The curious case of Capt. Craig Button Part II: Cleaning up plane crash took entire summer of 1997
What happened that day
• Craig David Button (Nov. 24, 1964-April 2, 1997) was a U.S. Air Force pilot who died when he crashed an A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft under mysterious circumstances.
• Button was on a training mission with two other A-10s from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona.
• Button flew hundreds of miles off course without radio contact. Near Gila Bend, Arizona, after being refueled in-flight, Button unexpectedly broke formation. He flew in a northeasterly direction toward Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah come together. His jet was spotted numerous times by observers on the ground. The Air Force determined that Button was flying his aircraft manually and purposefully.
• He crashed into Gold Dust Peak in the Holy Cross Wilderness.
• He did not attempt to eject before the crash.
• It took three weeks to find the crash site, and all summer to clean it up. For years, a sign at the Gold Dust Peak trailhead warned that hikers might encounter 30 mm ammunition.
• Button’s $9 million single-seat A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft was armed with four Mk-82 bombs, each weighing 500 pounds, 60 magnesium flares, 120 metal chaff canisters and 575 rounds of 30-millimeter ammunition. This training mission would have been the first time Button dropped live ordnance.
• The Air Force concluded the jet probably had two to five minutes of fuel remaining when it crashed. Debris scattered over a quarter-mile-square area.
Sources: U.S. Air Force and media reports
What witnesses and radar saw
11:58 a.m. East of Tucson
12:10 p.m. west of Apache Junction, Arizona
12:11 p.m. several miles south of Lake Roosevelt
12:29 p.m. north of Lake Roosevelt
12:43 p.m. approaching New Mexico
12:58 p.m. just inside Colorado
1:00 p.m. near Telluride
1:08 p.m. near Montrose
1:22 p.m. Button begins a zig-zag pattern with this sighting between Grand Junction and Aspen
1:27 p.m. bearing to the northeast, Button is now north of Aspen
1:30 p.m. Button is due south of his last position
1:33 p.m. the A-10 is southeast of the last sighting
1:35 p.m. north by northeast of its previous sighting, the A-10 is between Aspen and Grand Junction again
1:37 p.m. Button is heading northeast again
1:40 p.m. In the last reported sighting, Button is northeast of Aspen, near Craig’s Peak and New York Mountain
Sources: U.S. Air Force and media reports
Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series looking back at the April, 1997 crash of Capt. Craig Button, who flew his A-10 Thunderbolt attack plane into Gold Dust Peak.
VAIL — When Craig Button flew his A-10 Thunderbolt into the side of Gold Dust Peak, the wreckage was scattered over a quarter mile area. There was little flat ground at the site.
John Peleaux’s Innovative Access from Westcliffe ran the cleanup operation.
“The plan on paper, created in a boardroom in a high-rise building, was to start at the top of Gold Dust Peak, and search for plane parts and unexploded ordinance,” Peleaux said, smiling.
The logistics were the kinds of things people look back on two decades later and laugh, because time plus distance equals comedy.
It took two-and-a-half months to clean up the mess.
“I was ignorant enough not to know what I was getting into,” Peleaux said.
In two days, Peleaux bought 20 spools of 600-foot-long rope, two-and-a-half miles’ worth, and had them shipped overnight from California, during a UPS strike.
He had two days to hire 12 people who knew mountain safety and were qualified medically. He turned to his Alpine Rescue Team colleagues in Evergreen, with whom he had worked for 30 years.
His unexploded ordinance guys were former Army Rangers and former Navy SEALs. They had never worked in the mountains, so he had one day to train them.
“They were great. They were military, so they adapted and they worked hard. They were successful,” Peleaux said.
He insured the operation through Lloyds of London, which was happy to have the business on such short notice.
The team wasn’t not allowed to land private helicopters on Gold Dust Peak. So every morning the team walked up from the base of the mountain. They walked down every night.
“It busted my butt and got me in shape,” Peleaux said, smiling.
Every day they ascended through a gully they dubbed “The Bowling Alley.”
“We were the pins,” Peleaux said.
The Bowling Alley is filled with loose rocks that careened down that gully when the crew stepped on them. No one was injured, but the rocks hit so hard some ropes were completely severed.
“There was an element of luck. Helmets don’t matter with rocks the size of basketballs,” Peleaux said.
Their first job was to check a huge snow field on Gold Dust Peak. They used ground-penetrating radar every two feet, searching that snowfield, securing more than 260 bolts to anchor everything. His guys were all “Leave no trace” advocates, so they carried everything off the mountain when they were done later that summer.
They worked horizontally, instead of one above the other. That way when they kicked off rocks, which happened all day, they wouldn’t hit anyone below them.
As the summer wore on, Peleaux brought in divers from San Diego to look for those four 500-pound bombs in New York Lake. The bombs aren’t in the lake, or anywhere else anyone has ever looked.
“If I was Capt. Button and I was going to drop 2,000 pounds of ugly weight, I would have done it long before that,” Peleaux said.
Running on fumes
Button’s A-10 was running on fumes when he hit the mountainside. The Air Force calculated he had between two and five minutes of fuel remaining in his tank.
“Many airports in the area were searched, everything within fuel range. No one found anything,” Peleaux said.
Out of fuel and time, Button apparently chose to crash his A-10 Thunderbolt into the side of Gold Dust Peak. He did not attempt to eject, the Air Force determined.
“We saw where he hit the mountain. The mountain won,” Peleaux said. “We found parts everywhere,” Peleaux said.
Debris was spread over a quarter mile — mostly vertical. Some debris flew over the peak and was found on the other side.
Most pieces were about two inches, and were painstakingly picked off the mountain. Peleaux and his crew would collect them, and fly them out in bags that weighed 700 pounds.
If those 500-pound bombs are not armed, then they’re “dumb bombs” and they can go through reinforced concrete and still not explode, Peleaux said.
‘Bridges of Madison County’
A year or so after the crash, the Air Force was ordered to release its report about the incident. Air Force investigators interviewed more than 200 people: friends, relatives, colleagues and fellow pilots.
The report says Button was a ‘’perfectionist,” upset with his relationships with his pacifist mother — who thought joining the military was wrong — and a former girlfriend. That report says when he was in college, his mother “would not allow him to wear his (Reserve Officer Training Corps) uniform in the house.”
Button’s mother and father had spent a week with their son in Tucson a week before his final flight. That visit ended amicably, the Air Force report said.
For that Air Force report, a Jehovah’s Witnesses group said members “abide by the principle outlined in the Bible to ‘beat their swords into plowshares.’” They said they “do not interfere with or oppose individuals who choose to serve in the military.”
Button and a former girlfriend broke up after she declined a vague marriage proposal three years prior. By 1996, he had told his friends he was over her, and threw her Christmas card in the trash. He called her on April 1, 1997, the day before the crash, with a new phone number. The woman called him back four days after the crash, unaware what had happened.
Various media reports say the day before Button’s final flight, he had purchased a video of “The Bridges of Madison County,” a movie about a doomed love affair.
The Air Force concluded that it was probably a case of unrequited love, calling it “a dramatic example of a man who seems to have everything going for him in his life, yet cannot have the woman he loves passionately.”
The report referred to Clint Eastwood’s role in movie “The Bridges of Madison County,” who watched his love interest drive away with another man, asking, “Did Craig Button see himself in this Clint Eastwood role?”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.