NSA pays homage to 7 killed in crash

Ceremony honors victims of 1987 spy-plane accident

July 14, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

In a ceremony recalling the sacrifices of Cold War intelligence gathering, top National Security Agency officials yesterday honored the seven crew members killed when their Navy surveillance aircraft crashed while landing on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea in 1987.

As sunlight broke through heavy morning clouds, several hundred people gathered for the dedication of a Navy EA-3B Skywarrior electronic spy plane placed in NSA's National Vigilance Park, which honors the more than 180 Americans who have died on duty collecting intelligence from the air.

A short walk from the eavesdropping and code-breaking agency's glass towers at Fort Meade, the park was created in 1997 to honor the sacrifices of those who flew secret missions along the borders of the Soviet Union and other hostile countries. The park features an Air Force Hercules C-130 and an Army RU-8D Seminole, both standing in for aircraft lost on intelligence-gathering flights.

Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the agency, drew a comparison between the Cold War struggle against communism and the contemporary war on terrorism.

"The aerial reconnaissance program may be part of our history, but the need for brave and dedicated cryptologists who possess the courage and determination to get in close, on land, on sea and in the air, has never been greater," he said.

Hayden noted that when the park opened seven years ago, those present "understandably saw the notion of a worldwide struggle against a ruthless enemy as past history." The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- which forced the temporary evacuation of most NSA personnel, as officials feared the agency might be a target -- changed that, he said. NSA now helps "to ensure that the war on terror is fought on our terms and in places not of our enemies' choosing but of our own."

The exact mission of the seven men honored yesterday has not been revealed, but they flew from the carrier USS Nimitz aboard an EA-3B Skywarrior, a squat Navy jet packed with surveillance gear. A possible target might have been the Islamic militants in Lebanon who had carried out terrorist bombings and taken dozens of Americans and other foreigners hostage in the mid-1980s.

The aircraft crashed on landing Jan. 25, 1987, and all the crew members died. Nicknamed "the Whale," the EA-3B aircraft was originally designed as a nuclear bomber and was the largest plane routinely flown from carriers.

Among the dozens of family members who traveled to NSA for the ceremony were William and Elizabeth Batchelder of Plymouth, N.H., whose son, Lt. Stephen H. Batchelder, died in the crash at the age of 31. An avid skier and reader of spy novels, he was the eldest of six children, and all five of his siblings attended yesterday's ceremony.

"He felt proud of his work in intelligence," said William Batchelder, 77, a retired justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court. "It takes some intellectual firepower, and Steve had it."

The other Skywarrior crew members honored yesterday were Ronald R. Callander, Richard A. Herzing, Alan R. Levine, Patrick R. Price, James D. Richards and Craig H. Rudolf.

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