The curious case of Capt. Craig Button. 20 years ago, Button crashed his A-10 into Gold Dust Peak. Two decades later, no one knows why | SummitDaily.com

The curious case of Capt. Craig Button. 20 years ago, Button crashed his A-10 into Gold Dust Peak. Two decades later, no one knows why

Randy Wyrick
rwyrick@vaildaily.com

Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part series looking back at the April 1997 crash of Capt. Craig Button, who flew his A-10 Thunderbolt attack plane into Gold Dust Peak.

Instead of touching down safely, Air Force Captain Craig D. Button touched off a mystery that will never be solved when he broke formation in his A-10 Thunderbolt near Gila, Arizona, flew 800 miles off course as he zigzagged across northern Arizona and Colorado and crashed into Gold Dust Peak in the Holy Cross Wilderness near Vail.

Two decades later, we have a clear picture of what happened, but why remains a mystery.

"We might never know what caused Capt. (Craig) Button to fly north," Capt. Leo Devine, a Pentagon spokesman said at the time.

Devine was correct.

A 1998 Air Force report suggests unrequited love and conflicting emotions between learning to kill as a member of the military, juxtaposed with his mother's Jehovah's Witness and pacifist philosophy. His parents angrily rejected that conjecture and lambasted the media for suggesting their son may have sabotaged the flight.

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"They pulled that out of a hat: that he must have done it himself, which I think is a lie," Richard Button, Craig's father and a retired Air Force colonel who fought in three wars, told the New York Times.

Button's father flew for the Air Force during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He suggested that his son was disoriented by jet fuel fumes, could not control his plane and crashed.

In its psychological report, the Air Force says it interviewed about 200 people, including friends, fellow pilots and relatives.

The national media grabbed the story and descended on Eagle. The Discovery Channel did a documentary about it. Vail Mountain Rescue member Tim Reinholtz landed on the cover of USA Today.

What's true

Two decades later we know a few facts:

Button's $9 million, single-seat A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft took off on a training mission with two other A-10s from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. His jet was armed with four Mk-82 500-pound bombs, 60 magnesium flares, 120 metal chaff canisters and 575 rounds of 30-millimeter ammunition. The training mission would have been the first time Captain Button dropped live ordnance.

Button was 800 miles off course when he crashed on April 2, 1997.

Button loved skiing so much that the Air Force officially reprimanded him for often going out of his way to fly over the Rocky Mountains.

Button flew over New York Lake at 300 miles per hour, passed within two miles of Craig Mountain and crashed into Gold Dust Peak, just below the 13,365-foot summit in the Holy Cross Wilderness.

Before doing so, Button climbed from an altitude of 6,000 feet and threaded his way through the peaks. That was well after he refueled in the air. Button's remains that were recovered were so small that investigators could not test for anything such as carbon monoxide poisoning. However, they did determine that drugs or alcohol were not involved.

What's not true

Button did not land his A-10 safely in some secret location and he was not murdered by the military to cover up UFOs, as some conspiracy theorists claim.

He was not gay, a big deal in the military 20 years ago, although some unfounded media reports at the time incorrectly indicated he might have been.

Witnesses claimed to have seen all kinds of things. Some said Button circled the Maroon Bells and made an approach in Crawford.

Others said Button made an approach to the old STOLport runway in Avon, close to where Wal-Mart and Home Depot are now.

Domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh was on trial while searchers scoured Gold Dust Peak for bits of Button. Some conspiracy theorists speculated that he was flying to the Front Range to shoot up the federal courthouse.

Others speculated that he was headed to Colorado Springs to drop his 500-pound bombs on Cheyenne Mountain, home of the North American Air Defense Command. Air Force spokespersons at the time smiled patiently and explained that because the facility is designed to withstand a nuclear blast, 500-pound bombs wouldn't make a dent in the door.

The fate of those four 500-pound bombs remains a mystery.

That same Air Force report — the one for which 200 people were interviewed — says 58 witnesses heard loud explosions in northern Arizona and near Telluride and Aspen, indicating Button may have dropped them.

"There are some things we're never going to know," said Dan Smith of Vail Mountain Rescue.

'There it is'

After Button crashed on April 2, 1997, spring storms dropped about three feet of snow on Gold Dust Peak.

It was April 20, 1997, and pilot Dale Jensen of the Colorado National Guard's High Altitude Aviation Training Site was flying an OH-58 scout helicopter. He and Rich Rugg were taking one last pass over the area where Button's plane was believed to have crashed. After 20 days, the Air Force called off the search for a few weeks to wait for warmer weather and the snow to melt.

"It was going to be found," Jensen said.

As the sun was setting that day, right at the top of a cliff, Jensen and Rugg spotted metal pieces and parts. The closer they looked, the more they found. Several A-10 pilots were flown up there and they identified the wreckage. Air Force pararescue jumpers were scrambled out of Las Vegas.

They spent most of the summer cleaning up the mess, pulling bits of A-10 and ordnance off Gold Dust Peak one piece at a time. Local HAATS helicopter pilots each spent at least 700 hours cleaning up the mess.

"We used to joke that if we knew we'd have to spend our whole summer, seven days a week, we would never have found it," Jensen said, laughing.

Wreckage was scattered across an area roughly a quarter-mile square.

"Most of that quarter-mile was vertical, not horizontal," said Scott Sutton, of Vail Mountain Rescue.

Sutton flew 22 missions during the search. Some were a little hair-raising. HAATS Commander Gen. Joel Best tended to fly his helicopter like a surgical tool.

"Joel Best was hovering so close it looked like his blades would hit the mountainside," Sutton said.

Net in the series: Cleaning up the crash site took all summer. The Air Force said it might have been unrequited love.

What happened that day

• Craig David Button (Nov. 24, 1964-April 2, 1997) was a United States Air Force pilot who died when he crashed an A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft under mysterious circumstances.

• Button was on a training mission with two other A-10s from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona.

• Button flew hundreds of miles off course without radio contact. Near Gila Bend, Arizona, after being refueled in-flight, Button unexpectedly broke formation. He flew in a northeasterly direction toward Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah come together in one spot. His jet was spotted numerous times by observers on the ground. The Air Force determined that Button was flying his aircraft manually and purposefully.

• He crashed into Gold Dust Peak in the Holy Cross Wilderness.

• He did not attempt to eject before the crash.

• It took three weeks to find the crash site, and all summer to clean it up. For years, a sign at the Gold Dust Peak trailhead warned that hikers might encounter 30 mm ammunition.

• Button’s $9 million single-seat A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft was armed with four Mk-82 bombs, 60 magnesium flares, 120 metal chaff canisters and 575 rounds of 30-millimeter ammunition. This training mission would have been the first time Captain Button dropped live ordnance.

• The Air Force concluded the jet probably had two to five minutes of fuel remaining when it crashed. Debris scattered over a quarter-mile-square area.

Sources: U.S. Air Force and media reports

What witnesses and radar saw

11:58 a.m. East of Tucson

12:10 p.m. west of Apache Junction, Arizona

12:11 p.m. several miles south of Lake Roosevelt

12:29 p.m. north of Lake Roosevelt

12:43 p.m. approaching New Mexico

12:58 p.m. just inside Colorado

1:00 p.m. near Telluride

1:08 p.m. near Montrose

1:22 p.m. Button begins a zig-zag pattern with this sighting between Grand Junction and Aspen

1:27 p.m. bearing to the northeast, Button is now north of Aspen

1:30 p.m. Button is due south of his last position

1:33 p.m. the A-10 is southeast of the last sighting

1:35 p.m. north by northeast of its previous sighting, the A-10 is between Aspen and Grand Junction again

1:37 p.m. Button is heading northeast again

1:40 p.m. In the last reported sighting, Button is northeast of Aspen, near Craig’s Peak and New York Mountain

Sources: U.S. Air Force and media reports

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