Thunderbirds' "Diamond Crash"
Indian Springs Auxiliary Air Base, Nevada
A New Leader...
On September 8, 1981, the commander of the Thunderbirds since 1979, Lt. Col. David
L. Smith, 40, was taking off in his T-38 Talon when, shortly after
departure from Burke Lakefront Airport, it ingested several seagulls,
stalling the engines. Hundreds of spectators and countless downtown office
workers watched in horror as the jet plunged downwards toward Lake Erie.
Luckily, Smith and Staff Sgt Dwight Roberts, 31, the crew chief riding
tandem behind him, both ejected from the plane.
ejector seat chute did not have time to open, and he impacted on rocks
next to the lake and rolled into the water, killing him instantly.
With the loss of their leader, and with the approach
of autumn, the 1981 air show ended for the unit. A new leader,
Major Norman Lowry, had already been selected by the Air Force to command the
team after Smith. With Lowry leading, a fresh start after the loss of Smith and second
solo Nick Hauck, who had been killed in another mishap in May of '81,
Four months later...
The four "Diamond" aircraft, Thunderbirds #1, 2, 3, and 4
(tail numbers 68-8156, 8175, 8176 & 8184), were
training for an air show at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona.
Climbing side-by-side for several thousand feet in a slow, backward
loop, then hurtling down at more than 400 mph, leveling off at about 100
feet, in a maneuver called a "line-abreast loop," a malfunction in the
lead plane, Thunderbird #1, occurred.
"At the speed they were going
when they came out of the loop,
I just thought, "That's the end of
that for them fellows,'" said
W.G. Wood of Indian Springs,
who witnessed the crash as he
drove along U.S. 95. "It happened
so fast I couldn't tell you
if one hit sooner. It looked like
all of them hit at the same
a construction worker, watched the jets disappear behind tree tops,
"They didn't come back up," he said. "They were going full tilt, really
screaming, and at the time I thought they were too low."
A resident across the highway
from the auxiliary base where
the flight team practiced said
he heard the whine of the red,
white and blue jets as they
climbed to a high arch, then the
scream of the engines as they
plunged downward to complete
boom-boom-boom as they hit
the ground one after another,"
said Loren Conaway.
Following their leader to the end, all four planes plowed in the
ground. All four pilots were killed instantly.
Technical Sergeant Al King, was filming on the ground that morning at
Indian Springs when the accident occurred. While the sound didn’t work,
the video part did, and it would help the accident board determine the
cause of the accident. The investigation found that there was
insufficient back pressure on the control stick of Thunderbird #1 during
Major Norm Lowry was buried at Riverside National
Section 2, Site 1919, in California. Captain Pete Peterson was buried in Culpepper National
Cemetery, VA, in
G, Site 1114, and
Captain Willie Mays was buried in his hometown of Ripley, Tennessee.
was buried in Dallas along his father, Air Force Major James Melancon,
who died Sept. 24, 1957, when the B-26 he was piloting crashed in a residential area
near Dayton, Ohio.
From Left to Right:
Major Norm Lowry, 37, of Radford, VA -
Captain Willie Mays, 32, of Ripley, TN
- left wing
Captain Joseph Peterson, 32,
of Tuskegee, AL - right wing
Mark E. Melancon, 31, of Dallas, TX - slot
From the Ashes...
The crash opened public debate on
such federally-funded aerial exhibition teams, Some argued that
groups like the Thunderbirds were "hot-shot stunt pilots" who were
spending too much of the taxpayers' dollars, and risking lives in the
But cooler heads prevailed -
those who understood the value to military recruitment and on January 26,
1982, Congress passed Resolution 248, stating that "The Congress
hereby affirms its strong support for continuation of the Thunderbirds
program." But the 1982 air show season was cancelled for the
Thunderbirds while they rebuilt their team.
The "Diamond Crash," as it was later
called, led to the
Thunderbirds upgrading their T-38s to the frontline F-16A "Fighting Falcon" jet
fighter, built by General Dynamics, for their performances. In order
to rebuild the team, the Air
Force pulled several former Thunderbird pilots, who were still on
active duty, to "come out of air show retirement", get qualified in
flying the F-16A, and had them start flying in "two-ship" formations through all
the aerobatic maneuvers, starting in August of 1982, and led by Major Jim
Slowly, the team expanded - one airplane at a time
- back up to the
full formation of six airplanes.
A memorial in honor of the fallen is located
on the western wall of the North Las Vegas Police
Department's headquarters. At the United States Air Force Academy, a T-38
painted in Thunderbirds color scheme is decidated to the team and its
then-leader, Major Lowry.
Range 65 is now referred to as "The Gathering of Eagles Range"
- an annual aviation event that encourages the study of aviation history
and the contributions of aviation pioneers at
Air Command and Staff College.
In 2005, Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field officially changed
its name to Creech Air Force Base in honor of General Wilbur L. “Bill”
Creech, who was known as the “father of the Thunderbirds.”