November 21st, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 47
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Disaster at Porcupine Lookout
Looking Back
TSGT Ken Hammond [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Inset: Courtesy Nathan Wilburn - FindAGrave.com
USAF Convair F-106A Delta Dart. Inset: Lt. David L. Denning - Montana Air National Guard
View Extra photos in PDF format to read documents.


Mrs. Mundie has drawn me back into her scrapbooks again. This time it’s a tragic story that unfolded back in 1977 that I thought I might revisit and expand for the readers. It happened at a time when the Cold War menace was still lingering and when there was an organization in place to respond to those perceived threats.

That organization was known as NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and combined the resources of both Canada and the United States into a unified force that could detect any missile or aircraft attack on our countries. It was established in 1957 and included the installation of three separate radar warning networks. They were the Pine Tree Line at the 50th parallel, the Mid-Canada Line at the 55th parallel and no less than 63 stations up in the Arctic known as the DEW line.

It was the practice of NORAD to conduct periodic rehearsals, training exercises that helped groom pilots in response protocols to any attack. These were apparently monthly events that taught pilots pursuit techniques of theoretical invading aircraft. According to the clippings from her scrapbook, on the night of June 9, 1977, one of those mock attacks went terribly wrong.

I should preface this by saying that there were apparently strict guidelines for these maneuvers and rightly so. They were conducted late at night to avoid conflict with civil air traffic and there were distance restrictions from metropolitan centers. This had to do with the fact that the aircraft in question, an F-106A Delta Dart jet was capable of Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound) and would create sonic booms.
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On that June night the pilot Lieutenant David Dennings, flying out of the Malstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, had intercepted and destroyed a mock enemy plane at 20,000 feet and was given a second target just after midnight. The newspaper coverage varies greatly at this point about exactly what went wrong. Given this was probably highly classified business we will probably never know exactly when then transpired.

Suffice to say that there was apparently a cockpit monitor instruction given to Denning to head for a second target at 6,000 feet. Denning, by the way, had been with the National Guard for six years and qualified as a pilot in 1973. He was twenty eight years old at the time. Being in the National Guard is a part time occupation in the U.S. that requires, after basic training and advanced individual training, that you work one weekend a month and at least two full weeks each year for the Guard.

So it was that this Great Falls salesman proceeded on his attack. It is hard to imagine that above us in those days, on occasion, American and Canadian pilots were streaking across our skies in training sessions at such speeds. What happened next was catastrophic. Lt. Denning’s F-106, probably moving at supersonic speeds encountered something at the same elevation as he was flying. That something was the ridge in the Porcupine Hills where the Porcupine Forest Fire Look-out is located.

His delta wing jet plowed into the ridge at full speed just narrowly missing the 120 foot look-out tower and nearby station trailer where George Hames and his wife Marilyn were awakened by what he described as: “a God awful roar and explosion.” This recounting by George comes from Forest Officer Peter Nortcliffe who was the leg man on duty in Blairmore at the time and who immediately responded to the incident. As an aside I recently received a copy of the 35 page comprehensive overview that Nortcliffe prepared in 2004 of the unfolding events that night which gives a rather unique look at the incident.
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Peter had received a call from the gal at the Ironstone Look-out south of Blairmore who had just heard from Hames by radio call about the crash. She told him that there was fire all over the hilltop and that Hames and his wife were evacuating the area. Nortcliffe called Blairmore duty officer Kelly O’Shea and then tore down the highway to the turnoff to Hwy 22 where he was met by RCMP around 1:15 AM.

Back then Hwy 22 was still gravel and relatively untraveled. The Porcupine Look-out is about 6 miles north and 6 miles east of the Waldron Bridge, up in the Porcupine Hills. It has a fairly encompassing view from the tower to the west and south towards the Livingstone Range and the Castle. As he drove towards the site it crossed Nortcliffe’s mind that: “there had been several crashes of commercial aircraft during the previous months in various locations around the world and it was with some uneasiness that we approached this site not knowing what we might find.”

In fact that particular scrap book of Mrs. Mundie’s was a collection of tragic crashes of train, planes and automobiles between 1970 and 1976, a subject she seemed preoccupied with. One article she had saved was of a DC-3 that had caught fire and force landed near Brocket about 10 months earlier. All 24 aboard, most of which were a B.C. lacrosse team, survived.

Nortcliffe’s extensive notes are done chronologically and indicate they arrived at 0210 hrs (24 hour time), surveyed the site and identified and labeled two separate fires. By 0242 hrs. Forest Officer Al Gehman had also arrived and had a pumper truck operational on one fire caused by what he called a “rocket motor”. This was in fact one of four Sidewinder air to air missiles that the F-106 carried. A helicopter and fire fighting crew was called in later that morning from the Livingstone Gap Ranger Station for support.
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By daylight Nortcliffe was able to get a better look at the site and wrote the following: “Surveying the scene of devastation in the first light of morning it was evident that the aircraft had clipped a tree at the North end of the trail of wreckage. This had caused the aircraft to nose down into the standing timber tearing the craft to pieces. The fuel tanks had ruptured on impact throwing fuel out and away into the standing timber resulting in the conflagration….. There was very little in the way of large pieces of the craft left.”

By 0730 hrs. a twin engine Chinook and a Bell 206 helicopter had arrived from Malstrom and Lt. Colonel Shane Henry of the U.S.A.F. had set up camp and begun his team’s investigation. By then it was apparent, despite scanning all night for a rescue beacon from the pilot’s ejection seat that Henning had died in the crash. The crash site was restricted and secured while the fires were mopped up.

It was Ranger Al Gehman who figured out that one of the sidewinder missiles had started one of the fires and that the jet had been carrying armament. There were in fact four of them, three of which had been accounted for by the next day. Nortcliffe described Gehman as being the one to find the fourth which: “was ultimately discovered hidden under a low growing Juniper…His first observation told him it was just a piece of pipe but his surprise was quite evident when he rolled it over with his toe and saw the words Sidewinder printed on the cylinder and from the area he beat a hasty retreat.”
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The area was off limits for weeks as the investigation and cleanup continued at the crashes 300 yard long swath and on June 24th the Lethbridge Herald ran a picture of a Chinook helicopter hoisting the massive 5,000 pound Pratt and Whitney J75 jet engine for transport back to Malstrom. The Hames returned to their duties at Porcupine and Nortcliffe observed that from the air it appears that the pilot at the last second spotted the light in their cabin and swung away to the south east.

Author’s Note: In 2010, Reid Moynihan, who was seven at the time of the crash succeeded in connecting with Denning’s family members. The crash has occurred on the south end of Moynihan ranch and Reid had always felt bad for this pilot who was working to protect our country. He had visited the site many times through the years and felt some kind of memorial was needed. His determined search resulted in three of David Denning’s brothers and his nephew Chris visiting the site where they placed a small stone memorial. They had never known exactly where David had died other than in some remote area in Canada. The next year, in Nanton, two American brigadier generals present Reid with a Montana National Guard Patriot Medal for helping to tell Denning’s story.

Note: David McMurray’s blog peaksandstreams.com carries a wonderful in-depth tour of the look-out site (Porcupine Fire Lookout, 28 April 2018) and is well worth the visit.
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November 21st, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 47
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