Martin, Second Flier Died Instantly When Jet Struck Mountain

Times Staff Writers

The bodies of Air National Guard pilot Capt. Dean Paul Martin and weapons officer Capt Ramon Ortiz were found Wednesday afternoon in the wreckage of their F4-C jet fighter, which was spotted on a rugged mountain slope northwest of Palm Springs.

A California Air National Guard spokesman told a late-night news conference here that Martin, 35, son of entertainer Dean Martin, and Ortiz, 39, of Las Vegas “perished instantly at the time of impact” when their Phantom jet streaked into the side of a granite mountain 5 1/2 miles southeast of San Gorgonio Mountain.

The wreckage was in “large pieces and small pieces” at the 5,500-foot level, said Maj. Steven Mensik and there was “no indication that they tried to eject.” He said he did not know whether the bodies were still strapped into the seats.


Radar Contact

Mensik said the plane “carried a large amount of fuel” and burned when it struck Wood Canyon, about half a mile north of its last radar contact.

The bodies of the two fliers had not yet been recovered, Mensik said.

Their families were notified in their homes in Beverly Hills and Las Vegas. Martin family spokesman Warren Cowan said the family was devastated by the news and were in seclusion at Dean Martin’s Beverly Hills home.

A Riverside County coroner’s crew was not expected to reach the crash site until this morning.

The two fliers had been sought since the jet disappeared from radar screens a few minutes after taking off in a snowstorm from this base near Riverside. They were on a routine training mission with two other planes assigned to the Guard’s 163rd Tactical Fighter Group.

Mensik said the wreckage was discovered about 3 p.m. Wednesday by a U.S. Air Force helicopter. A ground crew reached the scene a short time later and confirmed that the wreckage was that of Martin’s jet.

“It is too early to surmise what happened,” Mensik said. But he added, “There is nothing to indicate at this time that there was a malfunction of the aircraft.”


After taking off Saturday, all three planes were ordered by air traffic controllers at Ontario International Airport to change course in order to avoid 11,500-foot San Gorgonio Mountain--Southern California’s tallest peak.

Snow, wind and dense clouds had hampered search efforts for five days. As weather conditions improved Wednesday morning, about 140 people from nine agencies--aided by eight aircraft--began searching the rugged mountain canyons around wind-blasted San Gorgonio Mountain.

At midafternoon, they found what they were looking for.

Martin, the eldest of three sons of the famed singer and his former wife, Jeanne, had been wild about flying since he was a teen-ager. He obtained his pilot’s license at 16, qualifying in both helicopters and twin-engine aircraft.

That was only two years after he formed a rock group with Desi Arnaz Jr. and a neighbor, Billy Hinsche. The three called themselves Dino, Desi and Billy. They had one hit record: “I’m a Fool.”

He attended UCLA as a premedical student and maintained his enthusiasm for flying even as he became a tournament tennis player who was classed among the top 400 male professionals in the world. He starred with actress Ali McGraw in the less-than-successful 1979 movie, “The Players,” about the pro tennis circuit.

No Future in Tennis

Young Martin recognized that a tennis career could not last beyond age 35, and he told interviewers that if acting did not pay off, he might consider going into aviation.

In 1978, while watching an air show at Edwards Air Force Base, he began to yearn for the life of jet fighter pilot. He had no military experience, so he flew to Washington and persuaded Maj. Gen. John B. Conway, director of the Air National Guard, to let him enlist.

He reported to officer candidate training in Knoxville, Tenn., in November, 1980, and advanced to Phantom jets, which he flew out of March AFB. He was described last weekend by Mensik as “one of the best pilots” in the unit.

Because there was an overabundance of qualified military fliers in the Guard, Martin at first did his time as the “GIB,” or guy in back, tending to radio and navigational duties. He noted in an interview that when he began to be the pilot, that experience made him more appreciative of what the man in the rear seat was feeling.

“You (the pilot) go tearing across the desert at 500 knots,” he said, “you’re fine. You can see and you’re pretty comfortable down to 200 feet. But the guy in back . . . “ He shook his head.

Feel of High Speed

In a 1985 interview with Times writer Jay Sharbutt, Martin described feeling “a little rumble” while doing nearly 1,200 m.p.h. in a Phantom jet during mock aerial combat near Homestead AFB in Florida.

“These are old jets,” he said. “If you lose a wing; if it folds or something, you’re a sack of vegetables.”

The handsome, athletic Martin continued to do his Guard flying while proceeding with his acting career. During the 1985-86 season, he co-starred in the NBC series, “Misfits of Science.” He recently completed a pilot film for a proposed Fox Television series, “A Single Man.”

He had been married twice--the first time to actress Olivia Hussey, by whom he had a son, Alex. Then, in 1982, he married Olympic skating star Dorothy Hamill, to whom he was introduced by his old singing colleague, Desi Arnaz Jr. They were divorced in 1984.