Tragedy

One bright winter morning, the last day of February 1966, the Gemini IX foursome checked into Ellington Air Force Base, Texas, for flight clearance to St. Louis in two dual-seat T-38 jet aircraft. [324] They planned to spend several days practicing on the rendezvous simulator at the McDonnell plant.

At Ellington, the four fliers learned that weather in St. Louis was gloomy: 180-meter overcast, visibility 3 kilometers, rain, and fog, with little change expected. Instrument flight rules would be required. See called the St. Louis air traffic controllers, saying he would see them in a couple of hours. He and Cernan discussed the different runways at Lambert Field in St. Louis. See then climbed into the front seat of one T-38, with Bassett easing into the back seat. Stafford and Cernan got into the other plane. They took off from Ellington at 7:35 a.m. See and Bassett led, with Stafford and Cernan flying wing position.3

Reaching St. Louis just before 9 o'clock, See radioed the Lambert Field control tower and learned that the overcast had lifted to 240 meters since his earlier call, but the visibility had dropped to 2.4 kilometers. Light snow flurries now mixed with the rain and fog. As the aircraft descended through the overcast, the pilots found themselves too far down the runway to land. See elected to keep the field in sight and he circled to the left underneath the cloud cover. Stafford followed a missed approach procedure and climbed straight ahead into the soup to 600 meters, intending to make another instrument approach. He landed safely on his next attempt.4

Meanwhile, See had continued his left turn. The aircraft angled toward McDonnell Building 101, where technicians were working on the very spacecraft See and Bassett were scheduled to fly. Apparently recognizing that his sink rate was too high, See cut in his afterburners and attempted a sharp right turn; but it was too late. The aircraft struck the roof of the building and crashed into a courtyard. Both pilots were killed.5

NASA named a seven-man board to investigate the accident. Led by Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr.,* the board looked into all aspects of the tragedy - aircraft maintenance, pilot experience, medical histories, and weather conditions. Shepard's group listened to testimony from everyone who had anything to say, sifted the wreckage for clues, and drew conclusions. They found nothing wrong with the aircraft; it had functioned properly to the moment of impact. Within the past six months, See and Bassett had renewed their instrument flying certificates. Before and during the flight, both men had been in good physical and mental condition, as attested by medical examinations and by reported pre- and in-flight conversations. Furthermore, See was reputed to be an excellent test pilot. Careful, judicious, and technically competent, he should never have crashed at all. Weather appeared to have been the major contributing cause, and pilot error prompted by a desire not to lose sight of the field had carried them too low.6

[325] On Wednesday, 2 March 1966, Spacecraft No. 9, on its way to the flight dock for shipment to Cape Kennedy, passed an American flag flying at half-mast at the McDonnell plant. The next day, Elliot See and Charles Bassett, attended by their fellow astronauts, were buried in Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac from the Nation's capital.7

NASA assigned the Gemini IX prime crew positions to Stafford and Cernan, marking the first time in the agency's manned space flight history that a backup crew had taken over a mission.** On 21 March James Lovell and Edwin Aldrin were given the backup duties. There would be no delay in the launch schedule.8


* The other members of the investigating team were Alan Bean, Joseph S. Algranti, Harold E. Ream, John M. Kanak, Dick M. Lucas, and John F. Ziegleschmid.

** During Mercury, when Donald Slayton was replaced as prime pilot on the Mercury-Atlas (MA) 7 mission because of a heart anomaly, his backup pilot, Walter Schirra, did not get the assignment. Scott Carpenter, who had been the alternate on John Glenn's MA-6 flight, flew the mission.


3 Memo, Robert R. Gilruth to NASA Hq., Attn: NASA Safety Dir., "Aircraft Accident," 25 May 1966, with enclosures; TWX, Gilruth to NASA Hq., Attn: George E. Mueller, 1 March 1966; "Space: Rendezvous in St. Louis," Time, 11 March 1966, p. 27; memo, Thomas P. Stafford to MSC Historical Office, "Comment draft chapter of Gemini narrative history," 22 May 1970, with annotated pages attached; Edward F. Mitros, telephone interview, 16 March 1970.

4 Gilruth memo, 25 May 1966; Theodore P. Wagner, "Jet Crash Kills 2 Gemini-9 Astronauts," The Washington Post, 1 March 1966; Stafford memo, 22 May 1970.

5 John H. Bickers, interview, St. Louis, 13 April 1966; memo, Bickers to Michael Witunski, "Activities of John Bickers on Morning of 28 February 1966," No. 716, 1 March 1966; Gilruth memo, 25 May 1966; Wagner, "Jet Crash Kills 2"; "Plane Hits Building, Killing Gemini 9 Crew Bassett, See," The Houston Post, 1 March 1966.

6 Bickers memo, 1 March 1966; Jack Amerine, "Shepard Leads NASA Probe of Jet Crash," Houston Chronicle, 1 March 1966; Jim Maloney, "Flyers Died on Way to Work," The Houston Post, 1 March 1966.

7 UPI telephoto, "Flags at half-staff at McDonnell Aircraft corporation plant in St. Louis . . . ," Chicago Tribune, 2 March 1966; "Astronauts to Be Buried in Arlington," The Sun, Baltimore, 2 March 1966; "Memorials Today for 2 Astronauts," The Houston Post, 2 March 1966; memo, Julian Scheer to Lt. Gen. Frank A. Bogart et al., "Attendance at Funerals of Astronauts," 11 April 1966; letter, George M. Low to NASA Hq., Attn: Bogart, "Attendance at funerals of astronauts," 28 April 1966.

8 Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, NASA SP-4201 (Washington, 1966), p. 443; MSC News Release No. 66-27, 18 April 1966; MSC News Release 66-20, "Gemini and Apollo Crews Selected," 21 March 1966.


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