A BROKEN ARROW?
April 17, 1997
Elizabeth Farnsworth reports on the search for a missing A-10 "Warthog" aircraft. The plane disappeared two weeks ago and since then the U.S. Air Force has been searching the mountainous terrain of Colorado.
JIM LEHRER: Now to the mystery of a missing U.S. Air Force plane and to Elizabeth Farnsworth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Two weeks ago, on April 2nd, Air Force Captain Craig Button took off from the Arizona Desert on a routine training mission. He flew an A-10 Thunderbolt attack plane in formation with two other A-10's. The planes left David-Monthan Air Force Base and headed for a bombing range in Southern Arizona. Button abruptly broke ranks and headed Northeast, some 800 miles off course, toward Colorado. Then Button and his $9 million attack plane, carrying four 500-pound bombs, disappeared.
It seems as if life imitated art--in this case the 1995 movie Broken Arrow. In that film an apparently model Air Force pilot, played by John Travolta, steals a Stealth bomber and its nuclear weapons.
ACTOR: The nukes are gone.
ACTOR: We've got ourselves a broken arrow?
ACTOR: Broken what?
ACTOR: Broken arrow. It's a Class 4 strategic theater emergency. It's what we call it when we lose a nuclear weapon.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In real life Captain Button had an unblemished record too, but his model was the more heroic Tom Cruise character in Top Gun, according to Button's father, an Air Force veteran himself.
ACTOR: (Top Gun) Maverick, you'll get--when you get this ship--and if you don't, give me a call. I'll fly with you.
TOM CRUISE: Sir.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Richard Button said his son, like the Tom Cruise character, had always wanted to be a pilot, and that he loved acrobatic flying. Skiers near the Vail ski mountain reported hearing a loud bang like an explosion on the day the plane disappeared. Someone else saw a mysterious glow. Air Force and Colorado's Civil Air Patrol have scoured the wilderness, flying more than 300 millions with helicopters, small planes, and high-tech spy planes like the SR-71 Blackbird. The Blackbird flies at three and a half times the speed of sound at an altitude of 60,000 feet and uses infrared cameras to detect unusual shapes in the snow. The search has narrowed to an area encompassing about 476 square miles, with most of the attention focused on the remote, snow-covered peaks of New York Mountain on the South and Red and White Mountain on the North. Two feet of new snow at the end of last week hampered the search.
COL. GREG KEELTHER, U.S. Air Force: The snow has a crust on it that will allow your feet to go in about 10 inches or so, except that every once in a while you find a hole, in which case, in my case, I went in up to my knee. And then you climb out of the hole and press on.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, warm weather has heightened the danger of avalanches, another threat to Army bomb experts combing rough terrain with metal detectors.
MAJOR CHUCK MITCHELL, U.S. Air Force: It's a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack with three feet of new now on it. It's really tough to find a haystack in the first place, much less a needle.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The A-10 is a low-flying, easily maneuverable twin-engine jet built expressly for close air support of ground forces. It was widely used in the Gulf War. The Air Force has been unable to locate a downed pilot and plane only once in the last twenty-eight years.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And with us now is Air Force Lt. General Frank Campbell. As the commander of the 12th Air Force he is in charge of the search mission. He joins us from Eagle, Colorado.
Thank you for being with us, General. What's the latest on the search today?
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL, U.S. Air Force: (Eagle, Colorado) Today we are continuing our visual search in the area in and around Eagle, Colorado, and we are investigating two new sites that were passed to us early this morning from intelligence analysts looking at imagery taken earlier in the week. We probably will put one ground team in this afternoon to investigate one of those sites.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let's go back to the beginning for a minute. After Captain Button veered off course, he was not responding to radio messages, right? Was that unusual in itself from the very beginning?
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: Yes, that was unusual.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then he was also not emitting a radar signal, but that wasn't unusual, is that right?
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: Actually, it's a radio signal that is a transponder that responds to a cue from the ground that enhances the radar signature of aircraft. And that's not unusual because we don't have the wing men in a formation of aircraft have their transponder on.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let me go back to the radio just for a minute. Do you have any explanation for why he might not have responded to the radio? Could it have just been turned off?
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: We don't think so because one minute prior to that he had responded on the radio.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Now, how--explain how you tracked his flight from Southern Arizona to Colorado.
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: Initially we looked at raw radar returns; that is, radar returns that are not enhanced by this radio transponder I referred to earlier. Those radar raw returns were from the Western Air Defense sector. We then asked a series of the Federal Aviation Administration's radar sites to go back in and give us their raw information. They normally look at only the enhanced transmissions. And we analyzed those in a computer program and were able to tie Captain Button's apparent track with that track from the Western Air Defense sector. Gaps in the track between the Albuquerque Center, which owns most of the radar sites down in the Arizona sector, were then bridged to radar data in the Colorado area, which are from the Denver Center sites, and we were able to track Captain Button all the way up to this area which is near Vail, Colorado.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Were there also sightings from people on the ground?
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: Yes, there were. There were sightings from people on the ground in and around the Phoenix area, both Southeast and East of Phoenix, Arizona, then in Central Arizona a little more at a town called Young. From there, the next sightings we picked up were in the area around Telluride, Colorado, some around Aspen, Colorado, and then a number of sightings here around Eagle County Airport in Colorado.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What did people report seeing?
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: They reported seeing an aircraft that--if they knew what aircraft looked like, they would tell us that it was an A-10--the ones that didn't know what it looked like described it to us, and we were able to tie it to characteristics similar to an A-10, and this aircraft was alternately described as maneuvering or flying straight and level, in some cases circling.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So from these do you assume that the pilot--that Captain Button was able to be controlling his aircraft? Originally there were some thoughts that maybe something happened to him; that he was oxygen-deprived or something.
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: Well, we do believe that Captain Button was flying the aircraft. One reason is because when it was last visually seen by the instructor pilot, it was at a fairly low altitude, around 7,000 feet. And in order to come up into this area, the aircraft had to climb considerably, and in order to do that, Captain Button would have had to be flying the airplane because the auto pilot in the A-10 will not avoid the terrain and climb the aircraft automatically. We don't assume anything about his physical condition at this time because we don't know enough to be able to speculate or we don't know enough to be able to draw a conclusion.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did you narrow down the area to more or less 476 miles?
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: We narrowed down the area to an area around the New York mountain range, which is close-by here at Eagle County Airport, because that's where our radar information terminated, and it corresponded with numerous visual sightings in this area. Additionally, we have run numerous attempts at calculating the fuel that would have been remaining in that A-10 at various flight altitudes, and all of those indicate that he would have been very low on fuel in this immediate vicinity. Additionally, we had our other national sensors that sensed an infrared event in this area at about the time that the sightings and the radar data all came together here in Eagle County Airport.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: General, what ordinance was on the plane?
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: The aircraft was carrying four Mark-82, five hundred pound general purpose bombs, and it had seventy-five rounds of 30-millimeter ammunition in its cannon.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And would the bombs have blown up on impact?
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: The bombs--if they were still attached to the aircraft on impact--if the aircraft crashed--could have possibly exploded. They might not go off what we call high order, which means that they would go off in their most efficient manner. They could have had a sympathetic explosion with the aircraft if the aircraft exploded.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, if somebody--when you were out there, if you had found the airplane, how dangerous would those bombs be, if they hadn't exploded, assuming they didn't explode?
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: They would be very dangerous for anyone who is not a professional explosive ordinance disposal expert to deal with. We've repeatedly asked the public, if they do find this aircraft or any remains of the aircraft, please don't go near it. Call us, and we will put an expert team in there, because in addition to the bombs and the 30-millimeter ammunition, the ejection seat has explosive charges and a rocket pack that's highly volatile. Additionally, we have high pressure oxygen on the aircraft, and we don't want the public to be injured dealing with anything associated with the crash.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Could Captain Button have parachuted out at some point?
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: We don't like to speculate at that. Certainly the possibility is there.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think happened, General, at this point? What do you think? I know you don't want to speculate, but what's your best guess?
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: I'm not making guesses at this time. We're dealing with the evidence that we have at hand, continuing to focus our search, and we'll continue to do that until we've satisfied ourself that our search is just not fruitful, and we're becoming redundant in it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In your interviews with people--I know you've--I've read you've interviewed several hundred people who knew Captain Button. Have you found any worrisome indications about him?
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: We have not. We continue to find nothing that indicates Captain Button was anything but an officer that exemplifies our core values as an officer in the United States Air Force. He was an excellent pilot by all accounts and of high integrity.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, General, thank you very much for being with us. Good luck in your search.
LT. GEN. FRANK CAMPBELL: Thank you very much.