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The Crash of Navy A-7E Corsair II
 Alameda, Calif.

February 7, 1973 

"Safety First"...

Lemoore Naval Air Station was first conceived in 1958 because the government was concerned that an aircraft crash might occur in the heavily populated areas surrounding Moffett Naval Air Station near Palo Alto, where jet bomber in the Pacific Fleet were stationed.  Commissioned in July of 1961, twenty jet attack squadrons were assigned to Lemoore from Moffett and NAS Alameda, mainly due to the establishment of a three mile "green belt" surrounding the base, located in northwestern Kings County and a portion of southern Fresno County.  This "green belt" placed extreme limits of development within its limits, reserving the land for exclusively farming purposes.
It was the evening of February 7, 1973, when two U.S. Navy A-7E Corsair II jet interceptors, assigned to Attack Squadron VA-195, were on a routine training flight to Sacramento from the Lemoore Naval Air Station. 
One of these Corsairs was piloted by Lieutenant John B. Pianetta, the mission's flight leader.  Having served six years in the Navy, and flown combat in Vietnam, he had a somewhat dubious distinction: in November of 1971, he was on a night flight, simulating an attack when, removing a device used to cover the cockpit, he "inadvertently ejected" near Fallon, Nevada.  The jet continued - unmanned - for about an hour, flying across 400 miles of desert and mountains before soft-landing near Provo, Utah.
The other Corsair, bureau number 157539, was piloted by Lieutenant Robert Lee Ward, 28. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, and a graduate of Wake Forest University, he had served in the Navy for nearly six years.  Having been a flight instructor at Pensacola, Florida, he had been flying at Lemoore for just over a year, and was married with a one-year-old son.

 

Navy Lieutenant Robert Lee Ward, killed in the crash of his Corsair
An illustration of Ward's flight path down into the Tahoe Apartments in Alameda

 

"Has Anybody Seen My Wingman?"
Forty-five minutes into the flight, as the two planes flew at 28,000 feet at 380 knots over the eastern San Francisco Bay area back to Lemoore, one of the jets, piloted by Ward, suddenly abandoned its place on Pianetta's left and slid beneath him and out to his right more than 1,000 feet. It hung wavering, rocking its wings twice, and began a descending left turn.
Seconds later, Pianetta noticed that his wingman's jet was no longer flying alongside his own aircraft. 
"He didn't answer.  I was very concerned. I turned with him and he went to my six o'clock position in the left turn and I lost him. When I came back around he was gone." He radioed the Oakland Air Traffic Control that he had “lost his wing man.”
Pianetta was given permission to turn back to look for Ward’s Corsair.  He banked his aircraft around and descended down to 14,500 feet in an effort to try to locate the missing jet
However, at 8:13 PM, a fiery explosion erupted far amidst the city lights of Alameda. Ward’s jet, traveling in excess of 650 knots, had plummeted down from of the nighttime sky at a steep angle, and slammed into the four-story Tahoe Apartments building, located at 1814 Central Ave in the center of the island city, digging a 20-foot deep pit on impact that penetrated a 6-inch thick concrete floor slab.
The impact, explosion and ensuing fire destroyed the apartment house and spread to three adjacent apartment buildings as survivors ran into the streets, leapt from windows or slid down bed-sheets to escape the inferno.  The water pressure in the fire hydrants dropped to a low level because so many were in use by the scores of trucks which came from surrounding communities, but firemen kept the flames from spreading.  Nevertheless, the early causality figures were over 30 dead, as Alameda Mayor Terry Lacroix called it "the worst fire and holocaust ever in the city."
Forty persons were injured. Among them were 10 firemen and three policemen, although none injured seriously.
The Days After...
Lacroix met with Navy officials the next morning to "clear the naval air station in conjunction with the city of Alameda” as having any part in the crash.  With the nation engaged in the Vietnam War, and locals raising safety concerns about Navy jets buzzing about the city from the Alameda Naval Air Station, Lacroix felt it important to keep good relations between the Navy - a major economic engine of the island community - and the people.
Over the next several days, investigators sifting through the smoldering rubble determined that 11 people, including Lieutenant Ward, had been killed in the disaster.  In fact, one man, Gilbert Atencio, used the accident as an opportunity to evade criminal cocaine and bail-jumping charges he was facing.  He took his wallet, and burned it with a blowtorch, leaving the identification was undamaged, and placed it at the crash site in order to make police and authorities think he had perished in the crash.  He was later captured, and the wallet incident referenced in both his trial, and subsequent appeal to the Ninth Court (586 F.2d 744), as Atencio claimed his wallet had been stolen.
Ward's remains, consisting only of bits of his flying suit, jersey, and his knee clipboard, were found in the hole formed by the aircraft in the basement of the Tahoe.  Almost nothing remained of the aircraft.  Twenty-six other people were treated at nearby hospitals and eventually released. 
But curiously, Ward's oxygen mask, hose, and parachute vest, were found under a pile of dirt at the crash site - dirt that would have prevented fire from reaching these after impact - indicating that the items were burned in a flash fire while the aircraft was aloft.
Investigating...
A Navy board of inquiry, formed at the nearby Alameda Naval Air Station and headed by Rear Admiral Herbert S. Ainsworth (Commander - Patrol Wings, U.S. Pacific Fleet), to investigate the crash, heard testimony from a number of witnesses, including two civilian metallurgists.  One of them, Charles F. Choa, told the Navy board that he had found no evidence of structural failure of the aircraft before the crash, but had discovered evidence of a cockpit fire involving the pilot’s oxygen hose, and that the in-flight blaze was “very near” Ward’s oxygen mask. 
The second metallurgist and plastic expert, Marvin Lara, told the panel that while performing lab tests, he had managed to create a similar blaze with a glowing cigarette.  Lara testified that while a lighted match took too long to produce the type of blaze present in the Corsair’s cockpit, the burning cigarette touched off the oxygen hose “immediately.”  Asked whether he could determine the cause of the fire, Lara said “any flame or spark” -- although he did not specifically blame it on a lit cigarette. 
Lt. Richard J. Joseph, a medical doctor and the flight surgeon for Lt. Ward's squadron at Lemoore, testified that such a "flash lire" would have put the pilot out of commission at once. Dr. Joseph doubted that the same effect —with no emergency signals emitted at all from the stricken pilot would have occurred had the pilot suffered either a heart attack or the loss of oxygen resulting in anoxia.  The flash fire in the mask, Dr. Joseph said, would have seared mouth, throat and lungs. "He wouldn't be able to function at all."' 

However, damning testimony came from Pianetta -- Ward had been smoking shortly before the flight, during his flight briefing. But, when asked by the board whether he knew if Ward was one who "smoked in his mask'' during flight,  Pianetta replied that he hadn't flown with Ward prior to that flight and couldn't say.

However, the theory that Ward removed his oxygen mask for a supersonic smoke was extinguished, in 2012, after a Navy report, released under the Freedom of Information Act, showed no evidence of an “in-flight fire,” and that “It is a supposition that the oxygen-fed fire occurred prior to impact." It should be noted that parts of the report that include witness statements, opinions and other findings have been withheld citing privacy exemptions.

Within a year of the crash, more than $700,000 worth of legal claims had been filed in connection with the disaster, including a $500,000 damage action filed in Alameda County Superior Court by the owner of the demolished 36-unit Tahoe Apartments.  Mrs. Margaret Motta, owner of the building, said in her suit against Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV), designers of the A-7 Corsair II, that a defect in the jet’s oxygen-hose construction caused a fire to be conducted directly “to the face of the pilot.”
A Loss to History...

While the human toll is regrettable, one of the lesser known losses from the mishap were the personal papers of famed civilian test pilot Scott Crossfield, spanning from 1958 to 1967.

According to Crossfield, "My ex-secretary from North American lived in that apartment house, and she had all my papers. I’d asked her to organize them and put them all into some kind of useful form. They were just the way we’d packed them up in boxes when we left Los Angeles. She’d gone out to dinner and this airplane burned the place down. All of those papers are gone, every note I ever took on the X-15, every bit of correspondence is gone.”

As Crossfield stated in a letter dated April 6, 1973 to J.M. Tobin - who was assigned to the office of Commandant, Twelfth Naval District and Commander, Naval Base, San Francisco - the details of the record loss were extensive: “The records covered all of my activities associated with the X-15 airplane design and test, the F-100, F-107, Sabreliner, and B-70 programs associated while I was Chief Engineering Test Pilot for North American. Also contained were the documents of the design development, test, and quality assurance of the Apollo, Saturn II booster, the paraglider, and the development history of the full pressure suit started with the Navy in 1951.”

The secretary, Marian L. Brown, and her family were not injured by the mishap.

A Chance for Heroism...

In July of 1973, Seaman Glenn W. McCarty, 21, received the Navy & Marine Corps Medal for heroism for rescuing Mona Mclntire from the crash site.
 

A list of those listed as killed in the crash...

Margaret K. Delong, 52

Sandra L Humfreville, 31

employee at the Peralta College payroll department

Arlen Dean Hines, 24

student in the auto body repair course of the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Gerald Richard "Jerry" Monohan, 45

a Navy retiree & employee for a yacht repair company

Renee Lee McOmber, 24

Scott McOmber, 3

Mervin Ted Burford, 30

Alameda Naval Air Station computer technician. who had been left the Navy that very day

Michael T. Burford, 11 months

Dorothy Louise Tallian Burford, 26

Lt. Robert Lee Ward, 28

U.S. Navy aviator 

UNKNOWN
determined on April 2nd, 1973
male - age 30-40


We are currently searching for photos of the crash site taken during the investigation. If you have any - please contact us.

 

The Crash Site Today

Today on the crash site is an apartment complex called "The Sycamore."  The address, 1814 Central Avenue, is not be be found on any of the current buildings.  Built three years after the crash, the complex houses 24 luxury condominiums.
There is no sign of the tragedy that took place on the site in 1973.  The only hint that sometime might be amiss is an empty space for a tree along the tree lined street at one end of the complex.  Thirty years is a long time. Plenty of time to hide the scars of that fateful evening.

Click here of a view of the entire building front.
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This page last updated Tuesday, September 09, 2014

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