The Strange and Mysterious Crash of the A-10 Warthog Pilot Captain Craig Button

Born on 24 November 1964, Craig David Button grew up in a military family that moved often, and it was the influence of his father, a lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force (USAF), that made him want to become a pilot himself from a young age. At just 17 years old, Button began flying and working towards his professional pilot’s license, and when he graduated from the New York Institute of Technology in 1990 with a degree in aerospace engineering he was soon commissioned to the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) and completed Air Force pilot training, eventually working his up the ranks to become a United States Air Force captain. He went on to get an assignment as an instructor pilot, starting as a Cessna T-37 Tweet first assignment instructor pilot at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, before transferring to begin initial A-10 flight training at a Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog” unit at Davis–Monthan Air Force Base in Tuscon, Arizona called the 355th Fighter Wing. He was considered by all who knew him to be a no-nonsense, hardworking, honest, and by-the-book professional who did not smoke or drink, always had impeccably shined shoes, and followed rules to the letter at all times, which would make the strange series of events that was to come all the stranger. And so would begin the odd mystery of a man who flew off into the history of strange unsolved aviation mysteries.

On April 2, 1997, Captain Button took off on a training mission from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base on a flight that consisted of two student pilots and one instructor pilot in A-10 Thunderbolt II Warthogs. This particular training mission was what is called a SAT-6, or a “Live Ride,” meaning that the planes were carrying live ordnance including 60 magnesium flares, 120 metal chaff canisters, GAU-8 Avenger guns loaded with 575 rounds of 30-millimeter ammunition, and most importantly four live Mark 82 500-pound general purpose bombs apiece, which were to be dropped at a designated area in order for the student pilots to know what it was like to actually blow stuff up for real. It was one of the most exciting parts of A-10 pilot training, so Button at the time was in great spirits, with this being the first time had would actually drop live bombs rather than practice training bombs that merely emitted puffs of smoke.

Craig David Button

The mission started off smoothly enough. They took off in clear, calm weather without issue, took up perfect formation, and from there it was a simple matter of going out to the target, blowing it up real good, and then flying back to base on the correct trajectory. It should have been a fairly routine procedure, and even the hardest part of the mission, a mid-air refueling at the Barry M. Goldwater Range complex west of Tucson near Gila Bend, Arizona, went off without a hitch, but from there things would get strange. Shortly after the refueling, Captain Button suddenly broke formation without any explanation to head off on his own on a northeast heading toward the Four Corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. There was no radio contact from his plane, no distress signal, and the transponder was apparently turned off. All attempts to contact the wayward plane were met with silence, but there was no indication that there should be anything wrong. Button’s plane had enough fuel, it had been perfectly maintained, and the plane gave indications that it was under intelligent control. For whatever reason, it was as if Captain Button had just decided to just go off on a joyride.

He would proceed to fly hundreds of miles off course, avoiding bad weather and be spotted all over the place as he flew a meandering north-northeast course toward Aspen, in Colorado, sometimes rising, falling, or zig-zagging for no discernible reason. Witnesses and various radar stations in Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Denver spotted him numerous times, determining that his aircraft was flying manually and purposefully, until it finally went into another final zig-zag pattern and was last sighted in the air about 100 miles (160 km) west of Denver before coming down at a remote place called Gold Dust Peak, in the Holy Cross Wilderness, around 15 miles from Vail, Colorado. Button made no attempt to eject, and just suddenly dropped out of the sky, despite the fact that he is estimated to have had around 5 minutes’ worth of fuel left in his tank. What had happened here?

The Air Force, Colorado National Guard, and Civil Air Patrol immediately launched a search for the wreckage of Captain Button’s plane, but the remote, inaccessible terrain and bad weather, high winds, deep snow, rock slides, and avalanches all created obstacles for the operation, and it would not be until three weeks later that they were able to finally locate a debris field near the summit of Gold Dust Peak, 800 miles from where Button had initially deviated from his formation. The impact had been apparently so bad that the wreckage covered a quarter-mile-square area, and pieces of the canopy and cockpit had been projected over a ridge and onto the opposite side of the peak. Most of the wreckage was fragmentary, the plane disintegrated, and Captain Button’s remains would not be found until four months later.

A-10 Thunderbolt II

Rather strangely, although Explosive Ordnance Disposal personnel scoured the area for any sign of the four powerful 500-pound Mark 82 bombs that had been aboard, they were never found. Considering that the durable bombs were designed to survive a crash, it had been expected that they would be recovered, but not a trace of them has ever been seen, making the whole case even weirder. There is no indication that he dropped them anywhere, indeed, the aircraft’s bomb racks were recovered in the wreckage and showed no signs that the bombs had been released, but they weren’t there, so where did they go? Dozens of witnesses would claim to have heard loud booms in northern Arizona and near Telluride and Aspen, Colorado at the time, but no evidence of the what would have been immense explosions was found to verify these claims, nor any reason for why he would have wanted to release them in the first place. It is all one more piece of the puzzle of a very bizarre case.

Why had this upstanding, honest, and well-respected pilot suddenly chosen to fly off course from a mission he had been looking forward to, to go flying hundreds of miles off course and then crash into that remote and rugged mountain without any radio contact and no attempt to eject? There have been all sorts of theories, ranging from the plausible to the outlandish. One idea is that he had suffered from inhaling jet fuel fumes, which had impaired his judgement and caused him to eventually crash, but it seems unlikely he would have been able to guide his plane so well for 800 miles if this were the case. He also may have suffered some malfunction, but if that were true then why hadn’t he radioed for help and why would he go off so completely off course? Other wilder ideas include that he was on some sort of domestic terrorist mission to bomb a location, that his plane had been sabotaged due to something he had seen or heard as a cover-up, or that he was mind-controlled by aliens or drawn away by a UFO. The military itself believes that he committed suicide, but there was no indication for why he should have wanted to do this, as he had been driven to be a fighter pilot, was in good spirits, and was not suicidal at all. Add to all of this those missing bombs and you have a case that U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen has called “a mystery, wrapped inside an enigma, inside a riddle.” Whatever happened to captain Button remains a strange aviation mystery that we may never fully solve.

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