On August 7, 1970 Lt. Thomas P. Lange was in the front seat and Flash was in the back seat of OV-10A BUNO 155460. It was a clear day for flying around San Diego - wind was 200/3, 74 degrees F. dew point 72 with 6 miles visibility. According to a witness, the aircraft was pretty much alone in the pattern and had all ready completed several 'Touch & Gos'.
The Crash at NAS North Island - August 7, 1970
By Jim Hunter ~ eyewitness to the VS-41 OV-10A training incident that took place at Naval Air Station North Island.
Jim Hunter's original account of this incident was posted on the OV-10 Bronco Association's Website in 1999. It seems now that the ov-10bronco.net site no longer exists.
Your foot note of a crash of an OV-10 Bronco at NAS North Island on 08/07/70 brought back some vivid unpleasant memories of that tragic event. Along with a number of other naval personnel, that beautiful sunny August weekend day involved placing my observations on paper as an eye witness to the loss of two pilots and an aircraft belonging to VS-41, and the United States Marine Corps.
The official report blamed the student pilot. Autopsy reports of the flight crew identified some form of cold/sinus medication in the bloodstream of the student Bronco pilot. According to the board of inquiry, this type of medication impaired the ability of the pilot to maintain control of the aircraft, resulting in the death of the student pilot and his instructor. Future use of this type of Rx prior to flight became prohibited.
That was that. I can still remember specific parts of that day, like they happened yesterday. Others, not as clear, as time has dulled minute details. However, I can still remember how beautiful and quiet the day was. The only aircraft in the pattern for quite a long time had been this single OV-10 Bronco, shooting touch and goes. Turning left into the pattern for landing on runway 29, gear down & locked, and on the power again just a second or so after the wheels impact the runway. A perfect day to continue the check ride and touch and go...
Since my assignment to RVAW-110, the RAG squadron at NAS North Island for the E-2 Hawkeye and the E-1B Tracer, I always found the OV-10 Bronco, with her green paint, tandem seats, short wings, and noisy as hell engines, to be somewhat of an enigma, compared to carrier ops. Still, she had the appearance of something rather fun to fly, especially since I had observed her maneuverability on several occasions during my assignment to E-2's. I can still clearly remember the buzz saw sound the OV-10 makes when taxiing, and going back to flight idle. Rather startling for such a small aircraft. It was this fascination that kept my eyes on every Bronco that worked the pattern, taxied by, or landed, when I was in a position to observe.
During the final moments leading up to the crash, I watched the aircraft bank left into the pattern after swinging out over the water. A normal touch & go, and back into the pattern procedure. I glanced away for a second, as I heard the aircraft come to life with a burst of power, and a slight nose high attitude. The power was pulled back almost immediately, and the port (left) wing dropped. Power again was applied with a hell of a lot of noise, bringing the attention of the aircraft to those standing on the ground who previously did not share my interest. The aircraft continued with a nose high attitude, until the nose was pushed down, and again power was added with a roar, and off again. The aircraft slowly leveled off, the slowest I had observed any aircraft in the final approach to that date. The left wing dropped, and I observed what appeared to be a large piece of the aircraft to blow upward and away, along with other smaller pieces. I did not realize what I had observed was the instructor pilot ejecting. When the port wing dropped, the ejection took place with the belly of the aircraft and the bottom of the wings exposed for a few seconds, blocking from view what the pieces were. Since I did not see a parachute and/or seat pan separation occur, I immediately thought I was witnessing a massive structural failure of the aircraft.
Seconds continued on forever, as the Bronco's left wing came back up, the nose again pitched up, and the wing again dropped as power was again added. This time though, when power was increased, the wing drop accelerated until the aircraft drifted way left of the centerline of the runway (29), and the aircraft continued into a roll and nose down attitude, striking the ground inverted, almost level now, with such a force, the student pilot's ejection seat was triggered.
I did not know for at least an hour or so, that the pieces falling away from the aircraft was in fact the instructor pilot. He died on the beach on impact. To this day, I am not sure why his ejection was not successful. Of course, I do not know if the Bronco had Martin-Baker ejection seats with "0" altitude potential or not. If they did, I am at a loss to comment why this specific ejection sequence was not successful. [OV-10 Bronco Association note: All OV-10As had LW-3B zero-speed, zero-altitude ejection seats. The ejection may have failed due to the attitude the aircraft was in, perhaps?]
The OV-10 came down with such force the aircraft fragmented, but did not explode, as it blew sand and debris onto a couple of chief petty officers who at the time of impact were in a permanent cabana structure located adjacent the Chief's Club. Needless to say, once their composure was regained, I can only assume their dispositions, along with their skivvies, were changed as their next priority.
I immediately jumped on a tow tractor parked idling in front of the airframe shop, and paused only long enough for several squadron personnel to join me on a cross field drive which seemed to take forever and resulted in the tractor being stuck in the sand. Many parts of North Island reminded me of Cam Rahn Bay. Lots of white/tan sand, and a little desolate. Needless to say, the rest of the journey to the crash site took place on foot. A wasted, exhausting effort, in attempt to save lives of two pilots who had already died. At least our hearts were in the right place.
I can still remember seeing their flight gear, now blossomed parachutes, and bent and shattered aircraft pieces, the largest consisting of the wings & vertical stabilizers and booms. Both pilot's helmets, with international orange tape applied in stripes going from front to back... stands out in my mind still today. All scattered in pieces in an empty hangar between RVAW-110 and VC-3, the P-2V Neptune squadron with enlisted pilots in her ranks who fired drones for fleet target practice.
A beautiful sunny weekend day ending in a sad, not making any sense type of an event, that brings sorrow even today over the lives of the two Marine pilots, who left us all much, much to soon, with so much left to accomplish.
I've tried to apply reason to these events. Perhaps the elimination & use of such cold/sinus medication(s) from active flight crews saved other lives and eliminated future catastrophic incidents. I'll never know. But I'll never forget those two Marine Bronco pilots. Training for their specialty, flying one of the most successful and unique aircraft of the Vietnam War, and all the while not knowing how special they really were and are. In quoting Marshall Harrison, it was "A Lonely Kind Of War."
If anyone knew them personally, or about them, I'd like to know more about their lives. All I know, even to this day almost 29 years later, is how they died.
Recently I got a letter from the widow of Tom Lange.
Re: VAL-4-BUNO 155460
From: Wendy Lange Sternberg
I am the widow of Tom Lange, USNA Class of 1967, and victim of the OV-10 crash at Coronado Island. My daughter, Keely Lange, who was not yet born at the time of the accident, found this site, blackpony.org., and sent me the Navy Report and the eye witness letter from a man named Jim Hunter now (hopefully) living in Everette,WA. I would appreciate your forwarding this note to Jim and thanking him for his emotional and heartfelt account.
I do have a few memories of my own, of course, but first some background. Tom had just finished jet training in Kingsville, Texas. The Vietnam war was winding down and there were fewer and fewer postings for attack fighters, which Tom preferred to fly over the F-4ís. As a last gasp attempt to show his zeal for flying only jobs, he listed last on his ďwishlistĒ OV-10, a Marine photographic jet prop plane never to that date assigned to a Navy jet pilot. I was 22 years old, the daughter of a Navy Captain, surface warfare, and at the time of the accident, we had lived in our newly purchased house in Lemon Grove, California, 3 weeks. Before beginning flight maneuvers, Tom and a fellow Marine graduate from the jet program, went through intensive familiarization with the aircraft. I have a strong memory of the two of them in our living room, denigrating this aircraft Ė how poorly constructed it was, how poorly engineered it was, how they felt as though they were going to be flying a soda can compared to the old but tight jets they had flown in flight training. That meeting was about a week before Tomís death.
Tom always suffered from sinusitis. He blew his nose dozens of times a day. He always carried a red bandana hanky even though it was against uniform regulations, but he was a bit of a rebel that way. In Texas, he was totally miserable with all the wildflower pollen. He called his condition ďpost NATAL disorderĒ! I have no memory of him getting a prescription medication for it, and if he did, it certainly didnít hamper his performance during jet training. Tom was so gung ho flying, I cannot imagine him even reporting to Balboa or a clinic to obtain a stronger medication. At any rate, he never told me about it.
Jim Hunter was correct about how glorious a day that August 7 was. Tom kissed me good by while I lay in bed, and then kissed ďthe DuckĒ which is what we called our unborn baby, not even knowing its sex back then. When I saw the corner of a khaki uniform sleeve through the crack of the curtain on my front door, I knew immediately that something was wrong, that a bad thing had happened to Tom. Thatís the way I had lived for months both in Pensacola and in Kingsville, waiting for a knock on the door.
Here is what was told to me in the week afterward, and what else I came to learn:
He and his instructor (whose name was never revealed to me until I read this report) were on the fourth day of doing different maneuvers. Tom had told me after day two that there was a lot of manual activity involved in flying the OV-10; like being a one-armed paperhanger, he described it. Tomís IQ was a tested 180+ (Iíve seen the actual test form). He was beyond brilliant, a true genius, almost unsuited for a mundane life. And his resting heartrate was an incredibly low 33. The man was in partial hibernation even when awake! As a jet pilot, he was physically made for fast thinking and few physical maneuverings, unlike the demands of the OV- 10. I was told after his death that his instructor was actually concerned about Tomís adaptation to this prop plane and had mentioned it perhaps THE DAY BEFORE to the command chief.
I was told that witnesses thought the final stall out maneuver was started a bit low, thereby demanding faster physical response from the student to raise the nose, accelerate to maximum, and level the plane. I was told that the instructor, probably panicked, and ejected while still in a dive thereby not permitting his chute to open. However, the thrust from HIS ejection seat levelled the plane for Tom, who I know would never have ejected in a dive because he mentioned it not only to me in jet training but even stressed it to my mother, who remembered him saying it to her! So, then what happened if the plane was level? It was going very fast still, and hit, by his commanding officerís personal oral description to me (only oral and once, though Iím sure he would have permitted me more visits if I had been so inclined) a 3í high sand dune and flipped over breaking apart. I was reassured that Tom died instantly, of a broken neck, with nary a scratch on him (in case I wanted to view his body or have an open casket funeral, neither of which I wanted). Somehow, this commanding officer thought I wouldnít be the least bit outraged that a low mound of sand was sufficient to kill my husband, but then he didnít know that I had heard Tom complain about the construction inadequacies of the aircraft.
But why didnít Tom eject when the plane was level? If he was so smart, so well trained in almost instantaneous processing, then why didnít he pull the D ring between his legs and eject? He must have known that the ejection seat contained a 0í height parachute since he had just gone through ejection seat qualifications at Miramar NAS. THE OV-10 DID NOT HAVE A D RING EJECTION SEAT HANDLE, only a face curtain method of ejection. Tom Lange FAILED the ejection seat qualification because his arms were too short to reach the D ring between his legs! He had ALWAYS practiced pulling the face curtain. Men in the ready room at both training bases ritually practiced their preferred method of ejection again and again, until it was unconscious and second nature to them. What if Tom had taken the split second to reach IN THE WRONG DIRECTION when assessing his opportunity to eject? That is all the time he would have had before hitting the 3í high sand mound.
The medical doctor assigned to Tomís case shared this information with me. I was assigned some lovely Lieutenant to help me thread through all the estate issues and funeral preparations, but I was never even offered any assistance from JAG Corps. Unfortunately, my fatherís complete loyalty to the Navy and his satisfaction with the thoroughness of the investigation prevented him from suggesting either then, or even a year later, any legal consultation.
So, despite Jim Hunterís emotional and really quite accurate memory of the events taking place at the time of the crash, what he did not know, nor did anyone ever put all the facts together for the investigation, find out, is that a Navy jet pilot, a first and I believe EVER selection for the OV-10, who was not physically comfortable with the mechanics of flying a prop aircraft and whose very experienced instructor knew it, had not qualified for the only mechanism for ejection from that aircraft, and was still permitted to fly it. Medication was their cover up, which until today, I never even knew about.
Seven years after the event, while finishing my college degree at the University of Central Florida, I took a law course. I had a flash of insight about the crash and consulted my law professor. He felt it was an excellent case to take against the Us Navy, not normally something that is done lightly or easily, but, alas, the statute of limitations on the suit had JUST expired!
For thirty-six years I have been married to an Army vet, a bemedaled Special Forces Green Beret who is now 100% disabled from walking through the jungle sprayed with Agent Orange. The daughter I had with Tom Lange, with an ďalmostĒ as brilliant I.Q., is now a top analyst with the Federal governmentís intelligence service. I love the Navy, and most of my lifetime of memories from being a Navy Junior and a Navy wife are simply wonderful. But the Navy did wrong by Thomas Paul Lange.