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Sacred ground: Families of the men killed 60 years ago in Air Force crash near Mount Spokane have been returning, looking for peace

Sept. 11, 2022 Updated Sun., Sept. 11, 2022 at 9:29 p.m.

Roland Tillman’s voice echoed through a thicket of trees Saturday morning on the side of Mount Kit Carson.

“I found a wire!” the 8-year-old called to his family, who’d just trudged, climbed and sometimes stumbled through forested overgrowth in Mount Spokane State Park after traveling from Colorado and Minnesota to be here.

The Tillman family was drawn back to this place, a plot of land on the slope of Mount Kit Carson indistinguishable from the rest of the landscape except by the few scattered metal remains of an Air Force tanker. Sixty years ago Saturday, Air Force 1st Lt. Gray E. Tillman died here along with 43 other men. The crash of Mourn 79 remains the deadliest aviation crash in Spokane County history, yet there are no obvious visual clues guiding potential visitors to this logged expanse where metal met mountain.

Three generations of the family hiked in Saturday morning, bringing remembrances of Gray Tillman and something to leave behind.

For daughter Grace Doumani, who was five months old when her father died, it’s a button from his uniform she secreted away from her mother.

“I’m a flight attendant, and I’ve taken it with me,” Doumani said, running her thumb along the button she wears on a necklace around her neck. “I don’t wear it when I fly very often. But every once in a while, I’m like, I’m going to take dad with me.”

Gray Tillman III sees his father in the two twin boys he brought to the site Saturday. They were born eight weeks prematurely on his father’s birthday, May 11.

“I never knew that, until that evening, the day that they were born,” Gray Tillman said, looking at his sons Tyler Gray and Jack Eddy Tillman. “I’ve always felt my father’s presence. At that time, I knew he was there, and he’s been with us.”

A cover of heather and honeysuckle grows over the remnants of the plane, creating an otherworldly scene. Trees shoot out of the ground at odd angles, providing a canopy for what was a scene of carnage decades ago.

The area is so remote, and requires leaving designated trails, that the Park Service asks visitors not to try to reach the area in order to protect the environment and respect the site, said Russell Aldrich, park ranger for the Mount Spokane and Crawford state parks.

“Mother Nature erases her scars,” said Frank A. Johnson, the son of the pilot at the controls on Sept. 10, 1962.

The hundreds-of-miles journey to Eastern Washington was one that took decades for Johnson and Randy Tillman. It’s not one necessarily of closure, they said, but of seeing what their fathers saw just before the end of their lives.

“It put together a solid history for me,” said Tillman. “I was able to stand on the site and say, ‘This is it. This is what happened.’”

For Johnson, who took the additional step of flying over the site in a seaplane to simulate the approach, his visits have created an understanding of what his father faced, and what likely happened, in those moments about 10 minutes after 11 a.m. on Sept. 10, 1962.

“It was his mistake that cost 44 people their lives,” Johnson said. Among the dead were pilots and flight technicians who had served in World War II and Korea. Many are buried at the Black Hills National Cemetery near Sturgis, South Dakota.

“The impact of that on the number of family, that rippling effect on down the chain, is extensive,” Johnson said.

The crash

The fog was so thick that morning in September 1962 that at first rescuers didn’t know exactly where to look for the tanker headed to the West Plains from South Dakota.

Fairchild had lost contact with Johnson, the pilot, at 11:10 a.m. Aboard the craft were not just the four men that made up the flight’s crew, but another 40 who were being stationed at Spokane’s air base as runway repairs were being made at Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City.

“Helicopters from the base were searching along the road between Elk, Washington, and Blanchard (Idaho), although fog and clouds were hampering the search planes,” the afternoon edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported that Monday afternoon.

The searchers were about a dozen miles too far north, as a trio of Spokane searchers was about to find out.

About seven hours after Air Force officials lost contact, Bert Smith, and Wayne and Irving Hamaan came upon the site down a dirt road used for hunting access on Mount Kit Carson. It was the smell of smoke that drew them in.

“Finally, we came across the first of the wreckage,” Smith told The Spokesman-Review in September 1962. “It looked like the forward compartment where the pilot sits. It was smashed to pieces. Then we saw three bodies on the ground – all badly burned. We decided to get out of there.”

Fifty years later, Wayne Hamaan recalled that after showing authorities the site, he returned home and realized his clothes had the permanent smell of jet fuel.

Workers were called in to tow the bodies away from the slope so that they could be taken to Fairchild for identification.

“That’s the worst sight I’ve ever seen,” an unnamed state patrolman told Spokane County Sheriff William J. Reilly. “I hope those poor devils didn’t see it coming.”

It would take a team of investigators a little more than three weeks to determine why Mourn 79 had struck the mountain as it did. There were two flight plans for its descent to Fairchild, one that took the plane around Mount Kit Carson and Mount Spokane, and another that took the plane over the crags. Those two paths were charted on opposite sides of a folded map, and investigators concluded that the crew was looking at the side of the map that called for a lower approach altitude around the mountain, rather than the correct angle for where they were above it.

The elevation difference of about 3,500 feet, coupled with the poor weather conditions, could explain why Johnson was flying so low. The answer closed the book for the Air Force, and Fairchild would later change its flight paths to avoid the mountains.

But the children of those who died still had questions.

Putting together the pieces

Frank A. Johnson, who shares the first and last names of his father and captain of the tanker, returned home that Monday afternoon and was told by a waiting Air Force colonel that his dad’s plane was missing.

“I think my first question, was had it been found? Were there any survivors?” Johnson, who is now 72 and lives in New Jersey, said by phone earlier this month. “And he said, ‘No.’”

Capt. Frank Johnson was among the oldest on the plane, his son said, at 39. After the tragedy, Johnson’s mother moved the family from South Dakota to New Jersey to be closer to family.

“I’ve always kind of regretted that my mother made that move,” Johnson said. “But I understand why she did what she did. Her support system was back in Philadelphia.

“My mother didn’t even drive,” Johnson said. “We left the car, we left the dog with friends, and we headed back east.”

Just five years after the crash, the younger Frank A. Johnson began taking flying lessons at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, an hour east of Philadelphia.

“Then college came, and family came, and a career came, I became a police officer,” Johnson said.

A chance introductory flight 18 years later, when his son was the same age – 12 – he’d been when his father died, reignited a desire to learn what happened, Johnson said. An official at Norton Air Force Base in California sent him a redacted version of the crash report, and Johnson sat at the kitchen table in the late 1980s, reading and piecing together the mistake his father had made.

“I can easily understand how they could have misread it,” Johnson said of the navigation map error. “Unfortunately for them and his crew, it was a fatal mistake.”

Johnson has since been back to the site several times, sometimes easily finding his way to the crash and other times getting turned around on the mountain trails. A decade ago, for the 50th anniversary, he came back to Spokane only to lose his way. Steve Christensen, the now-retired state park ranger in charge of Mount Spokane then, had mapped the crash location on GPS and called Johnson back to help him find it.

“I looked on Google Earth, that’s when I found it,” Christensen said. “If you look at Mount Kit Carson, on the north side, there’s a green patch where the older trees had been mowed down. I thought, well, something made that.”

Johnson came back and hiked in to the location once more. Like others, he’s taken items from the site – he’s converted a piece of the wreckage he gathered in 1990 into the shape of a dog tag, engraved with the call sign and serial number of the aircraft, as well as the date of the crash.

“I think it’s important to have that connection with your loved one,” Johnson said.

As the 60th anniversary approached, Johnson considered returning to Eastern Washington. But he said he’s made his peace with his father, and the circumstances around the crash, and that he’d effectively “passed the baton” to Tillman, 11 years his junior.

“At this point in my life,” he said, “I think I have done everything I could do.”

A widow and her inquisitive children

Randy Tillman was sitting at his uncle’s house in Athens, Georgia, about a decade after the tanker crash in Spokane. On his uncle’s piano sat a picture of a young man in a flight suit, stepping onto a trainer jet.

“My uncle was looking at me, and said, ‘Do you know who that is? That’s your dad,’” Tillman said. “That was quite an impact for me at that age.”

He’d been just a year-and-a-half old when his father, 1st Lt. Gray “Ed” Tillman, had been aboard Mourn 79, one of the men stationed at Ellsworth who was transferring to Fairchild during the runway work. His older brother, Gray, and Grace all lived in a home near Rapid City.

Helen Hutchinson, Randy Tillman’s mother now living in Colorado, said the details of that September day 60 years ago aren’t clear in her mind.

“A neighbor came running over, and asked, ‘Is Ed flying today? There’s been a crash,’” Hutchinson said in a phone interview. “That would be my first indication, but it didn’t occur to me that he would have been in a crash.”

Tillman had studied mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech University before joining the Air Force, which was always his plan, Hutchinson said. After his death, her family came to South Dakota to help out with the children, and three years later she remarried.

After that visit to his Uncle Murray, Randy Tillman said he stumbled across a box of his father’s things, including the flag that had been draped on his coffin. But for the most part, there wasn’t much talk of his biological father.

“I know that my mom had mentioned he was either going to reup in the Air Force at that time, or he was thinking about becoming a pastor,” Tillman said. Randy’s given first name is John, after John the Baptist in the Bible, he said. His mother eventually told him the name was chosen by Gray Tillman.

It wasn’t until a few years ago, when Randy Tillman read an article in The Spokesman-Review published on the 50th anniversary of the crash, that he realized he could visit the site.

“Really, for me, it put together a solid history, a factual history for me,” Tillman said.

He made preparations to travel from Minnesota to Eastern Washington to visit the crash site. He floated the idea to his mother, whom he didn’t expect would want to travel there.

“Initially, I was not going to ask my mom,” he said. “She was still somewhat closed about things.”

But Hutchinson said yes “without hesitation,” Randy Tillman said.

“I wasn’t upset or anything like that,” she said. “It was just something to go and see.”

So in 2019, they drove along the mountain roads to the coordinates of the crash site.

“The road took us right to it,” Hutchinson said. “It’s a beautiful area.”

By that time, Randy Tillman had been speaking with Frank A. Johnson and gathering more details about the crash that killed the father he doesn’t remember.

‘It’s like a splinter in your body’

That’s where the Tillmans returned on Saturday, bringing with him a marker to leave at the site. It’s a piece of the wreckage he salvaged three years ago, laser-etched to include the call sign, “Mourn 79,” mounted on a steel pole.

While the serenity of the crash site moved Tillman on his last visit, he felt there should be something to alert those who pass through that they’re standing on a sacred site.

“You can still see pieces of the aircraft, it’s like a splinter in your body,” Tillman said. “Mother Earth keeps pushing this stuff out.”

Randy Tillman dug a small hole and planted the piece in a small clearing on Saturday. The family gathered, with Randy Tillman and his grandson, Roland, alternating reading lines of the Air Force hymn, “Lord, Guard and Guide the Men Who Fly.”

Others have hoped there would be a memorial of some type on the site. While there are monuments to the lost men at Ellsworth in South Dakota, and Johnson was able to bury some of the wreckage along with a military ceremony at Fairchild Air Base, there is nothing on the site explaining the events of that day 60 years ago. That’s bothered Harold Markiewicz, a retired KC-135 crew chief living in Post Falls who was friends with Airman First Class Ervin Paszek, who was aboard the flight.

“We worked together for not quite four years,” said Markiewicz, a retired technical sergeant in the Air Force who later spent six years stationed at Fairchild in the 1970s. Paszek had been discharged and moved back to South Dakota, where Markiewicz learned he re-enlisted before the tanker crash. Markiewicz said he didn’t know Paszek was aboard and killed until a year later, when he was traveling back through the area.

“I got orders to go overseas to Okinawa. I stopped off in Boise, and I ran into another fella that worked the same shift with us, Markiewicz said. “He asked me if I heard about Erv, and that’s when I knew.”

Aldrich said the Park Service plans to discuss a permanent memorial installation on this site with their interpretive team. There are no markers on the mountain for other crashes that occurred in the area, including one on Jan. 19, 1967, that was similar to the Mourn 79 incident. Nine people aboard were killed in that crash, which was following the same approach to Fairchild when it vanished from radar on a snowy evening. Johnson said he, too, supports the effort by Tillman to place something at the crash site remembering those aboard.

“We really wanted something there so that people would know basically that’s hallowed ground,” Johnson said.

Tillman returned to the site for continued healing, even if that healing defies logical explanation. His family carried out artifacts in 2019. When they counted them, they realized they had 44 – exactly the same number of men who died that day.

The return, with the marker, on the 60th anniversary was part of that continued healing, he said.

“I’m taking this, because I think we’ve earned this,” he said. “That’s part of our therapy.”

Hutchinson’s children all huddled at a few minutes after 11, talking to their mother on speakerphone, around the same moment 60 years ago she lost her husband.

“We love you,” Gray Tillman, her son, told her.

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