Dreams of the west.
My good friend Brian Marren regales me with the history of Ireland and the Irish no matter where we are, what we are doing, or the context of the conversation within which we are embroiled. This time, I’ll turn the tables on him and tell you of Lord St. George Gore whose name will likely live on forever in Colorado history although ‘his-story’ may have long since been forgotten.
Like Marren, Lord Gore was a wealthy Irish nobleman whose family ruled much of County Donegal in Ireland. Unlike Marren, after hearing of the American west and the exploits of cowboys and frontiersman, Lord Gore decided that he was going to visit Colorado and take in what the west had to offer.
It was no small feat. Back then, Gore spent half a million dollars just to finance his trip to Colorado. His entourage was complete with huge tents and a support staff of artists and writers meant to capture his exploits and send updates back to Ireland. Once on the ground in America, Gore headed from the east coast straight to Colorado where he spent the next three years (1854 through 1857) ‘hunting’ for wild game.
During that time, Lord Gore was surrounded by an army of forty guides, pages, varlets and helpers, twenty-seven vehicles, one hundred horses, eighteen oxen, a dozen cows and wagons loaded with weapons (at least 75 of which were rifles), a brass bed, a stable of cooks, and dozens of Irish staghounds. During those three years, Lord Gore killed thousands of animals for sport, many times not even taking the time to recover the meat from his harvest.
Gore himself wrote that he killed two thousand buffalo and an equal number of elk and deer. Gore claims he killed over a hundred bears with his chief guide, the famous American trapper, and guide Jim Bridger.
Gore’s forces fought with Native American tribes who got in his way, he traded with those that didn’t mess with him. He traded with Crows, Utes, and Piegans from his massive green and white cloth tent which bore garish gold tassels. The tent covered a third of an acre.
Still today in Colorado, Gore Pass, Gore Creek, and the Gore Range that towers over Vail Pass are named for him. Some have wanted to change that, arguing that the thousands of animals that Gore shot were left to die and rot were not examples we should hold in great reverence.
Dreams of the mountains.
Name changes aren’t new to Colorado.
Vail Pass is a perfect case in point. Vail Pass was named for 1930s Colorado State Highway Department engineer Charles D. Vail. Well before CDOT (Colorado Department of Transportation), the CSHD was paving roads and shaping the wilderness in the Colorado mountains creating Highway 50 and Interstate 70 as we know them today.
Charlie Vail had done such a great job straightening the curves and overcoming the obstacles to recreate Old Monarch Pass between Gunnison and Salida that the state decided to honor him by renaming that Monarch Pass “Vail Pass”.
So, they did it. Without public input.
For months after, the locals tore down and defaced any and all signs and markers claiming their pass as Vail Pass. In fact, although the road maps showed it as Vail Pass, you couldn’t find a sign anywhere on the only road from Gunnison, Colorado through the mountains to Salida, Colorado that told you so.
After a year as being known as Vail Pass, Monarch Pass was returned to its former glory and its original name. No further reports of hooliganism were recorded.
Let’s revisit the Gore Range, near the New York Range and the rest of the Rocky Mountains which keep solemn watch over what is now named Vail Pass, where Vail is remembered by namesake ski resorts and an eponymous community.
Dreams of flying.
Craig Button soared over the Gore Range that amazingly clear day at just over 400 miles per hour.
For almost an hour Craig put on a solo Air Show from Grand Junction to Georgetown, from Creede to Steamboat Springs.
As a teenager, Craig couldn’t wait to join the US Air Force fast enough after high school. He had received his private pilot’s license before he could legally vote, just like my brother Jeff. Like Jeff, Craig had always wanted to be a pilot. Joining the Air Force seemed a given as his Dad Rick was an Air Force Lt. Colonel.
Craig Button’s mom Joan, however, wasn’t on board with his decision. Joan, a Jehovah’s Witness, was outspoken against war and the military. She never spoke positively about her husband’s former occupation or her son’s soon-to-be chosen occupation.
Craig was born in 1964. Even as a kid he was fascinated by close air support aircraft. As he grew, his love for attack planes grew, too.
Craig tested for and soon won the honor to pilot the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II which you and I know as the Warthog from Iraq and Afghan fame.
The Warthog is a single-seat, twin turbofan-powered, straight wing jet aircraft. Its primary purpose was to support friendly and coalition ground forces by attacking the armored vehicles and tanks closing on their positions. The Warthog’s main gun could also change the minds of large ground forces moving to attack our troops in force.
Of all the Air Force’s plethora of aircraft, the Warthog is the only one purpose-built for close air support. JTAC’s joint terminal attack controller’s love the A10 because it was easy to direct on ground targets and had more than enough ordnance to destroy most targets.
The A10 was also the first close air support aircraft built AROUND the main gun. The main offensive weapon system on an A10 is the 30×173 mm GAU-8/A Avenger autocannon armed with depleted uranium armor-piercing shells. The gun has seven barrels in a rotary design to give it a high rate of fire at 3,900 rounds per minute. At 1,500 yards, even an untrained pilot can put the entire GAU-8 combat load into a 40-foot circle while flying at top speed in a 33-degree dive.
Craig Button left Davis-Monthan Air Force Base that morning in formation with two other A10s and their pilots. Craig had 575 rounds of 30mm ammo, four Mark 82 bombs and almost 200 flares and chaff canisters.
An interesting choice now faced Craig Button for the first time. During this mission, although it was a training mission, Craig was going to fire his first live rounds against VISMOD visually modified ‘enemy’ targets.
I cannot imagine that there wasn’t some turmoil in Craig’s mind that morning. Certainly, he didn’t want to disappoint his mom or his dad. His dad would have wanted him to shoot straight, but perhaps his mother would have wanted him to drop the ordnance somewhere without firing, in protest, and return to base.
What happened next was inexplicable, even today.
On the morning of 02 April 1997, while en route to the training location, Pilot and Captain Craig Button broke from formation and headed north to Colorado. Button, who had been an Air Force pilot for five years, knew and loved the Colorado mountains, having spent a lot of time recreating there in the past.
The 355th Fighter Wing, his A-10 Thunderbolt II unit located outside of Tucson, Arizona at Davis–Monthan Air Force Base, scrambled to communicate with Button as they tracked his steady flight north. They could shoot him down if they feared he was going to attack a target on US Soil. It wouldn’t be easy with the A10s maneuverability and the 1,200 pounds of titanium armor that surrounded the cockpit.
The A10 Warthog also had the ability for STOLs, short takeoffs, and landings. That worried some.
What worried everyone was that Button was solo, off the grid now, and hadn’t communicated WHY.
Do your homework.
I always admonish people to “do their homework” when studying suspicious incidents. On this day, north of Tucson, Arizona, in the same direction what Craig Button was flying, Oklahoma City Bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh was on trial in Denver, Colorado. Federal Courts had granted McVeigh a change of venue and transferred McVeigh’s trial from Oklahoma City to the U.S. District Court in Denver where U.S. District Judge Richard Paul Matsch was now presiding.
McVeigh made us think. He said a lot of scary things. Once, just after being arrested, he had quoted Thomas Jefferson, telling his captors,
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
Another time, McVeigh commented on his upcoming execution by remarking, “168 to one, not bad odds”, referring to the fact that he, McVeigh, had killed 168 people prior to his execution.
Prosecutor Joseph Hartzler asked witness Michael Fortier, “Did you have any discussion with Tim McVeigh about the deaths that such a bomb would cause?” Fortier answered yes, and added that when he, Fortier, asked McVeigh about all the civilians in the Murrah Federal Building that would be killed, McVeigh likened his attack to an episode of Star Wars (the film); McVeigh considered everyone in the Federal Building to be like the stormtroopers from the film, adding,
“They may be individually innocent; but because they are part of the evil empire, they were guilty by association.”
The Tree of Liberty.
Could it be that Craig Button was headed to Denver to make some sort of pyrotechnic statement, interrupting the trial of Timothy McVeigh? What would that message be? Could Craig consider McVeigh a Patriot?
Reports would describe Craig Button as a shy perfectionist. A hard worker who took the time to shine his shoes and didn’t smoke or drink. They also reported that Button was a great pilot. Now, today, he had turned his transponder off. That and the fact that the Air Force reported that Button’s A10 was being piloted ‘purposefully’ seemed to indicate intent. Button knew that his aircraft could be tracked yet not identified.
It would take months of analyzing radar data for investigators to track Button’s movements that day.
There were many eyewitnesses. Many fascinated folks on the ground and in the air watching Button’s aerial hijinks. At about 13:22 hours Mountain, Craig Button began a zig-zag pattern with Aspen, Colorado roughly at its center. At 13: 40 hours, the last person to see Button and his Warthog A10 reported that Button was northeast of Aspen, near the Gore Range.
It took three weeks to find the crash site. The AF investigator I spoke to in my official capacity said that Button was flying his aircraft “manually and purposefully”.
The remains of Button’s A10 Warthog were located from the air 15 miles southwest of Vail, Colorado on Gold Dust Peak. Gold Dust was in Eagle County where I lived at the time, but about half an hour west of my jurisdiction where I served as interim Chief of Police.
A U2 reconnaissance aircraft from California found five possible crash sites early in the search, rescue and recovery operation. The debris field was over a quarter-mile square in the most challenging, remote area of Eagle County. The crash site was at 13,200 feet above seas level and less than 100 feet below the Gold Dust Peak summit. The terrain was steep, nothing horizontal, the weather was bad with deep snow, brutal winds and frequent avalanches. During the 24 hours after the crash, a storm dropped three feet of snow on Gold Dust Peak.
During that time, I met with members of the USAF known as Pararescue Jumpers or PJs. These are Air Force Special Operations Command personnel trained and tasked the recovery and medical treatment of personnel in combat environs. My favorite was S.L. from Las Vegas, Nevada who, remarkably, I would meet again later in life while working for a company in McLean, Virginia.
I also met a member of the Civil Air Patrol and the Colorado Army National Guard who along with a crew of heroes from Vail Mountain Rescue.
It took five days of recovering small pieces of metal for the Air Force to determine that the crash site was from Button’s A10. It took another four months for the search and rescue experts to recover human remains reported to be those of Captain Craig Button. The remains were so small that investigators could only test to confirm that the sample came from Craig Button.
Structural engineers stated that the bomb racks had not been used, but the mystery deepened when none of the four 500-pound Mark 82 bombs were located. Bombs that were designed to survive an aircraft crash at high speeds, intact. Air Force investigators fully expected to locate these bombs on Gold Dust Peak. Unless they were removed earlier.
Mystery in Avon, Colorado.
The entire reason I was involved in the Craig Button story was a report in Avon about an incident just after noon on 02 April 1997. Down the street from a Walmart located in Avon, Colorado was an area known as the STOLport. STOL meaning it was specifically designed as a runway for Short Take-off and Landing.
While abandoned, the airstrip and some building remained and on this day a witness claimed that Button’s A10 made an approach and perhaps a landing at the STOLport. Many times, citizens would report suspicious lights and vehicles at the STOLport, but these were often kids screwing around or taggers putting graffiti on the old buildings.
On this strange day, witnesses from all over Colorado claimed to have seen all manners of suspicious activity, including what appeared to be Button and his A10 Warthog attempting landings near the Maroon Bells and on a small airstrip outside of Crawford, Colorado.
Because it seemed that Craig Button had killed himself by turning a 9-million-dollar aircraft into a lawn dart, no stone was left unturned during the investigation.
While no one could confirm that Button landed in Avon, the theory at the time went that Button had arranged a crew to off-load the MK82 bombs which had been surreptitiously purchased by a Colorado militia group. The same group that would pick up Craig Button and drive him to safety after he (a) put his aircraft into a dive in the most remote part of the Eagle County wilderness and (b) ejected to safety outside of Eagle, Colorado.
It seemed plausible enough at the time. The McVeigh bombing has shocked America’s conscience and we had received reports that while Button was over 800 miles off course when his A10 crashed, that the USAF had reprimanded Captain Craig Button in the past for flying out of his way on a mission just to take time and observe the Colorado Rocky Mountains close up.
It was also interesting and factual that the bombs weren’t located and only a small amount of trace evidence linked to Captain Craig Button was ever recovered.
As an investigator, I still wonder, what went through Craig Buttons’s mind?
Was he overcome by fumes and accidentally off-course when he crashed as his dad suggested?
Was Button sightseeing again and got mixed up with his altitude and speed and even though he had previously been refueled in the air, had he forgotten that he was almost out of fuel and attempted an emergency landing?
Perhaps choosing to ditch the plane in the mountains safely to avoid civilian casualties?
Did Craig Button even know that McVeigh was on trial in Denver, Colorado?
Was there a more sinister motive, the theft of explosives, and is Craig Button alive and well somewhere hiding out with a militia group?
The smart money has it that Craig had a break with reality and Gold Dust Peak is his final resting place. It was just a very expensive suicide after seeing the mountains he loved and revered. His love for Colorado and the Rockies not unlike that of Lord Gore.
Two things became abundantly clear during those few months in the spring of 1997; one, the party line from the US Air Force was that Captain Craig Button was dead on Gold Dust Peak and that he had not attempted to eject before the crash. In fact, they added that Craig had probably two minutes of fuel left when he burned in.
The next is that it took almost three weeks to find the crash site and almost the rest of the year to clean up what was recovered.
A sign to this day marks the Gold Dust Peak trailhead warning hikers that they may find ammunition and unexploded ordnance which they must avoid and report. To date, no discoveries have been reported.
The mystery remains.
Training changes behavior!
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.