Thunder on the Mountain: The tragic and bizarre mystery of a missing A-10 Warthog and its pilot

Thunder on the Mountain: The tragic and bizarre mystery of a missing A-10 Warthog and its pilot Thunder on the Mountain: The tragic and bizarre mystery of a missing A-10 Warthog and its pilot

FeaturedWIB history October 11, 2019 0

It’s a fact of life- sometimes people just vanish. Be it due to the acts of others, forces of nature, or more personal choices... Thunder on the Mountain: The tragic and bizarre mystery of a missing A-10 Warthog and its pilot

It’s a fact of life- sometimes people just vanish. Be it due to the acts of others, forces of nature, or more personal choices but many individuals have simply “disappeared off the radar,” which leaves more questions than answers.

Sometimes, those people vanish with a $45 million dollar aircraft and thousands of pounds worth of bombs.

In the spring of 1997, a young U.S. Air Force captain was flying in formation over southern Arizona suddenly broke away, abandoning his live ordnance training mission and instead silently headed towards the Colorado Rockies.

Captain Craig Button was never heard from again.

Despite the fact that his transponder was turned off, radar and witness accounts state that Button’s A-10 had headed towards the Rockies. The aircraft had flown around 800 miles off-course before vanishing in the mountains, zig-zagging around terrain and weather patterns as it made a beeline for the peaks.   The aircraft could only be tracked, not identified, and it would be some time before the “blip on the screen” was determined to be one of the world’s greatest Close Air Support aircraft.

At one point, the aircraft -armed with four 500-pound Mk-82 bombs- was spotted around 100 miles west of Denver. After that, it vanished- disappearing near a place called Craig’s Peak.

Upon receiving notification that one of their A-10s was missing, Air Force brass initiated a search for the aircraft. Twenty days later, fragments of what was believed to be a military aircraft were found around Gold Dust Peak- a treacherous mountain area known for steep terrain, bad weather, high winds, deep snow, rock slides, and avalanches.

The recovery process -for the pilot, plane, and ordnance- was daunting and dangerous for all involved. During the descent down the peak, rodents chewed through climbing ropes and all the hazards associated with the mountain came out in force to create a miserable experience for rescue workers, crash site investigators, and EOD techs looking for the bombs. It would be an additional four months after the wreckage was positively identified before “fragmented” and highly-decomposed remains of Captain Button were located.

Conspiracies soon abounded, ranging from a rogue A-10 pilot on a murderous mission to alien abduction. Button’s record, personal life, and other affairs were combed through in search of answers. Did he snap? Was he unconscious? Was he going to deliver the bombs to a terror cell? The crash left more questions than answers.

That is, until all the pieces started coming together.

The son of an established retired Air Force officer, Button had big shoes to fill. In addition to being his father’s son, he was related to Lieutenant Donald Hurlburt, a B-17 pilot who flew over Germany in World War II and had Florida’s Hurlburt Field named in his honor.

Button’s mother, however, was less than supportive of her son’s military life. A staunch pacifist and Jehovah’s Witness, Mrs. Button denounced military service and even forbid him from wearing his ROTC uniform in their home when he came back from college.

“My mother is a Jehovah’s Witness, raised me to think that joining the military is wrong,” Craig Button wrote to his ROTC commander during his cadet years.

Prior to Button’s bizarre detour, his roommate, a fellow pilot, claimed that Button’s ”mother became increasingly vocal in her negative feelings towards her son’s job and role in the military.” A week prior to his disappearance, his mother had visited him in Arizona.

When Button’s landlord had last spoken with him, the pilot seemed “out of character,” saying he was ”learning to kill people.” It would later be revealed that the training flight that Button -who was a member of the 355th Fighter Wing- was participating in when he went rogue would have been his first dropping of live ordnance.

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The women in Button’s life seems particularly hard on him.  Button’s mother was very critical of a life he had worked so hard to achieve, and his former girlfriend -who declined his proposal for marriage- had messed with his head to such an extent that there were several documented cases of odd behavior related to her.   One day before a one-way flight, he had called her and had rented a video copy of “The Bridges of Madison County,” a tale of a doomed relationship.

Known as a mild-mannered “perfectionist” by some, Button lived a life of duality. While he was frequently considered to be a consummate professional, he was also a “hotshot” pilot who liked to buzz dangerously low along the ground before ascending rapidly and would also go out of his way to fly over the Rockies. For the latter offense, he was reprimanded on multiple occasions.

Button had a love affair with the Rocky Mountains, both as an avid skier and an aviator. Visiting whenever he could, he had a fantasy about being a commercial pilot out of Denver International Airport and settling down in the area. Button had many dreams- and many of them appeared to be hampered by those in his life that he desperately sought approval and love from.

After taking Button’s anguished state into account, the details of the mystery flight began to come together and form a tragic picture: a heartbroken and confused man, conflicted with the duality of his devotion to both war and peace, broke formation and headed to a beloved location he had chosen to be his final resting place.

In his last moments, Button circled over the peak before making a 300 MPH dive into the ground, reportedly attempting to ascend at the last moment. He was 32 years of age.

Upon learning all the details, the Air Force ruled Button’s death a suicide, which -given the location he chose to crash into- made sense to many of his friends and family members. His parents denied having anything to do with their son’s death.

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Despite taking place more than 22 years ago, there is still something missing in relation to the Button crash: the 2,000 pounds of bombs he had under his wings were never recovered, and remain missing to this day.

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