Few Alaskans are aware that an Air Force jet fighter once crashed in a recently harvested potato field at mile 3.2 of Fairview Loop Road near Wasilla. The tragic crash occurred 65 years ago on a clear, cool, fall day. The trees were bare and earlier that week a light snow had fallen.
At the time the area was sparsely populated. The houses were much farther apart in the 1950s, inhabited mostly by farmers and homesteaders trying to make a living raising potatoes, gardening, and dairying.
The crash site, farmed by Ralph Bradley, is in the square of land now bounded by Fairview Loop, Alder Lane, and Teds Place. A forest forms the fourth side. Homebuilders in the area occasionally excavate pieces of wreckage from the crash. One homebuilder found a piece of internal wing bracing with a birch tree growing through it.
Air Force F-89, tail number 50-777A, piloted by Capt. Ralph L. Ethridge was flying at 20,000 feet on a routine training mission. In the back seat sat Lt. Dale E. Cooey, the radar intercept officer.
Suddenly, a loud explosion shook the entire aircraft. Several smaller blasts followed. The right over-temperature light came on, soon followed by the left over-temperature light. Smoke filled the cockpit as the fire warning lights began glowing, indicating the engines had caught fire. Smoke increased in density as the plane began to burn.
Ethridge scanned through his emergency checklist and quickly determined it was necessary to abandon the plane. He informed Cooey in the back seat. Cooey acknowledged. Ethridge heard another explosion indicating Cooey had ejected. Ethridge then ejected and his parachute opened. He watched from the air as the F-89 smashed into the ground and exploded at noon on October 29, 1953.
Shortly after seeing the plane impact the empty field, Ethridge landed safely. Spreading his parachute so the Air Rescue helicopter dispatched from Elmendorf Air Force Base could find him, he waited for rescue. Circling an ever larger circumference from the crash site, the rescue crew soon located Ethridge and then returned to the airplane debris. There, they discovered Cooey had failed to eject and perished in the crash.
Jewel Holstein, who lived on a farm across the road, remembers the accident clearly.
“I was just coming out of the root cellar,” she said, “when I heard a loud noise that sounded like the end of the world.”
Looking up, she saw a jet plane hurtling toward the ground, one wing on fire. “It looked like it was going to hit our house. I’ll never forget that day as long as I live.”
Barely missing another house across the road, the airplane went through the trees and burst into flames in the potato field on the other side of the woods.
Like the good neighbors they were, nearby farmers got together and provided meals for the Air Force clean-up crew that had been sent from Elmendorf to recover the wreckage. Some say the crew was disappointed when the Air Force began supplying C rations to replace the local home cooking.
The damage compensation team made a generous offer to Ralph Bradley, to put his property back in order, but he refused. “Aw no,” he said in his Midwest farmer’s accent. “I couldn’t take any money, someone died there.”
A follow-up investigation indicated failure of the right engine compressor as the probable cause. The low-slung engine of the F-89 earned the reputation of the “world’s largest vacuum cleaner.” According to the accident report, an object was probably sucked into the intake during take-off causing damage to the compressor blades. An hour into the flight, the compressor came apart, resulting in the ensuing explosion and crash.
Nearly forgotten for forty years, the story of the crash surfaced during the Knik Watershed Storytelling Symposium in 1993. During the 1950s discussion night, some old timers remembered the crash of October 1953, intriguing me to the point where I wanted to find out what became of the pilot and the reason for the crash.
My first step was to call Elmendorf Air Force Base where I was referred to the 3rd Wing Historical Office and Staff Sgt. Gary Boyd. Although he was helpful, he could tell me nothing without the approximate date of the crash. I went to the archives of the local newspaper, the Frontiersman, and found a three-paragraph newspaper report.
I again contacted Boyd. He was a history-trivia buff, and immediately took a personal interest in my project. He phoned me the next day with enough information for me to continue my research.
Next, I wrote a letter to the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama and received a history of the aircraft, including the accident report, from date of manufacture to the date of the crash.
It had been built by Northrup Aircraft, in Hawthorne, California, and delivered to the U.S. Air Force on February 29, 1952, arriving at the 65th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Elmendorf a year later.
The history succinctly states it was “Dropped from the inventory due to flying accident near Wasilla, Alaska.” The history also provided the name of the pilot: Ralph Ethridge.
After contacting a locator service, I found eight Ralph Ethridges in the United States. I eliminated three names because they were the wrong age. I called two more, who were both courteous but said they were the wrong Ralph Ethridge. On the third try I found him in Aurora, Colorado.
Ethridge seemed surprised that someone would have an interest in an event that happened so long ago. After the initial shock, he was quite friendly and happy to talk.
“The engine sounded like a spoon in a garbage disposal,” he recalled. “I activated the fire suppressor, but it was too late. I told Dale that we needed to eject. He acknowledged. In that aircraft, the radar intercept operator had to stow the radar scope before ejecting or he would have his legs torn off. He said that the radar was stowed.”
“I heard another explosion and believed that he had ejected. I then ejected. While I was still in the air I saw the crash and explosion. After landing, I spread out my parachute and waited for Air Rescue to pick me up.”
“After they picked me up, we flew to the crash site where I learned that Dale had not ejected but had died in the crash. The back seat was very cramped, and it is believed that he probably got tangled up in the canopy and was prevented from leaving the aircraft.”
Ethridge continued with a distinguished career in the Air Force. He had previously flown P-38s in Europe during WWII and is credited with 2.5 victories. In Korea he flew F-86s and in Vietnam, F-4s and the O1E. He retired as a Lieutenant-Colonel, and with his wife Doris made their home in Aurora, Colorado. Ethridge passed away in 2008.
Ethridge had never returned to Alaska after 1953, but after talking about taking a tour with his wife, he accepted my offer to show him around the area. Some people who remembered the incident said they would like to meet him.
But the story took another twist when an incredible coincidence occurred in July of 1994. Paul Jackson, who had been stationed at Elmendorf between 1952 and 1954, was touring the state with his wife Glenys when he stopped to visit his old base that he had left forty years before.
In the course of his efforts to find an old map of the base and perhaps a photo of an F-89, he was directed to the 3rd Wing Historical Office and Staff Sgt. Boyd who asked Jackson if he was familiar with the F-89 crash near Wasilla in 1953.
“That was my airplane,” replied Jackson. “I was the crew chief.”
Jackson expressed surprise at Boyd’s extensive knowledge of the airplane and the accident. The next weekend he stopped at the Dorothy Page Museum in Wasilla where he asked if anyone had knowledge of the accident. He was directed to LeRoi Heaven and Heaven directed him to me.
I was surprised to receive a phone call from Jackson but immediately invited him and his wife to my house. We toured the crash site, and I introduced them to the property owner.
“I’ll never forget the accident,” said Jackson. “The plane had been in the air about an hour when we received word that it had crashed. The first thing I did was make sure we had removed all the safety pins before we sent the airplane off. Fortunately, we had removed them all, so we knew the ground crew hadn’t made any mistakes.”
Jackson said he has never forgotten Lt. Cooey, a guy so short that, “When he sat on the seat with his survival pack under him, his feet couldn’t touch the floor.”
“That day, Cooey left swinging his feet and singing a popular song of the time, ‘I’m Sitting On Top Of The World,’” recalled Jackson.
After leaving the Air Force in 1954, Jackson went to work as a sales representative for Ashland Oil Company in Kentucky until he retired. The Jacksons spent their retirement touring North America by motorhome.
“This meeting and the opportunity to visit the old crash site was never even planned when we came to Alaska,” he said, still amazed at the sequence of events that led him back to it. “It’s been the highlight of the trip.”
Since that chance meeting, Paul and Glenys Jackson returned to Alaska and we visited again. Then in the summer of 2001, while on a family vacation, we stopped and visited them in Ashland, Kentucky, and again in 2007 and 2008. Regrettably, Jackson passed away in 2012.
It is amazing the number of people who got together as a result of an obscure plane crash in Alaska in 1953. We have all made new friends because of a shared history.