Pilot's family visits site of the 1969 fatal crash

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  1. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    Wednesday, September 17, 2008

    Pilot's family visits site of the 1969 fatal crash

    Man's children have emotional visit to wreckage site in Santa Ana Mountains.
    The Orange County Register

    MODJESKA CANYON – Tears welled up in their eyes as the family of Lt. Cmdr. Robert F. Coad climbed down the steep rugged slope onto a remote ridge of the Santa Ana Mountains to the place where his plane crashed in 1969.

    "I remember before my father left he said, 'Please take care of your mother,' which is what he said every time he went," said his son, Robert F. Coad Jr. "Those were literally his last words to me."

    Coad's family of one son and three daughters, along with their spouses, traveled from Minnesota to view wreckage of Coad's plane, now exposed to view after the Santiago fire burned away dense brush in the remote area above Modjeska Canyon.

    "It's very surreal being here," said Coad Jr. "I wish our mother was still alive. It would've been really cool for her to see this."

    Pilots flying over the area after the fire noticed the wreckage. Pat Macha, an aviation archaeologist from Mission Viejo, got the call, checked his records and realized which flight it was.

    "They were on a night flying training mission, doing 'touch and goes' at El Toro," said Macha.

    Six of the seven people on that flight were from Minnesota, one was from Wisconsin, all were Naval reservists on a training flight out of Los Alamitos when the Neptune SP-2E antisubmarine patrol bomber – manufactured by Lockheed – slammed into the mountain at 8:23 p.m. Feb. 11, 1969.

    According to what Macha has found from records, low clouds and intermittent fog that night would have obscured the mountains. Macha said Coad, the pilot, was flying under the direction of flight controllers at El Toro Air Station while conducting "touch and goes." All seven aboard died.

    "Death was instantaneous, based on what I know," Macha said. According to a story in The Orange County Register, the plane exploded on contact.

    After Macha learned that the wrecked plane was visible, he contacted his longtime friend John Ibson, a professor at California State University, Fullerton, who is Coad's brother-in-law.

    "I remember listening to the radio and hearing there was a crash," said Ibson. "It was a horrible night."

    Ibson contacted Coad's family in Minnesota and arranged for a special permit with the U.S. Forest Service allowing the family to visit the closed area of the Cleveland National Forest to view the wreckage Saturday, Sept. 13.

    "I had always had it on my mind that it would be a nice thing for them to do," said Ibson.

    Once the family reached the ridge where much of the wreckage was lying, they held a prayer vigil and left roses, along with a small container of family photos and heirlooms that a U.S. Forest Service volunteer attached to a piece of the wreckage.

    "It's kind of bittersweet," said Mary Claire Schetinski, one of the pilot's daughters.

    The exposed wreckage was scattered across three ridges and at the bottom of two box canyons. On top of an adjoining ridge, a portion of the plane's wing was visible. All the bodies were removed in 1969.

    Dense brush hid much of the wreckage from Navy personnel – until the fire.

    "A lot of us have had dreams that maybe he'd come back," said Amy Hammitt, one of the pilot's daughters, as she placed a rose next to a piece of the plane. "This has brought our family closer together."

    Register photo archivist Pam Eisenberg contributed to this story.
    Contact the writer: [email protected] or 949-454-7352

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