LOUISVILLE, Ga. — The two F-16s that collided over Jefferson County last week were not the first military aircraft to fall out of the sky over this rural community.
At least two other times in the past 60 years, jets have plummeted to the ground.
In November 1987, local emergency responders scrambled to the scene of a midair collision between a Georgia Air National Guard F-15 and an Air Force Reserve F-16 that left the first jet burning in a field near Wadley.
According to newspaper accounts, the F-15 was based at Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Ga., and the F-16 at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. The two pilots were on a training mission practicing aerial maneuvers when they collided.
The pilot of the downed jet, Lt. Col. Bruce McLane of Sandy Springs, Ga., ejected safely and sustained only minor injuries. His plane went down in a wooded area about 75 yards off Georgia Highway 78 near the Jefferson-Burke county line between Wadley and Midville.
The F-16 piloted by Maj. Wayne F. Conroy was carrying a passenger, famous Georgia race car driver Bill Elliott. It returned to Dobbins after circling the area to make sure McLane ejected safely. Conroy’s jet sustained damage to one wing but was able to fly home.
A Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy picked up McLane in a field near the Bruce Hancock farm and took him to an Army helicopter that flew him to Eisenhower Medical Center at Fort Gordon. His only injury? A broken finger.
According to a spokesman at Dobbins, Elliot was a passenger in the fighter jet as part of an Air Force orientation program for public figures. The driver had recently filmed a public service announcement for the Air Force.
An earlier crash had more serious consequences.
Thirty years before on Feb. 5, 1957, a Navy training jet experienced electrical problems while flying to Pensacola, Fla., and crashed in Matthews.
Local resident Jim Milton said he was about 10 at the time but remembers it well because the crash put his family out of the dairy business for nearly a year.
“There were two men on board and they couldn’t eject so they had to ride it down,” Milton said last week. “It was about dark, around 6:30 in the evening, and they brought it down in a Bermuda grass field but the plane slid about 400 yards and went through a wooden barn and came to rest in a concrete dairy barn. If they had come in at just a slightly different angle, it would have ended up there in the field and they both would have walked away.”
The pilot – a hero of World War II – was killed as the plane passed through the first barn, Milton said. He was Capt. William R. “Killer” Kane, 45, the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Saipan.
According to Arlingtoncemetery.com, Kane had been stationed at Ford Island, the Navy’s Air Station resting in the middle of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and was the officer of the day during the Japanese attack that launched America’s involvement in World War II. He was reported to have remained on duty for 43 hours without relief.
A fighter pilot in the Pacific Theater in that war, he was designated an “Ace” after shooting down a number of Japanese airplanes. He was awarded the Navy Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Milton said he had been at a Cub Scout meeting when the plane crashed but was called home.
He remembers military police from Fort Gordon guarding the gate to his parents’ farm.
“The Navy people arrived about 24 hours later,” Milton said. “I remember everyone being very professional and courteous. It was the height of the Cold War and we were all wondering what might be on the jet, if it was armed. I remember it had these big tanks of jet fuel under each wing and they said that if those had gone up we might have lost a lot more than just the barns.”
Milton’s family home was only about 100 yards away from the crash site, he said.
“It seems like the plane sat there forever, weeks,” he said. “The neighbors came in and helped my family clean up the damage.”
When the plane hit, it killed several calves and a prize bull, Milton said.
“They cows had to go without getting milked and they were all shook up. A small time dairy operation like ours, it was months before we put it all back together.”