F4 Crash in Alaska


In Alaska, December is a bitter month.

I have previously written about attending arctic survival school outside of Fairbanks when it was -50F and the techniques I learned to survive.  Still it gave me, and every fighter jock I flew with, great pause to think about dealing with the Alaskan winter on the ground. There was no worse feeling than to see emergency lights, such as the Master Caution (MC), illuminate when one was over the Alaskan interior during the cold months.

Master Caution is a misnomer, it implies a sort of benign warning.  There is nothing benign about it.    It could mean many things, most were very bad.   The Apollo 13 crew saw the illumination of the MC light in their capsule just before things went south.   There is absolutely no good news when the MC light comes on.MC Light

Once while on a training mission far over the interior,  we had the MC light come on.  It appeared we had reverse transfer flow of fuel.   This meant that fuel was flowing out of the main tanks  in the F4 fuselage back   G16into either the wing tanks or a center line tank.   First we checked the emergency procedures checklist, then if various switches were in the wrong position, and  finally if any circuit breakers had popped.   Then seemingly the situation was corrected and we returned to base with no more problems.

Still there was that moment when we talked about if we would have to eject over some of the most forbidding landscapes on earth.

“Have to eject.”  The three worst words any aircrew member can ever contemplate or hear.  The diagrams in the tech manual made it seem so simple.


Which of course it never was.

Ejection is  the last resort.   The absolutely last thing a fighter jock ever wants to do is eject. The credo of the fighter jock is “Never Leave a Perfectly Good Airplane.”  (Actually that applies to about any airplane which is in the air — good or otherwise.)  In many minds it was better to ride the plane in than eject,  and riding it in was often not a good choice either. In either case, many, many, many things could go wrong.

Which brings me back to December.   In December of 1973, just before I arrived in Alaska an aircrew was lost over the interior.   Captain David M. Grimm and Captain Frank M. Mutolo disappeared  while on an air combat maneuvering training mission.  Air combat maneuvering is a very demanding type of flying — think the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds.   Usually it involved at least a two-ship formation, and sometimes four. G4 Wingman Captain Lawrence Hoffman later reported that the other aircraft containing Grimm and Mutolo turned into a cloud bank and disappeared.  At speeds approaching Mach 1 there is absolutely no room for error.

It is not hard to imagine that they hit a peak in the cloud or that some catastrophic event occurred, which was heralded by the illumination of the MC light.  Although an intensive search was performed for the next two weeks, no trace of the aircraft was found.   This was still fresh in our minds that day the MC Light came on and we had the fuel problem.

Probably the most famous case of a missing aircraft in Alaska was the disappearance of Congressman Hale Boggs.  In 1972, while he was still House Majority Leader, the twin engine airplane in which Boggs was traveling along with Alaskan Congressman Nick Begich  vanished.  As with Grimm and Mutolo, it was presumed that the aircraft crashed.   And it too was never found.   G11

To go down in the wilderness, to hit a peak, to disappear  into the crevice of a glacier and be lost seemingly forever is hard to imagine.  Harder still for a wife at home to contemplate.  In what other profession does a wife kiss her husband and send him off to work with no assurance that he will return that evening.

Flying a jet fighter offers a freedom seldom experienced by 99 percent of the American people.  It can exact a price.

December in Alaska can be a bitter month.


About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in 43 TFS, American History, Anchorage, Anchorage Alaska, F-4 Phantom II, F4 emergency, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Norvell Family History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to F4 Crash in Alaska

  1. Gerry Barbour says:

    I remember that incident. I was a T-33 pilot for the 43rd flying AI missions for the F-4E’s. I remember Buck Rogers had to punch out on the west side of Cook Inlet and got hung up in the trees. Gerry Barbour

    • jenorv says:

      Gerry probably flew many intercepts on you – you guys did a great job. One time I got a ride in the T-33, they took me down to King Salmon to replace a WSO, I can’t remember why he couldn’t fly. Probably sick, it was 40 years ago. Glad to connect with you.


    Lt.Col. Norvell,
    I’m a volunteer at the Long Island National Cemetery. As I frequently do on weekends, today I walked about reading the inscriptions on the headstones of the amazing men and women who served our Country so selflessly. One that caught my eye was that of twin girls, likely stillborn in April of 1974. The inscription was on the face of the stone which usually means the Veteran and the spouse are still living. I was quite surprised to see the “In Memory Of” inscription on the back and to see the date the father died (5 months before their still birth). I can’t imagine the pain Mrs. Motolo must have endured losing her husband just before Christmas. She likely hadn’t begun to feel their movement yet. I’m sure the emotional trauma contributed to their deaths. I prayed for her and the Soul of the two brave Air Force Officers lost that day. I will try to attach the photo of the inscription for Captain Motolo. When I saw 13 Oak Leaf Clusters, I thought it must have been an error. Reading your account, I realize it wasn’t.

    • jenorv says:

      Thank you so much for this information. I am in contact with the Grimm family, even though this happened 46 years ago it is still with them, as I am sure it is with the Motolo family.

  3. Brett Dawson says:

    Hello to my fellow AAC Alumni. I would like to extend an invitation to you.
    “Alaskan Air Command, Alumni, Family, and Friends” would like to invite you to join us on Facebook. The page is dedicated to preserving the unique history of the “Top Cover of North America” while providing a platform for group members to share memories, reconnect, and preserve experiences that go beyond what’s found in the history books. Do a quick search of “Alaskan Air Command, Alumni, Family, and Friends” and then select “Join Group”. This page is open to everybody so feel free to post any photos and memories you would like. Post anything from experiences on the flight line to fishing and hunting and so on. Also feel free to extend this invitation to anyone you think might have an interest in this page. My name is Brett Dawson and I am the page administrator. I was at Elmendorf from ’86 to ’89. I hope to see you there.

  4. MSgt Gerald L Armstrong, USAF SERE&RESCUE, RET. says:

    I was a Rescue Specialist on HH3-Es with the 5040th HES based at Elemendorf AFB AK from ’72-’75.

    We spent hours looking for an F-4 that disappeared from a 2 ship formation. The lead aircraft switch position with the trail aircraft by going up so the other could go under and take the lead. The trail aircraft just disappeared. No noise, no explosion, no emergency call, nothing. The lead turned back to see what happened. No sign of anything. Radar had two blips. Then only one.

    We spent hours looking for the aircraft. Not one piece showed up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.