Q: I hope you can see fit to do one more plane crash column, because I still have memories of what I think was a serious 1957 accident in Mascoutah involving an F-86 from Scott Air Force Base. Could you refresh me on the details?
Frank Austin, of Shiloh
A: Oct. 9, 1956, was quickly shaping up to be the most horrific day in Mascoutah history.
At about 8:30 that morning, the 600 youngsters at Mascoutah Elementary School were settling in for another day of lessons, lunch and recess. Six miles away, Lt. Roger Pile was powering up his F-86D, preparing to serve as the target ship — complete with live rockets — during a training exercise with the 85th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron.
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They had no way of knowing that within minutes they would be on a collision course.
“All instruments checked out as normal on the run-up before takeoff,” the 24-year-old Pile would write later in his report to military investigators. “I contacted Agony (the call sign F-86 pilots used with controllers) and they told me to climb out on a heading of 120 degrees to 40,000 feet. I reached 26,000 feet ... and everything appeared normal.”
Suddenly, all hell broke loose. First, he noticed his tachometer rapidly spinning down to zero. A quick check of his instrument panel showed him his oil-pressure gauge had failed as well. Notifying controllers of the emergency, he was given a heading back to base, dropped his speed brakes and started to descend.
“I called the tower and requested they open the long runway for me and after a short delay they approved me to land on R/W 31,” reported Pile, who was still sitting on 3,300 pounds of fuel. “I arrived over the base at 12,000 feet and elected to do a 360-degree turn ... and reduced the power. I did this in order to kill off my airspeed so as to be able to drop the gear ... and complete my approach.”
But halfway through his circle, the plane suffered a complete electrical failure. He began smelling and then seeing smoke starting to fill the cockpit. Still, Pile successfully extended his landing gear using an emergency lanyard even as he futilely tried to switch to the emergency fuel system to get his engine running again.
“Convinced now that the engine had seized, I concentrated on making the runway, and it appeared to me at first that I would be successful,” wrote Pile. “(But) with the engine seized, I soon realized that my rate of descent was higher than expected.”
Desperately he tried to contact the Scott tower again, but his radio had become inoperable. That was the final straw.
“I passed over the far side of Mascoutah at 2,500 feet and appeared to be very low for my approach,” he wrote. “When I felt I was clear of the town I elected to eject.”
Pile, however, had miscalculated. His plane had not cleared the town. While he was parachuting to safety, his plane slammed into the ground between the homes of Ralph Klein at 805 W. Main St. and Adolph Klein at 807 W. Green St., two blocks away. It skidded through two more yards before coming to rest in flames in the rear yard of George Kolb’s home at 825 W. Green St., according to a Belleville News-Democrat report that afternoon.
It had crashed just 200 yards from the city’s new elementary school, where students and staff had avoided disaster by the narrowest of margins.
Veteran freelance writer-photographer Grover Brinkman, who happened to be heading toward Belleville, said he saw Pile’s jet come out of the southeast in a steep dive and pass just 100 feet over his vehicle. After the crash, Brinkman grabbed his camera and took a few shots for the paper, but didn’t stick around long.
“I got out of there as fast as I could,” he told us. “The rockets were going off like firecrackers on the Fourth of July.”
The plane’s generator crashed through the Ralph Kleins’ kitchen wall, tore out a cabinet and virtually demolished the rest of the room. At the other Klein home, the plane knocked down the rear porch just before it struck the ground. The garage at the home of Elmer Knobeloch at 911 W. Green St. was set ablaze as well. Soon, a Scott demolition crew was on scene working to defuse what live rockets that remained.
Miraculously, the only major injuries were to Ralph Klein’s dog, Blackie, who was later treated by a vet for lacerations from flying debris. The Ralph Kleins were both at work and their 3-year-old daughter was being cared for by an aunt, who lived nearby at 803 W. Church St. but was unharmed. Tending his furnace when he heard the explosion, George Kolb ran outside, grabbed his garden hose and started spraying the Knobelochs’ burning garage.
Pile lucked out as well as he landed at a home at 611 W. Main St., about three blocks from the crash scene.
“I was within a few hundred feet of the ground when the chute opened and only swung about twice before landing in a small backyard about a foot from a picket fence,” Pile wrote later. “A woman in the next yard came out and asked if I was OK and then led me to her telephone.”
He was hospitalized at Scott for neck stiffness due to strained ligaments from the ejection and chute deployment, but was otherwise unhurt. Still, while thankful that the school had been untouched, he later regretted having not done more to steer his plane clear of the city.
“Beyond the school was nothing but swamps, so if I had trimmed the aircraft better, it would have cleared the town completely as I thought I had when I decided to eject.”
His story, however, has a happier ending.
“I took some leave time and went to Oklahoma City to visit the young lady I had met a month earlier at the National Air Show, where the 85th had participated in a fly-by,” Pile wrote decades later. “(I) convinced her not to worry about her new boyfriend. We were married 40 years last June.”
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Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Who says pop music can’t be educational? In 1953 Nat Simon and Jimmie Kennedy wrote the novelty song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” which the Four Lads took to No. 10. We can only wonder how many people knew that 1953 marked the 500th anniversary of the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire. The song also was a humorous answer to the 1928 hit “Constantinople” by Paul Whiteman. Then, in 1990, it helped put They Might Be Giants on the map when they released it on their “Flood” album.