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Family visits 40-year-old crash site

September 19, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
It was 40 years ago this February when a Navy patrol bomber doing "touch-and-go's" at the El Toro Marine Base crashed in the Cleveland National Forest, exploding on impact.All seven Navy crewmen on board were killed. They were fathers, husbands and brothers, still very much missed to this day.

"He said to my brother and I, 'Please take care of your mother.' And those were his last words to me," said Robert Coad Jr., son of pilot.

Robert Coad Jr. was in ninth grade when his world turned upside down.

"I went down to the principal's office and a priest, Father Feldman, told me there'd been a crash," said Coad.

Nearly 40 years later, Robert Coad Jr., three of his four sisters and other family members hiked a half-mile into Orange County's rugged Modjeska Canyon. There were making the trip to see, firsthand, the spot their father -- Naval Reserve Pilot Lieutenant Commander Robert Coad -- lost his life on February 11, 1969.

It was a routine training mission. The Reserve Navy Squadron was based temporarily at Los Alamitos, doing nighttime "touch and go's" at the El Toro Marine Base.

"It's our understanding they were flying in terrible weather," said Amy Hammitt, daughter of pilot.

"They ended up coming up this canyon from which there was no escape and they crashed on the ridge ... and seven died," said Pat Macha, aviation archeologist.

Wreckage from the plane is still scattered over three steep ridges. Part of a wing, two propellers still mostly intact, and pieces of the fuselage and communication equipment remain in the forest.

Pat Macha led this grim expedition. A retired high school teacher, he's dedicated much of his life to finding lost aircraft wrecks. If the next of kin is so inclined, he'll lead them to the site.

"As we look at this wreckage and touch it, we're touching the past," said Macha.

The Navy removed the bodies and unexploded bombs back in 1969. However, much of the wreckage remained on the mountainside. The wreckage was largely forgotten until last October's wildfires roared through, burning away decades of growth and brush.

Self-taught aviation archeologist Pat Macha recognized the site immediately, and reached out to pilot Robert Coad's children in Minnesota.

"It was very surreal. I certainly have dealt with it since, but this certainly helps to make it more real," said Robert Coad Jr.

Their journey was in part to pay tribute and, in part, to gain some much longed-for closure.

"He was very warm and loving, I remember climbing on his lap when he'd get home from work and sitting with him while he read the paper, and how much he loved our mother," said Hammitt, the pilot's daughter.

A tight-knit family now has a tangible memory of their father's final moments.

For Pat Macha, it's a calling, and a way to give back.

"It's my duty. I am not a serviceman. I'm a retired teacher. So, in this way, I can give some small return for their sacrifice," said Macha.

"I wish my mom was still alive. I don't think she would've come here, but I think it would be nice if she knew we did this," said Coad.

Veterans Day Memorial Ceremony
In Honor of Gertrude V. Tompkins Silver
Nov. 11, 2008
11 a.m.
Proud Bird Restaurant
11022 Aviation Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90045

Gertrude V. Tompkins Silver was one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II. She disappeared after taking off from what is now LAX. She is the only WASP who is still designated as missing in service.

RSVP by Nov. 1
pat@aircraftwrecks.com
(714) 345-9210

 

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