By THEO KARANTSALIS
Special to SpringyLeaks
A Navy jet blew a three-story apartment building off the city map, on February 7, 1973, killing 11 people, in Alameda, California, inside a fiery orange mushroom cloud.
After 40 years, SpringyLeaks has obtained government records, through a Freedom of Information Act request, that may point to the cause: The Navy Corsair A-7E was involved in 13 “mishaps” due to system failures and malfunctions in the three-year period leading up to the crash, shows a pilot history data report.
The jet known to pilots as a “short, little ugly [F-word]” and a “drainage pipe with wings,” had an “unsatisfactory” record. In one case, shortly after launching from the USS Kitty Hawk, on July 25, 1972, the captain “noted sparks coming from the tail pipe.” The flight was aborted, the jet “checked” but still more sparks.
Other reports show fuel tank and switch failures, a broken stage (engine) fan blade, a “gouged” instrument and an engine that was “rejected” for high iron content.
The most harrowing report, dated September 30, 1972 -- just four months before the crash – shows the fighter jet was loaded with six 629-pound MK-38s when it launched from an aircraft carrier and ran into trouble. The MK-38s were depth charges, used during World War II, that each contained about 425 pounds of TNT.
“Upon pulling off target, the pilot noticed that two bombs remained hung on stations three and six of the aircraft,” the report shows. It was also observed that the MER (multiple ejector rack) was only suspended by the forward 30-inch hook of the ejector bomb rack.”
The pilot then tried to “jettison” the dangling bomb rack but “all attempts were unsuccessful.”
Four months later, pieces of the same jet “were dug from a 20-foot deep pit of impact which penetrated a 6-inch thick concrete floor slab,” records show. That, after it bored through three floors of an apartment building.
Initial news reports speculated that the 28-year old pilot, Lt. Robert Lee Ward, lit up inside the jet’s cockpit, causing a fire.
"They think he might have smoked in the aircraft which probably either killed him at the time or rendered him unconscious," said Terry LaCroix, Alameda's mayor, who called it the “worst tragedy ever to hit the city of Alameda.”
LaCroix, who died last month at age 89, met with Navy officials the next morning to "clear the naval air station in conjunction with the city of Alameda” as having any part in the crash. At the time, the U.S. was at war with Vietnam and locals had raised safety concerns about Navy jets buzzing about the city from the Alameda Naval Air Station.
The theory that Ward removed his oxygen mask for a supersonic smoke was extinguished, in 2012, after SpringyLeaks obtained a Navy report showing no evidence of an “in-flight fire.”
“It is a supposition that the oxygen-fed fire occurred prior to impact,” records show. Parts of the release that include witness statements, opinions and other findings have been withheld citing exemptions.
Theo Karantsalis is a librarian who writes civic and historical features for the Miami Herald. He grew up in Alameda and witnessed the ’73 Navy jet crash. Find him on Twitter, @springyleaks.
Photo: PAPER TRAIL: Displayed are years of Freedom of Information Act requests, rejections and appeals related to records from the Navy jet crash in Alameda, Calif. on February 7, 1973 that killed 11 people. (THEO KARANTSALIS/FOR SPRINGYLEAKS)
40 Years Later, Navy Documents May Shed Light on Cause of Deadly 1973 Jet Crash in Alameda, here.
FOIA Trial Date Set, here: