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Verdugo Views: Military jet crash in 1950s recalled by men who were boys at the time

Verdugo Views: Military jet crash in 1950s recalled by men who were boys at the time
Bill Stetler is pictured in a school photo when he was 9 years old. The year after he witnessed an airplane crash, he made the Webb's department store team in the JWV League and played for three seasons as a light-hitting shortstop. (Courtesy of Bill Stetler)

Witnessing a military jet crash in 1957, when he was 9 years old, created a lasting impression on Bill Stetler.

On the afternoon of July 9, Stetler, soon to enter fourth grade at Mark Keppel and hoping to make a Little League team the following spring, was on Hoover High’s field.

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He was practicing with a minor league team coached by a “wonderful man named Sam Giardina, whose son Hank became my classmate at Toll and Hoover. I think Hank was there as well.”

Young Stetler was on the field, baseball glove in hand, facing south toward the high school, just before 6 p.m.

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Looking up, he noticed a fighter jet gliding “slowly and silently” at a very low altitude from west to east. It passed directly over the school.

“Mesmerized” Stetler said he watched it gradually lose altitude over the neighborhood east of Hoover.

“In the last seconds before impact less than 3/4 mile away, the jet appeared to rise slightly… but then pancaked into the ground with an ensuing fireball,’’ Stetler said.

A few minutes later, he heard sirens from approaching fire engines.

At the same time, someone on the field pointed to an object descending toward the foothills behind them. Stetler and the other players learned later that the pilot had ejected and had been rescued in the hills above Brand Park.

“I’d like to think he somehow set the aircraft on a straight and level course before bailing out… maybe hoping for low airspeed at the eventual crash site,” Stetler said.

Later, he heard that damage was limited to backyard garages — and that, miraculously, no one died. Those facts stuck with him.

Recently, hoping to discover more, he posted a question on a Facebook group called “Growing Up In Glendale.”

Member Walter Witherspoon, who has an interest in historical aircraft accidents, found a Los Angeles Times article describing the accident as being on Parkwood Drive and posted the information.

The dramatic story came to my attention after Stetler, who graduated from Hoover High in 1966 and now lives in the Northern California community of Mountain View, contacted Lora Martinolich, of the Special Collections Room at the Glendale Public Library.

She sent him more information and later put us in touch via email.

After that, Stetler invited fellow group members to share their stories with me.

Tom Pote emailed that, at the time, his family lived at 351 Parkwood Drive, at the corner of Valley View Road.

“That jet came right over our neighbor’s house and crashed where Parkwood Lane is now,’’ he wrote.

At the time, Parkwood Lane was the “backyard” of a large old house on Central Avenue, he added.

“The jet came to rest about where the Parkwood Lane cul-de-sac is now. The engine traveled a little farther and ended up in the garage of a house about seven houses east of our house on Parkwood Drive,” Pote wrote.

“My buddy, Ronnie Swanson, lived in the house just east of the jet engine’s final resting place,” he added.

Pote’s father, who worked for Lockheed, ordered him not to go near the crash site in case the plane was carrying live ordnance.

“What 8- or 9-year-old would ever think about that?” Pote wrote.

“My mom (ever practical and efficient) ran out onto Parkwood and beat on a few car hoods of the looky-loos that swarmed onto our street,’’ Pote wrote.

She didn’t want people “clogging up our dead-end street and interfering with the fire departments’ pending arrival,” he added.

Roger Day emailed that he also had a close and personal experience with the incident.

As a 13-year-old baseball player in Glendale’s middle league program, his team was practicing at Brand Park.

Day and others in the park that afternoon heard an unusual sound. Looking up, he saw a very low-flying fighter jet “gliding” across the park in a west-to-east direction and also saw the parachuting pilot floating down.

“The pilot landed on a steep slope above Brand Park. Within what seemed like a few minutes, the entire park was filled with emergency first responders, interested observers from who knows where and a helicopter with a diver aboard. I think in case the pilot parachuted into the reservoir above the park,” Day wrote.

“We all hiked up the trail close to the rescue location to observe the unfolding event. As I recall, the pilot suffered broken bones,” he added.

“Aircraft Wrecks in the Mountains and Deserts of California,” written by Gary Patric Macha and Don Jordan, discusses more than 1,300 crashes.

According to Pote, a lifelong aviation enthusiast, “that book lists a few aircraft crashes in the Glendale area, but not this one.”

Katherine Yamada can be reached at katherineyamada@gmail.com or by mail at Verdugo Views, c/o Glendale News-Press, 453 S. Spring St., Suite 308, Los Angeles, CA 90013. Please include your name, address and phone number.

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