Pilot who flew jet into Colo. mountain is ruled suicide Report calls him distressed over ex-girlfriend, mother

December 25, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DENVER EJA — DENVER -- The Air Force pilot who flew his attack jet into a Colorado mountainside last year was in mental turmoil over "unrequited love" for a former girlfriend and over his mother's Christian pacifist faith, a "psychological autopsy" by the Air Force has concluded.

Air Force officials concluded last year, basically for lack of a better explanation, that the pilot, Capt. Craig Button, 32, committed suicide when he broke formation from his unit April 2, 1997, instead of proceeding on a training run, and flew from southern Arizona to the Colorado Rockies.

But the psychological report, which was released this month because of legally enforceable requests made by the Tucson Citizen under the Freedom of Information Act, was an attempt to explain why.

It was based on interviews with about 200 people.

The report also dealt with another mystery of the flight: what happened to the four 500-pound bombs that were on the plane but not found. Loud explosions in northern Arizona and near the Colorado mountain towns of Telluride and Aspen that were heard by 58 witnesses cited in the report indicate that Button may have dumped the bombs.

The pilot's parents, Richard and Joan Button of Massapequa, N.Y., angrily reject the conclusion that he committed suicide.

"They pulled that out of a hat, that he must have done it himself, which I think is a lie," Richard Button, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, said in a telephone interview.

Button, who served in the Air Force during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, noted that his son's plane broke from formation just after it had been refueled in the air.

"There must have been some kind of air contamination," Button said. "We think he was disoriented, that he wasn't able to control his airplane for a period of time. We think that caused the accident."

At the crash site, just below the summit of a 13,365-foot-high granite peak in the Holy Cross Wilderness, investigators did not recover enough human remains to determine whether Button had suffered from carbon-monoxide poisoning. But they did determine that he was not using drugs or alcohol before the crash.

Searchers were able to retrieve about two-thirds of the $9 million warplane and much of its ammunition. The bombs, sometimes called "tank-busters," were not found. After a second search four months ago, the U.S. Forest Service reopened the area to hikers, posting warning signs showing what the missing bombs look like.

In ruling out an accident caused by loss of consciousness, the Air Force investigators noted that Button's A-10 Thunderbolt II climbed from its altitude of 6,000 feet during the flight exercise and threaded its way through 14,000-foot peaks.

An avid skier, Button had skied in the Colorado Rockies, had been reprimanded by the Air Force for often going out of his way to fly over the Rockies and had talked about one day leaving the Air Force to fly commercial jets out of Denver.

On his final flight, Craig Button, a New York native, roared over New York Lake at 300 mph, missed Craig Mountain by two miles and crashed into Gold Dust Peak.

The Air Force report, based on interviews with friends, fellow fliers and relatives, sketches a picture of a "perfectionist" who was inwardly torn by his relationships with his mother and a former girlfriend.

Before releasing the report, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations blacked out almost all the names of people interviewed.

Two points were not a part of the report. After Button's plane disappeared but before its wreckage was found several days later, rumors circulated widely that he was connected to right-wing paramilitary groups and had taken the jet and its payload for use by those organizations.

After the wreckage was found, rumors had it that Button was gay and that torment over military policy on homosexuality had led him to take his life.

The report as released did not mention anything about those rumors.

Button, raised as an only child of elderly parents, broke as a teen-ager with the faith of his parents, who are Jehovah's Witnesses.

"My mother is a Jehovah's Witness, raised me to think that joining the military is wrong," Craig Button wrote as a 23-year-old Air Force cadet to a commander.

An ROTC classmate told an Air Force investigator that Craig's "mother would not allow him to wear his ROTC uniform in the house."

The pilot's half-sister, Susane Button, told an Air Force investigator that his mother wanted him "to leave the military for the airlines."

Lt. Brian Gross, a pilot who shared an apartment with Button at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, near Tucson, Ariz., said that in the month before the disappearance, Button's "mother became increasingly vocal in her negative feelings toward her son's job and role in the military."

In contrast, Button was said by many friends to have revered his father, and his father's half-brother, Lt. Donald Hurlburt. Hurlburt, a B-17 pilot who flew over Germany in World War II, crashed in Florida in 1943. Hurlburt Field in Florida is named for him.

But in the weeks before the crash, Button seemed to some

people to be disillusioned with his life in the military.

A former landlord in Texas recalled to an investigator that in two telephone conversations prior to his death, the pilot seemed "out of character," saying that he was "learning to kill people."

Pub Date: 12/25/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.