Editor’s note: A Ramona couple on Veterans Day 2010 placed a plaque on the site of a Navy jet crash that had occurred in 1961. In this article, S. Elaine Lyttleton tells the story of how she and Norm Case, owners of the property on which the jet crashed, unraveled the story of the crash after finding remnants of the wreckage on their property in 2006.
By S. ELAINE LYTTLETON
He wasn’t even supposed to fly that day. The flight instructor who was scheduled to conduct a training exercise in the Grumman F9F-8T “Cougar” on Jan. 17, 1961, had a family emergency so Navy LCDR Vernon Thompson was called in to take his place.
Something went seriously wrong, and Thompson and his student were both killed when the aircraft slammed in to the ground at Latitude 33 degrees, 2.6 minutes North, Longitude 116 degrees, 49.7 minutes West in Ramona.
When the crash site property changed hands in 2006, the new owners began clearing and tilling the field in preparation for the planting of their wine grape vineyard. Norm Case, one of the property owners and a pilot and airplane owner himself, began finding parts and pieces of the aircraft. He recognized them as being from a military plane, but could find no information locally on why they were there.
He eventually found one neighbor who had lived in the area for decades, who mentioned a Navy jet crash in the late 1950s or early ‘60s.
Being busy with the new vineyard project, no other investigations were done until after October 2007. The Witch Creek Fire blew right through the crash debris area and, during the subsequent cleanup, a new and touching piece of history was revealed — the pilot’s dog tag. A visit to the San Diego Archeological Society in San Pasqual Valley and research by an experienced staffer led to a connection to the Navy.
The government keeps track of all ships, planes and personnel that have ever been lost. The Navy’s Stricken Aircraft Program manager in Philadelphia contacted the property owners and the Navy began its investigations of the incident, including efforts to locate any next of kin of the downed pilot, Vernon Thompson, whose dog tag had been found.
The majority of the plane was recovered immediately after the crash, but the body of the pilot was never recovered. The discovery of the dog tag prompted the further investigations.
The Navy’s original accident report documenting the crash states that the 36-year-old pilot flight instructor, LCDR Vernon Thompson, “was an exceptionally conscientious aviator with a fervent desire to preserve his unit’s safety record.” The report went on to state, “He was cautious to the point of being too cautious and any experiment with a student in the rear seat would have been entirely ‘out of character.’”
The F9F-8T took off from NAS Miramar at about 0935U (9:30 a.m.) that day on a simulated, round robin training flight back to Miramar via Tacan (tactical air navigation) route direct to March AFB, Norton, Long Beach and Oceanside, where a simulated CCA (carrier control approach) was to be made, and thence to Miramar. At about 1030U the aircraft was observed by Ramona residents, just south of the town at low altitude and moderate airspeed, heading in a northeasterly direction. It continued east for about 2½ miles in a slight right turn and then pitched into a steep dive and crashed into the rocky terrain. Explosion occurred on impact.
While Thompson crashed with his aircraft and his body was never recovered, his co-pilot, 23-year-old Ensign Dennis F. Cubbison, ejected from the rear seat just before the crash. He was fatally injured, however, when his parachute failed to open. The accident report elaborates, “The aircraft hit the ground in an uncontrolled condition at the base of a flat ‘house sized’ boulder.” The impact forces, combined with ricochet and explosion of 3,000 pounds of JP-4 fuel, totally destroyed the aircraft. Fragments were found more than 350 yards away, and grass fires were started throughout the area and were contained by state forestry firefighters.
A Grumman field representative and a Naval Aviation Safety Center investigator noted that the destruction was so complete that, of the many instruments in the aircraft, only two could be identified. The canyon itself made the recovery of parts difficult due to the many holes and crevices down through the boulders.
The current owners of the crash site property collected more than 350 small pieces of the craft that included door hinges, shell casings, pieces of the canopy plexiglass, seat belt buckles, an hydraulics servo unit, an alternator nomenclature plate, and the largest items, which were the two wing tips. All these were turned over to the Navy in April of 2009, along with the dog tag, though pieces of debris are still being collected on a regular basis by the vineyard owners’ grandchildren.
Witnesses from the Ramona area were interviewed at the scene of the crash and as far back along the flight path as investigators considered practicable. These witnesses included a group of high school students, a woman watering her lawn, and a retired paratrooper who offered some well qualified testimony. The accident report stated it was noteworthy that many of the available witnesses with a commanding view of the aircraft’s flight path did not see or hear anything prior to a point 2½ miles from the crash scene.
The Navy sent a team to the site in July of 2009 to conduct an archaeological evaluation of the crash site. No other parts of any significance were recovered nor any human remains. In the final analysis, the exact cause of the accident has remained undetermined. However the accident history of the F9F flying tail series is replete with accidents involving the longitudinal control system. The report states, “Of poor basic design, it contains several pilot traps in case of malfunction.”
The vineyard owners had a plaque made that was placed at the crash site and dedicated in a ceremony on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2010, at 11 a.m. Members of the American Legion Post in Ramona participated in the dedication ceremony.
Since then, through a blog on the Internet, the owners found Thompson’s daughter, Karen Rogers of Vancouver, Wash. She was 7 years old when her father was killed. She will be in Ramona on Nov. 30 to visit the crash site and to get her father’s dog tag.