Bright Light on Searchlight

By CAPT Brian McGuiness, USNR (Ret.)

This article about a memorial for the crew of ZE-06, lost with all hands over Nevada on 3 Aug 1970, is from "Mail Buoy," a feature of the Association of Naval Aviation magazine, Wings of Gold, Winter 2005 edition. 

Searchlight, Nevada, is a small desert town with a big heart. That was evident last October when town residents hosted 33 outsiders who gathered there to remember ten Navy aircrew members who died nearby in 1970.

The high desert and a U.S. Navy patrol plane may seem like incongruous entities. But in August 2004, Searchlight residents Carl and Jane Overy showed great compassion in when they heard of the fatal crash of aircraft Zulu Echo Six from a former squadron member who, by chance, inquired if there had ever been a plaque erected in the town to commemorate the lost crewmen. Neither Carl, a USAF veteran, nor his wife, a Navy veteran and the town historian, had ever heard of the crash.

There was no memorial in the town, and for the most part, older residents had forgotten about the crash site 15 miles outside the old mining community along Highway 95. Bob McLaughlin of Pocatello, Idaho, a former Naval Aviator with Patrol Squadron 17, then inquired of Carl Overy whether or not he would help in the placement of a memorial plaque in town if funds for the project could be generated from past squadron members.

Not only did Overy and his wife say they were willing, they enlisted the help of six other town residents who volunteered either materials or services for free.

A bronze plaque with the names of the aircrewmen was produced at a Utah foundry and sent to Overy in early 2005 for placement on a large prominent stone in the Mining Park of the Searchlight Community Center. Later on, former squadron members purchased an additional bronze bas-relief outline of the ill-fated Lockheed P-3A Orion that was placed above the plaque by Overy.

With the plaque in place, a concerted effort was begun by former squadron mates to and surviving family members of the deceased aircrew. A future gathering at the site of the memorial was the goal, and in a short time over 25 survivors from four of the ten families were contacted.

The gathering took place on October 1, 2005 at Searchlight with family members and friends coming from as far away as Florida, New Jersey, Minnesota, Montana, Iowa, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The Ordonia family from Florida, survivors of Flight Engineer Ambrose Ordonia, had over 15 present. The family of Petty Officer John Mass had four members in attendance. Susan Johnson, the widow of Lieutenant Norm Johnson, was present along with one of her daughters, and her sister.

A hike into the crash site was planned and accomplished for early the next day under the guidance of Larry Forney, a Navy veteran who had researched the aircraft accident and had been to the crash site several times over the past years.

In an incredible chance find last year at Thanksgiving time, Forney visited the crash site and unexpectedly uncovered a gold high school class ring in the remaining debris. He later identified it and returned it to the sister of crewman John Mass.

The airplane was lost with all hands on August 3, 1970 after taking off from Nellis Air Force Base en route to San Diego. The flight had originated days before from its home base at NAS Barbers Point, Hawaii, and was on an extended navigational training flight to the west coast and back.

At 14,000 feet near Searchlight the pilot radioed a request for a flight path deviation away from thunderstorms. Without any further radio contact the aircraft was lost from radar. Eyewitnesses on the ground reported seeing a lightning flash in a dark cloud, followed by burning debris falling to the desert floor. The mile long wreckage pattern led investigators to speculate the aircraft either had been hit by lightning, or disintegrated in-flight due to structural failure. There were no survivors, and all the bodies were recovered.

Thirty-five years later the gathering of families and friends of those who died on flight Zulu Echo Six brought comfort and solace to a sad chapter in all their lives. Seeing the crewmen’s names on the memorial plaque in Searchlight ensured they would not be forgotten. 

Editor’s note: Capt McGuiness can be reached in Clearlake, Washington (360) 856-4010. Additional contacts: Bob McLaughlin, Pocatello, Idaho: (208)220-1469 and Larry Porney, Colo, Iowa (515) 708-3441.

On 1 October, 2005, 41 family members, friends and  fellow squadron mates gathered in Searchlight, Nevada to honor fallen shipmates  from VP-I 7. They observed a new bronze plaque depicting an Orion mounted on a  large rock at the local park. The sculpture memorializes the 10 P-3A (ZE.6, BuNo  152159) crew members who perished in a crash in the Searchlight area on August  3rd, 1970. Crew member names are on a separate plaque on the rock.