Unsolved Mysteries: The Strange Case of the Wayward Warthog

Image via US Air Force 161004-F-YM181-010

USAF Captain Craig Button Broke Formation and Flew Off Alone- into Oblivion. But Why?

Craig David Button was born on 24 November 1964. Like a lot of want-to-be fighter pilots, he had lived his life as part of a military family growing up with a few moves, lots of change, and a wealth of worldly experience under his belt. Button graduated from high school in Long Island, New York and had started working toward earning his private pilot certification at the age of 17 before heading off to college. He was described as “polite”, “quiet”, and a “perfectionist”. His father was a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and his mother was a devout Jehovah’s Witness who was known to be strongly opposed to Craig’s decision to serve in the military.

craig button during pilot training at laughlin afb, tx (source: summit daily)

Fighter Pilot In the Making

Button graduated from the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, New York with a degree in aerospace engineering and was commissioned through the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) in 1990. After college, he was immediately shipped off to Laughlin Air Force Base (AFB) in Texas to complete Air Force pilot training. Upon graduation Button earned an assignment as a First Assignment Instructor Pilot (FAIP) in the Cessna T-37 Tweet trainer. After four years as a T-37 FAIP, Button was reassigned to the 355th Fighter Wing at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona to begin initial A-10 flight training and finally realize his dream of becoming a fighter pilot.

Cessna T-37 trainer. image via US Air Force

What It (Really) Takes to Become a Hog Pilot

It takes 40 training sorties over the span of five months to complete the initial A-10 training course which consists of several training phases. Transition, or TR as it’s traditionally called focuses on basic flying, systems knowledge, and instruments. Surface Attack, or the SA phase, introduces weapons employment and gives the student his or her first taste of shooting the mighty GAU-8 Avenger 30mm Gatling gun. Nights, well…is nights…and hones night flying skills – crosschecks, deconfliction, and night weapons employment.

A-10 Warthog. image via DVIDS

Mixing It Up With the Fighter Jocks

ACBT, Air Combat Basic Training, introduces Basic Fighter Maneuvers (BFM) in the Hog and also provides an opportunity for the student pilot to fight dissimilar assets like F-16 Vipers or F-15 Eagles. The Air Strike Control phase was usually near the end of the syllabus and taught the A-10 student pilot basic Forward Air Control (FAC-A) tactics, techniques, and procedures. But, the longest and most difficult training phase intertwined with all of the other five phases as it encompassed teaching Close Air Support, the Warthog’s bread-and-butter mission.

A-10 Warthog. image via DVIDS

What Hog Pilots Live For

This phase was called SAT, or Surface Attack Tactics. It was ten sorties long, started off with basic two-ship medium altitude tactics, and culminated with low altitude high threat four-ship tactics. There are two sorties during A-10 initial training every student froth at the mouth over. The first is SA-1, the surface attack mission to the range where a fangs-out Hog driver-in-training gets to pull the trigger for the first time and unleash the power of the mighty Avenger 30 millimeter rotary cannon.

A-10 firing the avenger cannon. image via DVIDS

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Finally- Bombs That Go Boom

The second big sortie is SAT-6, or the “Live Ride.” All tactical flight training prior to SAT-6 utilized BDU-33s, small 25-pound blue training bombs that emit a puff of smoke upon impact. But on SAT-6, student pilot A-10 aircraft are loaded up with four to six LIVE Mark 82 500-pound general purpose bombs and when they impact, tremendous explosions of brown dirt and black smoke erupt 1,000 feet into the air and shake the ground. Veteran instructor pilots spend countless hours telling war stories about dropping bombs, but until a fledging Hog pilot experienced it for himself there was no true way to fully understand what it felt or looked like from the cockpit. It was simply…well…awesome! So SAT-6 was the ride every student looked forward to because they finally got to go blow stuff up for the first time. But on 2 April 1997 a SAT-6 “Live Ride” went south very quickly for Captain Craig Button.

A-10 pilot mans up. image via DVIDS

Motherhood…Standard…

SAT-6 training objectives were fairly simple – 1) safely employ live weapons, 2) hit your target, 3) and fly the correct tactical geometry. All training sorties started with a mission brief, which included “Admin” or “Motherhood” as some would call it, a discussion of tactics, and a time at the end for Q&A.  Motherhood consisted of briefly discussing ground operations, takeoff, departure, enroute, RTB, pattern and landing, and a plethora of contingencies. It usually took about ten minutes to brief and over the course of time could become “standard” as the items were essentially that…standard.

A-10 about to head out. image via DVIDS

…And Not So Standard

Most instructor pilots didn’t spend a lot of time discussing the enroute formation as the young A-10 student pilots were versed and proficient in maintaining formation position. However, for this particular flight on 2 April 1997, the flight consisted of two student pilots and one instructor pilot (IP) which was a bit uncommon. Doable, but not the standard. Because of this, the IP decided to utilize a formation called “Wedge on Wedge” where the IP led, a student pilot flew as the #2 wingman 6,000-9,000 feet behind him within a 30 to 60-degree cone, and the #3 wingman in turn maintained the same parameters behind #2. Button was directed to fly A-10A serial number 79-0215 (CN A10-0479) as #3 which placed him approximately three miles behind his flight lead which in turn made it very difficult for the IP to keep tabs on him.

A-10 taking off. image via dvids

Tanking the Hog

Weather at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (AFB) that day was a low temperature of 53 warming up to a high of 73 with no precipitation in the forecast. Barometric pressure was 29.69 with winds at 11 mph from the West-Southwest and visibility of 10 miles. Departure was uneventful and as briefed the flight of three A-10As proceeded to the air refueling track located above the middle of the Barry M. Goldwater Range complex west of Tucson. The IP led the two student pilots through air refueling training, and after topping off with fuel, descended the three-ship down to 500 feet AGL to practice Low Altitude Tactical Navigation (LATN) range through the Sonoran Desert mountains, cactus, and sandy washes enroute to their assigned tactical range for live weapons employment.

A-10 about to be plugged. image via DVIDS

No You See Me…

A few minutes after settling into the low altitude block, Button silently broke formation near Gila Bend and took off on his own on a northeast heading toward the Four Corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. Because of the widely-spaced formation being flown and the difficulty maintaining sight of #3, it was several minutes before the IP realized Button had vanished. The A-10A doesn’t have an air-search radar, and the LATN training area is not controlled by Air Traffic Control so there was no way to quickly find and identify Button’s missing A-10. At the time of his deviation from his mission briefing, Button’s 347th Fighter Squadron jet was armed with four unguided Mark 82 500 pound bombs, 60 magnesium flares, 120 metal chaff canisters, and 575 rounds of 30-millimeter ammunition.

A-10 making a hard right. image via DVIDS

Tracked But Not Identified

Because Button’s radar transponder had been switched off, civil Air Traffic Control (ATC) radar stations in Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Denver were only able to track his jet instead of positively identify it. Despite this, a track was established and later verified by several people on the ground who were able to identify Button’s A-10A as it passed their positions while flying approximately 500 miles (800 miles off course) on a more or less direct north northeast course toward Aspen in Colorado.

Air traffic controllers at work in the Radar Approach Control (RAPCON) Section of the 1974th Communications Command (AFCC). image via national archives

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Sightings of Button’s A-10A (479) Reported by Ground Observation

1158- 479 sighted east of Tucson AZ

1210- 479 sighted west of Apache Junction AZ

1211- 479 sighted several miles south of Theodore Roosevelt Lake AZ

1229- 479 sighted north of Theodore Roosevelt Lake AZ

1243- 479 sighted approaching the New Mexico/Colorado border

1258- 479 sighted just inside the Colorado border

1300- 479 sighted near Telluride CO

1308 – 479 sighted near Montrose CO

1322- 479 sighted flying a zig-zag course between Grand Junction and Aspen CO

1327- 479 sighted north of Aspen CO flying a northeast heading

1330- 479 sighted due south of the last observed position

1333- 479 sighted southeast of the last observed position

1335- 479 sighted northeast of the last observed position between Aspen CO and Grand Junction CO

1337- 479 sighted on a northeast heading

1340- 479 is sighted circling northeast of Aspen near Craig’s Peak and New York Mountain CO (last reported sighting- radar contact with 479 lost at 1340)

craig button’s route of flight (source: www.academia.edu)

The Search for A-10 Wreckage

The Air Force, Colorado National Guard, and Civil Air Patrol conducted an exhausting three-week search for the crash. A U-2 reconnaissance aircraft launched from Beale AFB in northern California identified five possible crash sites high up in the Colorado Rockies. On 20 April, 18 days after Button’s aircraft disappeared, the crew of a Colorado Army National Guard High-Altitude Army Aviation Training Site (HAATS) Bell OH-58 Kiowa helicopter spotted what looked like aircraft wreckage on top of Gold Dust Peak in the Holy Cross Wilderness at an elevation of 13,265 feet.

An overall view of the A-10 crash site near the summit of Gold Dust Peak. The snow covered area just above and to the left of center is the main debris site. image via national archives

Inaccessible Wreckage and Waiting It Out

Bad weather, snow, and difficult terrain impeded access to the crash site. It took several days before investigators could positively identify the wreckage as that of the missing A-10 and “fragmentary remains” were identified at the site. It took until July for the HAATS pilots to fly a team of investigators to the site. By then it was clear that Button’s jet had impacted roughly 100 feet below the summit on the northwest face of Gold Dust Peak in Eagle County, roughly 15 miles southwest of Vail in Colorado. Impact spread wreckage over the summit and onto the opposite side of the peak.

COl Flip Frazee (left) and 1LT Eric Soto (right), investigators for the Accident Investigation Board, check the debris field for clues to determine why the A-10 crashed. image via national archives

What About Those BOMBS?

Thorough examination of the wreckage revealed that the jet was very low on fuel with somewhere between two and five minutes of JP-8 remaining. After explosive ordnance teams scoured the entire region, the four bombs Button was carrying were nowhere to be found. The area around the crash site was cordoned off for months with signage warning hikers they could encounter the bombs or 30 millimeter shells in the area. One thing seems clear though- Button’s fuel would have run out long before it did if he had carried the bombs all the way to Gold Dust Peak. It seems more likely he dropped them someplace between Gila Bend and his final destination. The Goldwater Range would make sense, as well as one of the remote Indian nations (Navajo or Hopi) he flew over on his way to Gold Dust Peak. Loud explosions were reported in areas he overflew but no evidence the sounds came from the Mark 82s was ever found.

recovery team search for any remnants of the four 500 pound Mark 82 bombs that were carried by the A-10 that crashed on Gold Dust Peak. image via national archives

Still an Unsolved Mystery. Or Two.

No one knows why Craig Button made the fateful decision to break formation and fly over 800 miles off course to the northeast to crash in the Rocky Mountains. Was it suicide? Was it pre-planned? Was there an aircraft malfunction? And of course- where are the bombs? Button did not attempt to eject from the jet. Toxicology tests on those fragmented remains revealed no alcohol or drugs were involved. We know the Colorado Rockies was one of his favorite places- he was even written up for deviating from his flight plan to overfly them.

With Gold Dust Peak in the background, members of the Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 7 members from San Diego, California set out on the Zodiac boat to gather data during their initial search for the four missing 500 pound Mark 82 bombs carried by the A-10 that crashed near Gold Dust Peak. New York Lake is the first of six lakes in the Gold Dust Peak that will be searched. image via national archives

Theories- Plausible and Entirely Implausible

Many theories about Button and his potential reasons for his actions have been published but none have ever been confirmed. Some of these theories are quite far-fetched and we won’t get into them here. The fact is we may simply never know the why. When asked to explain what happened, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen simply stated, “It is a mystery, wrapped inside an enigma, inside a riddle.” Captain Craig Button’s remains were buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Found near the top of Gold Dust Peak was the captain’s insignia (center of image) from Craig Button’s flight suit, a reminder that an Air Force member lost his life on the mountainside. image via national archives