Nobody apparently saw it coming, certainly not the Utah families of 15 of the 50 people killed in a midair collision between a commercial airliner and supersonic military jet outside of Los Angeles.
It happened 40 years ago Monday. A Hughes Air West DC-9 with 44 passengers and a crew of five was making a routine flight on a Sunday evening, heading from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, then on to Idaho and Washington.
The flight included nine prominent Salt Lake men, lifelong friends or fraternity brothers who had formed a group called "The Fishy Trout and Drinking Society." They were headed home after a deep-sea fishing trip off Mazatlan, Mexico.
Among their fellow passengers were a Cottonwood High School sophomore, an only child, returning to his parents after a scuba diving trip in California with family friends; an LDS seminary teacher at Viewmont High School; a Granger woman coming back from her granddaughter's wedding in California; and a young mother flying in to pick up her two little kids, who were visiting her parents while she and her husband prepared to move from California to Phoenix.
None made it home. Nine minutes after takeoff, the DC-9 collided with a Marine Corps fighter returning to a base south of Los Angeles. The Marine pilot went down with his jet. His radar officer managed to bail out, the only survivor.
Prominent people • "It was an event that rocked Salt Lake generally because so many prominent business people were involved. Most were home-grown guys who had done well at the University of Utah and were reputable members of the business community," said Greg Pyke, a San Diego attorney whose family was hit particularly hard.
His father, uncle and their cousin were on the plane, the top three executives at Pyke Manufacturing Co., which employed 400 Utahns making women's apparel. So was Pyke Manufacturing's outside legal counsel, Preston Allen, from Ray Quinney & Nebeker.
"I went to nine funerals in the span of a week, and I was a 17-year-old boy," recalled Pyke, whose dad, Frank, organized the fishing trip.
The close-knit nature of the Fishy club's families made it especially difficult, added Geoffrey Mangum, whose dad's reputation as a fly fisherman had earned him his first invitation to take part in the club's annual excursion.
"It wasn't just that we had lost our father, but that our friends had lost their fathers, too," he said. "For the kids, there's been this tie we have in common. We don't hang out together, but we are all aware of this tie that is unspoken, below the surface."
Mangum has led an effort to bring the disaster back to the surface. He and others put together a memorial tribute to the 50 victims that is in The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News on Monday, 40 years to the day after the lives of the victims' families changed abruptly.
"The memory of walking into my house that summer evening is forever etched in my mind," said his sister, Melissa Warren, of Las Vegas. "From the look on my mother's face and the tone in her voice, I knew instinctively, even at [age] 12, that something unspeakable had just occurred."
Only child • Dottie Hunter fell apart when her husband delivered the news that "Glen isn't coming home." Her only child, just 16, was an Eagle Scout with a delightful sense of humor. She had let him stay in California an extra week on his scuba vacation, but only reluctantly because she missed him so.
"I said, 'What do you mean?' And my husband said 'There's been an airplane crash.' I came completely unglued. You can't imagine how horrible it is unless you've lost somebody," said the 83-year-old.
"Even today I cry a river every once in a while. And never a day goes by that I don't think about him."
In 1972, a National Transportation Safety Board investigation did not definitively conclude what caused the crash, although it cited "the failure of both crews to see and avoid each other."
But the report focused largely on the actions of the military jet, which was returning to Marine Air Station El Toro after a hobbled two-day flight around the West.
On day one of its trip from El Toro to McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Wash., the jet developed problems with its transponder, radio, radar and internal oxygen system.
While none were debilitating problems, they couldn't be fixed the next day during stops at Mountain Home AFB in Idaho or Fallon Naval Air Station in Nevada. So the pilot was authorized to make a low-level flight back to El Toro.
Along the way, a temperature inversion created murky visibility around California's mountains, prompting the pilot to make a high-speed ascent, culminating with a dramatic 360-degree rollover.
Eighty seconds later, the planes collided at 15,500 feet. There were no signs either pilot saw the other and initiated avoidance measures. Both planes plunged into the rugged San Gabriel Mountains.
Mysterious signal • The NTSB report had one intriguing finding. Reviews of radar records showed some systems detected another unidentified target nearby and picked up an emergency beacon signal.
After circling the area once, the target "disappeared in the vicinity of Norton [Air Force Base] approximately 10 minutes after it was first observed," the report said. "The Safety Board attempted to identify the source of the [target] but was unsuccessful." And left it at that.
The families eventually reached out-of-court civil settlements with the government, Mangum said.
"I don't feel like our family has been preoccupied with the details about what happened," observed Gayle Pyke Griffith, daughter of victim Charles Pyke. "We mostly celebrated the fact my dad was a great guy. It's always been a heartwarming story of his friendship with these other men.
"I'm sad not to have had more time with my dad, but he left the Earth with a great legacy in his children and the business he and his brother and his cousin had developed," she said.
Echoed her cousin Greg: "I'm eternally grateful to my dad for the prudent [financial] planning he did. He loved my mom and he made sure we were taken care of. As difficult and horrible as that event was, it wasn't like my mom had to go to work the next day."
Staying strong • Noting he comes from a family of criers, Park City resident Rob Morris choked up last week while talking about the death of his brother, Thornton "Din" Morris, son of University of Utah All America football player "Spide" Morris and a well-known youth football coach.
"I remember all of it. It was a tough night," Rob Morris said, shaking off his tears with a recollection of what his brother/coach would have told his grieving family. "When you're down and out and can't seem to get going, snap your helmet on, button your chin strap and get off the bench."
Memories like those have helped pull the families through the sad times.
Brad Morris, Din's son, said he and his mom found a letter his dad wrote his children a year before the accident but tucked away. Basically, it said "I haven't left you much, but tried to leave for you a path to honesty and integrity. How you treat people is what really counts."
"It was sure a special letter," Brad Morris said.
Gayle Griffith revels in memories of family gatherings the past 40 years at a Montana cabin her dad bought weeks before his death but never stayed in. Greg Pyke said his mother took solace in a ring his father had specially designed for her to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary but never got to give her.
Still, some voids can never be filled. Geoffrey Mangum felt that as he organized the remembrance.
"My father was not around to meet my wife and my children and he would have loved that," he said. "That's the deepest loss I have."
Air collision victims from Utah
C. Preston Allen, 49, Salt Lake City • Graduate of East High School and University of Utah Law School. Served in Army Air Corps. General counsel for the State Tax Commission, 1952-55. Senior partner at Ray Quinney & Nebeker at time of death. A director for Pyke Manufacturing as well as Amalgamated Sugar Co., American Paper and Supply Co., Hall Process Co. Active in Boy Scouts. Survived by widow, son, two daughters, mother.
Steven Bos, 29, Bountiful • A native of The Netherlands, seminary teacher at Viewmont High School. Survived by his parents, four siblings. Family asked for donations to BYU library.
Ruth Carson, 68, Granger • Was returning home with her granddaughter, Kathleen Thomas, 21, Simi Calif., a student at Brigham Young University. Both had attended the California wedding of Thomas's sister, Kathy.
W. Prescott Dunn Jr., 42 • Graduated from the University of Utah. Member of the golf team. Beta Theta Pi fraternity. Army tank commander in Korea. Utah Bleacher Quarterback and U-Men club member. Joined J.A. Hogle & Co. as account executive in 1961; the company ultimately became Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith. Survived by widow, three sons.
Glen L. Hunter, 16, Holladay • Only son of Glen L. and Dottie Fort Hunter. Just completed his sophomore year at Cottonwood High School. Member of the football team, Usher's Club, Eagle Scout.
John K. Mangum, 41, Holladay • An attorney with what is now Prince Yeates (Prince, Mangum, Yeates & Miller). Married to Alice Ann Wilkinson, daughter of BYU President Ernest Wilkinson. Graduated from BYU and then Cal-Berkeley. Special counsel to the Salt Lake County grand jury in 1965. Active in Junior Chamber of Commerce, Republican Party affairs, Hidden Valley Country Club, Duckville Gun Club; award recipient from Salt Lake Jaycees. Survived by widow, daughter, three sons, mother, four siblings
Thornton "Din" Morris, 43, Salt Lake City • UofU graduate, where he played on the football and golf teams. Member of U-Men's club and Bleacher Quarterbacks. Helped organize Ute Conference football program. President of Keyser & Morris Inc., investments and insurance. Past president of Hidden Valley Country club. Member of American Contract Bridge League. Survived by widow, daughter, two sons.
Charles "Mac" Pyke, 47, Salt Lake City • President of Pyke Manufacturing, graduate of East High School. Member of the University of Utah tennis team (also half of an Intermountain Boys Championship doubles team in 1941). In the Army during World War II. Started full-time at Pyke in 1947 after working there as a teen-ager. Became president in 1963. Survived by widow, four children, mother. Chesapeake Duck Club member. Bleacher Quarterback.
Frank S. Pyke, 44, Holladay • Became executive vice president in 1963, also after working there since he was a boy. East High grad in 1943, served in Navy, graduated from UofU with business degree in 1949. Secretary in the Utah Manufacturers Association, on board of Cottonwood Club, member of Alta Club, St. James Episcopal Church. Chairman of "The Fishy Trout and Drinking Society." Survived by widow, son, daughter, mother.
Wallace H. Pyke, 42, Salt Lake City • Vice president and treasurer, went to prep school in Colorado Springs, graduated from the UofU, served in Army. Pilot, member of Beta Theta Pi fraternity, Fort Douglas-Hidden Valley Country Club. Survived by widow, daughter, son.
Robert E. Schoenhals, 38, Salt Lake City • Graduate of University of Utah law school; in private practice, Mark and Schoenhals. Veteran of Korean War. Kappa Sigma fraternity. Survived by widow, son, two daughters; brother.
Spencer E. Smith, 44, Salt Lake City • Graduate of East High School, attended UofU, served in Coast Guard. Regional representative for J.W. Brown distillers in Seattle. Board member of Willow Creek Country Club and former assistant manager of the Towne House Athletic Club. One of the founders and builders of Peruvian Lodge. Survived by sister, two brothers.
Mary Alice Payton Subic, 61, Tooele • A widow, returning to Utah after visiting a son in California for a week. A Denver native who lived near Dugway Proving Ground for five years before settling in Tooele in 1963. Survived by five children, 18 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren.
Darlene "Midge" Hathaway Garcia, 24, Granger • Was living in Hawthorne, Calif. Flying to Salt Lake to get her two children, who had been staying here with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. William F. Hathaway, while she spent the weekend moving her households. Her airline-employee husband had been transferred from Hawthorne to Phoenix.
43 died in 1965 SLC air tragedy
The 1971 midair collision occurred 5Â½ years after Utah's deadliest airplane crash. On Nov. 11, 1965, United Airlines Flight 227 came down 335 feet short of the Salt Lake City International Airport runway. The main landing gear sheared off and ruptured a fuel line, triggering a fire that claimed the lives of 43 of the 85 people aboard.