaux says, referring to accounts from 58 witnesses cited in the final report who recalled hearing explosions between northern Arizona and the Colorado ski resorts of Telluride and Aspen. If that’s the case, however, Peleaux wonders why the craters that would have been left by the explosions were never located.
“The Air Force folks are pretty methodical, and they more or less know the flight path of the aircraft, by the radar tracking they did,” Peleaux says. “That would have told them where to search for the bombs. Of course, if the bombs hadn’t exploded, it’s possible they buried themselves deep in the ground.”
Clearly, officials were concerned about finding the bombs, Peleaux says. The incident occurred near the second anniversary of the April 19, 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, around the time former Army gunner Timothy McVeigh was going on trial for the act of terrorism, and Peleaux recalls making a comment about the coincidence that visibly infuriated the general.
“There was all sorts of conjecture in the media at the time about whether Button might have landed at a secret airstrip and sold the bombs to terrorists, or if he might have planned to bomb the courthouse in Denver where the trial was taking place,” Peleaux says. Extreme conspiracy theorists had even linked Button to the mysterious “Phoenix Lights” UFO sightings, which had occurred just two weeks before his crash and were rumored to be have been caused by flares dropped from a similar A-10.
“I asked the Brigadier General about all that, and he blew up at me. He said, ‘Terrorists don’t need 500-pound “dumb bombs” over their shoulders,’” Peleaux recalls, referring to the military’s slang for the unguided Mark 82 bombs the jet was carrying. “They have [the powerful military plastic explosive] C-4!”
Over the course of the mission, Peleaux became suspect of how much the military knew about the incident that wasn’t being made public.
“I was privy to a lot of information – I was in charge of the mountain, basically,” he says. “And I watched the media being told things that were incomplete at best.”
One example was the Air Force’s public statement that the rumors linking Button’s suicide to an alleged homosexual affair with another pilot – who, according to an unidentified military source quoted in the Tucson Citizen, had threatened to reveal the affair – were “unsubstantiated.” The military’s Office of Special Investigations said it had conducted 200 interviews with people who knew Button (the names were redacted prior to release to the media) and found “no credible evidence” to support the homosexuality theory.
Yet Peleaux’s crew was instructed to comb the mountain for blood samples that were subsequently tested for HIV.
“Knowing full well that the military doesn’t reveal everything to the public, would they even have to tell us if the bombs were found?” Peleaux now wonders. “I would venture to say they had wanted to find them. It’s just curious that we haven’t heard anything else about them in ten years.”
A Favorite Place
Of all the questions surrounding the last flight of Captain Button, the one piece of the puzzle that apparently came as no surprise to those who knew the pilot was where he chose to end his life -- over a vast stretch of national forest near Vail called the Holy Cross Wilderness, considered one of the most pristine areas favored by mountain hikers in the West. A spot that was, by all accounts, Button’s most beloved place in the world.
Most of us, also, have a favorite detour on our daily work route: that Starbucks before the office, say, or that scenic drive through the historic homes. Button’s was the Colorado Rocky Mountains, and he’d go out of his way to fly over them whenever he could.
He’d been written up several times for the infraction. An avid skier who told friends he hoped to fly commercial jets out of Denver upon leaving the Air Force, Button had been repeatedly reprimanded for venturing far off-course just to wing it over the Rockies. On his final joy ride, ground radar indicates Button got to live out the daredevil Top Gun fantasy that his father, a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, said his son had always cultivated, sometimes buzzing dangerously close to the terrain then ascending rapidly, at times above 19,000 feet.
In his last moments, Button made a complete circle over Gold Dust Peak then dived downward at 300 miles per hour. Shortly before impact, he may have had second thoughts; radar shows the jet’s path turned upward at the last second.
Whatever the case, it was a strange way to show his love for the mountain. In the end, the clean-up of Gold Dust Peak required the work of para-rescuers, helicopter pilots, munitions experts and assorted experts in GIS, ground-penetrating radar and UXO identification and remediation before the forest could be reopened to the public.
“In instances like this, you have to look at what kind of explosives were lost, is the groundwater threatened, and all kinds of concerns,” says Brad Christianson of AMEC Earth & Environmental, a large Tempe think-tank of geologists, field scientists and environmental engineers who’ve had experience in UXO clean-up. “Any number of environmental resources can be affected.”
John Peleaux believes it was actually the Colorado Forest Service, not the Air Force, which ordered the massive clean-up effort.
“They basically told the Air Force, ‘Hey, this is a wilderness area, and a popular hiking spot. We can’t reopen this to the public until you clean up your mess.’”
The Forest Service was apparently satisfied that the missing bombs were not found within its borders, and the Air Force investigation seems to have ended there. But Peleaux still believes one or more of the disappeared Mark 82s may eventually surface somewhere between Arizona and Colorado.
“Probably some backpacker will find one somewhere,” he says.
Even deactivated of its 192 pounds of Tritonal high explosives, the 87-inch warhead, with its streamlined steel casing, aerodynamic tailfins and sharp, pointed nose, could make one heck of a prop for some wild fraternity’s Jackass experiment.
“Those things unarmed, without exploding, have gone through thick concrete bunkers,” Peleaux says. “They’re very strong, very pointy. And they can definitely do some damage.
“So yeah,” he adds, with a slight chuckle. “It would be nice to know if they’re ever found!”