2nd Lt William Wright and Kainalu Elementary School student Steven Schmitz were killed at 8:30 pm, November 20, 1961, when a “Skyhawk” attack bomber crashed in Kailua.
Two marine jet bombers collided over a residential area and one of them crashed into a home, killing the pilot and the 8 year old boy (son of Coast Guard Commander Frank C Schmitz.)
The planes were returning from a run at the target island (Kahoʻolawe). One plane made it back and landed safely with vertical stabilizer and rudder damage, the other plane went down.
In reconstructing the pieces of the plane in a base hangar, it was evident that Lt. Wright survived the initial impact and could have ejected, but chose to stay with his airplane and tried to dead stick it over the town and into Kailua Bay. Unfortunately, it wasn’t successful despite the heroic efforts of Lt. Wright. (Norm Spilleth)
A military crash crew reported it was unable to approach the plane for an hour after the crash. The jet hit the house squarely after parts of it fell near the Kainalu Elementary School.
Mrs. Robert Craig, principal of the school, said she heard the jets fly over during the PTA meeting (held that night,) then a loud explosion. She said a fence near the school was set afire and she saw the nearby home in a huge sheet of flame. (Chicago Tribune, November 21, 1961)
The matter was the subject of a public presentation by Dr Paul Brennan at a Kainalu Elementary School PTA meeting.
The following link will take you to a video of the presentation; it is followed by a forum discussion by some of the eye witnesses to the event.
The presentation by Brennan and following discussion by the eyewitnesses gives a broad perspective of what happened.
(I had been a 2nd grade student at Kainalu Elementary the year before – Nelia has been a Kainalu 5th grade teacher for the past 10+ years.) The image shows the sad headline.
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Bobby Command says
Sad, but fascinating. Great work, Peter.
Colleen Jay Nicholas says
I think I was in 5th grade. I remember how sad it all was.
David Trojan says
I became interested in this accident because I believed that the pilots may have been responsible for saving many lives by steering their crippled aircraft away from the congested Kailua town. The only way to prove my theory was by obtaining the official accident report.
It took a lot of perseverance and patience on my behalf to finally learn the truth behind the fatal jet crash in Kailua that claimed two lives. Ten years is how long it took to obtain the official accident report from the Navy. I began investigating the story back when I worked at MCBH Kaneohe after I retired from the Navy. At that time, I began investigating old aircraft accidents around Oahu and locating their crash sites. The A4D accident in Kailua caught my interest and started my quest for answers. While I do not believe that the Navy purposely tried to hide the official report, I believe it was just a matter of time and submitting the request to the right office using the right format. All requests for Navy aircraft accident reports must now be submitted using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) format. The Navy is required by law to respond within 30 days, but that can just mean that they confirm having received the request. Every year, for about ten years, I quietly submitted another request for a copy of the accident report. I even visited the Navy Yard in Washington DC where they are kept, only to learn that there is just one person who handles all the requests and official requests come first. The Navy is just years behind in responding. I knew that eventually they would get tired of my repeated requests and just fill the order. To make matters worse for the Navy, all the old accident reports are on old microfilm. The report first needed to be located by going through reels of microfilm and then each individual page had to be aligned, scanned and printed. The copy that I finally did receive is reversed printed; meaning that the letters are white and the background is black. The quality is not too good, but it is readable and it gave me the information that I had long desired. Armed with the accident report I was finally able to tell this story.
The accident report
Excerpts for the official accident report. “The basic cause of the accident was considered to be pilot error. In that Lt. Wright failed to maintain adequate separation between both aircraft during the changing of the lead.” “A contributing cause of the accident is considered to be that Lt. Miller erred in judgment in the manner, time, and execution of the lead change.” “It appears most probable that this collision occurred as a result of each pilot assuming that he had the lead of the section and consequently, neither of them was maintaining position with visual reference to the other.”“It appears conclusive that that Wright made no attempt to eject prior to impact. Rather, that despite his obvious disorientation caused by the collision and the blast of air in his face with his visor up, he orientated himself, applied all the proper recovery procedures and would have pulled out successfully had he had a few more feet of altitude available.” “It is the consensus that Lt. Wright recovered from any confusion, and realizing he was in a diving attitude, attempted to pull out without success due to insufficient altitude remaining.” “These findings, coupled with the ground scar indications of a pull out attempt, led to the assumption that the aircraft did not sustain uncontrollable damage at the time of the mid-air collision.” “The fact that the aircraft collided with the ground in such a relatively flat, wings level attitude, and that the airspeed had apparently been reduced from the time of the mid-air collision, led the board to the conclusion that the aircraft was under control of the pilot at the time of impact.” The report also stated that it was possible that some confusion existed between the aircraft lights and the lights of Kailua town below.
The official report and eyewitness accounts answered many of my questions and put to rest some rumors that surrounded the tragic mid-air accident. The truth of what happed that night in Kailua is horrific, but it is the truth. Just exactly what happened up there in the air we may never know all the details, but we now know most of the answers about what happened that tragic night so long ago. I believe it was the Kailua town lights that momentary obscured the other aircraft and caused the mid-air collision. I believe that it is conclusive that Lt. Wight purposely stayed with his jet when he could have ejected and saved himself. Lt. Wight then tried to fly his damaged jet after the mid-air collision and prevent it from causing much more damage and loss of life in Kailua Town. I believe Lt. Miller also prevented his jet from crashing into Kailua town and causing a bigger catastrophe. Both pilots reacted to the emergency when it occurred and did their very best to get it under control, Lt. Wright by staying with his jet, even until his death, and Lt. Miller by bringing back his crippled aircraft, not knowing exactly how bad things were. I believe both pilots deserve some recognition for heroism above and beyond the call of duty. I also believe both should be remembered for what they saved, not for what they destroyed. My hope is that this story sets the record straight for once and for all time.
for more information about this accident, I can be contacted at email@example.com
I was a student at Kainalu School when this happened. Fortunately, it wasn’t during school hours.
The authorized story is that the pilot was trying to ditch the plane in the ocean, but as I recall, it was flying inland, not out, when it plowed into the houses.
Dennis Foley says
I write this first-person account in hopes that some history somewhere will fully appreciate the bravery of the pilot who crashed. I believe he sacrificed his life to save lives on the ground.
I was standing with Dad in the driveway of our house in the Olomana neighborhood of Kailua when the sound of an explosion reached us from makai. My dad had served in the Pacific in WWII, and he noticed the boom. “What was that?” he said. He and I got in the car and drove in the direction of the smoke. When we got there the fire department had put out the fires, and the police were telling everyone to leave the scene because there was live ammunition around.
The plane had nicked the roof of a house on one side of the street, and then plowed through the house on the opposite side, completely gutting it, with only the roof and the two side walls remaining. The back yard of the gutted house abutted the school’s playing field. The tail section rested in the playing field. (The next day there appeared a picture of the tail section in the news.) The plane must have nicked one house, pancaked in the street, then broken apart, with the tail section tumbling through the air then into the field. It landed with the vertical stabilizer upright.
Later in life I concluded that the pilot, may God rest his brave soul, had refused to eject, and steered for the open playing field in order to avoid casualties on the ground. He almost made it.
The next day Dad and I drove back to the scene. They had roped off the street, and a Marine stood, his M-14 at Ready Arms, preventing anyone from passing the rope line. (Dad must have told me that he was a Marine, because at that age I couldn’t tell the difference.)
(By the way, Dad, Edward C. Foley, served in the Americal Division on Guadalcanal, among other places.)
Dennis Foley says
I’d like to make a small correction to my account of the accident.
The Marine held his rifle at “Port Arms.”