On Friday, 50 years to the day after 25-year-old Navy pilot Michael C. Emmett died, his two brothers and the nephews he never knew visited the remote desert site in San Diego County where his supersonic fighter jet crashed in 1968.
They climbed up a desert wash in the North Pinyon Mountains of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to where much of the wreckage has sat untouched for decades.
At 12:17 p.m., the moment the crash occurred, they held a memorial service, read a poem, hugged and cried, and placed a “memory jar” in the cockpit. The jar contained an American flag, and details about their brother, the crash and their visit that day.
“We wanted to honor Mike, but we really wanted to celebrate him,” brother John Emmett, 60, said.
“He did what he loved to do. Whatever he set out to do, he did. This was supposed to be just one step in his life. He had big plans to go on and do so many things.”
On Nov. 2, 1968, Emmett, who was based at Miramar Naval Air Station, was practicing combat tactics over the desert with an instructor observing from another jet.
“The accident report said he was highly rated and highly aggressive, as a fighter pilot should be,” said G. Pat Macha, the founder of Project Remembrance, a group that locates aircraft wreckage in California and helps family members connect to those sites when asked.
“He was flying a Vought F-8 Crusader, which was the hottest thing the Navy had at the time,” Macha said. “The instructor-leader said he observed Michael’s airplane in a spin at 10,000 feet and he called out ‘Eject! Eject! Eject!’ and there was no response.”
The report speculated the pilot might have been struggling to recover from the spin or he might have been unconscious.
“When he struck the ground, he was vertical and the wreckage blew down the draw,” Macha said.
Emmett’s body was recovered and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
John Emmett, who was 11 when his brother died, remembers the car pulling up to the family’s home in Lake Charles, La., to deliver the news. He remembers his mother’s emotional reaction. He said were she still alive today she wouldn’t have come along. “It would have been way too difficult for her,” he said.
As with so many plane crashes from years gone by, before GPS was able to pinpoint every location, after his remains were removed, the exact spot where Michael Emmett’s plane went down was lost over time.
Then, in 2015, a hiker came across a strange piece of equipment on a mountain in an area well off any trail. Macha, who has spent decades collecting information about California crashes, saw the photo of the equipment and recognized it as coming from a jet. He and members of his Project Remembrance team went to the area and found wreckage scattered all across the mountain.
When they came to the cockpit, and saw the ejector seat still intact, they knew it was the scene of a fatality.
Project Remembrance documents everything and makes videos of their finds. They do not reach out to families, but if they are contacted they will do their very best to help them find closure.
John Emmett said he had spent the past three years looking on the internet for information about his brother’s crash and six months ago came upon Macha’s video. He began to cry, he said.
Macha cries as well. What his remembrance group does touches him and the other members deeply.
“We’re all here because we respect those who have served and sacrificed on our behalf,” Macha told the nine members of the Emmett family that had flown in from Northern California to visit the site together. “The key word is respect. When we are asked, we are proud and honored to be with you and to support you.”
Robert Emmett, 70, who was 19 and away at college when his brother died, said seeing the wreckage and reviewing photos and documents with his family the night before was emotionally intense.
“For myself and my brother, it was time to reconnect and talk about those things we haven’t talked about in a long time,” he said.
“It brought back so many memories that had been suppressed over the last 50 years. The way we remember, Mike was funny, intelligent, a risk-taking guy. Everything we saw today kind of encapsulated that.”
The family was accompanied up the mountain Friday by nine members of the Remembrance team, all retirees from different backgrounds — military, law enforcement, airline pilots, education, park rangers.
“The most touching aspect that all of us feel is the respect that the Remembrance team places on these events,” John Emmett said. “Pat and his emotion, his tears showing respect for the pilots, the loss of life, and the feeling for the families. It’s closure to us. It really is.”
Jones writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.