Friday, May 30, 2014

Man discovers 35-year-old plane wreckage on Appalachian Trail

More than 35 years after a military accident claimed the lives of two Navy airmen in the wilderness of Amherst County, a Lexington veteran made a sobering discovery along the Appalachian Trail that also provides answers to a personal quest.

Earlier this month, Robert Hawkins, 66, discovered what he believes to be what remains of a 1979 plane crash in the Bald Knob area of the trail, near the three-county border of Amherst, Nelson and Rockbridge counties.

It was a discovery many years in the making.

Several years ago, Hawkins developed an interest in nature photography that later morphed into hiking as a hobby. Accompanied by his grandson, Hawkins began making treks along sections of the Appalachian Trail, and so far has traversed about 800 miles of its 2,100-mile length. With a newfound interest in the sport, in 2010 Hawkins began reading a book about the trail that mentioned the wreck and purported ghost sightings at a nearby shelter.

His interest was sparked not only by the proximity of the crash, but also to a possible shared background with the deceased pilots.

Hawkins graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1969 and later served on a destroyer in Vietnam as an anti-submarine warfare officer and a weapons officer. After serving as a lieutenant, Hawkins’ military career ended in 1974.

“Those men could have went to the academy,” Hawkins said. “… They may be alumni. They might have been people I have went to school with.”

Hawkins and his grandson made several hikes to the Bald Knob area to find evidence of the destroyed plane but were unsuccessful. They even enlisted the help of a friend, a former Marine Corps aviator, and performed research on the Internet.

Earlier this month, on a solo trip to Bald Knob, Hawkins discovered the plane by accident.

“Lo and behold, there it was,” he said.

The night of August 29, 1979, a severe thunderstorm warning was in effect, according to an article in the New Era-Progress the following week.

Flying a twin-engine A-6 Intruder at a low level, Lt. Cmdr. Phillip M. Soucek, 28, and Lt. Cmdr. Vern M. Snyman, 34, were on a training mission run from Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach to Pennsylvania, and back again.

But the mission would never be completed.

The two airmen were killed when the plane struck a mountain near the three-county border. The plane was torn apart by the impact, the article states, and small pieces of the wreckage were scattered along the Appalachian Trail.

The plane was discovered the day after the accident, with Lynchburg Civil Air Patrol being the first responders. Even after the deadly accident, the area is the sight of low-flying missions.

Standing on a mountain’s summit during one hiking trip, Hawkins said a plane flew by lower than where he and his grandson were standing.

“We could look down from where we were and could see the pilots in the cockpit,” Hawkins said.

According to Hawkins, the only pieces of the A-6 Intruder left on the mountain are vestiges of the wings, fuselage and various pieces belonging to the engine and landing gear. It is customary for the military to remove pieces of the plane that provide identification, such as serial numbers, he said.

After spending about 30 minutes at the site, Hawkins said a few words to the deceased pilots.

“It was like walking though a graveyard,” Hawkins said. “This plane was probably doing at least 400 or 500 miles an hour: they were alive one second and the next second they were gone.”

“I thanked them for their service for the country, and I was sorry they had to give their lives,” Hawkins said.

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