Airman's Flight to His Death Is Laid to Mental Anguish By JAMES BROOKE Published: December 25, 1998
The Air Force pilot who flew his attack jet into a Colorado mountainside last year was in mental turmoil over ''unrequited love'' for a former girlfriend and over his mother's Christian pacifist faith, a ''psychological autopsy'' by the Air Force has concluded.
Air Force officials found last year, basically for lack of a better explanation, that the 32-year-old pilot, Capt. Craig D. Button, committed suicide when, on April 2, 1997, he broke formation from his unit instead of proceeding on a training run and then flew from southern Arizona to the Colorado Rockies.
But the psychological report, which was released earlier this month because of legally enforceable requests made by The Tucson Citizen under the Freedom of Information Act, was an effort to explain why. It was based on interviews with about 200 people -- friends, fellow fliers and relatives.
A separate section of the report deals with another mystery surrounding the flight: what ever happened to the four 500-pound bombs that were on board the plane? They were never found, and loud explosions in northern Arizona and near the Colorado mountain towns of Telluride and Aspen that were heard by 58 witnesses cited in the report indicate that Captain Button may have dumped them.
The bombs were to have been used in the training run, in what would have been the first time that Captain Button had ever dropped live ordnance.
The pilot's parents, Richard and Joan Button of Massapequa, N.Y., angrily reject the conclusion that he committed suicide.
''They pulled that out of a hat: that he must have done it himself, which I think is a lie,'' Mr. Button said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Button, who served in the Air Force during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War before retiring as a lieutenant colonel, noted that his son's plane broke from formation just after it had been refueled in the air.
''There must have been some kind of air contamination,'' Mr. Button said, suggesting that his son had been stricken by fumes from the jet fuel. ''We think he was disoriented, that he wasn't able to control his airplane for a period of time. We think that caused the accident.''
At the crash site, just below the summit of a 13,365-foot-high granite peak in the Holy Cross Wilderness, a vast tract of national forest near Vail, investigators looking at the possibility suggested by Mr. Button did not recover enough human remains to determine whether his son had suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning. (They did conclude that he had not been using drugs or alcohol before the crash.)
But, in discounting an accident resulting from disorientation or loss of consciousness, the investigators noted that well after the refueling, Captain Button's A-10 Thunderbolt climbed from an altitude of 6,000 feet and threaded its way through 14,000-foot-high peaks.
An avid skier, Captain Button had skied in the Colorado Rockies, had been reprimanded by the Air Force for often going out of his way to fly over the Rockies and had talked of one day leaving the Air Force to fly commercial jets out of Denver. On his final flight, Craig Button, a New York City native, roared over New York Lake at 300 miles an hour, passed within two miles of Craig Mountain and crashed into Gold Dust Peak.
The Air Force report -- which was released only after the service's Office of Special Investigations had blackened out the names of almost everyone interviewed -- sketches a picture of a ''perfectionist'' who was inwardly torn by his relationships with his mother and a former girlfriend.
Craig Button, it says, reared as an only child of elderly parents, broke as a teen-ager with his parents' faith. His mother was a Jehovah's Witness, and his father had joined the denomination after retiring from the Air Force.
''My mother is a Jehovah's Witness, raised me to think that joining the military is wrong,'' Craig Button wrote to a commander as a 23-year-old Air Force R.O.T.C. cadet at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, N.Y.