Flying in an Analog...
In Indianapolis, Indiana
20 October 1987
One Week Earlier...
In October 14th, 1987 at 7:53 in the evening, Aircraft 815, carrying the call sign 'Burner 54', took off from the Tonopah Test Range, and flew into terrain, killing its pilot, Major Michael C Stewart. Investigation in the cause of the crash found pilot fatigue again as a possible factor, as in had been in the case of Major Mulhare's “controlled flight into terrain”.
Six days after this fatal F-117A accident, on the morning of October 20th, 1987, a United States Air Force A-7D Corsair II (serial #69-6207), piloted by Major Bruce L. Teagarden and carrying call sign 'Bandit 222', was enroute to Nevada's Tonopah Test Range and Nellis AFB, after departing Pittsburgh International Airport. He had been in Pennsylvania where he attended the funeral of Major Gary Swisher, who was killed October 8 when his fighter plane crashed in North Carolina.
At 9:11 a.m., and while flying at 32,000 over the Indiana-Ohio border, Teagarden – a member of the Class of 1975 at West Virginia University and been recently assigned to the 4450th Tactical Training Group - notified controllers at Indianapolis International Airport that his aircraft had sustained some sort of engine failure about 15 miles southwest of the city and he was gliding to Indianapolis to attempt an emergency landing. At first, there was confusion between air traffic controllers and the pilot, whose initial distress call was blocked by other radio calls.
State of Confusion...
Controllers at Indianapolis directed Teagarden – who had more than 2,000 hours of flight time in fighter jets - towards Runway 5L and instructed him increase his sink rate sharply to give him maximum runway – contrary to Teagarden's wishes. But, due to the low cloud ceiling of 800 feet above the ground, and poor visibility conditions, consisting of fog, over Indianapolis at the time, Teagarden was at still at 3100 feet above sea level when he overflew the runway's threshold, which would place him 50 yards short of the overrun of the runway. So he was forced to make an alternate plan to land on Runway 32 instead, and the controller he told him to "go around again" – despite having no engine power.
Teagarden made a right turn to head east away from the airport, but continued to lose altitude - descending from 3100 feet to 2000 feet - just to the east of Interstate 465 at the eastern edge of the airport, where controllers lost him from the radar scope. As his altitude continued to drop, Teagarden was forced to eject from the aircraft 500 feet above ground. The plane, now powerless and pilotless, made a slight left turn towards the Park Fletcher business development. Teagarden watched helplessly to what his plane did next...
The Corsair clipped the roof of the Bank One branch in the 5600 block of Bradbury Avenue, and bounced back into the air. Continuing to remain aloft, it flew across the street, hit an embankment, went 25 feet airborne, and then smashed into the front of the Airport Ramada Inn.
The plane's cockpit and engine shot into the hotel's main lobby, and the jet fuel on board ignited on impact, causing a fireball that covered the entire front of the hotel up to the fourth floor. The jet's wings tore into the upper floors of the hotel, and spread out debris on top of the hotel's carport.
A minute after the impact, crash trucks from Indianapolis Airport arrived on the scene, and used foam to extinguish the fire, which was brought under control within minutes. At the same time, other personnel from the Airport fire department carried out search and rescue efforts throughout the building, as it was evacuated completely by Ramada Inn staff and guests.
Luckily, the city of Indianapolis had recently prepared and rehearsed a mass disaster plan – in preparation for the Pan-American Games, which took place in the city two months prior. The eagerness of volunteer emergency workers descended on the crash site resulted in the undocumented removal of the dead and injured prior to the arrival of the coroner.
When the smoke had cleared, it was determined that seven people, all Ramada Inn employees, were killed when the jet struck the lobby, and two more employees died of smoke inhalation when they became entrapped in the hotel's laundry. Injuries were reported among fiver hotel guests, one of which died ten days after the crash from burns. Also injured were two firefighters and Major Teagarden.
As a result of the crash, Major Teargarden's connection to the 4450th Tactical Training Group – which was rumored to be conencted to “black” projects - was released to the press, the Air Force managed to succeed in keeping the unit out of the media' eye by a myriad of P.R. Tricks, such as not sending Colonel Michael Short, the group's commander, to answer media questions at a press conference in Indianapolis.
Rather, the Air Force sent Brigadier General Joel T. Hall, the commander of the 57th Fighter Weapons Wing at Nellis AFB, to handle reporter's questions, and stating that Teargarden was not engaged in other-than-routine activities.
''It's tragic,'' said Brig. Gen. Joel T. Hall. ''I understand the anguish, but he did the best he could. Air Force policy is to minimize the loss of life in a crash and as best we can determine that's what he did.''
But Major Bruce Teagarden, as of early 1988, remained grounded until a flight evaluation board determined whether he acted properly during the incident. In the end, Teagarden was found blameless in the tragedy, because of the controller's actions.
Nevertheless, he was remorseful for what had happened - "It is impossible to express to you how deeply grieved I am by your loss,'' Major Teagarden said in the statement. ''I wish with all my heart that it had been within my power to keep my plane headed toward that open field once I aimed it there. Please understand I did everything humanly possible to prevent this. My prayers are with you all.''
The cause of the crash, which was revealed in the Air Force's final report in January of 1988, was a defective gear in the accessory gearbox. It sheared, causing the driveshaft to rip open the lucubrating oil system, and the engine then seized up soon afterward. Prior to the accident, in November of 1984, Air Force mechanics first noticed excessive wear on the driveshafts of another Corsair. The notice of the wear, which later appeared on two other Corsairs, prompted a safety directive to check driveshaft splines - teethlike parts that fit into grooves on the turbine to drive various parts of the engine - during compressor work on all of the Corsairs remaining in service.
But the directive was not issued until four months after compressor maintenance was last done on Teagarden's Corsair, in June of 1986 - four months prior to the accident.
But Why a Corsair II?!
Because of the tight restrictions on F-117A flights during the 4450th Tactical Training Group's "black" era, a stand-in aircraft was needed for training, practice, and to provide a cover story for the 4450th's existence.
According to the second commanding officer of the 4450th, then-Colonel James S. Allen, the LTV (Ling-Temco-Vought) A-7D Corsairs II was chosen "because it demanded about the correct amount of pilot workload expected in the F-117A, was single seat, and therefore would bring all pilots to a common flight training base line, remembering we had pilots who had never flown single seat aircraft outside of solo flight in flight school."
In addition to providing an excuse for the 4450th's existence and activities, since the A-7Ds were typically reserved for "avionics testing", they were also used to maintain pilot currency, particularly early in the production of the Stealth Fighter, when F-117As were rare. The pilots of the Corsairs learned to fly chase on F-117A test and training flights, perform practice covert deployments, and practice any other purpose that could not be accomplished using F-117As. given the tight restrictions imposed on all F-117A operations.
About 20 of the antiquated and cheap Corsairs were pulled from “moth-ball” status, mostly coming from Eglin AGB. The A-7Ds started flight operations with the 4450th in June of 1981, around the same time as the first flights of the F-117 prototypes. Bearing the unique tailcode of “LV”, symbolizing “Las Vegas,” the Corsairs were based out of, at least on paper, Nellis AFB – although most flights likely originated and ended out of Tonopah, closer to its Test Range.
Interestingly, the Corsair's jet engine was built in Indianapolis, by the Allison Gas Turbine Division of General Motors. Ultimately, the government paid at over $8 million to the injured and the families of those who died in the Ramada Inn.
After so many years of being 'in the black', in 1988 the Pentagon first revealed a very poor shot of the F-117 to the media, bringing its largest secret to date into the light. Now in the public's eye, in 1989, the Lockheed F-117A “Blackhawks” were flown, in formation behind tanker aircraft, to Panama to take part in precision strikes against dictator Miguel Noriega.
For more than two years, the charred building stood as a reminder of the tragedy. The hotel owners never rebuilt because they couldn't decide on an appropriate design. Currently, a parking lot stands on the site.